“Safekeeping” by Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet

This is the latest in Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet. To go to the column page, please click here.

Hugo had been waiting for his chance to get the hell away from the stench and tedium of another day working at Burger King. The same somnolent grubs made their way in every morning for coffee and a free day off the streets. He was disgusted when he looked in the mirror at his brown and beige uniform with the asinine domed cap and the incriminating nametag spouting out his name, as though this were something to be proud of.

Hugo had been stashing away some of the cash when he worked the drive-thru at night. He had a system that worked. Every seventh customer that drove in was his target. He’d hit the return button on the register so it would open the drawer, but not count the sale. He was quick at calculating in his head how much change to give the customer back. He kept a small notebook by the side of the register. He tallied up all the change he’d taken out through the night, pocketed the rest of their money and then later replenished the drawer with the total scribbled in his notebook. Over six months he’d picked up an extra thousand this way and now was his chance to get out.

Hugo knew where he was going long before he was forced to listen to his boss ramble on about responsibilities and a promise of a rising career at Burger King. Most employees didn’t last six months and so Hugo had been pegged for the next managerial position that opened. Couldn’t possibly get any more dismal than that.

Hugo was going to find his mother. He had been preparing for quite some time. He had his knapsack filled with energy bars, a water sack and layers of warm clothes. He’d just purchased an insulated sleeping bag in case he had to sleep on the streets and stole a few flasks that he filled with some of his dad’s whiskey. He was sixteen and his dad didn’t give a damn if he came home or not anyway, so there was nothing stopping him now that he’d quit. He stuffed his stash of money in a hidden pocket he’d sewn into his underwear, strapped his knife to his tube sock and was ready to make his way. He had tracked down his mother’s sister in Bozeman, Montana. That’s where he was headed.

But before he could even step out the front door with all his gear, his father somehow had it in for him.

“So where the hell you think you’re goin’?” his father said, slurring through at least a twelve-pack. It was 11:00 a.m. “And where’s my whiskey, you little prick?” He held up the empty bottle Hugo had thrown in the trash the night before.

Hugo’s back was to his father.

“Hey, boy!  I said where you goin’?  Get your ass back here!  I’m talking to you.”

Hugo remained silent.

“Answer me when I’m talking to you, goddamn it!”

“I’m leaving, Dad.”

He heard his father’s staggering footsteps and turned around.

His father began laughing. “Boy, you wouldn’t survive alone out there for ten minutes.  And you know why?  Because you’re weak!  Just like your damn mother!”

Hugo felt the blood rushing to his face. His heart pounded.

“What did you say?” Hugo said, getting into his father’s face for the first time in his life.

“You heard me! Weak!  Like your mother. You’re just like her and her whole worthless family. They ain’t worth shit! Things get rough and they scatter like rats!”


Hugo bent down, pulled out the knife and plunged it deep into his father’s chest. It was pure instinct and adrenaline-fueled rage after a lifetime of abuse from this asshole. Before Hugo was aware of what was going on, the knife was already in. It entered much easier than he imagined. On TV, the killer usually needed to stab the victim over and over in order to kill them. Then, a struggle ensued—maybe even a fight. But not here. One forceful thrust and the top of the handle sat flush against his father’s chest—seven inches of embedded blade. His father fell to the floor.

Hugo calmly knelt beside him, grabbed the handle. He stared into his father’s eyes and heard a faint whisper. His father’s eyelids began to flutter. His eyes rolled back in his head. Hugo watched the flashes of white each time the pupils would disappear, and then reappear, almost like they were slot machines in Vegas. He’d never actually been there. He’d never even been on a vacation, but how appropriate that the thing his father loved more than anything else on the planet was now the last thing Hugo saw in his father’s eyes. His drinking and gambling had left Hugo without a mother at age five.

Hugo could hear the stuttering sound of air entering his father’s lungs, each gasp, closer to the final one. He gripped the handle of the knife, tighter this time, pushing it in deeper. He rocked it back and forth, movements that were, for the most part, involuntary.

“You just don’t get it, do you? DO YOU?!” Hugo screamed, clenching his teeth.  “That’s your fucking problem! You never got it.” He pushed the knife in deeper. “You didn’t care—about me, mom, anybody. Once a gambler, always a gambler, and don’t forget the whiskey, you damn drunk! Well, look who hit the fucking jackpot this time!”

By now, his father’s vacant eyes stared into nothingness. Hugo pulled the knife from the hole in his chest. It made a suctioning sound. Tiny, white bubbles gurgled from the wound.

Hugo heard someone coming up on the porch and jumped up toward the door.

“You okay over here, Hugo?” asked Mr. Nagel, their next-door neighbor.

Hugo kept the door close to his chest.

“Oh, yeah, Mr. Nagel. Yeah. Everything’s fine. My dad and I were just talking.”

“Sounded like more than that from what I could hear, but as long as you’re okay?” Mr. Nagel stood there with his garden gloves on and Hugo felt like swinging the door open to reveal the dead body. Then he’d race after Nagel with the knife to scare the shit out of him too. He wanted to explode like one of those maniacs who railed after the entire neighborhood.

“Thanks, anyway. Everything’s fine.” Hugo shut the front door. He grabbed the throw blanket from the couch and tossed it over his father’s body. He wiped the blade of the knife on the carpet, looked at his gear by the door, awaiting his clean exit to find his mom again. He turned back to the hall, but the open door of his father’s bedroom called to him.

Hugo entered his father’s room still holding on to the knife. His whole life he’d been told to stay out. The room was dark, moist, neater than Hugo would have imagined. Slacks and a clean dress shirt were laid out on the bed, as if his father had been planning on doing something other than swilling beer on the couch all morning. But what really caught Hugo’s eye was the safe, tucked in the corner of the closet. Its gunmetal surface caught the light as Hugo hit the switch on the wall.

Hugo kneeled on the floor in front of the safe, his hand pressed against the cold metal. What did his father need a safe for?  First he tried his father’s birthday, spinning the dial left, right, left. No luck. He tried his mother’s birthday next with no luck. Then he tried his own. He heard a click as he hit the last number, the handle twisted down, the latch inside the door disengaged.

And his mother spilled out. Not all of her. Just pieces. Love letters on faded blue paper. A desiccated rose from her wedding bouquet. Silk underwear in a bundle of shaven peach. Medical receipts for a drying-out clinic. Papers. Hugo snorted, sat back on his heels to read. That sounded about right. How much did dad waste on his failed attempts before giving up, pissing away the rest with whiskey and slot machines?

But… no, wait a minute. That’s not how it went. Hugo’s mother’s name was there in blue ink, ‘Patient:  Lydia Cooke.’ Same on each form, again and again. But, she was the one that had to get away. She was the good parent, the one he missed. The one he’d loved. The one he was going to find again.

Hugo checked them again, noticing the forms at the back were thicker. The kind with watermarks and real signatures, from fountain pens not Bics. The address changed too, and the details, though each one was red stamped ‘PAID IN FULL’. What was… ‘Korsakoff’s’? Flicking open his phone, he googled it, then read search results 1-10 that left him wishing he hadn’t. Her memories may have dissolved with the booze, but Hugo’s were painfully intact. His eyes flicked over the dates while dad turned cold under cloth just a few meters away. The sheaf of papers covered the years from September 2000 to March 2005. Looking back in the safe, he realized there were more papers layered towards the back. His hand shook, but out they came.

Death certificate: Lydia Cooke. Crematorium receipts, and an order of service. Marriage certificate: 15th June 1997. Birth certificate: father unknown. Hugo’s nose ran, mucus racing tears to his chin. He was good with numbers, nobody complained about any short-changing at his station. Grabbing the silver ugliness of the urn from the shelf above the safe, he ran sniffling through the house. He stopped only to kick his father’s corpse. Again and again, till Hugo hurt his foot. At some point he dropped to the floor and cried like a baby beside him, the urn cold against his stomach. His dad’s body was cold and stiff. Hugo screamed like the madman that he was until he was sick and sniveling.

Hugo awoke to some commotion. It was his neighbor, Mr. Nagel, from next door. He was leading all these people in to the living room. He wondered what they wanted.

The room filled with suspicion and strangers, and then Hugo knew.

It wasn’t ‘why’; it was ‘wi(pe it)’.  The handle.  The proof.

Someone grabbed his fingers and inked him for fingerprints, flashed pictures of his face.

Hugo pushed his hair out of his eyes, threw his head back and smirked at the camera. The stupid uniforms didn’t seem so bad anymore. Not compared to a whole new world of blue.


This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet are: 

Eryk Wenziak, a drummer, photographer, visual artist who also teaches management at the graduate level.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in: elimae; Short, Fast, and Deadly; Thunderclap Press; Used Furniture Review; Otoliths; Negative Suck; Psychic Meatloaf; Dark Chaos; Guerilla Pamphlets; Deadlier Than Thou (anthology); Phantom Kangaroo; Pipe Dream; 52|250; Bending Light Into Verse V. 3; Long River Run.  Most recently, his cover art was chosen for a chapbook of poems honoring Donald Hall titled, Olives, Now and Then, which he personally presented to Mr. Hall at the poet’s 83rd birthday celebration.

Gill Hoffs, who lives in Warrington, England with her husband and 4 year old son though her mind wanders all over the place.  Her work has won several prizes including the 2011 Spilling Ink Nonfiction Competition, and her second novel ‘In her skin’ was recommended for shortlisting for the 2011 Virginia Prize.  She writes in a variety of styles across several genres, and her stories are available widely online and in print, including in the recently released Lost Children Charity Anthology.  Check out her website (http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com/) or email her at scottishredridinghood@hotmail.com.

Ryan W. Bradley, who has fronted a punk band, done construction in the Arctic Circle, managed an independent children’s bookstore, and now designs book covers. He is the author of three chapbooks, a story collection, PRIZE WINNERS (Artistically Declined Press, 2011), and his debut novel, CODE FOR FAILURE is due from Black Coffee Press in 2012. He received his MFA from Pacific University and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.

Meg Tuite, whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals includingBerkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Valpairaso Literary Review, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle, Hawaii Review and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel “Domestic Apparition” (2011) is now available through San Francisco Bay Press. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.

More of Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet at Used Furniture.

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