Red Laces
By Jay Dee

I feel the tips of my fingers in my own blood.

It is a strange sensation because the floor I'm lying on is cold and the blood is warm. I see a thin stream of it flowing into the drain grate in front of me; the same drain we use when we hose down the floors after closing. The blood smells like pennies; the way my fingertips smell when I count coins from the cash tills at the end of the night.

My eyes are closed.

I feel the room spinning. Even though I'm lying down it still spins.

I raise my eyelids. I see my hand, not far off but it seems to be drifting away. I think my other hand is under my stomach, but I can't feel it.

Something moves.

I focus.

Not far across the room a pair of white tennis shoes paces back and forth - don't know what brand - they look new. I recognize that I'm looking underneath the floor shelf of the sandwich station - I think near the steamer, where we keep the burgers warm. The shoes are on the other side, beyond the space underneath the shelf. I see a bit of blue jeans above the ankles, but the counter blocks my view of the legs that carry those feet. The cuffs are frayed. There's a second pair of sneakers, but they don't pace. These two just stand watch.

There's a mustard packet stuck to the floor near my hand.

A man with a shaved head shot me.

I looked at him wrong.

When it happened I couldn't believe it. I felt a rib break as the bullet passed through my chest. I know it went all the way through because I heard the tiles shatter on the wall behind me. He gave no warning. Lori screamed. The new guy just stared. I can't remember his name. I don't think they believed it either. Now Lori is crying. I hear her down by my feet. She has a hiccup in her sobs. I hear that too.

I don't like the way you are looking at me, the man said. Believe it or not, I think I actually saw the bullet leave the barrel of the gun. Or did I imagine that?

It hurts. Hard to breathe.

No, I didn't just imagine it.

I watched the trigger of the gun shift backward, saw a blur of motion, and then watched the red laces of the baseball as it crossed the plate.

Wait? What? That doesn't make sense. What made me think that? I don't know. But strangely I'm thinking about playing baseball. We had a game today before work and I'm on the field again. I'm standing in the batter's box, bat gripped in hand, watching the baseball flash over the plate right by me. I swing.

I strike out.

The men barged in just after midnight as we were locking the doors. Two of them. One had a shaved head with some sort of misshapen cross tattooed over his left temple. The other had a wild-eyed, skinny face, with a blonde, dime-sized soul patch under his bottom lip. They flashed guns, told us to line up – the three of us: me, Lori, and the new guy - against the back wall out of sight of the lobby windows. They took my watch. They took Lori's earrings. The new guy had a gold chain around his neck and they took that.

I filled a bag for them with all the cash from the registers. And then he shot me; the man with the shaved head. I looked at him wrong.

Don't' cry Lori. It will be all right.

Now he's shouting at her. I know it's him because that's the same gravelly voice he used to threaten me. What is he saying?

Watch the red laces. You can see the ball better if you watch for the red laces. No. That's not Shaved Head speaking. That's my coach talking.

Watch the red laces.

I don't know what you mean?

Concentrate. Focus. Don't try to hit the baseball. That won't work. Watch for the red laces and hit them.

I am watching. I look to the right and see the catcher. I look to the left and see my coach pacing at third base. I'm up to bat. My coach is saying something but I can't make it out. I look out toward the mound. I steady myself, ready to swing as the pitcher winds up.

I can't hear so well.

I've never been able to see a pitch very well.

His voice sounds ugly.

I never really see the ball.

I wish I had something to eat.

But I have connected before.

More than once I have sent basemen diving. One time I used a wooden bat and broke it in half. Had to buy my teammate a new one. Coach says I have a hard swing. But my hits are always accidents.

I never see the ball.

Now he's swearing at someone; at the new guy. What was his name? I can't remember. He was not very good at making hamburgers so I put him on fries. He said he had worked sandwich station before at McDonald's, but you sure couldn't tell. He got all flustered during the dinner rush.

I hear: "You're looking at me."

The new guy is looking at him wrong.

"Don't look at me like that or I'll give you one too."

I wonder what time it is? Don't shoot him. Look the other way. I can't tell if I am thinking this or speaking out loud.

The new guy just fell to the floor. No. Shaved Head threw him down. I'm blinking. I see the new guy on the opposite side of the sandwich station underneath the far side of the bottom shelf. He's curled up on his side. He's a bit chubby. Has rosy cheeks. Now the new guy is covering his face. Things are falling on his head. I smell…pickles…onions…bar-b-que sauce? Something metal pings on the floor. Now white glop is spilling into his dark hair - mayonnaise. He's trying to crawl away. Another metal ping echoes across the room and I see a tin pan bouncing over the new guy's head. What a mess we have to clean up. Now the white tennis shoes are kicking him in the stomach.

Oh God it hurts. I can feel the bullet's path. It's a fire in my gut; hot grease burning outward. I feel it in my toes.

The room is fading. The lights are dim.

I'm positive I can start hitting the ball more often if I learn to see the red laces.

Don't shoot him. Please don't shoot him.

I'm so tired. I need to go to sleep. Something is touching my cheek. It's a bug. It's crawling toward my eye. I can't move. I feel it crawling along my cheekbone, but I can't see it. Get off.

Wait.

It's not a bug. It's my blood. The puddle around my armpit is gathering at my head.

Don't breathe. If I don't breathe the pain stops.

I wonder how much blood a person can lose?

This is my last year of junior college. I'm assistant manager but I still only work part-time. My parents have a little extra money and are going to help me at the University next year. If I learn to hit the ball maybe I can try out for the State team.

My eyes are watering, but I'm not crying. Why would they water? I need to blow my nose.

That's strange. Is the pain gone? Suddenly I can breathe without it hurting. Actually, no, it hasn't gone away. I just can't feel anything anymore.

It must be getting late. I'm tired.

The second man, Soul Patch, is yelling: "Not all of them. Let's go."

What does he mean? Why would Shaved Head do that? Just because he doesn't like the way we are looking at him?

I still feel some pain. Not like before though. What does it matter? I can't move anyway.

I think I see blood by my face now. It's pooling around my eye. I'm blinking and I think it's on my eyelashes.

I know what he means. Of course I do.

But, I can't move.

I'm blinking trying not to let the blood get into my eye.

Practice was different today. I saw the red laces. I was watching for them like Coach said to, and to my shock there they were; the red laces of the baseball. I saw them clearly, spiraling end over end, as if in slow motion, so obvious I could count the stitches. I was so surprised I forgot to swing.

I struck out.

A fry basket is on the floor in front of me. My vision is blurred. But I see it - square crisscrossed steel mesh with a rubber-grip handle, long enough so it can be held over the popping oil without getting burned. It crashed to the tiles with all the others in the rack when I stumbled backward into the fry station, almost at the same time I saw Shaved Head pull the trigger. It happened so fast. God it felt like a fastball hit me in the ribcage and exploded.

I hear Soul Patch yelling: "Leave 'em man. Let's go."

He's swearing. They're both swearing.

"If you leave, the money's mine."

"You're crazy man."

Shaved Head is cursing. I see only one pair of tennis shoes. A door slams. That was the back door. One of the hinges is broken and it screeches when it shuts. It was supposed to be fixed this week but in the meantime, we all have to watch out so it doesn't catch our fingers.

Guess Soul Patch didn't want the money that bad after all.

Only one of the two men is with us now. The one who shot me. I gave him the money; every bit out of the safe. I had just counted it. More than three-thousand dollars. We had a good night.

Three more practices left before Saturday's game. When I stand up to bat next time, I'll watch for the red laces. I don't even care if I hit the ball. I just want to see them. Tomorrow at batting practice I'll try out this new discovery. I'll look for the red laces.

The fry basket is just lying there. I wonder what time it is.? It's lying there just within reach on the floor in front of me. It must be getting late. The floor's a mess. We're not getting out of here until two in the morning.

Not all of them, he said.

I can't think.

My eyes are closing.

They're closed.

I can see a baseball coming at me, spinning through some sort of flashing darkness as if it were passing through a black tunnel filled with flickering strobe lights. How am I supposed to hit that? No way I can do it. I just want to duck.

But I stay put. I look for the laces. The red laces will make it easier to see. I see it speeding at me. I'm watching for the red laces. I swing.

I'm opening my eyes.

They're open.

Shaved Head is going to shoot Lori and the new guy. He's going to kill them. Just like he has probably killed me. He's not on the other side of the counter anymore. I hear him only a few feet away; at my feet.

He says: "Shut up. Quit your bawling."

He's moved Lori and the new guy over to my side of the sandwich station. I can't remember the new guy's name.

I have…feeling. Under my gut, I sense the bumps of the floor tile with the thumb of the hand I thought was numb. Now my fingers are tingling. I can move them. My arm too.

I'm pulling my arm out from under me.

The tip of my index finger brushes something wet – doughy - something stuck to the side of my stomach. What is that? I press in – pain spirals through my gut.

That would be the bullet hole.

It dawns on me I was struck in the side, not the chest.

How I keep silent, I do not know.

I see a bald scalp towering above me. Shaved Head's backside is to me. He's got Lori and the new guy in front of him, backs against the wall. All the other employees went home. There's only the three of us left here to close. Soul Patch left too. Coward. It's going to take hours to clean up. Maybe I'll skip batting practice tomorrow. No. I want another chance to test out my new discovery. I know I can get a good hit, and that's all I want; as long as I watch for the red laces.

That fry basket. I wonder what it's made of? Stainless steel I think? I don't know. It's heavy though. Real heavy. You wouldn't want to drop it on your toe.

I still need to blow my nose. But if I don't sniff, if I'm quiet, I can move my legs.

I'm on my knees. It hurts. I cracked my kneecaps good when I fell.

Again the room spins. I have no balance. No noise though. Make no noise. I hold onto the sandwich counter for support. It helps.

The fry basket is heavy but if I can lift it off the floor? I do. I glance back around. Lori is staring at me. Mascara is smeared down her cheeks. Lori has been here longer than me. The customers love her. I've never seen her angry. Almost asked her out once but never worked up the nerve. The new guy is looking up at the shaved head man between us. I think he is saying something to Shaved Head, but I can't hear what it is. He's scared. He has flecks of food in his hair. One side of his head is smeared with mayonnaise. It looks like his cheeks are scraped. I wish I could remember his name.

The pain.

I have to close my eyes. Pain is back. I can't hold my breath or I'll pass out. The hot grease feeling is spilling down my legs, splashing onto my toes. I'm dizzy. I'm going to fall. I'm going to faint.

There is no time to wait for it to go away.

I'm opening my eyes.

They're open.

Shaved Head has the gun pointed at them. The fry basket is heavy. My stomach is burning. I can feel blood in my crotch.

I use the counter to pull up from my knees.

I didn't realize I was taller than Shaved Head.

All I have to do is watch the red laces and I know I'll hit the ball.

Shaved Head aims his gun at the new guy's face. Is he going to fire? Is he pulling the trigger?

I see something shiny move on the yellow wall panels above Lori. Kim cleaned them tonight before she left and she always gets the surfaces spotless and gleaming; no ketchup spots or grease marks anywhere.

It's my reflection.

Lori continues to look at me. And now so does the new guy.

Shaved Head must see them staring, even though his back faces me. His chin lifts upward. I'm right. The movement on the yellow wall has caught his attention.

Blood runs down my leg. I feel my sock sticking to the hairs on my ankle. The grease fire burns in my gut. Tears come to my eyes and wet the sides of my cheeks. I have to blow my nose.

Instead, I sniff. Real hard. Real loud.

Shaved Head spins.

Kirk. I remember. The new guy's name is Kirk.

My grip on the fry basket is tight. I see crisscrossing reddish veins bulging clearly around a misshapen cross.

Lori buries her head in Kirk's chest, covering her eyes. But Kirk, the new guy, does not turn away.

We'll be here all night cleaning up this mess.

The man with the shaved head looks surprised.

I'm thinking, Watch the red laces.