Rumpus Exclusive: Three Excerpts from Tiny Crimes

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We are very excited to share three exclusive excerpts from the anthology Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder, edited by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto and forthcoming on June 5. Reprinted with permission of Catapult and Black Balloon.

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“Any Other” by Jac Jemc

He found her already seated at the coffee shop. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.” He held out his hand.

Bethany paused before accepting.

“I’m Keith,” he said once her fingers were wrapped in his, and laughed at himself. “Of course, you know that. I’m sorry. May I?” He gestured to the chair across from her.

Bethany nodded, wondered why he didn’t get him- self a cup of coffee first.

“No use in wasting time, so I’ll just ask,” he said.

“Have you made a decision?”

Bethany responded honestly. She shook her head. “Good, then I can still convince you.” Keith scooted his chair forward. “I know it’s a family heirloom, but if you keep it locked away in storage, what difference does it make if you technically own it or someone else does? If you sell it to me, you can visit it. I can loan it to you. We could even agree that you can buy it back at any time.”

Bethany wondered why it mattered so much to him. That he wanted it so very badly made her want to refuse him the satisfaction. “How much are you willing to pay?” she asked.

Keith blinked rapidly. “Well, we discussed fifty thousand dollars.”

Bethany frowned. She had learned to do this during negotiations of any kind.

Keith filled his lungs. “But I’m prepared to go up to seventy-five thousand dollars.” He looked down at her coffee cup now, ready to wait for her response.

“Would you get me a refill?” she asked. She enjoyed this power. She held it tight.

Keith jumped up. “Of course!” She could feel his relief at stepping away from her decision-making. He ushered her mug over to the counter and asked the barista for a cup of his own, as well. She watched him closely as he pulled out a few bills. She examined the repetitive wear of his wallet on his back pocket. She noticed the bevel of the outside heels of his shoes, the evidence of uncorrected supination and thriftiness. The money he offered her could be better spent.

When Keith returned, he looked expectant, hopeful the delay might have delivered a verdict.

He sipped his coffee. “I’m happy to answer any questions.” He smiled.

Bethany found the way he forced himself to keep his gaze on her willful. She respected his determination and broke eye contact to see his index finger fidget the cuticle of his thumb, torn raw and red.

“Or maybe I can ask you a question,” Keith said. “What’s holding you back? Why not sell it?” He lifted his mug to his lips again.

Something about this query settled it for Bethany. “I’m sorry,” she said. “No deal.”

Keith set his mug down a little too hard. Coffee rushed over the edge of the cup and ran down the tilt of the table into his lap. “Shoot,” he said. He ran to retrieve some napkins, wiping first at the splash on his pants and then mopping at the edges of the mug on the table. Bethany didn’t move or speak. When Keith finally resettled, he said, “Why?”

Bethany looked in Keith’s eyes for the answer, but all she turned up was the realization that she didn’t need to explain it to him. She felt her shoulders flinch, as if the decision mattered little to her, no possibility of reversing it.

“There’s nothing I can do to convince you?”

She shook her head and tightened her lips.

Keith stood, a ball of wet napkins clenched in his fist. “Okay,” he said. “You know where to find me if you change your mind.” Blood swamped her heart. “Have a good afternoon then,” Keith said. He turned away, but spun back again. “I don’t have it, but if I’d offered a hundred thousand dollars, would that have made a difference?” he asked.

“No,” she said. She held out her hand hoping to end the conversation as it had begun, before she remembered the wad of napkins. She placed her palm back on the table.

“Then why… all right. Thank you, Joanne.” Adrenaline rushed behind the name “Joanne,” but Bethany maintained her composure. Keith walked away with purpose. He pulled open the door and Bethany watched through the window as he disappeared right and then crossed back left, unfamiliar with the neighborhood or changing his mind about where he was headed.

Bethany wondered what it was Keith had wanted. She wondered what Joanne had to give. She wondered why she felt like it was her place to decide for both of them, but it had all unfolded so easily. She took a last sip of her coffee and gathered her things.

A woman in a polished pantsuit walked through the door, her eyes looking for someone. She asked at the counter about the man whom she was supposed to meet.

Bethany let her fingers fall on the shoulder of the woman as lightly as possible and leaned in. “Joanne?” The woman’s whole body pursed under Bethany’s touch. “Keep it,” she whispered.

*

“Loophole” by Adam Sternbergh 

He understands what’s coming next. He feels like he’s been here before.

These blank walls, this bare table. A black woman in a white lab coat, watching. Her hair cut short and dyed blond. Clipboard poised.

On the table, a button.

On the wall, a speaker.

He sits patiently.

Waiting for the prompt.

 

There’s nothing on the clipboard. It’s just a prop, for show. She pretends to read her empty page, then watches him over the clipboard.

This kind of scenario is illegal. Or, at least, the kind of scenario that the subject believes he is participating in is illegal.

This scenario is not actually illegal.

Not yet.

 

He doesn’t think he’ll press it. He’ll hear a voice, garbled, he knows, over the speaker. The other person, answering a question. If the answer is wrong, they’ll prompt him.

The answer will be wrong.

He knows that, too.

Then he’ll press the button.

Or not.

A small jolt. That’s what they told him.

Just a little bit of pain.

Then more pain. Each time he presses.

If he presses.

That’s up to him.

 

She studied the Milgram experiment in school. Conducted back in the 1940s, over a hundred years ago. In which subjects were prodded to administer painful jolts to an anonymous unseen recipient in another room. Jolts of increasing intensity. There was no recipient in those experiments. The screams were just an actor. It was a hoax, to see if people would do it.

They did it.

That kind of experiment is not legal anymore.

This experiment is legal, technically, though she understands they’re bending the rules a bit.

 

He can’t see the other person, of course. The other person is seated in another room, hidden from view. The other person can’t see him either, so the other person will never know who pressed the button that caused the pain.

If he presses. Which he doesn’t think he will.

He’s not a monster, after all.

He’s not required to press it. He knows this because, many years ago, he was the other person in an experiment like this one, on the other side of the jolts.

And whoever it was in the other room pressed the button.

Again and again.

He was just a young man then, desperate for cash. Willing to be a guinea pig.

Now he’s a middle-aged man, desperate for cash.

But I’ll only do it this time if I get to be the one with the button, he told them.

To his surprise, they agreed.

Another thing she studied in graduate school was a history of the theories of time. For many years, the popular conception of time was that it was much like a river. You are stationary. Time passes. Events happen in a discernible sequence: past, present, future. To move extemporaneously, out of time, to travel in time, would be like stepping out of the river and then stepping back in, upstream or downstream. This seemed to be theoretically possible. In hindsight, it’s clear why they were never able to practically conquer the problem.

The other person’s voice will be electronically garbled beyond all comprehension. The other person is a paid volunteer, looking for an easy hundred dollars, just like him.

You’ll get used to the pain, he wants to tell the other person. It will make you angry, sure. It will make you question what kind of monster sits in another room and doles out excruciating jolts to a stranger.

But it will fade. The pain.

What else lingers, he’s not qualified to say.

Did it affect him? Sure. He was young then. Twenty years ago, at least. The following decades haven’t been kind. Regrets? Definitely. Mistakes? Of course. Jail? Take a guess.

After all, if he’d made the right choices, he wouldn’t be back here.

So, yes, it left him angry. It changed him in some way. Taught him what people are capable of.

His finger inches toward the button.

Isn’t that a lesson this other person might also want to learn?

 

The theory of time in which she had been trained was much different from the river metaphor. Quantum physics had revealed to them the reality of time. There is no past, present, or future, no causality, no consequence, no progress. Time is not a succession of moments. It is more like an infinite number of moments occurring simultaneously. Your experience of time as happening in sequence is simply a trick of human perception. You are like a rider in a train, passing a series of billboards. These billboards are every moment in your life. To you, these moments seem to happen in sequence. But to the outside observer, they exist simultaneously and you are the one who is moving.

Think of it like a filmstrip, her professor told her. (Tells her.) A filmstrip is simply a series of images, all of which exist. But when you run the strip through a projector, it looks like sequence. It looks like life.

She nodded. (Nods.)

And once we understand this, he explained (is explaining), time travel is no longer the challenge. The challenge is to see if, by bending the filmstrip, by breaching time, the events of one moment can be made to alter the nature of another simultaneous moment.

If these moments can interact.

 

He shifts in his chair.

He remembers the electrodes. That they used a special jelly to attach them.

To increase the conductivity.

 

She startles when the garbled voice comes over the speaker.

He looks to the woman to confirm that they’ve begun.

She nods.

The other person gets the answer wrong.

A red light lights.

He hits the button.

Thinking about it later, he’ll realize he didn’t even hesitate.

 

She wishes she could be in that other room. She wishes she could watch that other person. She wonders if the two of them look alike. Well, of course they do, she thinks.

She is receiving her diploma with honors from graduate school right now.

She is breaking up with her high school boyfriend right now.

She is painstakingly picking out the gum that a girl threw into her large halo of curly hair on the first day of second grade right now.

She is getting news that her brother in the service died overseas right now.

She is cutting her hair short and dyeing it blond right now.

She is standing in the room with the clipboard right now.

He is being offered a hundred dollars right now.

He is being asked the impossible question right now.

A factory is manufacturing the special jelly right now, and packing it into a box, and loading it into a truck.

Right now.

All moments are happening simultaneously, always.

The trick is to see if you can bring two such moments into proximity.

So that one will affect the other.

The other person, on the other side of the speaker, calls out, more in surprise than pain.

Get ready, he thinks. Because it only gets worse.

He hits the button again.

He feels the pain again.

Who wouldn’t want to learn the lesson I learned, he thinks.

What made me the way I am today.

What kind of monster, he thinks.

*

“The Wrong One” by Erica Wright

Leeches should have been the least of my concerns, but I put on my waders anyway. Ophelia, I thought, looking at the girl’s hair rippling away from the back of her head. But the water was too shallow, and I knew that her face would be scraped and bruised from the rocks.

“Ain’t rattlers, Dee, just horned-up crickets.”

The newest member of the volunteer fire department had a too-big wad of chaw in his cheek and was spitting often enough to make a circle in the weeds at his feet. He didn’t seem to care that he was the bull’s-eye. Ardy’s bravado didn’t surprise me, but hanging around in the sticks past eighteen? There must have been some girlfriend, but I couldn’t think who was near enough his age to matter.

The water bubbled past the rubber of my boots and kept going toward Nashville, sixty miles or forever, depending on who you asked. She was heavier than I would have guessed, and my hands slipped on the first try. The water splashed onto my pants, and I tried not to think death water. I bent from my knees and locked my arms around her torso, hauling us both upright with a grunt. Dee started vomiting behind me, but I didn’t turn around, walking backward one step at a time. The corpse’s hair was in my mouth, and I made myself think girl’s hair instead. Neither Dee nor Ardy helped me when I got to the bank, and I had to drag her by the arms onto the mud and shells. Crawfish darted back into the water.

“Well,” Ardy asked.

“It’s not her,” I said.

He spat toward the ground, but a black glob got stuck to his cheek, and he wiped it off. Dee came crashing into view, shrieking about snakes again. Sure enough, when I turned to where she was pointing, a cottonmouth was burning through the water.

“She got ID or something,” Ardy said.

“Dog tags around her neck,” I said.

“No shit!”

I shook my head, more irritated with myself for making a joke than with Ardy. “She’s got nothing on her.”

Nobody said anything for a while, then Dee suggested we pray or something. She just wanted to go home, though. I stripped off my dishwashing gloves and shoved them into my pocket, nodding. Something would eat her if we didn’t tell anyone she was here.

I kept my boots on as we headed back the way we came, through an overgrown field belonging to a neighbor long past retirement age. Dee walked close enough behind me to catch my heels from time to time. She smelled sick, and I figured she’d tell her husband she’d been drinking. Ardy’s parents wouldn’t care that he’d been gone all afternoon, and there was nobody waiting for me. Maybe next time, it would be the right girl.

***

Rumpus original art by Richelle the King.