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Short Con
About the Author: Brandon Barrows is the award-nominated author of the occult-noir novel This Rough Old World as well as over fifty published stories, selected of which have been collected into the books The Altar in the Hills and The Castle-Town Tragedy. He is also the writer of nearly one-hundred individual comic book issues. He is an active member of the Private Eye Writers of America. Find more at

“Why do I haveta write it out?

I heard the smack against Amber’s face before I knew my hand was moving. The stinging feeling started in my palm around the time I realized what I’d done. It was hardly the first time, but even I thought maybe it was coming too easily now.

She held her own hand to her reddening cheek and gave me a look like a wounded animal—which is kind of how I was starting to think of her, I guess. A dumb animal I had to feed and take care of and got nothing back from. There were tears in the corner of her eyes. A little tingle of guilt warmed the back of my neck, but I stomped it down flat. Amber deserved whatever she got. Always asking “why, why, why” instead of just doing like I told her. How come I had to be saddled with such a dummy for a sister?

“So it’s all nice and neat,” I told her, letting her hear the irritation in my voice. “My writing’s for shit, you know that. You want this to work or not?”

Amber nodded her head, her stringy blonde hair shaking, then falling in front of her face, like one of those old beaded curtains, hiding her eyes from me. She was trying not to let me know it hurt. That was fine. She needed to be tougher. It pissed me off when she didn’t answer out loud though.

“Well, do you?”

“Yes, Eli.” Her voice was tiny. She reached across the little fold-down table in the RV’s eating nook and pulled the envelope and the pen to herself. She looked up. “What do I write?”

I almost snapped again. Something inside of me was always screaming. Usually not in words, just white noise that buzzed and irritated and made me want to lash out at everything. But sometimes, like now, I knew exactly what it was saying. It wanted me to hit her, to hurt her, to make that stupid, whiny voice shut the hell up—but I didn’t. I needed to make this work and like it or not, that meant I needed Amber.

“Whatever you want,” I told her. “Just so it looks like a real address.”

“But not a really real one?”

“No, dummy! My God!” I stomped across the length of the RV and pulled open the little closet where I kept my clothes. “You want ’em to actually mail it? Just write whatever. Put one-two-three Main Street, Any-fucking-place, USA for all I care.”

I shrugged out of my t-shirt and slipped into the white, long-sleeved, button-up shirt Ma made me wear to church. It was a little wrinkled, but it would still look decent enough. I thought about the last time I wore it, that last weekend to home. Never again would I have to waste an hour of my Sunday in some stuffy room listening to an old fart mumble about Jesus this and salvation that. It made me smile, thinking about how I was free now.

Amber’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Eli, you know it’s been a month?”

The smile died.

I finished buttoning up my shirt. “So what?”

“I miss Mama and Punkin.” Her mangy old cat. “After this, can we go home? Haven’t you had enough?”

“Hell, no!” I snapped, turning in time to see Amber flinch. It excited part of me, knowing I had that kind of power over her. That guilty itch flared up too though. I took a deep breath. “You wanna go back and live in that fucking shacky little house, waiting tables or working at Walmart and hoping whoever eventually knocks you up marries you?”

Her face scrunched up, like a little kid trying not to cry. It didn’t work. The tears started crawling down her cheeks. I hadn’t noticed before, but her cheeks were sunken and the skin had a yellowish tint to it. Her mouth was small and red and pulled tight like a fist. Its color was weird against the tone of her skin. She didn’t look good at all. She didn’t look healthy. Had she always looked like this?

A whole month though. She was right. I guess I didn’t realize ’til then how long it had really been.

This story appears in our MAR 2021 Issue
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Reader Discussion

The story was well written and the ending with Amber outsmarting Eli was great. However, I don't enjoy reading mysteries where there is child abuse. That part was a downer for me. But again, kudos to the writer for a well written story
By Frances Dunn

Frances, just FYI, they're both adults. There are no children in the story.
By Brandon Barrows

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