2023 Short Story Competition

To Be a Man

The glass doors would always hum, rattle and sing beneath even the slightest strain. It was lucky, Tommy
thought, that they hadn’t flown off their hinges this afternoon, what with all the force it had taken to crack
them open.
“Need to get this thing looked at, Mrs. L.” He reached inside and pushed past the first few cartons of
milk before settling on one further back.
“That’s why I let blue boys like you hang’ round.” she said, “No point, otherwise.”
Tommy ducked his head out of the freezer and turned towards the front of the store. Mrs. Luciano stood
hunched over the register, watching through cloudy eyes. She was a frail woman made up of sharp brush
strokes, mostly angles and points. Her chin was always slightly forward with the way she carried herself,
despite the wrinkles that traced threads of age across her cheeks.
“Fixin’ shit ain’t no job of mine.” He smiled.
She let him step closer, pressing her elbows up against the counter. “Sure it is, Sheriff, I don’t see you
doing much else.”
Distantly, Tommy wondered how simple words could coax memories into full bloom. A sharp note in her
voice sparked the ghost of weighted fingers at his collar. The pull of those fingers dragged him back and
shoved him forward.
Tommy’s lips tucked into a firm line. “I’ve been doin’ a lot of good work out there, ma’am, just not easy
to see sometimes.”
“You haven’t caught that asshole who broke in here.” she said.
“It’s only been a week.”
“No, I’m sure you’ve had a lot to do.”
He set his milk down in front of her with slightly more force than he intended. His investigation had been
hinged on a few security cameras he had reminded her to change all too many months back. She hadn’t
listened. Tommy had accepted, privately, that she had done so decidedly on purpose.

“I’ll get right on it,” he replied, “just need to start trusting me, that’s all.”
Mrs. Luciano’s gaze softened. “You’re young.”
She scanned his item and pushed it across the counter. Tommy shuffled through his pockets for cash, with
every intention of ignoring the gnawing insecurity creeping up the back of his throat.
“A good man,” she continued, “doesn’t force what ain’t there.”
Tommy’s fingers stung where they clutched the carton’s icy bottom. He looked her in the eye. “I don’t
know ‘nothin ‘bout no good man, but whoever he is, he should try a little.”

By the damp, concrete stoop outside, Tommy waited on bruised knees for “Cat”, bent over into a kind of
crouch that kept him near to the ground. He extended a hand forward, lightly shoving at a couple of
upturned crates.
“Cat” was a perpetually ugly thing. With skewed whiskers that twisted like wire, and a belly that dragged
low to the floor. He’d sneer up at the world with eyes too large for his face, and hiss at passersby in a tone equally unfriendly.
He’d created a makeshift home for himself by the gas station cornershop. Tommy always stopped by with
treats in exchange for silent company.
But it wasn’t silent tonight. There was an odd whimpering, followed by the sharp sound of forced breaths.
Tommy pushed more boxes aside with a frown, until his palm landed on something too soft to be
Cat’s coat was thick with ruddy, red-brown wet. Heat. It burned, and it kept coming, welling up and over
his fingers like ink with the intention of staining any untouched skin. Sticky blood all over him, from a
wound hidden among uneven layers of matted fur.
Blood, he remembered his uncle saying, wasn’t ever an excuse to “act a child”.
Tommy had jumped from the swings that year. He was seven and all the boys had already done it,
promised it’d be easy too. Hell, if he wasn’t too bored to try.
Boredom had cost him a gash across the jaw. That familiar throbbing swell and drip of red on pavement.
The towel his uncle had used to rub it away felt something like sandpaper. “A man don’t care about no
boys.” He’d said between annoyed grunts. “A man don’t care, and he don’t worry much neither. Let them
go killin’ themselves, you pay nobody no mind.”

Tommy shook himself into reality, bundling Cat tight against his chest and cursing himself for the sick
feeling in his gut. He rushed over to his cruiser, setting Cat in the passenger seat before hurrying around
the other side.
He swept a hand down his cheek. What good was a Sheriff when his eyes prickled more than he’d like to
admit? Tommy blinked hard, despite himself, as he turned the key in the ignition.
He hadn’t been what the town was expecting, Mrs. L was a good indication of that. They knew who he
was- they knew his sister, wherever she ran off to, knew his daddy, and his uncle too.
They’d heard about it when he’d come home from school with far too many odd scrapes and nicks, and
they’d heard about it when he couldn’t stomach watching a blade slice through the catch of the day.
“Have to look at em’ when you’re ready to cut.” His father had said. “Man to man, else you’re doin’ a
coward’s work.”
Tommy guided the car along the road, keeping mind of the rain as it fell in streaky beats across the
windshield. Cat meowed softly to himself, and struggled to sit upright.
He might be a coward. Tommy let his eyes drift past the center of the street for a moment to where Cat
stared up at him. There really wasn’t any reason to sprout new attachments left and right, especially when
things never lasted as long as he wanted. He wondered what kind of man his father would think he was
The passenger seat had long since been stained a dark black given how much blood Cat had lost. The car
stuttered and screeched and stuttered and screeched, the old engine working double time as the Vet Clinic came into view a little further down.
He wished his heart would stop beating so damn fast.
Tommy pulled to a stop alongside the curb, gently lifting Cat into his arms and ignoring the way the
animal blinked at him through heavy eyelids. His uniform dipped in against his skin, slick with rainwater
as he hustled the last few meters across the street.
He couldn’t say much when he made it inside other than a choked, “Help.” but the lady at the counter was
kind and took Cat from him without so much as a complaint. She ushered Tommy towards a row of
hardback plastic chairs and pushed a styrofoam cup of coffee into the palm of his hand.
Tommy would be happy if Cat died, he decided.
An elderly nurse forced a smile in his direction when he looked up from his cup.

Tommy would be happy, and he wouldn’t be afraid. The other boys at work were always proud to pull the
trigger when opportunity arose. A good man relished death for what it was.
The lady from the counter rushed past him down the hall.
He wanted to be a good man.
The heavy scent of lemon pine-sol and dead skin was strong.
There was something about lemons that stood for both sterility and “sting”. They’d always tasted funny
too- so sour his teeth would ache, but familiar enough, like lemonade under the sun, that they’d warrant a second lick.
Something that hurt could be real good for you at the same damn time. Didn’t matter the cost.
He was going to be okay.
The waiting room was empty now.
How long had he been waiting?
“Sir?” A voice called to him.
Tommy looked up.
He promised himself he’d be happy-
“He’s gonna pull through.” the voice said.
Tommy closed his eyes against their insistent stinging. And he smiled.

He wanted to be a good man.
But he wasn’t sure what that meant.

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