Backfire

by Gerald E. Sheagren


The 1952 pickup shook, rattled and rolled down the back road, its exhaust spewing great clouds of gray smoke. Scabs of rust had spread across its body like leprosy, fifty years of weather having turned its once candy-apple red finish to a sickly salmon pink. The tires were nearly bald, the driver’s window a cobweb of cracks. Hidden behind an old bedspread in the rear was an AR-15 rifle, a sawed-down pump shotgun and dozens of boxes of ammunition. An old kewpie doll with wide eyes and painted lips dangled from the rearview mirror.

The driver was a short, scrawny guy with the unlikely name of Delbert Ripple. Tattoos festooned his spindly arms, stretching from his shoulders clear down to his wrists. Amongst them were a Roger Rabbit, a fire-breathing dragon, assorted knives and daggers, and a rattlesnake coiled through the empty eye sockets of a skull. There was a pin and ink letter on each finger of his right hand, which, together, spelled out the word DOOM. His gaunt, sunken-eyed face held only a tad more flesh than the skull on his arm. The ash of a half-smoked cigarette was threatening to drop into his lap.

His twin brother, Albert, was slumped in the passenger’s seat, finishing off what was left of a bag of Doritos. Finished, he blew up the bag and popped it, sending crumbs flying around the cab.

“Dammit to hell, Al. Why’d you do a dumb-ass thing like that?”

“’Cause I frigging felt like it, that’s why.” Albert fumbled around under the seat and came up with a package of Hostess Twinkies. “We better come across a convenience store right quick. I’m damn near out of snacks.”

Delbert stared morosely at the Kansas farmlands; a patchwork of greens and tans and browns for as far as the eye could see. There was nothing but corn, soy beans and wheat, wheat, soy beans and corn.

“Yeah, right, sure. What are the chances of coming across a convenience store out in these boondocks?” Del barked a laugh. “And if we did, it probably wouldn’t sell nothing but wheat bran and corn chips.”

Al rearranged his scrawny butt, trying to avoid the broken springs. “When you killed that old man, back there, I wish to hell he was driving a Caddy instead of this hunk of junk.”

“Oh, sure, wouldn’t that be great. Two rednecks like us driving around in some Caddy. Now that would catch the eye of every cop in the state.”

“And this shit-box won’t? It’s a violation on four wheels.”

“You know, Mom was right about you. You’re nothing but a spoiled little whiner.”

“The old bitch always liked you better.”

They passed a small town that contained nothing more than a tractor dealership, four houses, three trailers and a grain elevator.

“Hell and damn,” hissed Delbert, “we just buzzed through Hootersville. The Shady Rest must be up ahead.”

“The Shady what?”

“The Shady Rest, bunghole. Don’t you remember Petticoat Junction?” Del cleared his throat and began to sing: “And there’s Uncle Joe, he’s a-movin’ kinda slow at the Junction.”

“Hey, is that the one with those hot babes? Bobbie Joe, Betty Joe and whatever Joe?”

“You got it, bro.”

“Mom never let me watch TV, not like you did.”

“C’mon, man. Cut the poor brother crap.”

Dusk was approaching, painting the horizon with purple, rose and pink. A possum scuttled from the underbrush and raised itself on its haunches, startled by the headlights. Del gunned the gas and hit it straight on, the body thumping along the undercarriage.

“Woweee, Del! You really nailed that sucker.”

“Road pizza. Maybe I should stop and you can catch yourself a snack.”

“You are totally...” Al stopped short, leaning forward and squinting into the distance. “Hey, man, hey! I think that’s a... Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a convenience store!”

“Should I stop?”

“What a stupid frigging question. Yeah, man you should definitely stop.” Albert opened the glove compartment and pulled out his .357 Magnum. “It’s my turn to pop the clerk.”

“No way, it’s my turn.”

“Bull crap! You got the last one back in Missouri. Where in the hell was it, Joplin?”

“Okay, okay, now I remember. It was that little old lady right between the eyes. Her false teeth sailed out and nearly caught me in the noggin.”

Delbert eased the pickup to the side of the road and they sat for a few minutes, casing the joint. There were six gas pumps in all with hundreds of insects swirling around the halogen lights. The usual ice chest, air pump and oil can racks. Not a single car was in the lot.

Albert released the cylinder of his .357 and spun it around to make certain it was loaded. No cars. The clerk must have hoofed it in, or maybe he or she is going to get a ride. He flipped the cylinder closed with a flick of his wrist. “Looks like a cinch to me.”

“I don’t like the word ‘cinch’. Remember that time outside of Tulsa with the state cop?”

“We took care of him lickety-split. I stitched his nice, spiffy uniform like a Singer sewing machine.”

“Still, it was too damn close for me.”

“Who’s the whiner now? C’mon, let’s get this show on the road. I don’t want to celebrate my birthday here.”

Letting out a slow hiss of breath, Del drove the pickup across the parking lot and around to the back of the store. He sat there for a few moments, listening to the chirping of crickets. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something didn’t seem quite right. A chill coursed down his spine to nestle in that little hollow just above his butt.

“Maybe we should pass on this one, Al. My sixth sense is acting up.”

“Well, your sixth sense isn’t worth two cents.”

Albert clambered out, reaching under the bedspread in the back for a pair of wire cutters. Skirting the rear of the building, he located the phone line and gave it a snip. He motioned to his reluctant brother and they marched around to the front of the building.

It had gotten darker, the fields across the road lost in shadows. The only activity was the horde of insects churning around the lighting sounding to Del like an orchestra of tuning forks. Somewhere in the distance, a dog let out a long, mournful howl.

Albert tucked the .357 into his belt, covering with his denim jacket, and they entered the store, a small bell tinkling over the doorway. An Oriental woman looked up from her magazine behind the counter, offered them a quick smile and returned to her reading.

It was the usual setup; racks of candy up front, four aisles of basics and the coolers at the back. Albert wasted little time in heading out in search of snacks, leaving Del to wonder why in the hell the store was so cold. Frigid would be a better word. He huffed and saw his breath in the air.

“Hey, lady.”

The woman’s head jerked up, a brow raised in question. “Yes?”

“Why’s it so darn awful cold in here? I got goose bumps for crying-out-loud.”

“Trouble with air conditioning,” was all she said, her eyes giving him a quick once-over before returning to the magazine.

Del squinted, searching his memory bank. The woman looked familiar, too darn familiar. He had seen her somewhere, some time in the not too distant past. But he couldn’t be absolutely certain. After all, Orientals all looked the same to him.

“Hey, Del!” shouted his brother. “Don’t just stand there like a statue. We got things to do, here.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.” Del made his way down one of the aisles, rubbing his arms to keep warm. “Man, it’s as cold as Antarctica in here.”

“Still griping, huh?”

“And Susie Wong, up there, looks awful familiar to me. A bad familiar.”

Rolling his eyes, Al opened a cooler and grabbed a container of milk. Twisting off its lid, he took a long gulp, suddenly gagging and spewing the milk against the glass door of the cooler.

“Eeeeccchhh! What is this shit?” He turned the container upside down and stared in disbelief as a green cottage-cheese-like substance oozed out and plopped to the floor. “What the hell’s the date on this crap?”

“C’mon, Al, we have got to get out of here. This place doesn’t feel right to me.”

“Just hold your water. I’ve got to get my snacks. They probably just overlooked this milk, is all.”

“Yeah, just like God overlooked giving you a brain.”

“All I need is five minutes,” whispered Al, craning his neck to see if they had attracted any attention. Satisfied that the clerk was still deep in her magazine, he gave Del a small shove and held up a hand, wiggling its digits. “Just give me five frigging minutes.”

Sighing in frustration, Del strolled over to the magazine and newspaper rack, heart thudding and chilled to the bone. After thumbing through a magazine, he turned his attention to the newspapers and saw immediately that something was wrong, terribly wrong.

They were all yellowed with age and from a number of far-flung cities: the Des Moines Register, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the Kansas City Star, the Tulsa World, the San Antonio Express-News. A convenience store in the boonies wouldn’t carry all those editions, and old ones by the looks.

Frowning, he picked up the News-Sentinel and the bold headlines screamed at him: “Young Clerk Killed In Tragic Holdup.” Throwing it aside, he snatched up the World and there it was, front and center: “State Policeman Slain In The Line Of Duty.” Holy shit! These newspapers were recounting each and every one of their robberies and murders! And, then, he spotted the Oriental woman’s smiling face on the front page of the Little Rock Democrat-Gazette: “Part-Time College Student Executed During Late Night Robbery.”

“Albert, get your butt over here, now! Come here, come here, quick!”

“What’s the problem now? Keep your voice down.”

“Look at this shit! You are not going to believe this!”

Albert wandered over, taking his time, tearing open the top of a bag of cheese twists. “Your imagination is running amok, bro.” Reaching into the bag for a cheese twist, he instead came up with a big, fat worm, squirming in his fingers. What the hell! he shouted, tossing it aside and dropping the bag, releasing dozens more worms to slither across the floor.

“This is the frigging Twilight Zone!” screeched Del, reaching inside his jacket and yanking a revolver from his shoulder holster. “I’ll plug the bitch and grab the cash then we get out of here, pronto!”

His bullet struck the woman in the forehead making a squishing sound and exited the back of her head to pulverize a pack of cigarettes. She smiled at him as if it was nothing more than a mosquito bite. “Good shot, Delbert. You a reg’lar Annie Oakley.”

Whimpering in terror, Del dashed for the front door. But no matter how hard he tugged it wouldn’t open. Cursing, he kicked the glass with his boot over and over and over again but the glass failed to shatter, the little overhead bell tinkling frantically.

“Del, follow me! There’s a back door!”

As they made a panicked flight down one of the aisles, all hell broke loose. Caps popped off soda bottles, sending geysers of hissing liquid high into the air. Bags of potato chips and pretzels started to bulge and dance crazily on the shelves, their entrapped occupants struggling to break free. A jar of Spanish olives fell and smashed on the floor, fat green beetles scurrying in every direction. A box of macaroni started to tremble, swarms of maggots rolling behind its clear plastic window. The lights began to flicker, threatening to plunge the store into darkness.

Figuring escape was only a few feet away, the two brothers skidded to a stop, alarmed by a strange scuffling noise coming from the back room. A putrid stench suddenly invaded the air.

“Oh man, oh man,” warbled Del, taking a quick step back, his stricken eyes as big as saucers. “What the hell, now?”

The lights flickered, went out for a few seconds, and flashed back on.

“You were right, Del! You were right.” Albert started to gag, easing back the hammer of his .357. “This place is... is...”

And then they shuffled around the corner; a dozen terrible sights with worm-infested skin, empty eyes sockets and soiled clothes. The leader, a tall corpse with gray, moldering skin and oozing lesions, stepped forward, a baggy blue dress uniform with silver badge draped over his decomposing body.

“Howdy, boys,” it croaked. “Remember me: Officer Gordon Hodges from Tulsa, Oklahoma. You shot me dead in my tracks and there I was a loving husband and father of three.” The corpse stepped closer, dried skin flaking off and falling to the floor. Well, what goes around, comes around. It’s time to pay the piper.

“I... I... I didn’t shoot you,” stammered Albert. “It was brother, here, Delbert. He’s the one who shot you.”

“You lying sack of shit,” screamed Del. “You popped him, Al, and you were proud of it.”

“No sense quibbling, b’hoys. You’re both going to hell on a roller coaster.”

Del heard the fanatical tinkling of a bell and turned to see his brother once again struggling to open the front door screaming and kicking and pounding the glass with his fist. The Oriental woman, who had transformed into one of the walking dead, was shuffling in his direction, a grotesque mewling sound coming from her ruined throat.

Del started to run toward the woman, emptying his revolver as he went. Each shot passed through her and struck his brother in the back. Albert slowly slid to the floor, leaving a long smear of blood down the glass of the door.

“No, no, no! Al, I didn’t mean to! Oh, please, no!”

In his haste, Del slipped on one of the green beetles, hitting the floor hard and striking his head against some shelving. Before he could recover and react, the victims of his past were upon him.

* * *

Officer Malloy spotted the old pickup parked out in a soy bean field and slammed on his brakes, swerving to the side of the road. It resembled the truck in the APB to a T. Scrambling from the cruiser, he pulled his automatic and slowly approached the vehicle, his eyes trying to dart in every direction at once. The old man who had owned the truck was dead and his killers were reported to be armed and dangerous.

The driver’s door screeched open on rusty hinges and he peered inside, taking in the empty junk food bags, candy wrappers and crumpled cigarette packs. There came the strong odor of whiskey and body sweat. He walked around to the bed and flipped aside the bedspread, exposing the small arsenal that had been hidden beneath. Sucking in an excited breath, he retraced his steps to the cruiser and snatched the mike from the radio.

“Dorothy, are you there?” he panted, ignoring the usual call number and jargon. “Dorothy, pick up!”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here, Todd. What’s up? You sound a little out of the ordinary.”

“I found that old pickup in the APB, sitting out in Tom Prescott’s soy bean field. There’s nobody around as far as I can see. You better get hold of the state boys, real quick, and send them out here.”

“Roger that. Be careful.”

Malloy was heading back to the truck when he spotted the .357 Magnum lying on the ground. Taking out his pen, he carefully picked up the weapon by its trigger guard. Squinting his eyes against the sun, he surveyed the surrounding soy bean field, which seemed to go on forever.

Where you at? he asked himself. Where the hell are you off to?


Copyright © 2006 by Gerald E. Sheagren

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