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Love Taker by Michael Czyzniejewski

I was driving away from my kids’ school when that Pat Benatar song came on the radio and I started singing, started thinking about the lyrics, and missed my turn. I was headed out of town, past all the banks and gas stations, through the industrial corridor, past the quarry. I worked there, years ago, dynamiting limestone, only lasting a day. Soon I was driving nowhere, a two-lane highway, all corn and roadkill. My tank was full.

I passed a woman jutting her thumb on the shoulder. I stopped and she threw her sack into the back. Her name was Mabel, “… like an old cleaning lady.” Mabel snapped my picture and texted it, said, “If you kill me, my friends’ll know it was you.” I was no killer but couldn’t blame her a bit.

Mabel talked the whole way. She was traveling east, which was rare—drifters usually headed west. Mabel said she’s already drifted west, that it was time to drift back. People were wondering where she was, she guessed. It’d been years.

Mabel suggested a game. She asked if I knew Marry-Fuck-Kill. I didn’t. She explained and I told her maybe I should take her picture and send it to my friends. She laughed; I didn’t have a phone, let alone friends. We played a variation she’d invented called Embroider-Cross Stitch-Needlepoint. She presented movie stars and rappers. I knew Snoop Dogg and guessed Embroider. “Ding ding ding.” The president was a Needlepoint, like most men that age. Someone named Pink was “… literally the only Cross-Stitch on the entire planet.”

We ran out of gas next to an abandoned airstrip. Mabel called AAA, who estimated 90 minutes. Mabel asked about my kids, if I’d be late getting back. She peeked into the backseat, at the car seats, neither of which were anchored in. One held Mabel’s bag, the other my blanket.

“Their mom gets them,” I said. Nothing broke my heart more.

Mabel wandered out to the airstrip. She ripped a wind flag, orange and filthy, from its frame. “I’m going to make a vest,” she said. “I’ll mail it to you if you give me your address.”

I looked over at my car. I pictured the vest, trying it on: I looked ridiculous, a construction flagger.

“I’d love that,” I said, knowing the vest, like most things, was at best a dream.

Hear Michael Czyzniejewski read his story

Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of four collections of stories, including the forthcoming The Amnesiac in the Maze (Braddock Avenue Books, 2023). He is Professor of English at Missouri State University and serves as Editor-in-Chief of Moon City Press and Moon City Review, as well as Interviews Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

Statue Forest by Tara Campbell | Elizabet by Jonathan Cardew | Love Taker by Michael Czyzniejewski | (Parenthetical Asides) by Jacqueline Doyle | Lace in Your Hands by Lydia Gwyn | I Wouldn’t Know It & He Wouldn’t Know It by Kara Vernor | Clumped Dough by Lucy Zhang