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The Three Second Rule

“It’s not like I had a life of crime, or anything…”

            Jason sat across from Honey. He had a cigarette slowly burning down in one hand. The TV remote was dangling in the other.

            Honey glared at him for a moment, then turned her gaze back out the window.

            “That man was just doing his job,” she finally said. Careful to keep it to a low murmur. Almost to herself.

            Jason narrowed his brow, took a long pull on the cigarette, let the smoke drift slowly over his head.

            “Not gonna go soft on me now…”

            It was a statement. Not a question.

            She slowly turned her eyes towards him. She knew his statements. And she knew that he would try to stare her down. Lock her attention. Control her answers.

            She gave a slight shake of her head, the wispy blond hair brushing against her shoulders. Outside the open window, the sunbaked street lay still, the air motionless, nothing stirring at all.

            Jason snickered, his three-day beard and unkempt black hair spiking out from the boney face. He was still pale and unhealthy after being released. It had only been five weeks, but it’s not like there was a sunroom in the county lockup.

            Honey slowly held out her hand. It looked like a peace offering. Jason let her wait, a nasty turn to the corners of his thin mouth. Then she surprised him.

            “The remote…”, she said.

            His smile vanished. Honey knew that she was taking a chance. The moment was like a challenge. But she kept her hand out, waiting.

            Finally, he gave a little underhand toss, and she fumbled as the remote landed in her lap.

            Jason snickered again.

            “You know, if he did what I told him, it wouldn’t have happened…” he said. He took a satisfied look at the burning tip of the cigarette, like it was his only care in the world.

            The corner of his eye was waiting, though, and Honey knew it. Jason wanted agreement. He never dropped a subject until you agreed with him.

            Or until he lost his temper.

            But something was a little different today. Honey didn’t know why, but she wasn’t so quick to agree. Not after this latest event.

            His eyes on her like a warning light, she held up the remote and changed the channel. On the flat screen, faces talking, audience participation. Honey didn’t really care what it was. She already had it on mute.

            “I mean, it’s really the landlord,” Jason continued, his voice gone lower. Like he wasn’t going to repeat it again.  “’No Solicitors’…that’s what’s posted down in the lobby…”

            Honey pressed the remote and changed the channel. She changed it again. Then she heard herself talk.

            “He was only leaving pamphlets,” she said. She was surprised at the steadiness of her voice.

            Jason put down his cigarette. The ashtray was overflowing, many of the butts only half-finished. The smoke was still rising from the crumpled tip, but it might have well been coming from his temples.

            “I think you heard me…there’s a sign posted…”  He was talking through his teeth, slowly rising to his feet…

            “I told that sumbitch, ‘I give you three seconds, mo’fo’…three seconds to get out of this building…”

            Honey watched as Jason picked up the overloaded ashtray. For a moment she thought he would be coming her way. Maybe hit her, throw it at her. Instead, he strolled toward the sink, his sagging jeans hung low on narrow hips. She could see he was wearing nothing beneath them.

            “Three second’s plenty of time,” he went on, “like they say about a French fry, or a potato chip- you drop it on the floor, you get three seconds. Still pick it up, before it’s dirty…”

            She watched Jason suddenly dump the butts into the sink, his loose pants showing his business up front, juggling when he tapped the ashtray hard against the porcelain. Jason liked to show himself off that way. Walking around the apartment, like he was something special, like he was made special.

            Yeah, Honey thought, he was fine. But no different than any other man.

            Jason crossed in front of the TV, stood blocking her view for a moment. But she could see it was almost an afterthought. Not like he was really trying to stop her watching.

            He was thinking, his forehead knit.

            She watched as he went back to where he’d been sitting on the old sofa and watched as he picked up the wallet from the coffee table.

            The wallet wasn’t his. It was the one he had taken from the man. After he had beat him in the face and pushed him down the front steps to the sidewalk.

            Honey had heard the noise and looked out the window. She saw the young man as he splayed out onto the pavement, flung through the door right below her.

            Jason had slithered out a moment later, down the three steps, and reached into the man’s jacket.

            Now he had a wallet, and he was waving it around the apartment like he’d drawn a winning bingo ticket.

            Down below the sidewalk was empty now, some passers-by had pitched in to help. Honey had moved away from the window and closed the glass against the morning sun, but through the glare she’d seen the people easing the young man to his feet, picking up his scattered pamphlets. One in the group hailed a taxicab as it cruised down the hot, parched street, and then the young man was gone.

            Likely, to find he had no way to pay for the ride.

            Jason made a ceremony of emptying the contents of the wallet onto the scarred coffee table. Some folding money, a few cards. An ID. No driver’s license. Maybe that’s why the young man was passing out his scripture on foot. Maybe he couldn’t drive. Maybe he was working off a DUI. This neighborhood, it could be either.

            Whatever, thought Honey. He was just a young guy passing out scripture. No need to be hurt like that.

            Jason tried to keep Honey’s attention. He slid the cash into his front pocket. Juggled himself in the process. Just for the look of it. Honey felt like spitting on the floor.

            Finally, Jason brandished the ID, gave her a knowing wink, and dropped it into the little drawer beneath the coffee table.

            “That’ll come in handy,” he said.

            Honey shuffled her flip flops over to the sink as Jason was waiting for her to say something, and she knew what he was expecting. Praise. Admiration, that he was a player. The Man. All Street.

            She scooped the contents of the ash tray into a small trash basket, then began to run some soap and hot water into the sink. It was all she could think of. Getting something clean into this day.

            Honey could feel Jason staring at the back of her head, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t going turn around. Give him satisfaction. Not with the image of that young man, staring up at the sky.

            The water started filling the sink, the warm soap suds encircling her wrists. Behind her, Jason was remaining silent. Often a prelude to something else. But this time she almost hoped that he would lash out, there was a sink full of dirty silverware, and her hand could easily find something sharp to strike with.

            But she didn’t hear his steps at all. Just the door slamming as he paced out into the hallway. After that, the footsteps on the stairs were plain. He was going down to the foyer, the same way he’d gone to bully that poor boy with his pamphlets. To rob him.

            Honey soaped up the utensils and dishes, one by one, then rinsed them and lay them in the drainer. Some of these she’d brought from home. Forks and spoons with her mother’s initials on them. The dishes were even older, from her grammie.

            The thought of striking out, of defending herself against Jason, was a tangled feeling.

            Her family possessions, used to protect herself.

            Her family things, drawn into this sordid mess.

            She found herself shaking her head, but no tears. No regrets about making a mistake, taking this dangerous man to her heart, just for a little while. Thinking she could change him.

            Now she couldn’t even remember what had seemed worth changing in the first place.

            One by one, the dishes came out. One by one, rinsed, set aside to dry.

            Then she heard steps in the stairwell, coming up from the foyer. He’d only been gone long enough to go down to the convenience store, buy some more smokes, a six pack. Then he’d be back here, settled in for the day, taking up all the air in the room.

            She heard him on the steps, stopping at the first landing. He was on his cell phone, talking loud, arguing.

            She quickly picked up a dish towel, dried her hands, and went to the bedroom for her own phone. This wouldn’t take long, dialing 911, giving his name, their address. He’d still be here when the officers arrived.                    Smoking, talking, drinking. Edgy because she wouldn’t be responding.

            She had time, the call wouldn’t take long. Not long at all.

            She guessed no more than three seconds.

            Honey had waited forever for this, and now three seconds would be just long enough.

Stephen Campbell is a writer from the Boston area and has published flash fiction in the Boston Globe and a recent short story in OMDB! Crime Magazine. I also work in construction, and play ragtime piano while my family dances.

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