ONCE, IN WINTER • by Gary Fincke

After he hit Len’s ancient used car, the drunk in the pickup truck offered seventy-five dollars and a gun for the damage done. He said, “Okay now, no need for police,” and though there was a left headlight to replace, a fender to wrestle back from the tire, Len agreed. A few weeks short of eighteen and on the highway at two a.m., zero settling upon him like snow, Len didn’t negotiate because, he told himself, he was getting an investment back with interest. A month before, he’d paid just one hundred dollars and twenty dollars for that car with steering problems and a slow oil leak, and he’d been out drinking, too, his sober-by-comparison nothing the police would credit.

For almost three months more, Len was in love with that deal. He drove that one-hundred-and-twenty-dollar car until it spewed oil so badly he steered it into a thick-trunked tree for the pleasure of killing it. He kept the gun in a dresser drawer, buried under three sweaters like pornography. Before then, Len had fired one twenty-two rifle in his life, hitting dirt twice before surprising the fluttering edge of a pillow case tacked to a tree stump on his uncle’s farm.

The car hauled away on a junkyard’s wrecker, Len held that gun in one hand and pointed it at his bedroom mirror, posing like he had, years before, with his hand-me-down Roy Rogers six-shooter. Then he told himself to grow up. That gun was something he could learn to use, something that might come in handy. For sure, it was worth more than a headlight, but he needed ammunition to get his barter’s worth. Len carried his pistol to a store to size bullets to barrel, but the clerk turned it over and over in his hands as if he were memorizing the serial number to match a police report on his desk. “You shoot this here thing and you fixing to mess yourself up big time,” the salesman said at last, showing Len the crack, how it ran so straight he’d taken it for a minimalist design. “Billy the Kid,” the clerk said, handing over the gun, “be cool,” and Len inventoried that specialty store like a thief, assessing the other four customers as if he could figure which of them would haul his lame story home, including how flushed he’d turned, how quickly he was beating it to his father’s car, one he couldn’t afford to damage.

For miles, Len steadied at the speed limit and rechecked his mirrors, the radio turned down to a murmur. He drove ten minutes to a bridge where he parked and timed the spaced headlights of possible witnesses until he was free, in the dark, to fling that pistol in the highest arc he could muster. When that bribe vanished, before Len heard a splash in the distant river, the moment was just long enough that he imagined someone staked out far below had caught it for evidence.

Gary Fincke’s latest collection The Corridors of Longing was published by Pelekinesis Press in 2022. His flash fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, Atticus Review, Craft, Vestal Review, Pithead Chapel, and Ghost parachute. He is co-editor of the annual anthology Best Microfiction.

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