Elaine Chekich
ACCIDENTAL ROOMMATES

I hardly knew Quibble when I started sleeping on his couch. We’d served under Lt. Pablo in Afghanistan, but mostly we were on different details and didn’t hang much. Lt. Pablo was a hero in living color, a guy with stormy eyebrows and careful hands, a good guy whose voice soared when he talked about his pregnant girlfriend; he couldn’t wait to marry her and bounce the baby on his knee. There were times he covered soldiers with his own body. I know, I was one of them. He loved to say everything was connected, you, me, and everybody. We had to look out for each other. One day on a dusty road, orange flames blasted out under our Humvee, and Lt. Pablo’s face melted off the bone.

I’m a girl from a small town in Southern California. Duarte’s a splat of a place off the freeway, moving east from Los Angeles. It used to be fields of alfalfa, lettuce, and cows. The only famous person I ever heard of from Duarte was the writer Sam Shepard. He was cool and got out. I didn’t want this life, sucking cow methane, making out in lettuce fields, cruising Main Street with boys wally-fighting over the homecoming queen. After high school, I joined the Army during one of their see-the-world hypes. I wound up in Afghanistan, and that’s all I ever saw.

After twenty months deployed, the Army shipped me home messed up on opioids and antidepressants. I heard voices, witchy voices calling my name – Tracy, help us, help, listen – and there were shrill doorbells. I’d weave to answer the door, but nothing was there except a whistling breeze. I tried to detox, but between the sweating and falling into walls, and the electric jolts that blasted my head – brainzaps, they call them – I walked like a cat with burned paws.

Mom was super sick, too, when I got back. Some mystery virus spreading around the world. When she got sicker, the hospital wouldn’t let me come inside. I had to look at her through the window like she was in the zoo. The day she passed away, I couldn’t move. I kept saying, but she’s my mom.

I boxed her things, odds and ends really, like her life. I found a royal blue all-weather Columbia shirt I’d bought her for the hot inland summers. Mom loved it and wore that shirt for years. Now it wrapped photos of her and my dad in Wyoming before I walked the earth. Their eyes were gauzy with love, caught in the photo’s time-trap. I stuffed the shirt and photos into my duffel bag.

I took the rest to the Salvation Army and gave her black cat, Magic, to her whiskey-ruined boyfriend. I couldn’t take the cat with me because I was running off to Hollywood, twenty-five miles away, to rub shoulders with the zany and picturesque. I’d read that last part on a blog. Wearing my Army fatigues, a tank top, and Ray-Bans clamped on my face, I skateboarded the tinsel-town streets, tears streaming out of my shades.

It was a town of disguises: Bat Man, Ant Man, Iron Man, Jurassic dinosaurs, and the Smoking Vagina (a 6-foot labia costume with an apparatus that blew cigarette smoke out of her southerly bits). I figured I fit right in.

Drifting, slamming tequilas, I forgot to pay the rent on my cubbyhole apartment. One night I got hammered and flushed my veteran papers down the toilet, but they clogged up the plumbing and flooded the downstairs apartment. The landlord threw me out, and I was like, oh gee, I’m homeless. Lt. Pablo would have called it a direct result of everything being connected, cause-and-effect, soldier.

I went to one of my cantinas, hoping they’d run a tab. Somebody started yelling and whistling, “Yo Tracy, girlfriend, over here!” It was Quibble. I hadn’t seen him since Lt. Pablo was killed. He always had this sloppy, crooked grin. He pounded my back and shoved a tequila in my hand. “What’re you doing in Hollywood?”

“Trying to get my head straight.”

“Whoa, this ain’t the place, dude. But there’s great things to do. I’m going to film school. Can you believe it?” He loved the college right on Sunset Boulevard—it was legit, with classes and real professors. “Your vet benefits pay for it. Who doesn’t want to make movies, right?” His eyes turned high-beam on me. “You need a place to crash?”

So, we became accidental roommates. Quibble, fair-haired, tallish, always joking, like when he said I should favor him with blow jobs in exchange for the hours I logged on his couch. “In your dreams, bro,” I laughed. I didn’t believe in sex anymore. It was too territorial, like war.

He nagged me to sign up for the school, and finally, I did. In the mornings I loved to skateboard through the primary colors that shimmered and fractured under the Hollywood sun. My favorite slope was the Vine and Yucca intersection. I’d jump on my board, nose down at a forty-five-degree angle, and dive forward, ripping past the Capitol Records building, a long shot down to Sunset, maneuvering traffic and the swarm of Scientology peeps.

*

Today when I blow into the intersection, it feels spooky. A driver hangs out of his red Mercedes sports car, his white shirt bright with blood. Pop-pop-pop, and plugs of asphalt whip at my face. Automatic fire. What kind of Taliban shit is this? Pedestrians scatter like spilled rice. I spot a massive boy on a corner shooting an automatic rifle. He wears a ballistics vest with 9mm pistols jammed in his waistband. His small face on top of a big body looks cartoony, his mouth twisted. The hairs on my arms bristle. I stomp on my board and charge toward the school, a block away.

Students and faculty run wild in the lobby. The security guards, not young guys, sweat and fumble with keys to lock the double glass doors and street windows. I scramble up the stairs to the third-floor Admin. It has a recessed entryway with fancy columns. Inside, staff and students huddle. A black girl I know from recording stands up. Cyndie crosses and closes her petal-soft palms over my hand, her lips trembling. She’s nineteen, smart, but she takes a lot of crap from the recording boys. They feel her up and snatch her equipment. Pukey little bastards. She earns my respect when she finally slaps a groper boy out of his chair.

“It’ll be okay, Cyn.” But I’m lying. Battles are based on lies; otherwise, nobody would fight them.

Quibble appears, panting. “Dude, there’s a corpse on Vine. I hadda sprint from Trader Joe’s!” We hear automatic fire shatter the windows downstairs. Folks around us hold their breath with orphaned faces.

Quibble and I trade looks. Without speaking, we somehow agree we’re not letting this guy take us out, or anybody else. We ransack the desks, grabbing scissors, ripping them apart, and wrapping the handles with duct tape to turn them into makeshift knives.

Cyndie pulls a Mace canister from her bag. “Does this help?”

“Damned straight it does.” Her soft eyes look almost happy. “Let’s move, Quibble.” Don’t leave us, people cry. Cyndie tries to follow. “Stay put! Pile furniture in front of the door.”

Quibble and I hunker against the wall. Time passes like mud. He whispers, “I didn’t have a migraine, that day I was supposed to patrol with Pablo. I was scared. I went to sick bay. You stayed with him, Trace. You’re a hero. I’ve wanted to tell you that.”

What I am is chickenshit. When the Lieutenant combusted in that frying Hummer, I bolted through the blown-out side and didn’t look back. I never told anybody. I liked being admired. Why did I have to tell anybody anything? At least I was there for Mom when she had Covid, when she was dying; I did that right. I kept my word on that.

Killer-Kid swings into the entryway with bleached eyes. We leap up, whooping, hitting him with our rinky knives. I try for his throat, but I’m too short. We’re clawing for the rifle. His body gives off a sour smell, like stale cotton candy. “I’ll kill ‘ewe!” he brays.

Cyndie skids up suddenly. What doesn’t she understand about staying put? She starts spraying her Mace around, and we gag and cough. The kid slobbers. I want to run, but instead I whirl behind him and swipe his legs with the scissors. He howls and crashes to the floor. All of us wrestle in a tight ball, flinging spit and sweat. In a fight for your life, there is nothing else. You don’t re-run bad images or trash yourself about what you can’t change. There’s no way out except to finish it.

As we roll and thrash, men in black helmets rush into the entryway, weapons flashing. A SWAT guy slams his boot down on Killer-Kid’s bicep. He pitches away the automatic rifle and tears guns out of the kid’s pants. Another officer gouges a heel into Quibble’s neck. They toss me around, searching for weapons. I black out.

*

Me, Quibble, and Cyndie made it out. Quibble broke his pinky finger but said he didn’t use it for anything important, so no big deal. I heard they carted Killer-Kid away on a stretcher. The news lit up the school, that’s for sure. They gave us scholarships, and I’m learning to make movies too.

I still skateboard, brainzapping along, dodging the fallen, homeless bodies that pee all over the streets of Hollywood. Quibble and me have beers, and I laugh at his corny come-ons. At different angles, he’s a half-decent-looking guy.

We’re going to make a film about Lt. Pablo, so we can show the world the kind of hero he was. He’s made me realize more heroes exist than I ever thought. Someday I’ll tell his daughter what an important man he was. He believed everything was connected—you, me. Everybody.


Elaine ChekichElaine Chekich writes fiction, personal essays, and screenplays. Her short story, “Accidental Roommates,” has special meaning for her as she experienced an active shooter situation at a college where she taught. Her up-close observations motivated her to explore the themes of crisis and redemption in a uniquely personal way. Her fiction has been published in IHRAF Magazine, the anthology I Matter Too (vol. 2 & 3), and shortlisted by Bombay Literary Magazine and the NY Stage and Filmmakers Workshop (2019). Her story “Princess and the Infidel” placed in the Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writers Association, 2022). Elaine received her BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and her Master’s in Cinema Studies, Theory, and Criticism from New York University.

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