(Originally published at Beishir Books, 4/22/13)
The funny part was that nobody had died. Brenda Walker, who lived down the street, had just found out she was pregnant. Okay, in 2013 that’s not exactly the big deal it was in 1953, but Brenda’s ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Republican parents would have disowned her seven ways to Sunday if she’d publicly embarrassed them with an out-of-wedlock baby—so Brenda’s hero of a hubby, who married her in a quickie ceremony the day before he got shipped off to Afghanistan, was conveniently killed in action. Now, she was mourning the death of her hero, who had given his life to save his fellow soldiers. She looked good in black. She’d probably wear it until the baby was born. She’d play the grieving widow to the hilt.
“Nobody,” I said without thinking. Then I turned around. The guy standing behind me wasn’t bad looking. Not the geeky sort I was used to seeing in the store. Too good-looking. No thick-glasses, no pocket-protector, none of the usual awkwardness. He was tall, smiling, wearing a leather jacket and a baseball cap. He had a backpack that looked to be filled to capacity. Nobody filled their backpacks anymore, I observed. Everybody used tablets or e-readers. I silently hoped he wasn’t a mad bomber or something. I didn’t know what to do if he was. Tony Stark would know what to do. Bruce Wayne would know what to do. Me? I’d just panic and open the cash register. And then he’d probably kill me for not having much in the way of cash.
“Are you lost?” I asked without thinking.
He looked puzzled by the question. “I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “But maybe they are…if nobody actually died….”
“It’s a long story. A long, boring story.” I decided to spare him.
I could tell by the expression on his face that he really didn’t, but he changed the subject then. “I’m looking for the new Marvel releases—Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, whatever you’ve got.” He was still looking past me, through the window toward the faux funeral procession in the street.
“The widow there—she’s the one in black—her parents are very strict, very religious,” I attempted to explain. “She, on the other hand, is, well, a tramp.”
He looked at me and tried not to grin. Tried. But failed.
“She got sort of…knocked up.”
He gave me an odd glance. “How does one get ‘sort of’ knocked up?” he wanted to know.
He could tell I was embarrassed. I could tell he was enjoying it. I wanted to kick his ass, but I had a feeling he could become a regular customer. I was hoping, anyway. I could use all the business I could get. Bite your tongue, Charlie, I told myself. “She was playing Vatican Roulette with the local boys.”
“Oh, great. An English major?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Psychology.”
I rolled my eyes. “It figures.”
“So…Trudy the Tramp is pregnant,” he said, guiding the conversation back to the mock funeral. “Her parents think she was married?”
“No. They just want everyone else to think she was,” I said, searching for the comic books he’d requested. “They’d be content at this point if she could just tell them who the father is.”
He shook his head and chuckled softly. “This looks to be an interesting neighborhood, at the very least,” he decided.
“The girls are all in mourning,” I attempted to explain. “Her dead husband gave his life for our country, you know. He was a hero.”
“Was he rich?”
I looked at him. “I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”
He shrugged. “If she’s going to fabricate a husband, she might as well go all the way,” he suggested.
“Nah,” I disagreed. “Easy to fake a dead husband, but if he’s a rich dead husband and her car gets repossessed, that’s going to be hard to explain.”
He laughed. “You have a point.”
I handed him the comic books. He looked them over and nodded with satisfaction, then reached into his pocket for his wallet. He gave me his credit card. I looked at it. William T. Harwood. “New to the neighborhood, Mr. Harwood?” I asked, trying to keep my tone casual. I ran the card through the reader and received a quick approval.
He smiled and nodded. “Call me Will.”
He grinned. “You don’t look like a Charlie.”
“You don’t look like a Charlotte, either.”
I hesitated. “What do I look like, then?” I wanted to know.
He studied me for a moment. “An Annie, maybe. A Dorothy, possibly.”
“A Toto?” I asked.
He shook his head, grinning. “Your ears aren’t long enough.”
“Thank Heaven for that,” I said. “Let me guess. You just blew in from Kansas.”
“I had that coming, didn’t I?” he asked. “No, actually, I’m from Vermont.”
“Ah, I should have realized—the New England accent.”
“I just moved here last week. I’m postgrad at the university. I’m just getting acclimated before classes start,” he said. “One of the first things on my list was to find a good comic book store.”
He took the credit card I returned to him and put it back in his wallet, then looked back toward the window again as the funeral procession returned. “Does this sort of thing happen around here often?” he wanted to know.
I laughed. “Better get used to it,” I advised. “It’s a community of oddballs.”
He grinned. “The perfect place for a writer.”
“You’re a writer?”
“Aspiring,” he said.
“Haven’t you published anything?”
“I haven’t finished anything yet.” He was looking toward the bar across the street. “What the—” he started.
I looked, too. One of the regulars was attempting to enter. Tuffy, a pit bull belonging to one of the neighbors, was, as usual, blocking his path. “Tuffy won’t let Fred in until Fred buys him a beer,” I explained.
“The dog drinks beer?” Will asked, surprised.
“He’s got a bit of a drinking problem,” I confided. “He hits all the guys up for a beer.”
“And they buy them for him?”
“If they want to get into the bar, they do.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Depends on how much beer he’s already had,” I said. “Tuffy’s a mean drunk.”
Will looked at me. “Does he…bite?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Tuffy knows where to bite to inflict the most pain.”
He winced. “Ouch.”
“I’ve been thinking of hiring him as my night watchdog,” I said then.
“Good call. He’d work cheap. Get him a six pack and he’s happy.”
I gave him my business card. “Hope your introduction to our more—interesting—residents hasn’t scared you off coming back here,” I told him.
He grinned. “Quite the contrary, Charlotte. I think I’m going to like it here.”
Charlotte? He was going to call me Charlotte?
“Come back soon, Sir Wills,” I told him.