Vasant (Spring) 2021 Stories - Steve Carr


The secret life of a minnow
By Steve Carr


After flicking a mosquito from her forearm where the small blond hairs the color of corn silk stood on end, Janey said with a nervous laugh, “There's static electricity in the air tonight.” She paused and then repeated in a more somber tone, “There's static electricity,” but paused momentarily before completing the sentence with, “in the air tonight.”


She stood on the top of the stairs leading to the threshold of The Church in the Woods whose doors were propped open by buckets of dirty mop water. The air that had grown stale inside the church since the wedding services the Sunday before was being replaced by the fragrant, moist breeze from the surrounding forest.


At the bottom of the stairs her husband, Jim, whacked the head of a broom against the rusted iron railing that ran up the right side of the steps. The railing vibrated, emitting a discordant hum much like the sound of a swarm of wasps.


Janey put her hands over her ears. “What an unpleasant sound,” she muttered. “Most particularly unpleasant.”


Jim leaned the broom against the railing, took a blue handkerchief from his back pocket, and wiped a coating of sweat from his forehead. “The kids should be here helping us get this place ready for the wedding,” he said looking up at his wife and then jammed the handkerchief back into this pocket.


Janey lowered her hands to her sides where they nervously fluttered there as if lost for a moment before she inserted them in the pocket of her apron. “Did you say something, dearest?”


“Don't dearest me,” he replied. “You heard what I said, so don't pretend you didn't.”


Avoiding making eye contact with him, she looked up at the full moon that had just begun to make its silvery, almost translucent, presence known in the darkening purple twilight sky. “I love the moon,” she said with a heavy sigh.


“How can anyone love the moon? It's just a hunk of rock,” he said glancing up at it, tilting his head one way and then the other, closing one eye and then the other, as if observing the moon for the first time.


“What a relief that it will be so bright tonight,” she said as she took the dust rag that had been draped over her shoulder and folded it into a neat square. “There will be plenty of moonlight to guide us through the woods back to the main road.”


“The truck has headlights for that,” he said with a chuckle. He grabbed the broom and started toward the truck parked in the gravel lot at the side of the church. He had taken only a few steps when two men suddenly bust through a clump of bushes at the edge of the road and stumbled out. One of the men had his arm around the other man, holding him up. A large blood stain soaked the left side of the shirt and left sleeve of the man being held up.


“Where are we?” the man propping up the other one up asked as he waved a gun around.


“The Church in the Woods,” Jim stammered.


Janey rushed down the stairs to Jim's side. “It's not an actual church,” she said. ”Our daughter is getting married here on Sunday. We're cleaning it up a little. It doesn't cost much to hold a wedding here. It was all we could afford. We're not wealthy and . . .”


“Shut up or I'll shut you up,” the man snarled, aiming the gun at Janey's head.


Janey clutched Jim's hand. “For God's sake do something,” she said to him, on the verge of hysterics. “Do something,” she repeated, more weakly this time.


“What happened to your friend?” Jim asked the man, trying to steady his voice. Janey's fingernails were digging into his palm.


“What do you think happened?” the man replied sarcastically. “What's inside the church?”


“Just some pews and an altar.”


He turned the gun on Jim. “Help me get my partner into the church. Try anything and I shoot you first and then the woman.”


“I was once a nurse,” Janey blurted out, surprising herself as much as it did Jim who stared at her in disbelief. “I was an obstetrics nurse. That's working with pregnant women. But of course you knew that didn't you? I didn't mean to imply you were stupid or anything like that.” She bit her lip seeing how he was glaring at her. “Maybe I can help him,” she offered, softly.



Inside the church, Jim and the man with the gun laid the wounded man on a pew.


“My name is Jim,” he said to the man. “This is my wife, Janey.” He nodded toward Janey who was busily ripping open the wounded man's shirt.


“You'll be okay. Janey's here. I'll take good care of you,” she sing-songed to the man on the pew who drifted in and out of consciousness, at times seeming to focus his sight on Janey, and then falling asleep for several moments before awaking with a start. When the shirt was torn away, two bullet wounds were exposed, one in the man's shoulder and one in the man's upper left arm. Blood trickled from the shoulder wound. “What's his name?” Janey asked the man holding the gun who kept it aimed at Jim.


“Pete,” the man replied. “He's my younger brother. I'm Carl.”


“This might hurt a little, Pete,” Janey cooed to Pete whose eyes had opened. She palpated the skin around the wounds, and wiped away some of the blood that had coagulated around them with her apron. He made small groans of discomfort but lay still as she turned him on his side and looked at his back and the back of his arm. When he was laid back in the original supine position she looked at Carl. “There's an exit wound in his arm but the bullet is still in his shoulder.”


He hesitated for a moment before stating, “Get the bullet out.”


“What?” she replied, suddenly fearful. “I've never taken a bullet out of someone. It requires someone with surgical skills.”


He aimed the gun at Jim and glared at her. “I said get it out, or else you can say farewell to your hubby.”


She brushed her hair back from her face and slowly stood up. “My purse is in our truck. There are some things in it I'll need and we'll need to get some fresh water from the nearby stream. The church doesn't have running water unless there is a wedding service. Isn't that silly? We gave it no thought, but . . .” As if suddenly realizing she was rambling, she said calmly, “There are some empty plastic water bottles in the truck.”


Jim stepped toward her. “Janey, all this sudden bravery isn't . . .”


Carl grabbed Jim by the shirt and pushed him aside. “If chatterbox can save my brother, she better do it fast. Stay here with him while your wife and I take a moonlight stroll.”

“If you lay one hand on her I'll kill you with my bare hands,” Jim threatened with all the bravado he could muster.


Carl eyed her up and down. Smirking, he said, “She's not bad for her age, but not my type.” He turned the gun on Janey. “Keep your trap shut unless I speak to you first. Now get going.”


Silently the two walked out of the church. Moonlight from a moon still on the wane illuminated the church and the woods, casting long shadows across the lot and road. The sounds of croaking toads and chirping crickets filled the balmy night air. A hawk's screech reverberated from deep within the forest. At the truck, Janey grabbed her purse and water bottles from her seat and the floor. She then reached behind Jim's seat and pulled out an almost full bottle of whiskey. She held it up and showed it to him.


“Great,” he said. “I could use a good stiff drink.”


“It's to clean the wounds and sanitize the tweezers and scissors with,” she said. “Your brother's life may depend on it.”


He grabbed the bottle from her hand and quickly unscrewed the cap. “Pete wouldn't begrudge me a little snort.” After taking a long swig he handed the bottle back to her.

She put the water bottles and whiskey in her apron pocket and slung her purse over her shoulder. “The stream is this way.”



Moonlight glinted off the slow moving water of the stream that wound its way through moss-covered banks. Janey had been walking ahead of Carl and waited for him to join her at the bank before taking the water bottles from her apron and removing their caps. “Can I ask you a personal question?” she asked, timidly.


“What?” he replied coldly as he bent down, picked up a small rock, and tossed it into the water. The resulting splash momentarily quietened the toads and insects.

“How did your brother get shot?”


“That's not personal. It's poking your nose in where it don't belong.”


“Sorry,” she replied. She knelt in the moss, leaned over and submerged one of the bottles in the stream.


“Janey is a little girl's name and you ain't a little girl by a long shot,” he said, watching her.


“Believe it or not, it's the name I was given at birth. My parents . . .”


“Shut up,” he interrupted. “I didn't ask for your life story.” He tossed another stone into the water. “Have you always run off at the mouth like you do?”


She giggled, self-consciously. “Jim says it's my worst trait.” She lifted the bottle out of the water and held it up, saw it was only two-thirds full, then lowered it back into the water.


“This water is absolutely tasty. You should try some.”


“Maybe I will,” he replied. He knelt down beside her, scooped a palm full of water into his hand, and then poured the water into his mouth. He made a slight mmmm sound and then wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “It's kinda sweet. Smooth-like.”


“Jim said it was like drinking flowing silk.”


“Your husband says lots of things.” He was about to dip his hand back into the water when a school of minnows swam by, not far from the bank. “Look at that!” he exclaimed. “I ain't seen minnows since I was a kid.”


“I wonder if a minnow ever dreams of being a whale?” she replied, watching the fish circle just below the surface. She raised the bottle out of the water, saw that it was full, and screwed the cap on.


“In every minnow there's a shark waiting to get out,” he replied. “That's how the entire world is made up, of minnows and sharks.”


She dipped the other bottle into the water. “I have a rosier view of the world,” she said.


“I bet you do,” he said. “But save me from hearing you yap on about it.” He stood up and dried his hand on his shirt. “How old is your daughter?” he asked abruptly, as if it was a thought that he just had to express.


“Twenty-four. She just graduated from college.”


“There were three of us involved in the robbery of a convenience store,” he stated flatly, as if reciting something he had once read. “The driver of the car we planned on getting away in drove off, leaving Pete and I running for our lives on foot when the store clerk pulled out a gun and started shooting. He missed me, but Pete, he wasn't so lucky.” He looked up at the sky as a cloud passed in front of the moon.


Janey raised the bottle out of the water and looked up at him. “Why did you tell me?”


“Why shouldn't I?” he replied.


She put the cap on the bottle, stood up, and put the filled bottles in her apron pocket. “We better get back. I don't recommend leaving a bullet in anyone for very long. ”

They turned from the stream and walked into the woods.


He held the gun with it aimed at the back of her head.



In the moonlight, the church had an eerie appearance; a structure abandoned and haunted. The doors to the church were closed and the buckets that held the mop water were empty and stacked at the bottom of the steps. Janey rushed up the stairs, fearful that something terrible had happened inside. She opened the doors and saw Jim standing at the front of the church bathed in moonlight that streamed in through the windows, filling the church with light. He saw her at the same time, ran down the aisle, took her in his arms and hugged and kissed her.


She clung to him. “When I saw the doors closed I feared for the worse. If anything had happened to you I don't know how I could have continued on. Down at the stream we saw these minnows and Carl said they . . .”


“Hush,” he interrupted, tenderly. “I closed the doors to keep the insects out.”


She whispered in his ear. “Is Pete still alive?”


“Yes, of course,” he answered.


Carl came up behind them and jabbed Jim in the back with his gun. “Break it up you two. That bullet in my brother's shoulder isn't going to just grow wings and fly out of him.”

“Yes, of course,” Janey answered. She kissed Jim on the cheek and hurried to the pew where Pete lay, awake and alert.


“You the wife?” he asked her as she took the bottles of water and whiskey out of her apron pocket and set them on the floor next to the pew.


“Yes, I'm Janey,” she replied. She unscrewed the cap from a bottle of water and handed it to him. “You need fluids.”


“Did Carl tell you how this happened?”


“Yes, you were lucky that you weren't shot somewhere serious.”


“Luckier than the grocery clerk,” he said as he drank the water.


“What do you mean?” she asked.


“A bullet to the brain will kill anyone. Carl made sure that shooting me was the last mistake that clerk would ever make.”


Silently she watched as he drank the rest of the water. She then took tweezers, fingernail clippers and a small pair of scissors out of her purse. “This is going to hurt,” she said, as she opened the bottle of whiskey and poured some over the instruments and then poured a little on the shoulder wound. He didn't even flinch. She handed him the bottle of whiskey. “Anesthesia, just in case,” she said.


As he drank the whiskey she removed her apron and tore it into pieces. Just before she was ready to begin the extraction of the bullet, Carl came to the pew and stared down at his brother. “Don't let her talk you to death,” he told him.



An hour later Pete sat up in the pew holding in his hand the bullet that Janey had removed from his shoulder. His arm and shoulder were bandaged with strips of Janey's apron. Sitting beside him, Carl was whispering in his ear.


Sitting in the middle pews, Jim had his arm around his wife.


“What do you think they're being so secretive about?” she asked him, her voice hushed.


“Whatever it is, it can't be good,” he replied. “They're very bad men.”


“I just removed a bullet from Pete's arm. That should count for something.” She paused for a moment and then asked, “Do you think the world is made of minnows and sharks?”

He looked at her quizzically. “What?”


Just then the two brothers stood up and headed down the aisle toward the doors. They stopped at the end of the pew where Jim and Janey were sitting. Carl pointed his gun at Jim and held out his other hand. “Give me the keys to your truck,” he said to Jim.


“They're still in the ignition,” Jim replied. “It's an old pick up so it may not get you very far.”


“It'll get us far enough.”


“What about us?” Janey asked.


Carl turned to his brother. “Go ahead, I'll meet you outside in a couple of minutes.”


Pete walked down the aisle, opened the doors and went out, closing the doors behind him. Moments later the sound of two gun shots resounded from inside the church. Carl walked out of the church, joined his brother at the bottom of the stairs and headed for the truck.


“Did you whack ‘em?” Pete asked.


“You heard the shots didn’t you?”



In the front pew with his arm around Janey, Jim said, “Why do you think he didn’t kill us?”


“He’s secretly a minnow and not a shark,” she replied.



Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 500 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.


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