The Liquor Shack
by Leah Sackett
The moonlit waters held the warmth from the day. The kids had to communicate in gestures and expressions. Each of them looking down and then quickly away to steal a glimpse of their naked bodies lit by the moon in the quaking waters. Disproportionate bodies submerged in the above-ground pool. They chose this pool carefully. It was one they knew well. They swam in it, back in the day, years ago, when they were little kids. When they were still friends with the owner, Jimmy. The kids knew the pool was located on the opposite end of the bedrooms of the house. Their risk of getting caught was significantly reduced, thanks to Jimmy's father not wanting to hear the kids while he slept until late in the afternoons. His nightshift at the Now and Later candy factory meant he wasn't even home right now, and Mrs. Davis was a heavy sleeper too far away to hear their muted sounds. Sarah liked the way her budding breasts gleamed in the moonlight, so did Aaron. Kristie was too embarrassed to be envious of Sarah.
"Let's play Marco Polo, but quiet like," Aaron said.
The kids all hissed a not-it. It was decided that Aaron was it. In a later time, these kids would be dubbed tweens. But it was the 80's when childhood lasted longer, and pre-pubescence was a curiosity not yet tainted by a thing called the internet. Their developing bodies were the battlefield of growing up. Knowledge of their bodies’ changes was limited to older siblings' horror stories, parental scratches on a scrap of paper, and an overwhelming yet tantalizing shame.
Aaron centered himself in the pool and closed his eyes. He whispered, "Marco." He heard the swish of the others moving along the circumference of the pool as they mumbled, "Polo." He made a step to his right. That's where he thought Kristie was, and he called again, "Marco." Aaron thrust out his hand underwater and tagged a slick, thick issuance of wet flesh. He flashed open his eyes and found Mark before him. His eagerness faded to defeat. The girls giggled on the other side of the pool, banked against the wall.
"It's your turn," he said to Mark as he backed away. And he realized Mark had let him catch him, so he could be in a position to grab the girls.
As they dressed, Aaron did a poor job of hiding his stare at the girls' glistening white thighs and butts in the moon glow. Mark elbowed him in the ribs and giggled. The girls were suddenly tight-lipped and made their hasty goodbye to head back to Kristie's house. Aaron walked Mark home. Mark was high on the night's nudity and babbled non-stop about the girls' small breasts that had gained three times in size as Mark danced home.
"Oh, we gotta do that again," Mark said to Aaron on the sidewalk in front of Mark's Tudor-style house.
"Shit, yeah," Aaron said and waved Mark goodnight as he crossed the desolate street.
On his way home, his zinging feelings from the night's escapade with the girls began to lag as the smell of chlorine lifted from his skin. Home was a mere two blocks from Mark's house, but each step closer grew heavier. Aaron didn't want to go home. When he reached the black door on the lit porch, he couldn't find his key. Aaron checked his wet pockets, but it was gone. He must have lost it when he went skinny dipping. Aaron dropped down into one of the white wicker chairs on the front porch, shrinking behind the boxwoods and the lovely scent of the lilac bush. He'd have to wait for his sister, Anna, to show up so he could get in.
Aaron tried to get comfortable in the squeaky chair. He was positioned to watch the driveway for when one of Anna's friends would drive up and drop her drunk ass off. His gaze drifted to the impenetrable door and the splintered door jamb. It was months ago when Mom went on a cleaning rampage, but it was only days from the funeral. She stamped about the house filling a cardboard box with framed family photos that included Dad, his Field and Stream magazines, and his avocado green ashtray on the end table by his recliner. Mom dumped it inside the box, ashes, butts, and all. She eyed the remote control. Then she turned her stony stare on the mossy green recliner. Mom dropped the box and cleared a path from the living room's center to the front door. She heaved the reluctant recliner forward. Aaron sat on the sofa sucking on a Tasty Freezepop, watching, and wondering where her strength came from. His mom got the dang thing all the way to the door before she started cussing.
"This god damn, cheating, son of a bitch," she said through clenched teeth.
"No. Just no," she said.
His mother stamped from the room. He could hear her in the garage digging around. She'd left the garage door ajar, and he watched the smirking poster of Robert Redford she had taped down to the door. There were many pieces of tape on the four corners, all crisscrossed and doing their best to keep the black and white Redford in place. But if someone slammed the door shut, Redford would catch air and pull away from the door, causing another little rip in the poster. Sometimes, when Dad had been drinking, he would remove and hide the poster to aggravate mom. He thought it was great fun. His usual overwhelming, drub nature could not put his propensity asunder for fatuous pranks while intoxicated.
She returned with a sledgehammer and a saw, and she got to work. The sledgehammer cracked the thing up, but it also caused the wedged recliner to deliver splintery blows to the door jamb.
"Fuck," she yelled.
Aaron sat with the sucked-out Tasty Freeze wrapper, which he rolled and unrolled around his pointer finger. With each blow of the sledgehammer, he waited for something to break loose, either the recliner or his mother. She kicked the chair out into its utmost reclined position and took the saw to it where the back and the seat are connected. The back of the recliner thudded onto the floor issuing a cloudy aroma of Dad's cigarettes and sweat. When mom was done hacking the chair to ragged pieces of upholstery, foam, wood, and metal, Aaron asked if he could have a turn.
"No," she said quietly.
Alone, she walked each fragment out to the curb. At some point, she had started crying. Afterward, she started drinking Dad's whiskey. These were the last thoughts Aaron had as he dried and dozed in the wicker chair. He dreamt of his dad. It was always the same. His dad driving the family sedan with a pretty lady with short blonde hair sitting in the front seat. It was a pretty day, with no rain. They were cut off by a Home Depot truck. Dad overcompensated, and the sedan slid underneath the trailer. His dad and the lady were decapitated. This is how Dad was caught cheating. In the dream, Aaron always had an up-close view of the bodies in the car. It struck Aaron how much shorter Dad looked without a head.
Aaron jerked awake. It was the only way he woke anymore. Anna still wasn't home. It had to be pretty late, but he didn't know the exact time. It's not like he was going to wear a watch skinny dipping. Tired of waiting for Anna, Aaron got up and stretched. He walked down the driveway, and then he walked five doors down, keeping an eye out for his sister. She wasn't there. No one was there. In all those houses filled with sleeping people, Aaron was on a road of isolation, and the moon was his only keeper. So, he kept walking, glancing repeatedly up at the waning moon. Aaron walked to the end of the street and made a left. There it was. The same as always. The Liquor Shack. It was a small white wooden framed shack on a small island of blacktopped space big enough for two cars, which from here looked like a large puddle of darkness. The ramshackle liquor store was a blight on the otherwise residential area. A streetlamp flooded The Liquor Shack with a halo of disgraceful illumination. Was it his dad's usual green bottle with the bright yellow label of Cutty Sark from The Liquor Shack that led him to drink and drive, or was it drinks at lunch with the bimbo? They would never have a complete picture of the day's events. The missed hours reported from work in the middle of the day, the receipts in the glovebox for Coral Courts, a rent by the hour motel, and the blood alcohol content of .22% were the facts left to the family. Aaron tried to puzzle his dad's death into an unfinished and grotesque portrayal of his dad's abandonment of the family.
Standing in the shadows with the warm summer's air kissing his skin, Aaron reflected on the looming Liquor Shack. Aaron and Anna had made the walk to The Liquor Shack hundreds of times over the summers. The Liquor Shack had a small, odd offering. It was four walls of bottles filled with amber or transparent liquid. Next to the register was a shelf of cigarettes, a small bin of lighters, and just by the door was a deep freeze filled with Tasty Freeze popsicles. The siblings were allowed to walk together to The Liquor Shack. They went with the change they dug up out of the sofa and recliner cushions. Mounted on the top of The Liquor Shack was a sign that ran the length of the building, and it read in red, bold, all caps: LIQUOR. Inside The Liquor Shack, it was dark. It would take a moment to adjust their eyes from the brilliant sun to the cave-like interior. They would stand for a moment in the doorway, waiting to see, waiting to be ordered out. The man behind the counter always looked angry. Aaron and Anna moved quickly. Trying not to notice the adult world they had stepped into, but they still took the time to fight if there was only one blue popsicle left in the deep freeze. Anna, being the eldest, won every time.
The pavement broke about 200 feet from the shack. The concrete was split and filled with blacktop to create two slight slopes, making it wheelchair accessible. In all of Aaron's time walking to The Liquor Shack, Aaron never saw a wheelchair making its way to the haven of liquor. When he was very little, just out of the stroller, his mom would walk the kids to the shack and back for exercise. She pointed out the flowered stoop of Mrs. Jensen, where Anna and Aaron would race to take a seat and rest as they waited for their mom to catch up. Mom also pointed out the wheelchair-accessible walk. She would sing out, "down the little hill, up the little hill" every time. The little hills were highlights of the kids' walk to the shack. It was a marker that they were nearly there. Even when Aaron and Anna started walking on their own, under the age of 10, they continued to sing "down the little hill, up the little hill." As Aaron approached the little hills, he sang into the darkness, "down the little hill, up the little hill," and he felt stupid.
The green screen door was unlatched. The white wooden door was kicked in after a few attempts. The sole of Aaron's black high top Converse left a dirty mark. It was pitch black in this place and it was musty. Aaron walked with his hands out, feeling for the popsicle chest. He knocked a bottle to the floor. The shattering glass sounded excessively loud, and he froze. Nothing happened. His eyes were getting accustomed, and the Cutty Sark label stared up at him from the concrete floor. Aaron grabbed another bottle of Cutty Sark. He opened the screw top and took a swig. His mouth tasted of fiery NyQuil.
How did his parents' drink this stuff? He took several more slugs, and it didn't get better. His throat was burning. Aaron drank until he started to feel numb, and he laughed. It was a choked chuckle, and then he retched. He looked at the bottle in his hand. He faced the joke of his life and hurled the bottle at the wall. More bottles of amber-colored liquid shattered on the floor. The moonlight mixed with the electric humming streetlamp, peeking through the door, and lit up the shards of glass on the floor. Aaron reached out and swung his arms, clearing the shelf before him. The destruction of his creation felt good. He stepped back and admired his damage, and then he turned to the deep freeze. He grabbed a fist full of popsicles and marched home with the gait of an angry young man. Above, the sun was chasing the moon from the sky. All the blue popsicles were his.
Leah Holbrook Sackett's published books include her novella Raising St. Elisabeth (Alien Buddha Press 2021), and two short story collections Swimming Middle River (Read Lips Press 2020) and White Knight Escort Service(Alien Buddha Press 2021). Additionally, she has a third collection, Catawampus in Sweetgum County, scheduled for publication in spring 2022. Leah was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her story The Family Blend published in Crack the Spine, and over 75 of Leah's stories have appeared in literary journals. She is an adjunct lecturer in English at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, where she earned her M.F.A. Leah's stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual. Learn about her published fiction at leaholbrooksackett.com.