For a Handful of Crowns by Milo James Fowler

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(originally published in Linger Fiction, February 2011)

Narrated by Bob Eccles


Jennifer’s eyes reminded him of cheese. Something about the way they oozed cream while she argued her point, like they were liquefying and he had to quick find some tortilla chips while the stuff was fresh. Organic nacho cheese sauce straight from the source—

Are you even listening to me? she demanded with both hands.

He nodded. But he hadn’t caught all of it. We go in one at a time, he signed back.

She sighed, nearing yet another exasperation point. He seemed to have that effect on her. We go in when I say we go in. She wiped at her cheeks, smearing yellow. Disgusted, she scrubbed her fingers into the shag carpet beneath her knees.

Such a waste. He could almost taste the stuff, warm and thick, filling his mouth.

She saw him lick his lips.

Pervert, she signed.

He looked away, down a linoleum hallway gleaming under full moonlight from an open window—the one they had jimmied open moments before.

She slapped at his arm, so hard it stung. Pay attention!

He focused on her. But his stomach growled. She always had that effect on him.

It’s just like Watergate—we get in, get out. We only take what’s ours. She bugged out her eyes to make her point.

This wasn’t like Watergate. Not at all. Hadn’t she seen the news? But he didn’t correct her. It was dark and cold and spooky in here, and she was the boss. The older woman, the college freshman. He would do what she said. And just maybe she’d let him taste the delicious cream streaking her cheeks after they were done here.

She shoved him forward. Go! she gestured.

He scrambled into the hallway on hands and knees. It was all he could do—all any of them could do now. Everybody in the country, ever since that big green gas cloud from the Soviets. No more walking, just crawling around on hands and knees like overgrown babies. No more shoe stores even. No need for them.

But the air was better down here. This whole place reeked of arthritis ointments on wrinkled joints and urine that had soaked and then dried inside old mattress pads.

He turned back to sign quickly, Which room?

Eyes bulging, she shot an index finger toward the first one on the right.

Okay, he nodded. She didn’t have to be so rude. It wasn’t like anybody was going to catch them in the act here. The patrol van had already coasted by ten minutes ago and wouldn’t be back for at least another hour. But he had to admit, this cloak-and-dagger stuff sure was fun.

There were two beds in the room, each with its own chair for the occasional visitor. But no family members had been in here for a long while. Not since the last time Jennifer—

She grabbed hold of his ear and jerked him around to face her. You got them? she signed.

He nodded. They were in his pocket, digging into his groin. He licked his lips again—he couldn’t help it. All he could think of were nachos smothered in steaming cheese sauce, and there were her cheeks, smeared with the stuff, tempting him beyond his ability to bear it. He wanted to lick her, bite her, tear into her flesh with all his teeth and devour her face.

Show me, she signed.

He reached down and tugged out the pair of needle-nosed pliers.

Good. She nodded. She inclined her head toward the bed above them. Get to it.

Why did he always have to be the one? Because you’re stronger, she’d told him the last time. Maybe he was. His upper torso anyway, strong enough to haul himself up onto this bed and drag his numb, useless legs behind, straddling the rigid body beneath the thin sheet and quilted coverlet.

He took a moment to steady himself, gazing down at the hollow face. Skin dry and stretched tight. Eyes closed, in perfect peace. Petrified, thanks to those Soviet bastards and that green cloud of theirs that ended the Cold War. All the old people here were like this one now.

His grandfather.

Pliers in hand, he went to work.


Gold always made Jennifer happy. Her eyes would dance and sparkle and the cheese and the cream would vanish from sight for a little while. He sighed, watching her count out the crowns and teeth he’d pried loose in the palm of her hand.

Is it enough? he signed, but she didn’t see him.

He didn’t care. It was enough to see her smile.

She giggled—at least, he thought she did. He could almost remember what her laugh had sounded like. Before the cloud. Before the Soviets’ gift of deafening silence for every American.

She pocketed the valuable collection as he had pocketed the pliers, and on hands and knees she started away from the untended overgrowth that once had been acres of manicured lawns surrounding Seven Oaks Nursing Home.

Coming? she signed back at him, halting mid-crawl in the cracked, vacant street.

He nodded, scrambling after her. The gold in her pocket had to be enough to bribe some bread and eggs—and maybe even a bag of tortilla chips—from the Sector Commandant. Chekhov was his name.

He’d smiled down at them the last time they’d groveled before his mighty tree-trunk legs. He hadn’t asked any questions, just taken the gold crowns and pocketed them for himself. And he’d given them free reign of the Sector Commissary for a full two minutes while he looked the other way, swigging a special vodka mixed with Nixon’s blood.

Jennifer led the way now, and her young boyfriend followed, feeling the pliers dig into his groin with every shift of his knees across the asphalt. But he didn’t really notice.

Because Jennifer’s eyes were looking like cheese again.

And he licked his lips, knowing there would be nachos tonight.


AUTHOR BIO: Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day, writer by night. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 25 publications, including Daily Science Fiction, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and The Best of Every Day Fiction. Stop by anytime: