“So, it went well?” I asked.
It was Tuesday morning of the fourth week since graduation. We had all fallen into quiet routines at this point, meeting every morning for breakfast before splitting into our own business for the day.
Wyatt smiled, idly rubbing a hand on his head against the coarse platinum hair. It was growing and that meant a new cut and color by the end of the week. I hoped he goes for a more muted color this time, something to make the browns of his eyes pop.
“It was a success—” Wyatt began, before Oliver slammed both of their hands on the table, effectively startling Lucy awake and snapping his head off the table. There was a dark red mark on the side of his face.
“We scared the shit outta him. He nearly pissed himself. Ran off and left his wallet. By the way, no we didn’t use any of the cards, we dropped it at the station after taking a couple bills out. Lucy, stop looking at me like that. I’m sorry okay—fuck! Don’t hit me.”
I raised my hand and gently drop it on top of Lucy’s wavy black hair, ceasing his attempt to throttle Oliver from across the wooden table. “Great! My girlfriend will keep me posted if he shows up again.”
“Is this going to be a thing?” Lucy asked, setting back into his seat and reaching over to snag my coffee out from in front of me. He was wearing one of Wyatt’s sweaters and although it was large on his shoulders, the arms were too short and the ink on them appeared whenever he stretched. I caught the small detailing of a weeping woman before it vanished as he brought the cup to his lips. “Are we going to hang around dark alleys and scare people for what, a grand or two?”
I smiled, remembering what sat patiently in my purse. “Speaking of which,” I said, pulling out three envelopes and handing them out to the others. “Split four ways. I get a commissions fee, of course.”
Oliver narrowed their eyes. “You don’t really need the money, princess.”
“I need it if I want to leave home without a ring on my finger.”
The food arrived soon after, plate of waffles for Wyatt, pancakes for Oliver (from the kids menu), a savory panini for Lucy and a small omelette for me. Plain, nothing on it, not even cheese. I reached for the ketchup and I could hear Oliver gagging.
“No one answered my question,” Lucy said, finishing half the sandwich. “Are we going to keep doing this?”
“Whatever this is,” Oliver provided.
“Maybe as a hobby,” Wyatt teased.
“Maybe a business.”
The three of them looked at me, curiosity clear in their expressions. “You never know,” I said. “We might have stumbled on a particular niche we fill well.”
“Oh,” Wyatt laughed. “How ominous.”
My mother’s voice sounded aged, as if she had lived a hundred lives and felt this one was merely a formality. She sat by the television, the news playing on mute, as she filled two cups of tea. I took my place beside her.
“Yes, mom,” I said. She handed me a cup.
“Your father is having guests tonight. I would appreciate it if you make an appearance at the party.”
“It’s important,” she emphasized. “There’s someone people you need to meet.”
My eyes narrowed. Men.
“Did dad put you up to this?”
She looked up, her eyes hard as steel and her lips dragging against her front teeth. “I am not an agent of your father’s agenda. I make this request as your mother.”
I understood, that what she feared was not disappointing my father so much as disappointing herself and her social appearance. A vanity that certainly carried into myself. I schooled my expression.
My mother breathed a sigh of relief, leaning back on the couch to take a sip of her tea. “If you want, you can bring your friend. You know, uh, Karen’s daughter.”
“Oh, I thought it was—”
“I’ll ask,” I quickly cut in, putting my tea down and standing up. “You’ll have to excuse me, mom. I have some stupid charity event to attend.” She laughed.
“Alright, I’ll see you tonight.”
Oliver was glaring at me. We were both working today at the café, dressed in our aprons. Him waiting tables and me on cleaning duty. It was the second time he caught me dazing off rather than sweeping and judging by how quickly he was approaching me, I was about to hear about it.
“Lucy, Lucy, Lucifer—”
“Wow, the full name—”
Oliver silenced me with a hand to my lips. It startled me enough to for me to inhale sharply. My lips stung. “What the fuck?” I asked, muffled behind a palm that tasted of lavender soap.
“Where is your mind, Lucy? You’ve been like this the whole week. I get that we ain’t busy right now, but I’m the one that vouched for you. If you look bad, fucking so do I.”
“Oh,” I said, guilty. I hadn’t thought about that. “Sorry.”
“It’s whatever. What’s got you in the clouds?”
I leaned against the broom. “We didn’t really decide what we’re doing with the freelance gig.”
Oliver’s eyes lit up, a sharp green that made my breath catch. “Well, it’s good pocket money. I bought new shoes with my share.”
“Think we’ll do it again?”
I wanted to ask why he was so sure, but the bell chimes for a new customer and the moment passes.
“Axel Winder is fucking dead,” Oliver says, all of us huddled in our usual booth at Cory’s. It’s midnight. “He’s dead and we killed him.”
“Technically, I killed him.”
“Shut up, Lucy. Everything is on every one of us.”
“We’re a unified front, remember?” Wyatt provides.
“That’s correct,” Vickie says, effectively silencing all of us. It’s the first words she’s spoken tonight. Her hair is a mess of waves from the rain and her eyes are trained on the deflated milkshake in front of her, the straw idly turning in her hand. “We’re all or nothing.”
“You sure?” I ask, because Vickie is Victoria Addington, not just Vickie from high school.
“....Yes,” she replies after another pause. She exhales a sigh and leans back, pouring the milkshake into Oliver’s waiting glass. “We killed Axel. And that’s the last we’ll say his name.”
“So, we’re murderers now.”
“It was self-defense,” I provide.
“His face didn’t look like it.”
“Enough,” Vickie demands. “What are we going to do?”
“He’s buried. And we were paid to deal with him so…”
“And they don’t know our faces.”
“He was a part of the mob. Someone is bound to come looking for him.”
“That’s not our problem,” I say. “We were hired, as Animal Heads, to stop Axel from striking the deal with Vickie’s father. He can’t strike a deal with he’s drowning in concrete.”
Wyatt hums. “That’s true. As far as anyone’s concerned, Animal Heads just did a job.”
“Perfectly,” Oliver adds, finishing the last couple of sips from the milkshake before sliding it down to the end of the table to be picked up. It brushes against my finger and I hadn’t realized that we all had moved from our lax state to a near-huddle, our foreheads nearly touching as we all leaned in.
“Animal Heads took care of Axel Winder,” Vickie says, a declarative statement that pulls all of our eyes on her. “Animal Heads, an unknown group of uh…”
“Vigilantes?” Wyatt says, while Oliver says “Clowns” and I say “Assailants.”
I raise my eyebrows and Vickie looks embarrassed. “What? We do all sorts of work.”
“Want me to fix the plumbing, princess?” Oliver makes sure to wiggle his eyebrows.
“Animal Heads,” Wyatt’s lips purse in thought. “A masked organization that handles problems for a particular price.”
“And what’s the price?” I ask, as Wyatt smiles, breaking the chain of connection by leaning away from the circle.
“Apparently, whatever a life is worth.”
Maria was a regular. And arguably, she was the catalyst to everything.
Everything being the death of Axel Winder.
She’d come to the café when it was nearly closed, order a single black coffee and sip it as we packed away. She always entered and left the same way, smiling softly and with nothing on her person. She paid with exact change and although she left no tip, I never found it in myself to care.
When the bell chimed during my reprimand of Lucy, I knew it was her before looking.
“Good evening,” she called, her black hair in thick braids that hung heavy on her shoulders. “Are you closing?”
“Just starting to,” I replied, used to this routine. I pointed to a stool by the bar and turned back to Lucy. “Finish cleaning.” He made a mock salute before the broom weeps against the floor again.
As I’m getting to making Maria’s coffee, the familiar sound of her counting change acting as a rhythm to Lucy’s cleaning, I heard her speak again. “I saw something strange a couple of days ago.”
“Yeah?” I asked, pulling out a mug from under the counter. I placed it under the dispenser.
“Yeah,” She said, her voice sounded distant. I cast a glance up to her to notice she’d been staring at Lucy as he worked. He felt it too, turning sharply to face us as his eyes narrowed. “Is he new?”
“Mostly,” I said, taking the coffee and placing it in front of her, on top of a napkin. I grabbed a rag from the sink and begin cleaning the counter. “He’s usually in the mornings. A friend of mine.”
“He’s wearing such a distrustful expression.”
“Lucy is hard to get along with.” I snapped my head to look at him and call out, “Lucy, stop scolding and hurry up to count the back.”
Lucy looked up at me angrily, and for a moment, I was concerned he might actually yell at me, before his expression softened and he sighed. He finishes sweeping and hangs the broom properly before heading to the back.
Maria smiles, amused by the interaction before turning back to me to sip her coffee. “He’s like a dog.”
“Don’t call him that.”
“Anyway,” she continued. “I saw something strange a bit ago.”
I paused my cleaning long enough for her to realize I was listening.
“It was late at night, and a car pulled up from seemingly nowhere on this man.” Oh— “And two strange folks walk out, wearing these silly masks, something from my niece’s birthday party.” My— “And these animal mask-wearing men approach this stranger walking in the night. And you know what they proceed to do?” Fucking—“They beat him up! Well, not too badly, but there was some threatening going on. It was the most surreal thing I’veever seen.” God.
“Yeah?” I laughed out, wishing I had switched places with Lucy. He had better control of his expressions and I could feel how awkward my voice sounded.
“It was like something out of a film. A Mouse and a Puppy.”
“They sound cute.”
“Oh, they were. But cute clearly wasn’t what those boys were aiming for.”
“Is that so?”
“I think they were acting as a vengeful spirit for someone.”
Maria looked amused, placing her empty cup on the counter and sliding towards me. I quickly put it in the dishwasher, avoiding her eyes. “You know what the funniest part of it was?”
I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
“Despite the dark, and the masks, one of them looked familiar.”
If she keeps this up, I’m gonna piss myself.
“Am I supposed to laugh at that?”
“You see,” Maria placed the change on the table. All the quarters were neatly stacked into a small tower. “One of them had this red leather jacket, one I’ve only seen a handful of times.”
I paused. It’s over. Shit, I did pee a little.
“Yeah—” I started, as the back door opens. We both turn to face Lucy, still looking relatively unhappy. Our coats were in his hands. His own black denim jacket in one hand and in his other hand, bright red leather.
“Lucy,” I hissed. “You fucking idiot.”
Lucy narrowed his eyes.
“Oh my,” Maria laughed out loud, standing up. I looked at her helplessly as she smiled, pulling her thick braids back. “Who would have thought a little teasing would be so fun. I’ll be visiting again.”
“Thanks for stopping by,” Lucy replied when I was too speechless to say anything more. The bell chimes.
“What was that about?”
“I think my dick inverted.”
“Gross. Shut up.”
Vickie was waiting in my apartment. She has had a key since I moved in during high school and even provided herself her own individually designated chair. When I flicked on the living room lights, there she was, lounging in a gown that sparkled a threatening blue. Her heels, expensive and sharp, were thrown off at the foot of the chair. She was dressed too nice for just visiting.
“Another party, I presume. You ditchin’ it?”
Vickie looked at me from under her bangs, her eyes reflected against the colors of her outfit. Beautiful is the only way to describe her, followed by lonely. There was a time, back when we were riding bikes to Wyatt’s and back, that I thought I was in love with her. I think she was in love with me too.
“No,” she said, fidgeting to get more comfortable on the cushion. “It starts in an hour and you’re invited. By my mother no less.”
“She invites me, but not my mom.”
“Karen’s been cast out, you know how it goes.”
I did, and it’s horrific, like an aimless pack of starving wolves, where their only option is to cannibalize their own. My mother didn’t have much meat on her bones after dad died. Felt like a waste, but I guess something to chew on was better than nothing.
“You don’t expect me to attend, I don’t even have—”
“There’s a suit hanging in your bedroom. Hurry up. Your tie matches my dress and I’m awfully proud of that.”
I wanted to ask, shouldn’t you be taking Lucy? Don’t you see how he looks at you?
“Alright,” I said, making my way to the bedroom. Sure enough, a suit hangs innocuously on the door of the bathroom. It was a dark blue and fitted like a dream, as expected from Vickie. The tie glittered the same blue of her dress and I was reminded of prom, the four of us hiding under the theater stage with a bottle of rum. I was wearing a ratty suit I spent the year working to afford. Lucy hadn’t bothered to dress up, wearing jeans and a wife beater. His tattoo was just getting started at the time and only reached to his elbow. Wyatt was impeccable. Apparently, he was the same size as his old man that age and so his family lent him his father’s wedding suit. It fit him well and when he smiled, his dimples popped in the best way.
Vickie had looked like a queen, even when she walked barefoot because her heels snapped off from dancing. She’s changed the least, or maybe none of us really changed at all. I glanced at the bed where I had thrown my jacket, the red of it off putting with the white of the sheets. Shit, I should tell her.
I emerged from my room, dressed, and found that Vickie had sat up, a pair of black dress shoes in her hands. She looked me up and down before smiling. “You look dashing, Oli.”
I felt embarrassed, my ears grew hot and undoubtedly red. I found myself unsure what to do with my hands and started playing with my hair. “You think I should do it up?” I asked.
“No way,” Vickie replied, standing up to place my shoes in front of me. She’s shorter than me, even with heels, but I always felt I was craning my neck up to look at her. “Having it down makes you look more handsome.”
“I smell like the café.”
“I like it. Grounds you.”
“Like coffee beans?”
“I thought I was speaking to Oliver, not Wyatt.”
“Right,” I laughed. “Bad joke.”
She linked our arms together and started pushing us towards the door. As I locked up, I remember the jacket. “There’s something we need to talk about. I think someone—”
“Save it,” Vickie cut me off. “Tell me after the party.”
“..Okay,” I said.
I don’t tell her after the party. In fact, I think if I told it to her then, Axel might still be alive. We wouldn’t be in this mess and maybe, none of this would have happened.
“Lucy,” I called out, entering the loft we shared. The blinds were all lowered, and the large space was pitch black. “I brought Chinese.”
Two eyes appeared in the dim light, meaning he was sleeping on the couch. I heard some subtle movement before muttering out an apologetic “Sorry” as I flicked on the lights. Lucy, who really was on the couch, groans and buries himself further into the cushions. His hair is a mess, with a cowlick forming on the right. It always looked so soft that even I fell into Vickie’s habit of running my hands through it.
I brought the food to the coffee table and reached out to pat him awake. He bats my hands once, twice, before sitting up. Sleep mars his grey eyes with wetness, and his cheeks look pale. It’s startling sometimes, how pretty Lucy is when he isn’t full of rage. “You getting sick?”
“I better not be,” he grunts, rolling his shoulders and standing up. “I’ll grab the plates.”
He stumbles into the kitchen on shaky legs. I honestly think he’s more like a cat than a dog sometimes. “How was work?” Lucy shoots out from behind the counter.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle. How was the café?”
“Alright,” he replied, returning with two plates and some forks. “A strange lady came right at closing. It freaked Oli out.”
“They’re easily spooked. Vickie and them are going to some fancy gathering tonight?”
“She didn’t tell you?” I asked. Odd.
“No, we haven’t really had a chance to catch up with works and apps.”
“How are those going by the way? Any biters?”
“I’m talking to this English Professor in UC, but I don’t know if he’s looking for any grad students.”
I felt excitement bubble up inside me. “Lucy! That’s great. You should have told us.”
Lucy shrugged but I saw a small smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. He pulled open the cartons. “I didn’t want to jinx it.”
I followed his lead and open the food containers up only to pause. He’s stopped as well. “Um, Wyatt?”
“I see it.” The Chinese food was just plain rice. I opened another container and there was more white rice. “I think there was a mix up.”
“I’m all for the simple palette or whatever but this is fucked up.”
I sighed, closing the box. “Want to get fast food?”
Lucy was already shrugging his coat on and handing me mine. “Hurry up. Tonight’s that rerun of Total Recall you’ve been talking about.”
I stood up, patting him on the back as I grab my keys. “You know just how to make my heart sing.”
Lucy smiled. “Well, I am a poet.”
“Welcome to Howdy Hut, how-dy I help ya?”
Lucy groaned beside me. “Why do they say that?”
“Can we get two burger meals, extra fries? No pickles on one.” Lucy nodded approvingly. “And extra hot sauce.”
“Coming right up. Window 1, please.”
The food was quick to deliver and since we were both starved, we parked in the furthest spot from the diner and started eating. By the time we finished, Lucy had sauce all over his face and I was slowly making my way through the leftover fries he’d given me.
“I hate the name but this yeehaw food is great.”
“It’s not southern in the slightest, Lulu.”
“Well, could have fooled me.” Lucy made sure to put heavy emphasis on his accent, nearly making the bits of fry I was chewing fly up my nose. “Lemme toss the trash.”
“I’ll walk with you; this fast food smell is suffocating me.”
We get out and began the walk towards the only trash can in sight. When we reached the bin, Lucy threw his and chuckled when it missed. I picked it up and easily make the shot. “Wow, Wyatt. You’re so amazing.”
“Thanks, babe. That’s my 3-pointer arm.”
The ground is wet and dewy and the air smells like rain. Howdy Hut flickered in the distance, brighter than the moon in the night. By the time we made it back to the car, Lucy was yawning. “I think we missed the movie.”
“Good thing we have Netflix, I guess.”
“Actually, I didn’t pay for it this month, so we don’t.”
“Great,” I laughed. Lucy was at the passenger door.
It was the beginning, you know? I didn’t know any better. And I’d never make such an amateur mistake again.
I felt the gun against the back of my neck before I heard footsteps.
“I heard if you cut the foot of a rabbit and give it a rub, it’s good luck. You feeling lucky?”
Really? That’s worse than Oli.
Lucy was looking up at me, or rather, the person behind me. His eyes were wild but his body was still. Slowly, I put my hands up. I felt my fingers tremble.
“Turn around,” the voice ordered. “Drop your keys.” I did both. When I faced him, slowly meeting his eyes, I immediately recognized the man from a few nights ago, the stalker. He looked distressed, his cheeks hollowed and high, fair skin that made every mole on his face pop. The dark circles under his eyes could rival Lucy’s.
“You’re…” I began, trailing off because—what was his name? We never learned his name.
“You don’t even know my fucking name,” the stranger spat. I heard movement and the gun left me to point behind, probably at Lucy. “Don’t you fuckin’ move”
Lucy said nothing.
The gun was back to me. The barrel looked bottomless. My heart began to sink.
“You’re missing one,” he said. “This is the same car.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about—” I start before a fist met my nose. It feels so distant now, to remember how the pain bloomed second only to the blood that spilled out. I could hear it, Lucy immediately jumping over the hood of the car and tackling the stranger. I slid down the door, shaking hands ran up to catch the blood flowing freely down my face.
“Fuck,” I spat, trying to make out the stranger and Lucy rolling on the ground through a haze of pain. I need to call the cops, I thought, vaguely aware that my phone was somewhere in the car. I turned around, picking up the keys near my feet and managed to get the car door open. The phone was nowhere to be found. I heard the gun go off and my heart stopped, my knuckles turned white against the wheel. Suddenly, the passenger door opened, Lucy climbing inside. He was breathing heavy, his eyes impossibly wide.
“Drive, Wyatt!” He screamed and the world came into focus. I started the engine, and pulled into reverse, getting out of the spot. The stranger was standing up on shaky feet, right in front of us. He didn’t look to be hurt badly. He raised the gun and pointed at us through the window.
“Don’t you fucking move!” The stranger’s voice was like a train screeching to break, unbearably loud. “I’ll fucking kill you both.”
My hand hovered over the stick, my breath caught in my throat. “Wyatt,” Lucy said, so calm it caught me off guard. A hand encased mine on the stick and gently pushed it to D.
“Fuck it,” I whispered, slamming my foot on the pedal.
“What the fucking, don’t you fucking—”
The car jutted up and down, bouncing us in our seats before stabilizing and quickly speeding us out of Howdy Hut’s deserted parking lot. And just like that, the screeching came to a quick stop.
We didn’t speak until we pulled into the garage. It was only then did I realize that Lucy had been shot.
Animal Heads, Chapter Two.
Illustrated by Nayza M.