It had been seven months since my mum and I moved from Indiana into my grandpa’s home in Woburn, Massachusetts. The 20th of every month paralyzed Mum, reminding her of the day we lost Dad and my older brother Ollie in a car crash coming home from a basketball tournament. After a month of sleeping in her bed alone and passing by Ollie’s undisturbed room, she took us to Boston. We needed to get away, but we also needed money. Grandpa’s bum knee and ruptured left ear drum forced him to retire early, and our moving in shrunk his biweekly social security checks. I got a cashier job at Bill & Bob’s Roast Beef, a local sandwich restaurant in the town center. The stench of James River Barbeque Sauce and burnt hamburger meat hung onto my clothes for hours after my shift. I would work after school and on weekend nights. On Fridays and Saturdays, we stayed open until 2 AM. We never had more than thirty people come after midnight. Of the few customers that came then, they were either too drunk to know the difference between credit cards and Charlie cards or too high to decide whether they wanted waffle fries.
Charlie and Connor Zampatelli became the co-owners of Bill & Bob’s after their father retired. Born and raised in Charlestown, they spoke with harsh accents that mangled their r’s, so neither of them could pronounce each other’s name. I became all too familiar with Charlie’s gambling problem and Connor’s drug habit within a couple of months. They would come into work, wearing tattered Celtics jerseys still reeking of Wild Turkey and Budweiser instead of their work shirts, howling that Julius Erving “ain’t fuckin’ shit” or cussing out Robert Parish for missing his free throws and ruining the spread. Though eavesdroppers enraged them, each conversation they had bombarded everyone around them. Customers in the restaurant would hear them as they entered the parking lot, blaring Van Halen out of their open car windows. They also never called anyone by their real name. Every townie had a nickname, and I was relieved when they found a rotation of pet names for me: T and “Fuck Face.” At least Fuck Face was better than hearing Taylor pronounced as Tayla.
The flow of customers was slower than usual that night. The Celtics were playing and leading the NBA finals against the Houston Rockets 2-1. I was working the counter next to the radio squawking the game through scratchy speakers. I didn’t mind the noise. Ollie had a massive poster of Larry Bird’s Sports Illustrated edition cover in his room, so I liked hearing Bird dominate his competition. Connor was relaying big plays from the food preparation station to Charlie who was filling out that week’s checks in the back office. When I asked Connor if he wanted me to move the radio closer to him, he barked back over the clattering of spatulas on the grill, “Hey, Fuck Face, I’ll tell ya if I want the fuckin’ radio moved. Okay? Make yourself useful and go clean the shitters.” I should have known by then to stay out of sight and make myself as invisible as possible.
I returned from cleaning the bathroom at halftime. The Rockets led by one, and Connor was planning to leave early so he could watch the rest of the game at Giovanni’s. He and his brother screamed as I tried to take people’s orders at the front register.
“Chaz, I’ll come back once the game’s over! I won’t even drink there,” Connor pleaded.
“Fat fuckin’ chance, booze bag! You don’t even have money on this game. Whadya care anyway?”
“Alright, alright, Jesus Christ, guy. I’m gonna go to the corner store for some smokes. Is that okay, ya majesty?”
“Fuck off. Get me a pack of Marlboro’s while you’re there.”
Connor left out of the side door, flipping off Charlie. Charlie took over the grill, and asked me to move the radio closer to him.
The third quarter began. A man wearing suit entered through the front door. Charlie softened the radio. Only the sound of the front door chime and sizzling deep fryers hung in the air. The man took long, calculated steps towards me. After I asked him for his order, he leaned in next to my ear and mumbled, “You give me all the money in that register or you’re dead.” I thought it was one of the Zamaptelli’s friends messing around, but then he reached into his jacket pocket and put cold metal against my forehead. With his arm fully extended, he roared: “Now!” Charlie rushed over from behind the grill and pushed me away from the gun, knocking me onto the floor. Fear paralyzed me, making my legs turn stiff as if they had been replaced with a mannequin’s. From the floor, I witnessed Charlie negotiate for our lives with his hands above his head.
“Leave the kid out of this,” Charlie begged.
“You owe me a lot of money, Zamp.” The man said thrusting the gun into Charlie’s chest.
“It’s coming. It’s coming. Once the C’s win tonight I’ll be good.”
The man looked at me as I used the ice machine behind me to get myself back up on my feet. I kept my hands above my head and my back against the door of the ice maker. He moved the barrel of the gun back and forth between me and Charlie.
“You either give me everything in this register, or you and this punk are dead.”
Charlie emptied each slot of the register. He lifted up the dividers to where we hid the hundred dollar bills and gathered them into his hands. He handed over the cash. Some of the bills floated to the ground as he fumbled the handoff. The man thumbed through the wad with his free hand, nodding his head up and down as he counted. I caught Charlie’s gaze while the man dealt with his loot. He darted his eyes over to the side door then back at me. I couldn’t tell whether he was telling me to run or that he was going to run. Either way, it didn’t matter. The man looked up from his cash and shot Charlie in the head. Blood splattered onto the support beam behind him, and his body collapsed in front of me.
I screamed. I was searching for words—help–fuck–Jesus Christ—but only sound came out. The man rammed his gun into my mouth, hitting my teeth on the way in. I stopped screaming, felt tears rolling down my cheeks, and tasted hot, smoky metal. An eerily calm expression painted his face as if he’s been in this situation before.
“If I was you, I’d stop screaming and tell me where this fat fuck keeps the rest of his money.”
The gun in my mouth and fear in my throat choked me. I coughed out desperate breaths over the barrel. I pointed my trembling arm at the walk-in meat freezer in the back. He whipped the gun out of my mouth, knocking into my teeth and sending my skull upwards. I recoiled and thrusted my bleeding mouth into my cupped hands. Then, I felt the smack of the butt of the gun into my temple, twisting my body and spraying blood onto the floor and ice machine.
“Now, was that so hard?” he sighed.
He lifted the hinged portion of the counter and walked in front of me. Using the gun to direct, he forced me towards the freezer. Once I got in front of him, he drove the gun into the middle of my spine. I turned the shaky, rusty handle into the freezer, and once inside, a sharp pang chilled my leg. I looked down and saw splattered blood and a dark river going down my pant leg. I was too scared to notice that I pissed myself, and now the dampness was starting to freeze against my leg. I lifted up the box of frozen fries and grabbed the blue bank bag from underneath it. Charlie had thousands of dollars hidden away. He stashed all of the hundred dollar bills we collected in a day in there. He told me that they were good luck at the casinos. I handed the man the bag and watched him unzip it. I nodded vigorously when he asked me if that was all the cash we had.
“Next time, don’t make me wait for my money,” he said as he slammed the freezer door shut and fastened the lock outside. I began pounding on the door with my bloody fists and screaming for him to let me out. With each cry for help, more blood splashed against the stainless steel. My throat burned as if I had swallowed shards of glass. Jiggling the door handle and throwing my entire body into the door didn’t budge it. I was out of options. My screams turned into whimpers as I paced around inside the freezer trying to keep warm. After a few minutes, my fingers became unresponsive and blue. The damp section of my pants froze itself into my leg hair, and it crinkled as I moved. Between the blood loss and the freezing cold, it seemed like I was watching myself wither away. I curled up into a ball onto the unforgiving cement floor, praying that Connor hadn’t gone to Giovanni’s after all and would release me from my frozen hell. Down to my last resort, I started mumbling through hushed breaths, “not me too.” I rocked and shook on the floor, wishing for someone to save me. Wishing for this to end. Wishing that I wasn’t going to leave my mum all alone. Mum. Ollie. Dad.
I was losing consciousness when police officers barreled through the freezer. Two pairs of combat boots halted at my face. They picked me up off of the ground and got me into the ambulance in the parking lot. Red, blue, and white lights from the ambulances flooded the street and people gathered on the sidewalk watching the commotion. As the EMTs strapped me to the gurney, I used the last of my strength to whimper: “Tell my mum I’m okay. Tell her I’m okay.” Then everything turned black. I wouldn’t know it at the time, but the Celtics had gone on to win by 3 that night.
A few days, dentist visits, and police questionings later, I went back to Bill & Bob’s. I walked through the door to see Connor with an unkempt beard, shuttling boxes out of the back office. The blood had been cleaned up, but stubborn, streaky stains clung onto the support beam and the ice maker. An open bottle of Jack Daniel’s occupied the counter. I didn’t see the cap anywhere near it. When I asked Connor if he needed help, he shook his head and pointed towards the paint can in the corner.
“If you could,” he paused. “If you could paint over the blood.” He choked on the mucus he sniffled back up, wiping away the excess with the back of his hand. “That’d be great, T.”