Categories
Fiction Horror

Jericho

April 17, 1968.

First they lined us all up and made us get on our knees with our hands behind our heads. 

Momma asked if she could keep her hands out in front to pray and the big man said no, so she put her hands behind her head too and she tried not to look over at us, but I was looking at her real hard when the little man fired the gun at her. Then I closed my eyes tight and I heard two more bangs and I fell over after the third one.

They shot Momma right in the head, and that’s where they shot Daddy and my brother, too. When the little man aimed at me he must’ve looked away because it just hit the side of my cheek and ripped it open. I wanted to holler, but instead I fell down like Momma did and tried my best not to move. 

The big man came over and took Momma’s necklace that Daddy gave her last Christmas. He used his shotgun to lift up her skirt, then put it back down. 

The little man walked over to Daddy and took off his shirt and his wristwatch. They didn’t come near me or my brother, which was good because I was pretending to be as dead as the rest of them, and I’m no good at pretending. I should have waited real long after they left before I got up, but my cheek was smarting something fierce and I figured they might come back. 

I walk over to Momma to check that she was really dead and she really was dead. I didn’t have to check Daddy or my brother ’cause I could tell.

They’d taken us to the woods, but not far from the road where they’d found us. By the time I got up, the little man and big man had walked back out there to our car where the thin man was waiting. Then the three of them started going through our stuff and I turned away.

I was crying and I was going to start running as hard as I could when this funny-looking kid grabs my arm.

“You be quiet now,” the kid says. “Lemme get a look at you.”

He brings out a handkerchief and licks it and starts dabbing at my face with it and it smarts. While he’s doing that I look into his eyes to try to see if he’s friendly. I can’t tell right away. His eyes are green and they stand out from the rest of his face. His cheekbones are real big and they’re up high like Frank Sinatra’s, except he doesn’t look much like Frank Sinatra otherwise. His hair is a rusty color and his skin is dusty and yellow. He looks strong but a little too thin for his age. He reminds me of a stray dog that followed me home (back when I still went to school). Momma said it was a pitbull and Daddy said it had worms, and neither one of them wanted it in the house.

The boy has got overalls on and no shirt underneath, and he concentrates real hard when he’s batting at you with his handkerchief. You can tell right away he don’t touch girls much, not because he’s rough but because he’s way too careful like I’m gonna break apart in his hands. 

I don’t break and he gets done batting at me. He looks out at the road and I can tell he’s scared, and that makes me think that maybe he’s friendly.

“You stay quiet,” he says. “Come this way.” 

I turn to follow him and I watch my step to stay quiet like he told me. He ain’t as quiet as me. He steps on sticks and they crack under him but he doesn’t pay it much mind. 

He looks down at Momma when we pass by her and his face looks cold, and I start to wonder again if he’s friendly, and I start making plans for what I could do if he ain’t friendly. I notice he’s carrying an old rifle in his big dusty hands and I wonder if he’d had it out the whole time. He uses it like a walking stick or a machete, pushing back the branches of the prickly bushes or putting it against the ground when he needs some extra help climbing. A few times he puts the barrel-end right into the ground and I wonder if the gun even shoots anymore. 

We walk through the woods for a long time before he talks again.

It feels like hours but that’s mostly cause my cheek is smarting bad. I wipe it with my sleeve and there’s a lot of blood. A few bugs start following me and landing on my cheek and I have to shoo them away, which bothers me worse than the smarting or the blood.

“Where are we going?” I finally ask, and he turns to me and I think he’s gonna shush me like Daddy would. Instead he just gives me a look like you’re still here? We’re deeper in the woods now, and in this light, his eyes seem more hazel than green. They still look odd. They’re deep in his head and they dart around like flies caught in a mason jar.

“I ain’t decided yet.”

“Then who are you, then?”

“Somebody.”

“That ain’t a name. What’s your name?”

A bug lands on his face and he screws up his nose a bit to get it off. When he scrunches his nose, he looks even more like that old dog with the worms. 

“A lot of power in a name,” he says. “Don’t think I’m telling you mine ‘til I know yours.”

“I’m Julie,” I say. I’m lying, because what Somebody said about names seemed true enough to me and I don’t have a lot of cards left to hold onto. 

“How old are you?”

“11,” I lie. I’m actually 12 and a half, almost 13, but I figure if he thinks I’m still a little girl he might be nicer to me.

“Ain’t safe on these roads, ‘specially if you got a car. What were you all doing out here?”

“We was going somewhere else,” I tell him. “Mighty good reason to be on the road, I’d say.”

That shuts Somebody up, which makes me uneasy because I want him talking. We keep moving, and I keep feeling uneasy, so I try to get on his nerves the way I can with my brother.

“You ask a lot of questions,” I say. “You fancy yourself an Ark Linkletter or something?”

“Art,” he says and he smiles big and I see that his teeth are a little too small. “Not Ark.” 

“Well, you’re neither one of ‘em.”

He smiles more but he doesn’t say nothing else, so I don’t press him. The ground is dry but the air is humid, and I have to breathe hard to keep up with Somebody’s pace. Pretty soon, we get to the edge of the woods and there’s a big open field out in front of us. He starts walking into it, so I do too. 

“You decide where we’re going?” I ask. I try not to let him hear that I’m nervous but I’m bad at pretending. 

“I got an idea,” he says, and I can tell he’s not keen on saying much else. My forehead’s sweaty and my hair falls down in front of my eyes, so I push it back up. I notice he’s looking at me so I try to keep him talking.

“Did you know those men?”

“I don’t know their names,” he says. “I wish I did. But they’s always out here.”

He looks at his gun and his Adam’s apple moves like he’s swallowing air, then he looks back at me. 

“They did my folks like they did yours, ‘cept they didn’t try to shoot me. If they did, I would’ve…”

His voice is uneven and I feel like I just heard something come off-kilter inside him. Something that was loose and wobbly to begin with. But when he talks again, he’s back together and sounds like he did before.

“Well, I probably would’ve died, if I’m honest. He only missed you because he’s weak. He didn’t want to look you in the eyes when he did it. He hasn’t been with the other two for long.” 

All of what he says goes in one ear and out the other, because I’m starting to feel like my head is on fire, and I’m most thankful that we’ve stopped moving so I can catch my breath. I decide I don’t care too much about the three men and why they did what they did, provided I can get away from them and stay away. 

“So where are we going?” I say.

“Middle of this field,” Somebody says, and I get uneasy at the way he says it. He starts walking again and I follow him.

We get to the middle of the field and he turns toward me and he points the gun at me, except now he’s holding it like a real gun and not like a walking stick or a machete. 

“What did you say your name was?” he says.

“Julie,” I say again. 

“Julie,” he says, “You got anything of value on you?”

“No,” I says, and my heart is beating so hard I can feel it in my head. 

“That’s a shame,” he says. He lowers the gun a little. “You gotta learn, Julie, that there ain’t nice people in this world.”

“You seem nice,” I say, and I mean it to be sarcastic, and he takes it that way and laughs. 

“There ain’t nice people, and Jesus don’t protect you when things go wrong.”

“Okay,” I say. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t really care about Jesus.

“You believe in kindness, Julie? After what you seen today?”

“I don’t give it much thought.” I say, and it’s the truth.

He tips the barrel of the gun up towards the sky. 

“You start thinking on it,” he says, and he keeps walking into the field. I don’t know what else to do so I follow him. 


We come to an old two-story house.

These days all houses are old, but this one’s real old. It looks like something I saw in a Vincent Price film. There’s a rickety porch and all the windows are broken. Some scraps of blue paint are hanging onto the wood and part of the roof has caved in.

When we’re close, Somebody tells me to get down on the ground, and I do, and so does he. We lay there for a few minutes and he just stares at it. Then he gets up and he opens the door and we walk inside. 

The house has big, high ceilings and there’s a chain where a chandelier used to hang. I know that ‘cause there’s some broken glass on the floor, and the metal part of the chandelier is sitting up against a big staircase with three or four missing stairs. 

We’re standing in what Momma would call a living room, but it don’t seem like much of a place for living. A big blue chair sits in one corner but it has orange stains on it and I don’t want to sit on it. 

There’s a little bookshelf with no books. There’s a little fireplace with no fire. There’s a coffee table, and plenty of open cans of food laying all around it. I wonder if there’s more food somewhere, cause I’m starting to get hungry in spite of myself, but Somebody speaks up before I could ask.

“We ain’t got girl clothes,” he says, “and you can’t wear none of mine.”

His eyes are darting around again. He looks at me, and I don’t feel any kindness coming from him. 

“It looks like you ain’t even wearing none of yours,” I say, on account of how he’s got no shirt under his overalls. He either doesn’t get the joke or he doesn’t think it’s funny. I think about that old dog that followed me home, and I think to myself that I got it wrong in the first place — I’m more like that old dog than he is, and I’m just hoping he doesn’t send me away.

“The sink works. Wash your face and don’t leave any blood in the sink. Be quick because we don’t got too much time. They’ll be back soon.”

I feel like I’m cold all of the sudden and I think about asking who’s gonna be back soon, but I already know and it don’t make much sense to ask dumb questions. So I go to the sink and I wash my face like he said to, and I walk back to the not-so-much-a-living room.

“Turn around,” he says. I do. 

“Turn back around,” he says. I do, and the bookshelf is gone, and instead there’s a little narrow place big enough for a person to fit through. 

“My poppa built it,” he says, and he seems proud. 

“It’s nice,” I lie.

He gestures for me to get in, so I do. I always read books about secret passageways hidden in bookshelves, but this isn’t like the ones I read about. Some plaster gets in my hair as I crawl in, and the floor is concrete which hurts my knees. Halfway through, my skirt catches on a nail and tears a little and I curse, and I hear Somebody laugh from behind me. 

The passage opens up after a few twists and turns and I can finally stand up.

It’s pitch black, but Somebody has a kerosene lamp that he lights up, and it gives off enough light to get by on. I look around. We’re in a room that almost isn’t a room — there’s a sleeping bag and a few adventure books on the floor, and not much else. A lightbulb is hanging from the ceiling, which confuses me because Daddy said that houses in the country don’t have electric. In any case, the lightbulb doesn’t seem to work, because Somebody doesn’t even fiddle with it. 

“We’re behind the staircase,” he says. I nod as if that means something to me.

He looks at me hard and I get uncomfortable. His eyes aren’t darting around as much, and they seem bright and green again. 

“Julie,” he says, like he’s trying his lips out for the first time. “It’s a good name.”

“Thank you,” I say. My voice sounds unsteady. 

“You remember what I told you,” he says, real soft. “There ain’t nice people in this world, and Jesus don’t protect you.” 

“I don’t care about Jesus,” I say. My Momma would have hit me for saying that, ‘cept she’s dead, and I mean it. 

He doesn’t look away from me and I feel worried. I’ve read about the things men do to women and little girls. Ravishment, my books called it. 

I look at his face and decide that Somebody isn’t a man. He’s older than me and I’m practically a woman, but he just doesn’t look grown, even though he acts like he is. That doesn’t give me much comfort. One time, I read in the newspaper about some boys who did something bad and it made me cry. I don’t remember what they did, but I remember that I asked Daddy about it and he told me that boys can be the worst parts of men at times. I expect that’s especially the case when they’re playing like they’re already men when they ain’t. 

When I talk again, I talk slow and try to sound strong.

“So, you ain’t nice. You’re gonna hurt me, then?”

He just looks at me for a second, and it occurs to me that he likes that he can make me uncomfortable. 


“No,” he says, finally. “But that don’t make me nice.”

I didn’t like that, so I decided to let him have it. 

“You try anything, you won’t like what happens,” I say. My voice is shaking a little. “You lay a finger on me, I’ll —”

He put his hand over my mouth and I thought for a second that I should bite him, but then I hear other voices from the other side of the wall.

And suddenly, ravishment seems not so bad in the grand scheme of things, because I knew for certain that the three men were in this house with us, and that Somebody expected to do something to them, then probably something to me afterwards. He was playing like a grown-up, and he was good enough at pretending that I’d followed him back to this house and gone along with it. I felt foolish.

“We’re gonna murder ‘em,” Somebody whispered. His face was close to mine, and his breath was hot and made my skin itch. “You hate ‘em as much as I do, I know that. You’re gonna get their attention, and I’m gonna come up behind them and blow off their heads.”

He mimed like he was shooting them, but his hand was shaking and his eyes were buzzing around again. I just nodded. I didn’t want to talk because I thought Somebody was whispering too loud and I was scared that they was gonna hear us. 

I took a long look at Somebody’s gun. I don’t know guns much, but I watched Bonanza way back when the TVs were still playing shows, and I’d never seen a gun like that one. It seemed too thin to put a big hole in someone, and even when you’ve got a proper people-killing gun, they don’t always do the job. I was living proof of that.

So I decide I’m gonna run, first chance I get, and try to find somewhere else to lay low. Probably I’ll die in the woods or the fat man will catch me, but I aim to try.


We wait there for at least an hour and listen to the three men carrying on.

They must have been drinking because they were laughing loud, and after a while they sounded like they were fighting, and I know from reading books that laughing and fighting go along with drinking. I’m keen to let them go on drinking and fighting and laughing, but Somebody gets antsy and he starts motioning to me to go through the secret passageway. 

“Let’s wait for them to go to sleep,” I whisper at him, and he looks at me like I’m the school dunce.

“They each sleep in a different room,” he says, “and they lock their doors, ‘cause they don’t trust one another.” He shakes his head and grinds his teeth together and his temples pop out like boiled eggs. “It has to be now, while they’re in the kitchen. That’s where the booze is. That’s where they’ll stay.”

I try to think of another good reason to let them keep drinking and carrying on, but Somebody’s face gets real hard and his big cheekbones turn to steel. His face seems longer and meaner, and he juts at me with the barrel of the gun, and I know he’s playing serious. 

I start crawling through the passage and I hear him behind me. He put out the kerosene lamp and it’s pitch black. Even though it makes no sense in the dark, I’m worried about him trying to see up my skirt, so I move slower than before. 

I get to the end of the passage and it’s a hard wall ‘cause the bookcase is back in place. I crouch up in a ball and I feel Somebody’s hand on my shoulder. He leans in and whispers at me. 

“Feel for a latch on the upper left side.”

I find the latch and work with it for a minute. It finally opens up and I push against the plaster and the secret passageway is open. I crawl out, but Somebody doesn’t crawl after me right away. 

I look back at him as I stand up. My skirt had bunched up a little and he’s looking at my legs. That makes me mad, so I kick at the bookshelf and it slams him in the face. That’s dumb of me, because it makes a big noise, and the men in the kitchen shout curse words.

I hear them moving, but I’m already flying towards the front door as fast as I can.

I let myself look back and I see that the secret passageway is opening up again. 

The men had left the front door open and I run out it and then I run to the right. I figure I’ll take a wide route back towards the woods and lay down in the tall grass if they get too close.

But I’m not as fast as I think, and the three men are out of the house right away. I lay down in the grass, not 100 feet from the house, my stomach tumbling and tumbling. I try to make myself small.

They don’t see me, but they know I’m close. The little man has a rifle and he shoots into the grass. The shot is nowhere near me, and I don’t jump or holler, which is what I expect he was hoping I’d do.

“Who’s out here?” he yells. His voice is bigger than it should be, but he sounds nervous. 

The thin man walks out to the left of the little man and starts looking at the grass. 

“Don’t fire again,” the thin man says. “Waste of ammunition.”

“It was the little girl,” the fat man says. “The girl from today. I saw her skirt when she ran out. White and blue.” 

“Do you think,” the little man starts to say, but then Somebody runs right up to him and shoots him in the head. 

The gun isn’t as loud as the little man’s gun, but it does the job. The little man falls to the ground and his arm moves in and out like he’s trying to make a snow angel. His mouth opens and shuts slowly, and at some point he dies, but I don’t see that because I’m watching what happens next.

Somebody is screaming. His voice is high and thin and it cuts through the air. It probably buys him a few seconds, because it confuses the fat man. Somebody already shot his gun, so he dives down towards the little man’s gun and grabs it and fires at the fat man, once, twice. The fat man falls down and his body doesn’t move at all. Then Somebody aims towards the thin man, but the thin man shoots him first, right in the stomach. 

The thin man looks down at Somebody. I’m close enough to see the expression on the thin man’s face, except he doesn’t really have much of an expression. He just looks at Somebody, who’s thrashing around and holding his guts in place. The two of them look at each other, and Somebody’s mouth is moving like the little man’s mouth was moving, except different, because Somebody is trying to say something. It doesn’t matter because the thin man puts his shoe on Somebody’s mouth and presses his head to the side. He presses down until Somebody stops moving. 

The thin man wipes his shoe off on the porch and looks out towards the grass, straight at where I’m hiding. I try to push myself deep into the grass, and I grip the cool dirt with my fingers and I breathe as slow as I can and try to pretend that I’m just part of the land. But I’m no good at pretending.

“We killed your family today,” the thin man says. He doesn’t say it like it’s a question and he doesn’t say it like he’s proud of it. 

The wind whips up for a second and dies down. I say nothing. I still don’t think he knows where I am, and I decide that if I’m going to die, at least I’m going to make him look for me.

“Killing isn’t what you think it is,” he continues. “It’s not good or bad. If it were, I expect that God would get involved, in one way or another.”

He looks out slightly to my right, now, and I know he doesn’t see me.

“If you’re going to survive out there, you’re going to have to get used to the facts of it,” he says. “And you’d better get started right away.” 

He looks to the left and the right a bit more, then sits down on the porch. He rubs his chin.

“Why don’t you come out and tell me your name,” he says. I don’t say anything. “Mine’s Jim.” He motions at the fat man. “This was Mike.” At the little man. “This was Rick.” 

I feel a horsefly bite my leg, but I just stay where I am and stay quiet. 

The thin man keeps looking out at the grass for a while. I expect him to keep talking, but he doesn’t. After a long time, he goes inside the house and closes the door. I can hear him turn the lock and I wonder whether he’s worried that I’ll try to get in there and kill him. 

I wait for as long as I can. Eventually, I start to fall asleep, and that’s when I decide to move. I push up onto my hands and knees and crawl backwards for a while, then I stand up and turn around and start running. I run for a while and then I walk until I find a road, and I pick a direction and start following it. 

The sun comes up and I hear the scattered cries of a few birds. My legs are aching and I want to sleep, but I realize that I haven’t been up to see a sunrise in a long time. Not since my brother was real little, which was when we all got up early, me and Daddy and Momma. I don’t think that I’ve heard the birds since then, and the birds near our house didn’t sound like these birds.

I keep walking until I see a small house with a scarecrow outside. There’s a big NO TRESPASSING sign and windchimes on the front porch. 

I walk up to it and knock on the door, and I hear someone rustling around inside. I move my hair out of my face.

“Who is it?” a man shouts.

“My name is Mary,” I shout back. “What’s yours?”


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Categories
Fiction Horror

Delivery Notification

Note: This story was featured on the No Sleep Podcast. Hear it by clicking here. The cover art belongs to No Sleep; it was created by Krys Hookuh, and I strongly recommend checking out her other work. Find her on Instagram here and on Facebook here.

“Delivery Notification,” Krys Hookuh.

Delivery notifications are convenient, but they’re disturbing when you receive them by mistake.

Carl is on the way!

That was the message I received at 12:33 a.m. yesterday. I was playing Playstation while my girlfriend cooked bacon in the kitchen.

Yes, we were eating bacon in the middle of the night. She was singing a song about it, too, set to the tune of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” The lyrics:

Late night, bacon parttayyy! (Come on, fire it up)

Late night, bacon parttayyy! (You gotta flip it up)

Bacon’s hot, sticky sweet / Oh my pig, my piggy meat! Yeahh!

She was always writing mundane parody songs that ended at one verse or one chorus — sometimes after one line. This one was set to the tune of a single lyric in Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”:

I don’t knowww where my phone is

Stupid, I know, but it always cracked me up. 

My stomach was already rumbling when my phone dinged. We have a really small house out in a St. Louis suburb, and we have no oven fan, so the smell of bacon was everywhere. My mouth was watering.

I looked back down at the message.

Carl is on the way!

I was confused for a moment, but I came to the logical conclusion.

“Amy, you ordered pizza, too? Are you trying to make me fat so I can’t cheat on you?”

She poked her head into the living room.

“Pfft, like you could ever get another woman. But no, no pizza, just bacon. Why do you ask?”

“I just got a text from some pizza place or something. ‘Carl is on the way.'”

“Well, Carl is going to have to bring a pizza if he’s hungry, because we only have, like, five pieces of bacon, and I’m eating at least four.”

She turned back into the kitchen. I was confused, but part of that was due to the copious amounts of cannabis I’d smoked while waiting for my game to download.

I knew that the message was a simple mistake. I knew that things like this happened all the time, probably. But something was…off. I order a lot of delivery food — hey, I smoke a lot of pot — and most corporations sent texts from a five-digit number. This one was eight digits long: 8543268, and then a final digit that I didn’t recognize. It was a 9, but with a vertical line through it, the sort of digit you’d see in one of those online creepy text generators.

You could chalk that up to an issue with the restaurant’s delivery system, I guess, but that wasn’t doing anything for my anxiety.

“Alright, bacon’s done,” Amy yelled from the kitchen. “You want toast? Eggs? I’m already cooking, lemme know.”

I turned to respond.

“Yeah, I’ll — “

My phone dinged again.

Carl is in your neighborhood and will arrive shortly!

Now I was annoyed.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I said. “I’m going to be getting these notifications until Carl drops off that damned pizza. And now I want pizza.”

Amy laughed. “Well, no pizza, only bacon. And you’ll only get, like, two more messages at most. Settle down, dude, you’re not really appreciating the Late Night Bacon Party experience.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you’re right, but you’re also annoying, so — “

Another ding.

Carl is at your door!

“Man, Carl’s fast,” I said. “What delivery place texts you when the guy is there? Wouldn’t he just knock?”

“Probably a COVID thing,” Amy said.

The knocking started as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Three hard, almost mechanical knocks.

“Hey,” Amy said, “You got your wish. There’s pizza, too. Just don’t let it ruin your bacon appetite. Oh, maybe the pizza will have bacon on it?”

Again, I was quite stoned, and I am the type of person who gets paranoid easily, but something in me wanted to lock the door, barricade myself in the bedroom, and keep the lights on until morning. Granted, part of me always feels that way, but something was not right. 

I shook off that feeling. I wish I hadn’t.

I got up, dusting crumbs off my shirt and preparing to interact with another human being, something I definitely didn’t want to do that night. I looked through the window, expecting to see a middle-aged, underpaid man in a Domino’s shirt. 

“There’s…no one here.”

“Yes, there is, pothead, the fucker just knocked.” Amy walked over from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an old apron she used to wear when she cooked. It didn’t matter whether she was cooking something that actually required an apron — bacon isn’t rocket science — she always wore it and never washed it. That always drove me crazy.

She tried to peer through the top of the door, where I was looking out at our empty porch, but she was too short.

“Oh, come on,” she said, exasperated. “He’s probably standing right up against the door. The poor bastard is working at midnight, don’t make him stand around.”

Her hand reached towards the doorknob.

“No, don’t —,” I sputtered, but the door was already open. Nobody was there.

“Huh,” Amy said, “I guess you’re not a lying idiot. You’re still a regular idiot, though. Do you think he realized that —”

Another ding from my phone. I didn’t look right away. Instead, I slammed the door and turned to my girlfriend.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said. 

“Why?” she said, crossing her arms. “Is there a gang of satanic Domino rapists I don’t know about, or are you just worried about talking to a stranger?”

“Well, the second one,” I said, “But this isn’t right. The number in the phone, it’s, just, not normal, and the messages are too frequent. And why would a delivery driver with the wrong phone number go to the right address?”

“Okay, no more medical-grade pot for you,” Amy said, rolling her eyes. “You’re going back to ditch weed with me.”

“Look at the numbers,” I said, thrusting my phone towards her, feeling like some sort of conspiracy theorist.

She rolled her eyes again as she unlocked my phone. Then her face dropped.

“Oh, okay,” she said. “Now that is freaky.”

“The number’s all wrong,” I said, strangely excited that she was finally taking this seriously. “Like, where do you enter a 9 with a line through it on a normal phone? I have never seen that character before. It’s, like, bad mojo…number. I hate that number.”

“I don’t give a shit about that,” Amy said softly. “Look.” She handed back the phone.

Carl is in your house and will arrive shortly!

My stomach dropped, but Amy was starting to laugh.

“Oh, man, someone is getting fired for this shit,” she said. “I’ve worked in databases before — it’s a database error, or a text entry error, or —”

“You didn’t work with databases.”

“I worked at that florist shop, and they had…spreadsheets, which are a type of database,” she said sheepishly. “Anyway, dude, Carl is not in the house right now. This is just what happens when big, faceless corporations try to interact with real humans. They fuck up, scare us, and disappoint us by not bringing us surprise pizzas. So chill. Eat bacon. Drink a beer. Play your game. You are freaking out way too hard right now.”

Ding.

Carl is in the kitchen and will arrive shortly!

Amy grabbed the phone out of my hands, the veneer of her calmness disappearing instantaneously. Her eyes darted over the text, then to the kitchen, then back to the phone. She definitely wasn’t laughing now.

We slowly walked to the kitchen together. I didn’t feel great about that. I really wanted to do the whole hide-in-the-bedroom thing, but I knew that’d be a hard sell, and I definitely didn’t want to leave Amy alone. As wew turned into the room, I felt a wave of relief — then panic.

There was nothing in the kitchen. I don’t mean to write, “nobody was in the kitchen,” I mean nothing was in the kitchen. The bacon, bread, and eggs that Amy had laid out for the late night bacon party had vanished. No sign of them whatsoever. No crumbs, nothing. 

Amy looked at me with wide eyes.

“I swear, if this is one of your fucking friends trying to — “

“It’s not,” I said, looking slowly around the room. “I have no idea what the hell is happening right now.”

Ding.

This time, I didn’t look at my phone. I had a pretty good idea of what the text said; Carl is in your refrigerator. If not Carl, something was in there. We heard a screeching sound, slightly muddled and contained by the fridge, then frenetic clawing, like a raccoon going through trash, but much, much faster. It was angry. Violent.

Then, almost as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Before I could grab her, Amy ran over to the fridge and threw open the door.

Nothing there. No food, no food wrappers. Not even the three-year-old box of baking soda we kept in the side door.

“We’re getting the fuck out of here,” Amy said. She didn’t wait for me to respond; she didn’t have to. I grabbed my keys from the kitchen table as we ran to the front door. As we made our way to my car, I noted how cold it was. I can’t say for sure whether or not it was unseasonably cold — I rarely go outdoors at midnight in November — but it felt like I was breathing broken glass.

And maybe I was focusing too much on my breath, because I didn’t notice what had happened to my keys until I tried to put them into the ignition .The key was bent at a right angle; not snapped off, which would have made more sense. It was playing with us. 

I held the key up to Amy.

“What’s plan B?”

“Jesus. Fuck. Okay…let me think…”

But there wasn’t time for that.

Ding.

Carl has arrived.

I read it. My hands were shaking, and I imagine my face was pale. Amy knew immediately. Then — and this happened so, so quickly — she doubled over, letting out an anguished shriek. 

She felt it before I saw it. Her stomach — something in her stomach — was moving. Her face was pure fear, but she contorted the edges of her lips to attempt a calm smile. That was Amy. She was always the strong one.

“Honey,” she said, “I love—”

And then she was screaming. The tearing sounds were animal, yet mechanical, vicious and sadistic. Blood covered my face, the dashboard, the roof. Organs and viscera. And the panic set in, ramped up, kept ramping up, until I was screaming with a cracked, inhuman voice. I kept screaming as her screams stopped, as she slumped over in the seat, as it crawled out of her. Jet black skin glistening and wet, black teeth, sharp hands. It moved quickly, jutting out a long purple tongue to lick the blood off its razor-fingers.

I didn’t see any eyes, but it turned its head towards me and I knew it saw me. Its sneered a wide smile, a macabre mockery of Amy’s last moments.

The panic became all-encompassing until, mercifully, everything stopped.

I woke the next morning.

Well, not woke; I was suddenly there, in my car, my eyes wide open and my muscles tense. The seat next to me was ripped to shreds, but there wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere. Not even on me. Later, I wondered whether the thing had crawled on me during the night, sucking each drop out of my clothes and licking my skin. 

I walked inside in a daze, hoping to see Amy standing there with bed-hair and sleep in her eyes, ready to lecture me about the dangers of medical cannabis. She wasn’t there, of course, but I looked everywhere, under the bed and in every closet, hoping dumbly for anything concrete that would stop the snarling sense of dread that was slowly spreading through my body like a warm cancer.

That was yesterday. Amy is not here. I know where she is, or at least where she was. And I am out of food. 

I need to eat, then call the police, then call her family, then, probably, go to prison. I don’t care much about any of that. Whatever happens now is unimportant. I may have gone insane and killed my girlfriend, or maybe everything happened exactly as I remembered it, but either way, I simply cannot live here anymore. 

In fact, I probably can’t live anywhere. I know it’ll come back. I hope that it comes back for me — it’s already taken everything I had — but I suspect it will wait until it sees an opportunity to twist the knife further. It likes to play with its food.

I have kept my phone off until today. I knew I couldn’t put off the things I had to do forever. I powered it on to call the police, and read the single unread text message:

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Categories
Fiction Horror

Do You Have Any Coupons?

I stared down at the pool of white goo slowly devouring my feet.

“Ah, shit,” I muttered, kicking a scrap of broken glass. These were new shoes. Well, nearly new, according to the lady at the thrift store. In any case, they were new to me, and I wasn’t planning on upgrading anytime soon.

“Andrews! Fuck!

I winced, waiting for the stream of Polish invectives that would stream my way any second. Allowing myself a quick sigh, I turned to see a small, muscular Polish man walking up to me with his fists clenched into tight balls.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

I didn’t recognize anything he said for the next 10 seconds or so, other than spierdolić, which roughly translates to “fuck-up.” I’d learned that word towards the beginning of my then-two-year tenure as the shelver, stock boy, and general spierdolić of Wojcik’s Grocery on Main.

“Mr. Wojcik, I’m sorry,” I said, trying to imitate remorse. Really, I was feeling massively hungover and slightly pissed off that I was there in the first place. We were supposed to be closed on the night before Thanksgiving. 

But six hours ago, I’d received a rushed voicemail with plenty of Polish phrases that I didn’t recognize, along with some classic American curses that seem to be part of every American boss’s vocabulary. I’d also heard the words I’d been dreading the night before: You must come in, we must work.

Unfortunately for me, I’d spent Thanksgiving Eve’s Eve drinking heavily with friends to celebrate the birth of Turkey Jesus, mistakenly believing that I’d have a rare full night’s sleep to mitigate any chaos I could inflict on my liver.

That had not been the case. At around 7 in the morning, I’d heard the message and rushed in, running my head under the tap in lieu of a shower and stuffing down some Alka-Seltzer and Gatorade on the way over. I wasn’t late, and for a few hours, I thought that I’d miraculously avoided the entirely predictable consequences of my actions.

But at Wojcik’s, we work 14-hour shifts, and that’s if you don’t count breaks or the time spent locking up (Mr. Wocjik didn’t). As the day went on, I realized that I hadn’t avoided a hangover; I’d gone to work while still slightly drunk. Around noon, the nausea set in. Around 2:00 in the afternoon, my head was aching. And at 7:00 p.m., I was feeling so goddamn fatigued that I dropped six jars of mayonnaise. 

No, that’s not a euphemism. 

“This stuff, it’s not growing on fucking trees!” Mr. Wojcik said, tenderly holding up a fragment of a mayonnaise jar. 

“Yeah, I know. I think it’s…eggs and cows?” I said, scratching the back of my neck. “Is that right?”

He tut-tutted, shaking his head. He looked near tears, as if the mayo was an infant that I’d just curb-stomped in the middle of the aisle.

“To you, this is your big joke,” he said. “To me, it’s my business. And to you, it should be your business, too!”

I immediately felt actual remorse, and not just from the seven or eight Jagermeister shots that were still working their way through my system. Mr. Wojcik wasn’t some sort of cruel corporate overlord. He was a good man, if a bit stingy and verbally abusive (and hey, who isn’t during the holidays?). 

My days there weren’t easy, but my boss was always fair and occasionally generous. I was making $11.00 an hour. That might not sound like much, but I knew more than he could afford. The store wasn’t doing well lately, not since Wal-Mart had put one of its bloated blue eyesores at the end of the block. 

I also knew he’d taken no pleasure in pulling me out of my hangover bed on this, the holiest of turkey-related pre-holidays. Yet here I was, standing hungover in a pool of mayonnaise and insulting him.

“I know, I am sorry,” I said. “I really am. It’s just…”

“You have the hangover,” he said, stumbling a bit over the last word so that it sounded more like hamover. Damn. I thought I’d been hiding it pretty well.

“Yes,” I said. “But in my defense, I got really drunk.”

“And this is okay, Andrews,” Mr. Wojcik said, his tone softening. “Everyone gets drunk, every single day.”

That wasn’t exactly true, but I wasn’t going to step on this heartfelt moment.

”I know you did not want to work today, and I did not either,“ he continued. He looked down at the jar fragment and watched a thick drop of mayo drop onto the floor. “But we are here now, are we not?”

“Yes.” 

“And so we must work.”

“Makes sense to me.”

He patted me on the shoulder.

“You know you are a skurwysyn, yes?”

That was another one I knew: skurwysyn is, roughly, “my close friend who is more like a son and capable of amazing things.”

Just kidding. It’s “son of a whore.”

“Yep, I know,” I said, idly wondering whether I could pass off mayonnaise stains as part of the shoe design.

He smiled, then gave me another pat.

“Tonight, you can have many good beers. Maybe drink seven.” He shot out a quick forced laugh. I wasn’t sure whether he’d told a joke that translated poorly or if he was still overcome with condiment grief. “And I tell you this right now: I will run the store tomorrow. You stay home all day.”

“Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. We’re open on Thanksgiving now?” 

“Yes, yes, it will be good day for business,” he said, looking down to show that he didn’t want to continue that line of conversation. “Not you. I will work alone, I promise you. But we must still work now, tonight. Also good day for business.”

He turned and walked away, still cradling the piece of broken glass. I wondered whether he’d try to reassemble it.

It wasn’t a good day for business.

The store was mostly empty that night, save for a few last-minute shoppers. 

Our little grocery was located in a strip mall a few blocks from main street in Templeton, Illinois, a town of about 10,000 people. Most of those folks had bought the stuff they needed for their pistachio puddings and green bean casseroles in the weeks before Thanksgiving.

That year, most of them hadn’t done their holiday shopping at Wojcik’s Grocery on Main. The store – which, again, wasn’t actually on main street – was everyone’s favorite grocer, if you asked them in person. Mr. Wojcik manned the deli, meat market, and bakery himself, often arriving early in the morning to bake chrusciki, kolaczki, and various other Polish delicacies that I have neither the memory nor the keyboard accents to type out here. 

He was a talented baker and a discerning butcher, and every person who walked into that place walked out smiling. Every kid would enjoy a free pastry or two. If someone left their wallet at home, or if they were a few days away from their next paycheck, he’d tell them to take their groceries and pay him when they could. They always came back to pay.

In Templeton, mentioning Wojcik’s in casual conversation would inevitably lead to grandiose declarations:

“There’s no better grocer around here!”

“Best pastries I’ve ever had!”

“I’d do anything for that guy!” 

“I would literally blow him!

And, most commonly: 

“I’d never shop anywhere else!”

And then, the people making those declarations would head down the street and walk right into Walmart.

I knew why they did it. Sure, Wojcik’s quality was unmatched, and he treated every customer as a friend, but what does that mean to you when you’re just looking for a can of green beans? And if you need toilet paper, are you going to go to the guy with the best kolaczki, or are you just going to head to the store with the cheapest toilet paper?

The big blue supermarket had moved in several months ago, and the change was gradual. Some people stopped coming in for their full grocery runs, preferring instead to stop by once every few weeks for Wojcik’s far-superior meat and desserts. Then, when they realized that there’s not that much difference between a great chicken breast and a sort-of-okay chicken breast, they just came in for desserts.

“I always buy local,” they’d say, holding their bag of kolaczkis. 

But the desserts didn’t yield much of a profit — in fact, I suspected he sold some of them at a loss, though he wouldn’t ever admit it. And as people stopped coming in, Mr. Wojcik had to lay off his workers (at least, the ones who made more than $11 an hour), and then he had to work in the front of the store, which didn’t give him much time to bake. 

Soon, the bakery selection dwindled to a few time-tested favorites, and when that happened, people stopped coming in at all. But ask any of them, and they’d tell you that they’d never shop anywhere else.

Spierdolićs.

Mr. Wojcik was clearly hoping that a big Thanksgiving rush would help him regain some ground, but the rush never came. Why pay 90 cents for a can of beans when you could pay 85?

So here we were on the night before Thanksgiving, with Mr. Wojcik paying me to stock shelves that were already stocked and help the occasional shopper find the weird ingredients that the supermarket didn’t have. In a few months, Wocjik’s Grocery would be an empty shell, waiting for a corporate crab to crawl into it. Maybe the town would finally get an Arby’s.

I thought about all of this while I meandered through the store’s aisles, looking for something that would draw my attention away from the aching fog of my dehydrated body. I never meandered long, because the store wasn’t especially big. That night, though, I was thoroughly enjoying my meandering.

Everything changed when I turned down aisle 7 at about 9:45 p.m.

“Andrews!” Mr. Wojcik shouted, gesturing wildly for my attention.

He was standing next to a tall older gentleman in an olive-green suit.

I don’t toss out the word gentleman randomly, but that’s what this man was. He was leaning on a freshly waxed cane that gleamed in the fluorescent lights, impeccable apart from some signs of obvious wear on the handle. His shirt was pressed and his suit was immaculately tailored, a dark red handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket. I’d have guessed that he was 80 years old, at least, but his sharp blue eyes seemed unweathered and vibrant. When he saw me at the end of the aisle, he grinned broadly, showing off a set of white teeth that seemed impossibly complete for a man of his age and era.

Something about him bothered me, but I didn’t have time to think about it. Mr. Wocjik was calling me over, his hand flailing wildly in a hurry-up gesture that reached near-comical speeds as I power walked down the aisle.

“This is Adam Andrews,” Mr. Wocjik said to the man, giving me a don’t-spierdolić look. “Adam, this is Mr. –”

“Armaros,” the man said, extending a bony hand for me to shake.

“Armaros,” I repeated. “Is that Finnish?” 

I didn’t really think his name sounded Finnish, but I’ve never been great at making smalltalk. Mr. Armaros chuckled briefly, three short hu-haws that clearly were not genuine.

“Something like that,” he said. “It’s Greek. I was wondering if you could help me find something?”

I wanted to sigh, but I didn’t. This was, after all, my job, and I knew that Mr. Wocjik spent too much time behind the store’s various counters to know the location of every single product. 

“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to help.”

Please, God, let all three of us drop dead right now. 

“Good, good, Adam,” Mr. Wocjik said, slapping me on the back. He only called me by my first name when customers were around. “You help Mr. Armoni, and be quick, we close in 15 minutes.” He turned to Mr. Armaros. “Thank you for your business sir, and have a very good Thanksgiving.”

If Mr. Armaros had noticed the store owner’s mangling of his name, he didn’t seem offended.

“And you, too,” he replied. His voice was small, almost meek, and seemed somehow unfit for him. He turned towards me with the same broad smile on his face. 

“Adam,” he said. “Nice name. Is that Finnish?”

I laughed and rubbed the back of my neck. “No, sir.”

He let out three more fake hu-haws. 

“Well, I’ve got a job for you Adam, and you might find it difficult. I am looking for a product called Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme. I was told by a colleague of mine that I could find it here.”

“I’ve never heard of that brand,” I said. “Or that product. Marshmallow creme?”

He laughed again, but his gaze turned strangely intense. You know what marshmallow creme is, I imagined him saying. 

But obviously he didn’t say any of that. 

“It’s a – well, I think of it as a condiment, but I suppose you might call it a bakery item,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure where your bakery aisle is, or whether you might know off-hand about that particular brand.”

My head was pounding, and I wanted to get this finished as quickly as possible.

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you’re in the right place, sir. Follow me.”

We walked to the opposite end of the aisle, where I was dismayed to see an open pack of chocolate chips jutting off of one of the lower shelves. Some kid had hurriedly torn it open; they come in with their parents, they see the candy, and they can’t help themselves. 

I bent down to clean some of the chocolate chips off the floor, and as I did, I gestured to the shelves.

“Should be somewhere near this stuff,” I said, then realized that I was right in front of a line of marshmallow creme jars. “Oh, actually, it’s right here.”

I held one up. Mr. Armaros shook his head slowly from side to side, gazing down on me as though I were some sad, ignorant creature.

“No, my friend,” he said. “Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme. It’s an older brand. Far superior.”

I looked again. “I think this might be the only brand we carry, sir,” I said.

“That is unfortunate. I’m afraid I must check for myself, then,” he said, bending down to the lowest shelf. He moved fluidly and effortlessly, reaching past the jars of Kraft Jet-Puffed, then locked eyes with me. 

“Ah, Eureka!” he said, his voice an oddly musical squeak. He held out a jar of Mount Hermon’s Marshmallow Creme as if he was waiting for my approval. “And it seems to be the last jar, too.”

I smiled weakly and nodded, my head pounding. 

He flipped the jar in his hand, catching it by the top, then started walking down the aisle. 

“Will you accompany me for a moment, Adam?” he asked. “I’ve a few more items that I’d like to take home for the big holiday dinner, and I’m worried that I won’t be able to find them by the time your store closes.” 

Fuck no. I’m not your personal shopper.

“Sure,” I said.

“Good man,” he replied. “If you wouldn’t mind, please fetch me a cart.”

I nodded, then walked towards the front of the store, briefly wondering how he’d seen the jar of Mount Herman’s all the way at the back of the shelf. I thought for sure he’d been staring at me the entire time.

Mr. Armaros had quite the shopping list.

We started over at the butcher counter, where Mr. Wocjik hurriedly threw on a white apron to take his new customer’s orders. Armaros asked for a few cuts that I didn’t recognize, but his way-too-excited butcher was happy to oblige. 

“You can’t find these at a typical store, my boy,” he said, holding up some grey, indistinguishable organs that Mr. Wocjik had passed him across the counter. “And they’re excellent. One pound, please.”

My boss beamed with pride.

Next was the condiment aisle, which is where I started to get uncomfortable. This guy loved his condiments.

“Firmament Pickle Relish.” 

“We don’t have —” I started to say, but Mr. Armaros reached past the rows of Vlasic relish and plucked out a jar of Firmament, holding it in front of me with his long spider-fingers.

“Corson’s Barbecue Sauce.”

This one I found, sitting next to some bottles of Sweet Baby Ray’s that I’d stocked earlier in the week. Only three bottles were left, but I was sure I’d never seen them before.

Armaros stayed closed to my side and called out items, sometimes chiding me when I preemptively told him we didn’t carry the brand. After a few minutes, I stopped saying that; he was able to find everything on his list, and at times, he seemed to know the store’s shelves better than me.

Now, I should note that he also picked up a few items from well-known brands (Charmin toilet paper, Colgate toothpaste), and we get quite a few elderly customers asking for stuff that I don’t recognize. But typically, those are Polish ingredients with names I can’t pronounce or other “ethnic” foods that the big box stores don’t carry. The old man was asking for pickle relish, mayonnaise, ketchup — products that I would see every day even if I only came to the store occasionally. I worked there. I knew those aisles.

And every time he found one of his obscure products, it would be tucked away at the back of the shelf. At most, there would be one or two other jars, but most of the time, Armaros would snatch up the last one, placing it with unnatural delicateness into the now-crowded cart.

“Tell me, Adam,” he said, marvelling at a container of Orcus Mustard, “Does everyone in town shop here? It’s such a lovely store.”

“Not really,” I said. “They go to supermarkets. But they always say they’d never shop anywhere else.” I’d blurted the last part out without thinking.

“Oath-breakers,” he said. “What a shame. Well, more for me, I suppose.”

His sharp eyes flashed towards me.

“How old are you?”

“23.”

“Too young, too young,” he said, sighing. “You know, there was a time when you could have found all of these wonderful products anywhere in this town. Good, local items. Trustworthy quality. Now, it’s not so easy.”

“You don’t seem like you’re having much trouble.”

Hu-haw, hu-haw, hu-haw, fake, plastic laughs rising above the tinny sound of the buzzing fluorescents and the store’s Polish muzak. 

“No, I suppose I’m not, am I?” He grinned. His teeth seemed yellower than before, but I blamed that on the lighting. “A man your age has a lot to look forward to. But you shouldn’t forget how things used to be. How lucky you are to have a little store like this.”

“I try not to.” The muzak blaring over the store’s lone loudspeaker seemed to grow frantic.  

“At the very least, you should try Mount Hermon’s.” He dug in his cart and held up the jar of marshmallow creme. “One scoop. You won’t be able to go back.”

I laughed nervously. Fuck you, dude, I’m not eating anything you’ve touched, you elderly fuckhead.

“Maybe when I’m off work. I never creme on the job.” I smiled, confident that he’d missed my double entendre.

“Well, I hope you do try it. Speaking of which, it’s time to check out, isn’t it?”

—-

It was time to check out, indeed. 

The store was about to close, and Mr. Armaros was the last customer in the place. In fact, he was the only customer I’d seen in about three hours. Mr. Wojcik chatted happily as he rang up his elderly patron’s shopping list.

“Still, someone is making this? I did not know,” he exclaimed, holding a box of gelatin.

“I insist on the best,” Armaros said, locking his eyes on me.

That became clearer and clearer as each strange item passed under the scanner. A jar of horseradish: $7.50. Tartar sauce: $8.95. Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme: $11.00 even. Our prices were high, but I’d never consider Wojcik’s Grocery to be a boutique. 

Altogether, Mr. Armaros owed more than $300. I expected him to write a check — most older folk did — but he paid with cash and exact change. The bills were crisp and fresh. I noted offhandedly that the money matched his olive-green suit.

“Do you need help out to your car?” Mr. Wojcik asked.

“No, no,” Armaros replied, “but if you don’t mind, I’ll leave the cart outside.”

“Not a problem,” Mr. Wojcik said, “Andy will be happy to bring cart inside for you. Just leave up against the curb.”

Another smile from Armaros. 

Keep fucking smiling. Smile your way the fuck out of this store and into whatever weird-smelling house you live in when you’re not being a freaky old fuck.

“Absolutely!” I said with a big smile. “And please come back and see us again!”

—-

I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t hate our store’s customers, even when I’m hungover. 

But when I heard our new patron’s car starting up (the fucker probably drove the goddamn Dragula), I felt like I could have tap-danced down the aisles of that place for the rest of the night. He was gone. Everything was normal. No more weird condiments with mysterious origins, no more knowing smiles, no more sudden staredowns with sharp, too-blue eyes. He’d only been in the store for about 15 minutes, but those were some of the most uncomfortable minutes of my life.

To that point, anyway.

“Andrews!” Mr. Wojcik called out, happily gesturing to me with the old man’s money in hand. “This is type of sale we need every day!”

Not if you want me to keep working here. 

“I know,” I said, forcing a smile to show that I shared my boss’s happiness. “That made up for a pretty slow night, didn’t it?”

“Yes sir, yes sir,” he said. “And I am thanking you for this. You are not always skurwysyn.”

It was the nicest thing he’d ever said to me, but I couldn’t really appreciate the near-compliment.

“All I did was show him around.”

Mr. Wojcik shook his head like I’d told him the oldest joke in the book.

“No. You know my store better than me now. And I know how this happens tonight: You make these orders for new things, you spread the word. I should be angry — but this thing you’ve done, it works.”

I’d been worried that he would say something like that.

“No, I didn’t, really,” I said. “I don’t know how that stuff ended up on the shelves. Did your wife —”

“Stop, stop,” he said, his voice growing annoyed. “You know she orders same items every week. Less items some week, more items other week, but always same. And you order things, and I cannot care! Really!”

I opened my mouth to argue, but thought better of it. Mr. Wocjik’s grammar tended to slip when he was getting angry. He thought I’d ordered all that obscure stuff, and obviously I hadn’t — but we could have that discussion after Thanksgiving. After I’d had some time to sort out what the hell had just happened.

“Yeah, you got me,” I said. “But those were the only items I ordered. He cleaned us out.”

His look of aggravation faded. 

“And how much I paid for those items?”

“Fifty…dollars?”

“Ha!” he yelled. “You’re businessman, Andrews! Very good! Now we close up shop. Tomorrow, I work. You take off, you think up more good ideas. And you drink your good beers. Seven beers.”

He winked at me, then looked down at the stack of bills in his hands.

Spierdolić.

——

I went out and retrieved Mr. Armaros’s cart.

The ice-cold November air shocked my system and slightly relieved the weariness I’d felt for the past few hours. The sky was pitch black, no stars, but I looked up anyway, taking in the muted sound of a car speeding down a nearby country road.

Soon, that’ll be me. Driving home. And God, I just hope I can stay awake.

I always took my time wheeling the carts in, but there was no reason to do so tonight; I wanted to get the hell out of there. After a few deep breaths, I headed back inside to close up. 

“Clean-up, Aisle 7,” Mr. Wojcik said, laughing.

He thought that was a funny thing to say because he’d seen a comedian say it on a sitcom. The audience had laughed, so it was funny. I’d tried to explain to him that it wasn’t funny, since supermarkets are exactly where you’d use that phrase in context, but he didn’t seem to get it.

I walked over to 7, thinking about how I was going to totally demolish a Hot Pocket as soon as I got back to my house. I lived about half an hour outside of town, but I didn’t mind commuting, and I’d found a nice little rental on a rural route. The neighbors were fine, the roof didn’t leak (much), and I had a decent-sized freezer filled with unhealthy junk food. What more could you ask for?

Down at the end of the aisle, I saw the reason for the cleanup call. I wasn’t scared or creeped out — just confused.

A bag of chocolate chips had been ripped open. Chips littered the floor. 

I cleaned those up earlier…didn’t I?

I certainly remembered using my palm to sweep them up from the floor. But had I moved the bag? I thought I had, but maybe I hadn’t. Maybe I’d left the bag in place, and more had spilled out after I left to help Armaros complete the world’s worst edition of Supermarket Sweep. 

That seemed likely. I was hungover, after all, and Armaros had my full attention at the time. I grabbed the bag, threw it away, and bent down to sweep up the new chips from the floor.

That’s when I noticed that the chips were in a perfect line, all upright. They hadn’t been spilled haphazardly by some candy-crazed kid. They looked like they’d been placed there carefully.

Fuck this. I’m never drinking again. 

I swept up the chocolate chips, letting my eyes wander over the bakery inventory. I started to chuckle when I saw the marshmallow creme, thinking about the old man in the green suit scarfing it down by the spoonful in his car. It was an oddly cathartic mental image.

But any relief I’d felt stopped abruptly. Next to two lines of Kraft sat a single jar of Mount Hermon’s Marshmallow Creme, its dark-green label mocking me under the flickering light. 

He thought he got the last jar, but he missed one. He reached to the back and shuffled the jars around. 

I didn’t really believe that. 

I thought for a moment that Mr. Wojcik was playing some sort of joke, but he hadn’t been there when we’d found the stuff. I wiped sweat from my forehead and sighed. 

This is nothing, shithead. You’re not at 100 percent right now. You’ve got mayo all over your shoes because you couldn’t concentrate earlier, and now you’re freaking out over a jar of liquid marshmallows. Stop being a shithead, shithead.

I turned and walked back down the aisle, rushing back to the front of the store where Mr. Wojcik was finishing up. 

—-

“When did you mop last?” he asked, and I could tell from his tone that I’d messed something up.

“30 minutes…an hour ago, I think.”

“Good, good. And why is mop at front of store?”

He pointed to the big commercial mop bucket, which sat inelegantly towards the end of Aisle 1. I winced.

“Fuck, sorry.” Nothing strange going on here; I’d left the bucket there earlier after cleaning up the mayo. If we’d had any customers that night — any non-creepo customers — they’d have walked right by that mop on their way to checkout. Not exactly great for business. “I’m all over the place today, boss. Friday, I’ll —”

“Spierdolić.”

“Yeah, probably.”

He smiled. “You came in today, last minute, you took one break, you worked hard. Go home.”

I tried not to smile. I wanted to argue, tell him I’d stay with him until he left, tell him I’d pay more attention after the holiday. But mostly, I wanted to get the fuck out of there.

“Thank you.” I checked my pocket for my keys and started walking towards the back door. I always parked in the back.

Mr. Wojcik looked up briefly, then dismissed me with a nod.

“No problem. Oh, and don’t fucking let this happen again, or you’re out on your asshole.” 

The temperature had dropped a few degrees.

I felt that right away.

Walking to my car, I saw my breath floating in front of me, thin clouds of pent-up anxiety and fatigue I’d collected over my shift. Deep, full breaths, each one a cool balm on a hot wound.

It’s finally over, and you’re headed home. You are the greatest grocery worker in town, apart from Mr. Wojcik, and probably most of the people at Walmart. And maybe the folks at Kroger’s. And…

I stopped tempering my opinion of myself when I saw my car, or more accurately, when I saw the backseat. Suddenly, I was standing completely still, the anxiety creeping back through my chest.

Someone was sitting in my car. Someone tall and thin.

Fuck this. Go inside. Call the police. 

But I didn’t. I’m still not sure why, but I moved towards the car, my mind protesting every step I took. Part of me wanted to see who was there — why they were waiting for me. And part of me knew exactly who it was.

I threw open the back door while simultaneously stepping back, preparing to defend myself from…what, exactly? A mugger with low aspirations? A geriatric condiment aficionado? A demon from hell? In any case, I wasn’t in physical or emotional condition for a fight.

There wouldn’t be a fight (at least, not right then). The backseat was empty, save for some discarded McDonald’s wrappers and the spare jacket I kept hanging on the passenger’s seat.

Of course it’s empty, shithead. You saw the jacket, assumed it was Mr. Marshmallow Fetish, and your eyes saw what your brain expected. You’ve lost it, and it ain’t coming back without some sleep. Get thee to a nunnery. Or at least get thee to a futon. 

For the moment, at least, that worked. I let out a deep breath, trying to capture the feeling of relief I’d enjoyed only a few seconds earlier, then climbed into my car.

You’re probably calling me an idiot right now. Well, I called me an idiot first, and I’m willing to bet that you’re kind of an idiot, too.

Most people can rationalize just about anything that happens to them. It’s dishonest, busy work, and we all do it from time to time; you rewrite your memories, adding in the new elements that explain away the unthinkable ones. You alter your reasoning, smoothing out the rough edges of your explanations until they’re at least superficially plausible. Then, you mock the old you, the one that was naive and uncomfortable and scared and stupid.

That type of work takes a lot of effort, but the payoff is enormous: For a few minutes — maybe for a few days, maybe even for the rest of your life — you get to believe that you understand your world. If you can understand it, you might be able to control it. 

I felt some of that comfort as I started the engine, but with a tinge of instinctual unease that I couldn’t quite bury. And soon, I learned the fundamental problem of rationalization: It assumes that the world has a set of rules, and that breaking those rules carries consequences for the rule-breaker.

On my drive home, I learned to stop rationalizing.

—-

I don’t know what John Denver saw in country roads.

They’re awful. Maybe that’s why he flew everywhere.

Get it? Flew everywhere? What, too soon?

Anyway, if you’ve never spent extensive time driving through rural routes with gravel kicking up against the bottom of your fender, maybe you hold some romantic notions of clear country nights with acres of tall corn waving at you through the rearview mirror.

Well, the corn loses some of its romance when you’ve driven past it a thousand times, and the sound of rolling gravel becomes less entrancing when you replace your tires for the second time in a year. When you drive them every single day, country roads become unbearably boring, but you can’t afford to sit back and zone out. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll get a brand-new paint job from a deer, or you’ll miss the lights of an F-150 pickup with a moonshine-drunk redneck behind its wheel. 

Normally, I don’t mind my commute. Not much. I pay close attention to every curve in the road — which isn’t difficult, as it’s mostly a straight shot from town to my house — but I’ll play a podcast or listen to talk radio to keep my brain from atrophying too much. I only live half an hour from the store, but it’s enough time to collect my thoughts and relax.

That night, I wasn’t doing much relaxing. When I’d started the engine of my 2010 Chevy Cobalt (ladies, try to contain yourselves), I noticed that my heater didn’t kick on right away. By the time I turned onto Rural Route 3, I was fiddling frantically with the temperature controls, hoping in vain that the blower motor hadn’t finally given up the ghost.

No heat. No comfort.

Well, at least it’s something you can repair yourself. And the cold air will keep you awake. Plus, you have heated seats. Stop by the gas station, if it’s open, grab a hot coffee, and you’ll…ah, fuck it, this just sucks. 

By the time I pulled onto the country road that would take me home (to the plaaaaace, I belooooong), my teeth were clattering from the cold. The heated seats helped, but they also made my ass sweat, and the only gas station on my path was closed for the holiday.

I thought that the radio would take my mind off my discomfort, but the local Hot 100 station was starting a “50-song non-stop song marathon” that started with about 30 minutes of commercials. Every other station was modern country or religious programming, so I listened to the advertisements and made snide comments to myself.

“Come DOWN, DOWN, DOWN to THOMAS CHEVROLET for GUARANTEED APPROVAL on ANY CAR ON THE LOT!” a deep voice blared from my car’s tinny speakers.

“And 20 percent interest on the loan,” I scoffed while wondering how many more payments I owed Thomas Chevrolet for my Cobalt.

My eyes were heavy, finally bearing the full weight of the day’s events, so I looked for a reason to keep them open. The drive was mostly boring, especially at night, but there were a few points of interest. The billboard was one of them.

You certainly don’t see billboards on most country roads. My route had a small one about halfway between my house and town. Evidently, some farmer decided he could make some extra cash on the side, though I doubt he got much — the billboard would occasionally show a Farmer’s Only ad for a month or two, but it usually bore the message “RENT THIS SPACE” in big blue letters.

Tonight, though, I was pleased to see the space rented. It helped break up the monotony of the drive.

Carl’s Delivery Service

First delivery’s on the house, to your house!

The text accompanied a photo of a smiling man in the front seat of a sedan — Carl, I assume — giving a big thumbs-up to the camera. His car wasn’t in great repair; the seat next to him looked like it’d been shredded by a particularly large housecat.

I smiled, allowing myself to sink deeper into my seat and relax. 

“Yeah, those $6 tips might get you out of that shitty Ford Focus, Carl,” I said as I drove past. “Eventually, if you ever stop spending money on billboards. Good luck with Redneck DoorDash.” 

The radio station finally cut away from the onslaught of advertisements, and I was surprised to hear the opening riff of Harry Nilsson’s “Down,” an old favorite of my father’s. It wasn’t exactly a hit — I’m not sure if it was on the Hot 100 back in the ‘70s, but it certainly wasn’t charting in 2020 — but the late-night DJs sometimes snuck in a few of their favorites onto the playlist. 

“I’m goin’ down, to the bottom, to the bottom of a hooole, goin’ down,” Nilsson sang, his voice slightly distorted from the FM station’s compression. “Down, to the bottom, to the bottom of a hole, goooiin’ down.”

And so on. The lyrics weren’t Shakespeare, but it was better than hearing the same damn Ariana Grande song on repeat. I cranked the volume and looked out at the rows of corn framing the curves in the road ahead. The tight rows shifted and shook in the cold wind.

Wait. Corn? It’s late November.

The corn had been cut weeks ago. That morning, I’d driven past empty fields.

My rational side immediately began offering explanations, but they couldn’t stop the panic from rising. No Illinois farmer waits that long to harvest.

Unless they’re dead, or they abandoned their farm, or they can’t harvest because of a Monsanto lawsuit. Are you absolutely sure you saw the fields cut this morning?

I was. But maybe I’d driven past my turn. That made some sense — more sense than spontaneous corn growth, anyway. And looking ahead, the road was unfamiliar. The twists and turns were a little too sharp, and the gravel seemed a little too old.

I slowed to maneuver the curves, my heart pounding. I could turn around when the road straightened out. But how long had I been driving? It felt like 10 or 20 minutes, but if I’d passed my turn, I’d been out for at least a half hour. And hadn’t I just seen the billboard? That was only 5 minutes from the store.

Past the curves, the road straightened, but it also narrowed, both sides dropping steeply into wide, deep ditches. Another billboard flanked the right side of the road.

Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme

One scoop, and you’ll never go back! 

The last four words were underlined in bright red paint that seemed far newer than the rest of the billboard. 

I hit the gas.

  “Down, to the bottom, to the bottom, of a hole, goin’ down,” Nilsson warbled. Then the song ended, then it restarted, the opening notes slightly more distorted. I slammed my fist on the radio’s power button, then grasped the steering wheel as hard as I could.

When the radio kicked off, the car’s blower motor kicked on, blowing scorching air through the cabin. I turned the fan off, but the air kept coming, foul and hot.

Cooking me. Or just fucking with me. Or something in between.

Gravel kicked against the bottom of the car. Moments ago, the rows of corn had seemed to wave somnambulantly, calming my mind while drawing a straight path home; now, they seemed to be rows of yellow teeth, rigid and jagged. 

Like his teeth. Ready to rip me open like a bag of chocolate chips and spill me over the cold floor. They see the candy, they can’t help themselves.

Another billboard. Carl’s Delivery Service again, identical to the previous ad — no, not identical. The driver wasn’t smiling anymore. He looked terrified, his eyes wide and hopeless. 

I stepped on the gas, but the road seemed to stretch on endlessly, getting narrower and narrower by the foot. The radio clicked on again, and I wasn’t surprised to hear the ending notes of “Down.”

Then, an advertisement. A deep male voice with a near-Transatlantic dialect, the kind you’d hear on old reruns of What’s My Line?

“Hey, parents! What are you feeding your kids? Do you ever wish what made them happy would make them healthy?”

Then, silence. In spite of the situation, I spoke, my voice rasping and practically inaudible.

“Nothing healthy tastes good.”

“That’s right! Nothing healthy tastes good. Until now! Firmament Pickle Relish has the sweet, tangy taste kids love and the vitamin C that moms adore.”

A chorus of kids laughing. The sound grew louder and louder, distorting my speakers. It went on for far too long.

“And Firmament Pickle Relish is only available at Wojcik’s Grocery on Main! Only for a limited time! Get it while you can!”

The laughter was deafening. I briefly considered running the car off the road, but something told me that I wouldn’t fare better in the cornfields. The cornfields that shouldn’t exist.

The song restarted, but now it was nothing but harsh, overdriven noise.

More gas.

But that just brought me closer to the next billboard. This was for a company I recognized.

Wocjik’s General Store

You’ll never shop anywhere else!

And there was Mr. Wocjik on the sign, tied to a chair, his pleading eyes looking straight out at me. His stomach was cut open and his intestines were spilling out, the red of his blood clashing with the olive green letters of the ad copy.

Help, Andrews. Make it stop.

I only glanced at the billboard, but it’s burned into my memory. I didn’t slow down. I heard a harsh wheezing sound and realized it was me, sucking in big, shallow breaths as fast as I could.

Going faster wasn’t working — maybe it wanted me to go faster — so I slowed down. Just slightly, but I slowed down. I tried to calm my breath, tried to think clearly underneath the blaring radio and the unrelenting heat.

Another bend in the road — no, the same bend — and another billboard. I didn’t want to look, but I did. 

Wocjik was still there, but he had changed. He was chewing his own intestines, strung out from his abdomen and around his hands and mouth in a ghoulish Jacob’s ladder. He was holding them out like a piece of meat he’d show to a customer who wanted to inspect the product. 

And his eyes. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes, because I’d seen it before. They still looked pleading, but he wasn’t hoping for help — not anymore — he was trying to make a sale.

Andrews, I make sale! Get your mop! Clean-up, Aisle 7! 

The cornfields drew closer, long chapped fingers brushing my windows as I sped faster and faster down the road.

“Wocjik’s Grocery on Main, where you’ll shop ‘till you drop!” a voice taunted from my radio, and I recognized its high, near-musical tone. 

I saw his figure in the road, suddenly but clearly. His yellow teeth were stained the deep red of his handkerchief, his sharp eyes locked on mine.

Hit him. Hit him. Do it. Run straight through him.

I jammed on the brakes. I’m not sure why, really, but that’s what happened. Maybe my body knew something that I didn’t.

The tires tried to grip the loose gravel, then careened towards the ditch, then back to the center of the road, then back to the ditch, and then I started to spin. I wanted to close my eyes, but I kept them open, avoiding the figure in the road while I concentrated on regaining control.

Then, I stopped. I was sidewise, or I should have been. Instead, I was perfectly positioned to take my turn onto the road that would bring me to my house.

—-

I didn’t question it or try to understand how I’d escaped.

What good would that do? I sped down the road and pulled into my driveway, expecting to see a tall man in a green suit waiting for me on the porch. He wasn’t there. 

I expected to lay in bed with my heart pounding, flinching at every odd noise until the morning. I didn’t; I fell asleep almost instantly. My sleep was restful and dreamless.

And when neither of those expectations bore fruit, I expected to wake up to a frantic voicemail from Mr. Wocjik explaining that he needed me to open up the store on the holiday after all. I was ready to delete the voicemail and deal with the fallout. I wasn’t going in again. But I didn’t receive a voicemail. 

I did encounter one more surprise when I finally gathered the courage to leave the house the next day. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, just walking around for a bit, and I certainly wasn’t driving anywhere. The weather had warmed considerably, and the light exercise felt nice.

I must have missed it when I’d left the house, but I’m sure it had been there all night. A half-empty jar of marshmallow creme. The label was ripped off, so I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt it was Kraft.

—- 

Mr. Wocjik didn’t open the store that Thanksgiving, or any other day, for that matter. Wojcik’s Grocery is a Starbucks now.

His wife says he never came home, which I suppose is true. His car was gone, along with the money from that day’s sales. The police figured he’d skipped town, overwhelmed at the prospect of his failing business and hoping to start over somewhere else. 

I’d love to believe that. I tried, I really did. The part of my brain that tries to rationalize is still working, still rewriting, still looking for ways to disassemble what happened. I try to rationalize the stuff that’s easy to explain and write the rest off as temporary insanity.

It doesn’t work, but every once in a while, I’m able to convince myself that Mr. Armaros – if that was his name – was just an old man trying to get home to see his family for the holidays. And someone drugged my beer the night before. And Mr. Wojcik, well, people disappear all the time. Maybe he’s working in a bakery somewhere.

The feeling of understanding your world — of controlling it — is warm and comforting, so I let myself indulge in it whenever I can. 

It was traumatic, shithead. The trauma let your shithead memory turn more shitty.

But the machinery of rationalization has its limits, and over the days and weeks that followed, my explanations weakened and buckled. I still have evidence, after all — and no, I’ve never tasted “one scoop,” and I don’t think I will — and wherever I’d gone that night, it was nothing that I could control or understand. There, rationality was a liability. 

So I looked for something more satisfying. I looked for something that could tell me what I saw. I haven’t found it, but I think I’m closer.

See, I moved out of Templeton about a month later, taking out as many student loans as I could to get the hell away. I ended up in California, a long way from whatever I saw on the roads of Southern Illinois that night. 

And, since I never want to work at a grocery store again, I signed up for a few college classes. I decided to major in psychology, and this morning, my professor mentioned a phenomenon that I’d heard about a few times before. I’m sure you have, too.

It’s called the “uncanny valley.” It’s what happens when you build a robot that’s supposed to look like a person, or a CGI movie that’s supposed to look real. If the simulation isn’t very good, no big deal – nobody cares.

But if the simulation is really, really good – nearly perfect – people start to freak out. Something deep in our biology starts screaming, not a person, not a person, imposter, imposter. We become defensive and afraid.

Every person in every culture feels this effect. We can all pick up on little cues that tell us that the robot isn’t real or that the film doesn’t have real actors.You can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong. You just know something’s wrong. The uncanny valley.

After explaining the phenomenon to the class, the professor asked a question, which she probably intended to be rhetorical:

“Why did we evolve this ability over thousands and thousands of years? Why was it so important to our survival to distinguish between a real person and a fake?”

I know the reason. And he’s very particular about his condiments.

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Categories
Fiction Horror

Lyle Richards knew with absolute certainty that his best friend hated him.

No other explanation would have made sense. Why would Tom Calloway, a fully grown man, invite Lyle, another fully-grown man, to head to a tiny, shit-filled lake in the middle of nowhere for the first fishing trip in their 25-year friendship? Neither of them had ever shown a particular appreciation for fishing, nor a particular aptitude — not that Tom would admit that.

“The trick is all about a soft cast,” Tom was saying, demonstrating by holding his Shakespeare fishing pole to the side and pantomiming his cast with an absurd gentleness. He looked like a man rolling craps, not a man fishing for crappie. 

If Tom had actually cast that way, Lyle thought, his line would go about two feet in front of the boat. Instead, following a few practice casts, Tom swung his pole violently across his body, sending his line a good 20 feet. The boat shook wildly with the sudden movement, then steadied.

“And once the line’s out there, you’ve got to think like a fish. Think like a big fish. No sudden movements. Slowly reel it in, tease them with it. That’s what Grandpa always said, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t true.”

For the duration of their six-hour car ride to the lake, Tom had told stories about his grandfather while gradually adopting a poor attempt at a Southern drawl. Lyle could appreciate that — Tom’s grandfather had died about six months earlier, and Lyle thought that the accent was a sort of coping mechanism.

But Tom had also stopped to grab a pack of cigarettes and a trucker hat with “GON FISHUN’” written in massive blue letters. Lyle couldn’t forgive that. Fortunately, the hat had only lasted about a minute; when Tom had overzealously cranked the onboard motor, his souvenir had flown into the water.

“The old man always told me to stay steady,” Tom said. “Don’t overreact. Let the fish come to you.”

“No offense, Tom, but that’s fishing 101,” Lyle said, slapping a mosquito on his arm. “And you haven’t caught anything yet, either.”

Tom grinned, but Lyle could see his friend’s sunburnt face flushing a little redder with frustration. 

“But I’m not the one complaining about it,” Tom said. He took a big swig from his can of Milwaukee’s Best, trying his best to avoid grimacing from the taste.

Lyle sighed and looked past Tom towards the rotting dock where they’d launched themselves into an afternoon of sweaty misery.

“I just don’t know why we’re out here, is all. We’ve never been fishing. We’re not good at it. And when — if we catch a fish, neither of us has any idea what to do with it.”

“Well, I’ve been fishing before, plenty of times,” Tom said, his frustration growing. “And I can clean a fish, good and proper. And if you’d just fucking relax a little bit, you’d know why I brought you out here.”

“Oh, shit, is this like that scene in Godfather II?

“Keep it up, and maybe, Fredo.” Tom laughed, then reached for the pack of Marlboro Reds in his jean pocket. He hadn’t smoked prior to this trip, either, but Lyle wasn’t going to start a second argument. 

“The point of fishing is that there’s no point,” Tom continued. “No pace. You just exist. Tell dirty jokes, think about life. Breathe some air.”

“I’m just saying, we could have done that without spending $500 on a ratty-ass cottage out in the middle of bumfuck Missouri.”

Tom’s line suddenly straightened out, and he bolted upright in excitement, shooting Lyle an I-told-you-so smirk. Then the line went slack.

“No sudden movements,” Lyle said, reaching into their cooler for another lukewarm beer. “And, just my opinion, you might need a softer cast.”


As they docked their boat, Lyle tried his best to avoid poking his friend’s bruised ego. At a certain point, though, that was impossible. When two people have known each other for decades, they become involuntary acupuncturists; they know where the nerves are buried, and under the right conditions, they can’t help but poke.

“Well, fuck you if you can’t enjoy a nice day on the lake,” Tom said, pulling their little boat onto shore. His boots (which Lyle noticed were brand-new and likely purchased at REI in the days before this trip) were deep in the mud, and they made a shlock-krrrp sound with every movement. 

“I’m sorry, I really am,” Lyle said. “It’s just funny, is all. We tried, we failed. We have enough shitty beer for an unshitty weekend, I just don’t want to spend every minute burning alive while waiting for this lake to grow fish.”

That was the wrong thing to say, but Lyle knew that on some level. Tom took pride in everything he did, even when he had no idea what he was doing. More importantly, he was stubborn, and if there was any chance of talking him into a weekend of drinking on the cottage’s moldering couch, it was gone in an instant.

“It’s the fucking bait, is what it is,” he said. “There wasn’t a single good nightcrawler in that box I got from the gas station. Styrofoam probably stops them from growing like they should. And this new stinkbait — they don’t make it like they used to. I should have trusted my instincts and picked up some chicken livers.”

“Wait, like, the livers of a chicken? Why would you spend part of a perfectly good chicken to try to catch a shitty fish?”

Tom ignored the comment.

“Tomorrow, we’re gonna find a local bait shop. No more horseshit bait. And we’re going to head out earlier, too.”


At about 4:00 a.m., they were in Tom’s Subaru. Lyle was rubbing his eyes and trying to glean whatever energy he could from the stale coffee they’d made in the cabin.

“What store is going to be open this goddamn early?” he said.

“A bait shop, dumbass.” Tom had packed his worn Yankees cap, which — while not especially stylish — was a huge improvement from the GON FISHUN’ cap, in Lyle’s opinion.

After a 10-minute drive up the road, Lyle pointed out an old gas station with a “BAIT” sign hanging in the window. 

“Gas stations have awful bait,” Tom said.

“For Chrissakes, Tom, you’re not going to find a store that only sells bait,” Lyle retorted. “And think about the time. Didn’t you want to hit the lake early? If we’re driving an hour each way to find something —”

“Fine, fine. I’m already pulling in.”

Lyle felt relieved. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t push Tom’s buttons today, but that had proved difficult when his friend had woken him up at the ass-crack of dawn. He wasn’t sure he could have lasted a longer car ride without killing him. Plus, Lyle had to take a piss.

The inside of the gas station was impossibly cluttered with everything from homemade crafts to the standard Bic lighters and displays of pep-pills that you’d find at just about any roadstop in central Missouri. A large man sat behind the counter watching a small TV set. 

Large doesn’t do him justice, Lyle thought. That guy is a behemoth.

The man was easily six feet tall and must have weighed more than 200 pounds, but he wasn’t obese. He clearly hadn’t shaved recently, and his oily brown hair was tucked under a trucker cap. He was nursing a can of Coke and only looked up briefly at his new customers, giving them a slight nod before turning back to the TV.

“’Scuse me, sir,” Tom said, his faux-accent in full swing. “Was wonderin’ if you had any suggestions for fishing ‘round here. My friend and I, we were out all day yesterday and only got a bite or two. Now, I was tellin’ Lyle here that the bait was the problem, because my grampa —” 

“What were ye usin?’” The cashier’s voice sounded tired, but a little amused.

“We had worms for most of the day,” Lyle said. “Just worms.”

“Nightcrawlers,” Tom corrected. “And some stinkbait. Corporate bullshit stinkbait.”

The cashier laughed and leaned back in his uneven office chair.

“Yeah, stinkbait ain’t much good in this lake, cor’prate or otherwise. Worms, though — nightcrawlers — they shoulda caught ye somethin.’” He studied the men in front of him, looking them over with slight indifference. “The problem’s probably with yer cast.”

Tom bristled.  

“But maybe not,” the stranger continued. “Maybe you’re jus’ leavin’ the worm out too long.”

He took a swig of his Coca-Cola, a single drop escaping down the side of his lip. He wiped it off and continued. “See, mos’ fish don’t like dead worms. There’s exceptions, a’course. Yer catfish will eat jus’ about anything if they get the scent of it. Bottom feeders are like that. But in this lake, the sports fish, yer bass and shad and what-not, they ain’t an easy date. They wan’ somethin’ that moves. An’ the problem with worms is that they ain’t swimmers.”

That made sense to Lyle. Tom, however, was growing indignant.

“Listen, man, I’ve been fishing for most of my life,” he said, dropping his new accent. “That’s…kind of an oversimplification. A dead worm can catch a live fish. And I wouldn’t even use nightcrawlers for bass, they — “

“Sure, it’s a bit simple, but I’m tellin’ you what works.” Another swig of the soda. “What works in this lake, anyway. I ain’t fished where you fished, but if I did, I might ask you for advice. I jus’ fish here. Yer here, you’re askin’ me, and I’m tryin’ to tell you.”

His tone was patient. Lyle was relieved that the man didn’t seem offended. Hopefully, Tom wouldn’t keep pressing his bullshit fishing advice on the locals.

“What do you recommend?” Lyle asked quickly before his friend had a chance to talk.

“I jus’ told ye. Worms, nightcrawlers, whatever ya want to call ‘em. But if yer lookin’ for a quick catch, well, I got some here that’s a little more special than whatever ya brought from the city.”

He turned to a small cooler behind him and removed a small styrofoam container, then opened it and held it out to Lyle. They were certainly worms — nightcrawlers — but they were huge. 

“Holy shit,” Lyle said. “Those are enormous worms.”

“Yeah, but they’re just normal worms, nothin’ special. Give ‘em good soil, they get bigger than you’d think.” The cashier grinned. “Grab one.”

Lyle did so, half-expecting the worms to turn on him and burrow into his skin. They didn’t — they were, as far as he could tell, normal worms — but he was surprised to notice that they didn’t feel…slimy. 

“What the hell?” Lyle said. “They’re…coated, or something.”

And they were. A strange translucent substance seemed to cover each worm.

“It’s somethin’ my brother an’ I cooked up, you could say. Keeps them worms wrigglin’ for a little longer, an’ keeps the fish lookin’ at ‘em. And not fer nothin’, the fish seem to enjoy the taste a good deal more. Does have a smell to it, ‘least when it’s cookin, and I s’pose it draws the fish out.”

“Is it…what, like a synthetic?”

“Naw, this is natural as it comes,” he said, smiling and exposing a row of crooked teeth. “S’pose you might call it organic. Whatever ya call it, it works. I guarantee you that.”

Tom scoffed, but the man kept smiling.

“I’m sure they’re great worms,” Tom said, turning and heading towards the back of the store, “but I prefer chicken livers. It’s what my grandpa used, and there ain’t no better bait for big fish.”

Lyle winced. Tom’s hokey redneck accent was creeping back, undoubtedly due to this interaction with an actual redneck.

“Back there in the fridge,” the big man said, extending a fat finger to point where Tom was already headed. “Livers should do ya fine. Jus’ tryin’ to give you boys some options.” The last word seemed exaggerated, as if the man was trying it out for the first time. He looked back at Lyle. “An’ how ‘bout you?”

“I’ll take the fuckin’ worms, obviously,” Lyle said, and the store owner’s enormous body shook with laughter.


The gas station hadn’t had a public bathroom, so at 5:00 a.m., Lyle was pissing off the side of the boat, doing his best to stay balanced as Tom violently threw his line into the lake.

“Give me a second, man.”

“Hey, we’re burning daylight.” Tom was already reeling in his cast.

“I thought fishing didn’t have a pace?”

“Well…no, it doesn’t. But it has a rhythm, and a time.

Lyle rolled his eyes, zipped his pants, and sat down. He picked up the little styrofoam container and looked down at his bait. The worms wriggled energetically in the thick black soil. Lyle picked one and pressed it against his hook.
The sharp metal pierced the worm, but there was no blood — or, rather, there was blood, but it was contained entirely within the strange synthetic coating. A black spot spread out from the place of the puncture, but Lyle didn’t see any on either side of the hook.

“What the fuck is this stuff?” he asked, not expecting an answer from Tom or anyone else. “They’d make a million dollars if they weren’t selling it out of a gas station.”

“Yeah, that’s if it works,” Tom said. “I don’t see any fish on your side of the boat.”

Lyle held his tongue. He finished baiting his hook and cast his line. 

It was about 20 minutes before the first bite — underwhelming for “miracle bait,” Lyle thought, but a big improvement from their previous day’s efforts. He pulled in a small bluegill; the hook had cut through its cheek and half the worm was dangling out of its mouth.

“Hey, Tom, what’s this thing?” Lyle asked, holding his catch in front of his friend. “It has…fins? Is that what you call them? And scales? I think it’s…is this a fish?”

“Barely,” Tom scoffed. “Nice size for a bluegill, but anyone can catch bluegill.”

Except you, apparently, Lyle thought, but he held his tongue. He pulled out the hook, released the fish, and set to re-cast.

“Aren’t you going to put new bait on the hook?” Tom asked.

“Actually…no,” Lyle said. “It looks pretty much intact. It’s still moving.”

The worm seemed fine, though the black blood had spread further under the surface of the gummy coating. That was surprising enough — Lyle had assumed that the stuff would rinse off in the water — but the worm’s vigorous movements were unsettling. 

How long can worms live without breathing? Lyle thought as he cast his line into the deep, muddy water.

—-

The second catch of the day came soon after the first. Lyle pulled in a pan-sized bass, which had swallowed his hook; he cut the line, put the fish in his cooler, and made a mental note to look for the hook when cleaning it. His third cast brought in a foot-long catfish.

Tom wasn’t entirely unsuccessful — he was bringing in bluegill and sunfish — but by noon, Lyle had filled their cooler, and the friends were forced back to their cottage.

“You were right, Tom,” Lyle said. “Fishing’s not so bad. Especially when you’re done halfway through the day.” 

He was gloating slightly, but holding back as much as he could. 

“Yeah, well, you had some great luck,” Tom said. Lyle could tell that his friend was also holding back. “Maybe we could head out later, and you could let me try those worms.”

“I would, but I’m almost out,” Lyle said. “Every other fish was swallowing the bait.”

“That means you’re not reeling them in fast enough.”

“Yeah, probably,” Lyle said, but he wasn’t so sure. 

“Well, I might run out and get another container, then,” Tom said casually, but with a note of impatience. “While you clean your catch, I mean.”

“Fuck, Tom, I don’t know how to clean a fish!”

“You catch it, you clean it,” Tom said. “That’s the rule. Look up some YouTube videos. It’s not difficult.”

Lyle was mentally prepared for an afternoon of drinking cold beer and sitting on a musty coach. Instead, he’d be ripping apart fish guts with a dull fillet knife. Still, he couldn’t argue with the logic — not if he wanted to avoid a fight — and he was surprised to feel a sense of pride in his catch. 

“Alright, fine,” he said. “But grab an extra container of worms for me. And more beer. Anything but Milwaukee’s Best.”

After Tom left, Lyle studied several YouTube videos, then cut into the side of a decent-sized bass. He wished he’d started with a smaller fish, as he wasted a good portion of the meat to his inartful hacking. By the third fish, he’d refined his technique. His fillets were looking like — well, fillets, and he was moving from fish to fish with decent speed.

He might have worked faster if he hadn’t noticed the worms.

Some of them were thoroughly chewed, or masticated in whatever way fish masticate things. In those cases, Lyle simply had to either pick out the hooks or discard all of the fish innards, the latter of which proved to be the easier option. 

But three of the fish (or had it been four?) had not had time to ruin the worms; they’d swallowed them whole, undoubtedly hoping to move on to their next meal as quick as possible.

He’d come across the first of them when cleaning his third fish of the day. He’d thought it was a parasite, at first, because as he was pulling the guts from the carcass, he’d felt something wriggling. 

—-

Tom walked in the door with an obnoxious smile plastered to his face. His arms were full; in addition to the bait (what looked to be the store’s entire supply), he’d purchased a new rod, a tacklebox, and — worst of all — a new GON FISHUN’ hat.

“Christ,” Lyle said. “Do they make those fucking things everywhere, or just in parts of the country where people don’t have full sets of teeth?”

“Bite your tongue,” Tom retorted. “This is redneck culture, for better or worse, and as long as I’m down here, I’m embracing it.”

“I noticed.” Lyle rubbed his neck, noticing in the process that he’d been badly sunburnt that morning. “Hey, I don’t know about these worms, by the way.”

“What are you talking about?” Tom exclaimed. “You were pulling them in this morning. You worried that I’ll steal your luck if we’re using the same bait?”

“No, I couldn’t give a shit less if you murdered every fish in the state.” Lyle held up one of the worms he’d taken from the morning’s catch. “Look at this. The thing’s still alive. I mean, it’s seen better days, clearly, but it’s alive.”

Tom studied the worm in awe. He was silent for a few seconds, which Lyle saw as a welcome change.

“Holy shit,” Tom said finally. “Holy…holy shit.” He reached out and grabbed the worm, holding it carefully between two fingers. “Lyle, do you remember what you said? Earlier, in the boat?”

“That I finally realized I loved you, and I was ready to leave my wife to make you my everything?”

“After that,” Tom said, shooting a grin. “You said that hillbilly could make a million dollars if he knew what he had.”

“Sure,” Lyle said. “Well, they could.”


“Yes,” Tom said slowly. “They could. Or we could.”

“I’m not following.”

“Look, whatever this stuff is, they’re wasting it. If it can keep a worm alive underwater — or in a fish — could it work, you know, on people? Could it, I don’t know, kill cancer?”

Lyle laughed. “That’s where you go? Cure cancer? It’s bait, Tom, it isn’t exactly stem cell therapy.”

“Why not?” Tom responded, his voice growing louder. “Why couldn’t it…look, I’m not a doctor — ”

“I couldn’t tell from your hat.”

“I’m not a doctor,” Tom continued. “But I know that if something can keep organic life alive in these conditions, it could have serious value.”

“Wait, you sure you’re not a doctor?”

“Okay, fine, be a dick about it.” Tom threw the worm in the sink and started washing his hands. “You know I’m right. And you know that I paid $50 for something that could make both of us rich.”

And another $75 for gear that makes you look like a total dick, Lyle thought, but this time he held his tongue. He couldn’t deny it — he’d been thinking the same thing since he’d dug the wriggling worm out of the fish’s lime-green entrails. That fish had been dead for hours. The worm was still wriggling in the sink.

“So what’s your plan?” Lyle said after a few seconds of silence. “We take these back to…a laboratory? I don’t know any laboratories that specialize in worms, but that’s why Google exists.”

“Naw, fuck that,” Tom said. “We’re going back to the bait shop.”

—-

They didn’t go back right away. They argued first, then drank, then argued some more. Then they drank some more. It was a cycle they’d perfected over decades of friendship, the same back-and-forth they’d used when arguing about the ownership of a Lou Brock rookie card in 4th grade (at the time, they were drinking Cherry Cokes, but the loop was otherwise identical). 

And as with all the other times they’d ran through the cycle, the outcome was predetermined. 9-year-old Lyle had known from the start that Tom would end up with the Lou Brock card — despite the fact that he’d loaned Tom the money for the card pack, with the express agreement that Lyle could pick any card he wanted — and 35-year-old Lyle knew that he’d end up sulking in the passenger seat as Tom drove them to the bait shop.

“We pay them,” Lyle said. “We come up with a fair number, write them a check, and get the recipe. Or formula, or whatever it is. But we’re not going to fuck these people over.”

“I would never dream of it,” Tom said, offended. “You act like you don’t know me.”

“Oh, I know you,” Lyle said. “And I know you want to bullshit them. I know you, Tom, and I’m telling you, if this stuff is as valuable as you think it is — “

“As valuable as we know it is.”

“Fine. If it’s that valuable, this isn’t the time to try to play hardball.”

Tom laughed and took a swig of Budweiser.

“This is exactly the time to play hardball,” he said. “But I won’t play too hard, I promise.”

Lyle remembered the baseball cards and sunk deep into his seat. 

The bait shop was closed. Predictable, since they’d argued and drank for hours, taking a brief break to eat some poorly butchered fish — by the time they’d left the cottage, it was about 9:00.

The drive seemed to take much longer than it had in the early hours of the morning. When the bait shop’s haggard facade crept into view, Lyle felt a mixture of anxiety and relief. Tom, on the other hand, was smiling broadly. 

His smile dimmed when he saw the black-and-red “CLOSED” sign on the store’s door. They walked up anyway — Lyle knew that Tom would never head back unless he’d personally checked that the store was completely vacant.

“We can try again tomorrow,” Lyle said. He thought he’d be able to talk Tom out of the endeavor by then, or at least he hoped so. He was realizing that he’d have trouble explaining the situation to a rational person, and he was growing more uncomfortable by the second. Something about the cashier’s demeanor had given him deep reservations, even before he’d started casually dispensing advice and otherworldly bait.

But while the storefront was certainly closed, a dim yellow light shone in the back of the shop. Tom took that as an invitation.

“Hey!” he shouted, banging on the door, “Anyone home? Or…not home, but here?” 

Lyle felt his hands start to twitch. They always twitched when he felt nervous — one of the many reasons he’d had trouble dating in college. Tom, on the other hand, was always able to bluster his way through any discomfort he felt. If he feels anything at all, Lyle thought.

“My business partner and I, we have a proposition for you,” Tom continued. “Y’all home? I mean, here?”

The light in the shop dimmed — someone was passing in front of it. Lyle’s heart sank. A minute or so later, the store’s lock made a solid shunk sound,, then the door opened. 

This wasn’t the massive man they’d seen earlier; this man was bigger. His greasy blonde hair sat under a white-and-blue trucker’s cap, which was much too small for his gargantuan head. If Lyle had to guess (and if he didn’t have to guess, he ventured one anyway), the man was seven feet tall. A wide scar ran from his right eye to his lip, which curled into a sneer as he observed his visitors.

“’Chu want?” the man said, leaving his mouth hanging open as if he’d only close it when he received a response.

“Nothing, we were just leaving,” Lyle blurted out, and Tom elbowed him sharply.

“We’re here with a proposition.”

“The fuck is that?”

“A business opportunity,” Tom said quickly. “We — well, we want to buy your bait.”

“Store’s open in the mornin.’ Buy yer bait then.”

After he’d finished speaking, the big man’s mouth hung open. Lyle wondered whether the guy was a few lures short of a full tackle box. 

“No, we’re not trying to buy — not just the bait,” Tom said. “We’re trying to get the recipe. We can make a lot of money together, if you’ll —”

“It ain’t for sale,” the big man said, and there was a note of finality in his booming voice. This time, he clenched his jaw.

“Well, now, everything’s for sale,” Tom said. “And sir, we’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer. We used those worms all day, and there’s big money here. Big money. Thousands of dollars, even.”

Thousands? Lyle thought. Pretty sure we were talking about millions on the way over. 

But the big man grinned and rubbed his chin. He let out a laugh and opened the door wide.

“Fine, then,” he concluded. “S’pose everything does have its price. Come on t’the back.”

Tom shot Lyle a look. See? I told you I’m a businessman, it seemed to say. Lyle looked away quickly and reluctantly followed the big man into the store.

“No hardball,” Lyle whispered to his friend.

“Not much,” Tom responded with a grin. “I promise.”

There was a small door behind the counter. Lyle hadn’t seen it earlier, possibly because it didn’t have a handle. It seemed like someone — not a carpenter, certainly — had simply sawed through the drywall, removed some studs, and made a new door out of whatever scrap they had laying around. The sides of the doorway were ragged and unfinished, with at least three rusty nails jutting out at odd angles.

The big man bent down to get through the uneven door frame, deftly maneuvering his enormous body around the nails. On the other side, the two out-of-towners found themselves a surprisingly spacious garage. Tools, grease, and empty bags of potato chips covered the floor, and a sickly sweet smell invaded Lyle’s nostrils. Something was burning.

Near the center of the garage, Lyle saw the cashier from earlier sitting in an old lawn chair. Another old TV was blasting infomercials. When they walked into the room, the man stood, but he looked neither annoyed nor surprised.

“Well, if it ain’t the fishermen,” he laughed. “I thought you boys would be back again. Thought it wouldn’t be ‘til tomorrow, though.”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Lyle lied. “We just…we wanted to ask about that bait.”

“Oh, ‘course you do,” he said. “Well, you can ask away. ‘fore you do, though, I can save us a bit of time: It ain’t for sale.”

“Why not?” Tom asked.


“Family recipe.”

Lyle tried to shoot a look at Tom that would say well, we’ve got our answer, let’s get the fuck out of here, but the sentiment didn’t get across.

“You know what else was a family recipe?” Tom asked. “Ragu. The pasta sauce that’s worth millions of dollars per year. White-Out, invented by one of the Beastie Boys’ mothers, worth hundreds of thousands.”

Beach boys, Lyle silently corrected. No, wait, Monkees. Or Captain and Tenille? I can never remember.


“S’pose they make plenty of money sellin’ horseshit to idiots,” the cashier said, “but this ain’t that. This stuff ain’t horseshit, and we ain’t tryin’ to make it into horseshit anytime soon. And if you boys are leavin’ town, god bless ya, but you ain’t leavin’ with this.”

“Well, thought we’d check anyway,” Lyle said. “Have a nice —”

“$20,000 cash, right now,” Tom said. “Well, not cash — you’d have to take a check. But we can go to the bank tomorrow, and —”

“Hey, Teddy, these boys listen worse than you,” the cashier said. The big man, whose name was apparently Teddy, let out a bellowing laugh. The cashier turned down the TV — Lyle offhandedly noticed that it was a black-and-white set, which he hadn’t seen in at least a decade — and turned his full attention to his guests.

“Listen, son, it ain’t about the money. Hell, it ain’t even about two fuckin’ city boys coming in and telling me my business, though I don’t like that much, if I’m honest. But the money definitely ain’t it. You don’t even know what yer askin’ for.”

“Then tell me,” Tom said. His voice sounded almost petulant. “Tell me what we’re dealing with here.” He looked over at Lyle, then straightened his shoulders. “Or…we could just take it, even if we’re ‘city boys’ to you.”

“Tom,” Lyle said, but his old friend was on a roll. Tom didn’t even acknowledge Lyle’s feeble protest as he continued.

“My friend Lyle here has friends in Big Pharma. They have labs — big labs, where they can take one of those worms in my truck and run it through all types of tests. I expect they’d figure out how that…stuff keeps them alive, and I expect they’d figure it out in no time, flat. Hell, they might even make it better. We could have done it that way, but I’m an honorable man. I figured, if a man invents something — something really special — well, he’s entitled to some payment for it.”

The cashier looked at Tom with seething disinterest. Seconds passed, the now-faint sound of the infomercial reverberating through the garage while Lyle wondered whether either of the enormous men in front of him had seen Deliverance. 

“Well, you do drive a hard bargain,” the cashier said finally. He spit into his palm and held it out to Tom. “$50,000, though. It don’t all have to be tomorrow, but I expect you to be a man of yer word, Mr. Honorable Man.”

“$40,000,” Tom said.

“$40,000,” the cashier agreed. Tom spit into his own palm with perverse appreciation for the gesture, then shook.

“Name’s Bobby Sogoth,” the cashier said.

“Tom Rivers. You won’t regret this, Mr. Sogoth.”

“No,” Bobby responded coolly, “I s’pose I won’t.” 

He didn’t let go of Tom’s hand.

Lyle saw the tire iron before Tom did, but neither of them saw it for very long. Teddy must have had it ready, and while the big man wasn’t especially fast, he was strong enough that it didn’t matter much. He crushed it into the side of Tom’s temple first, then whipped it into Lyle’s face as Tom slunk to the ground.

Tom was unconscious immediately, but Lyle wasn’t so lucky. He fell to the ground, then looked up as Teddy cocked his arm back for a second time.

“Alive!” Bobby shouted. “Alive, ya big fuck!”

And then came the second blow.

—-

When a person gets knocked out in the movies, the person is aware and capable of asking questions (usually directed towards a conniving villain) within a few seconds. That was not Lyle’s experience.

He came back to consciousness quickly, but he had a solid minute of pure confusion before he realized where he was. Massive head injuries will do that to a person, and that period of confusion isn’t fun. Panic shot through him as every nerve in his body kicked on at once, and his eyes darted wildly around the room. He was unable to think or focus, and each shallow breath seemed to bring him further into the abyss.

When his mind finally cleared, he immediately wished he could go back into the confusion. Bobby sat in front of him in the same old lawn chair. He thought he heard a hissing sound, but the burning smell was stronger than ever, a rancidness that filled his senses as he gasped for air.

He blinked his eyes. They were still in the garage, he knew that, but they weren’t where they’d been seconds ago. Or hours ago — Lyle was unsure.

Bobby was moving his hands, demonstrating something. Teddy stood to the side, his massive arms crossed.

“…so when you can’t buy it, you can’t buy it,” Bobby was saying.

“Wh…what?”

Both of the big men laughed.

“Oh, you probably got racked up too good to listen to any of that,” Bobby said. “Apologies, friend, but I ain’t gonna run through it again. I was sayin’ it more for me than for you, I ‘spose. But I’ll give you the overview.”

“The…overview?”

“Cliff’s Notes, the overview, whatever you want to call it,” Bobby said. “Well, here it is: This here’s my brother Teddy, since you were too rude to ask him his name yerself, and we’re not too happy with you or your friend right now.”

Lyle tasted blood and realized he couldn’t see from his right eye. The pain was slowly settling in.

“Yeah,” Lyle replied, “I kind of gathered that.”

Bobby let out another chortling laugh. 

“Funny guy, I like that,” he said. “Much better than bein’ an ‘honorable man’ like yer friend.”

The details of that evening were slowly coming back to Lyle, and he tried to sit up in his — chair? He was sitting in a lawn chair — at the mention of Tom.

“Where is…he? Where’s Tom?”

“He’s still alive, if that’s what you’re asking. Has to be, in fact.”

“Has…to be?”

Bobby looked up at his brother and grinned. 

“Say, Teddy, maybe we ought to show him what their money’s good for.”

“What it’s good for,” Teddy repeated.

“Please,” Lyle said, “I don’t…I don’t care about any of it. I doubt Tom even has the money. He sells fucking lawnmowers and drives a Japanese truck. This is all just…he promised he wasn’t gonna…disrespect—”

Disrespect?” Bobby screamed. “Oh, you want to talk about respect? Well, I’ll tell you what I disrespect, and I bet it’s not what you think.” 

He rose off the chair and walked towards Lyle, locking his eyes on his prisoner. Behind him, Teddy seemed almost nervous. Lyle suddenly realized that he’d been tied to his chair, a perfectly unsurprising revelation.

“It ain’t that yer from the city. It ain’t that yer pissin’ yer pants in my garage. And it ain’t that you wouldn’t know how to catch a fish if it jumped into yer fuckin’ boat.”

Bobby put his face right up to Lyle’s. The man’s breath was stale and raw.

“What I hate is that yer friend talks to me like I’m a fuckin’ hillbilly.”

And suddenly, Lyle laughed. He couldn’t stop laughing.

“What else…what else are you?” he said between laughs. “Look at you…look at all this.” He tried to gesture around the garage with his head. “If you’re not hillbillies, what are you? Rednecks?”  

Bobby didn’t seem enraged by the laughter. If anything, he seemed to loosen up.

“Well, you are a comedian,” he said. “And I really do like that.” He slapped his prisoner hard across the face, bringing a bright flash of light to Lyle’s limited vision.

Bobby laughed before continuing.


“No, me and my brother here aren’t hillbillies. We’re too friendly for that. You see a hillbilly, and it’s too late for ya — they jus’ wanna be alone. And rednecks, well, they just drive their trucks around and listen to shitty music. Can’t stand rednecks.”

“Can’t stand ‘em,” Teddy said.

“We might look like rednecks or hillbillies, but that ain’t what we are.” He leaned back in his chair.

“We’re Sogorths. That’s what we are. It ain’t just a family name, it’s a way of life. And you’re not a Sogorth. That’s why you’re never gonna understand what makes this bait so special.” 

“But we can sure try to show you. With some help from your friend there.”

Teddy reached out and spun the lawn chair around with frightening ease. Then, Lyle was screaming. His head was aching harder by the second, but he couldn’t stop. It was an automatic reaction — truly automatic, because Lyle felt more confused than terrified for the first few seconds.

He was looking at a hot tub — or some grotesque facsimile of a hot tub, made with stainless steel and filled with boiling black liquid. A propane heating element was underneath; that explained the hissing sound.

Tom was in the tub, propped against the side, his skin red and bubbling and torn. He seemed to be melting. No, he was melting, his flesh dripping like a candle, dropping off his face and chest and into the liquid. One of his arms was missing, but there was no bloody stump, just a putty-like mass of skin and fat. 

That was why Lyle screamed, but it wasn’t what kept him screaming. Somehow, the grotesque monster in the tub was still alive. 

Tom opened and closed his mouth dumbly, a look of shock and panic in his eyes. He moved his arms — what was left of them — in an attempt to climb out, but his formless mass slipped against the sides and fell into the water. When he rose his arms again, more flesh was missing. More had melted into the blackness.

“Christ, Teddy, will you turn him the fuck around and slap the shit out of him? I like a good scream as much as the next fella, but either this guy’s a fuckin’ cas-tra-to or he’s had enough.”

Teddy turned Lyle around and the thud of his backhand ended Lyle’s wailing. 

“You..”

Lyle could manage no more. Both of the big men laughed.

“Yeah, us,” Bobby said. “Sogorths. Don’t forget it. Y’all were ready to pay big money for the secret sauce — now you know what it is! Still want to run to the bank? Get us a cash-year’s check?”

Lyle strained to think clearly, and said the only thing that came to mind. “It’s…fat…human…fat?”

Bobby cocked his head. He looked strangely disappointed.

“Shit, Lyle, I’m startin’ to think you don’t actually know any big-city scientists. No, it ain’t just the fat. It’s the everything. We tried with just the fat, we tried with just the bones, hell, we tried a batch with just peckers and titties.”

He reached under his chair and grabbed a Coke from a dirty cooler.

He took a long drink, relishing the soda — or relishing Tom’s confusion. Probably both.

“It’s everything, that’s what it is. Our old grandpa figured it out years ago when he was…well, hell, there’s no use beatin’ around the bush, he was quite the killer in his day. He was just tryin’ to keep his house clean — and spend a little less time diggin’ holes — and he figured out a way to do it real easy. Found a way to keep ‘em alive, for a bit anyway, as he did it. And as it turns out, it makes damn good bait, too.”

Another sip of the drink.

“When Gramps died, we kept on with the family recipe, but it weren’t easy. We figured out that it wouldn’t work with just any body — heh, any person’s body — that won’t do it, ya see. We tried makin’ it out of any ol’ fool that came up here. It kept them worms alive, sure, but the fish din’t like it.”

“Swam away,” Teddy said.

“Din’t seem to last as long, neither. I don’t understand it myself. Don’t pretend to. Only seems to work with certain types o’folk, the type that come down here lookin’ to cause trouble. Folks that have a bit of violence in ‘em. Folks like yer friend here. And the longer they sit in there, the more they feel it, the better the batch.”

Lyle knew he wouldn’t like the answer, but he had to ask.

“What are you going to do to me?”

“You?” Bobby laughed. “Well, we’re gonna let you go. I don’t think you’d make good bait. But ya gotta promise to be a good boy an’ never say a word to anyone, not even yer own momma.”

“Yes, of course,” Lyle exclaimed, waves of relief colliding with the adrenaline surging through his body. “I would never…I don’t even know what I’d say…”

But the brothers were cackling and slapping each other on the back, and Lyle’s relief turned back to dread.

“Naw, naw, I wish that were the case, I really do,” Bobby said. “But you disrespected me in my establishment here, an’ my brother, an’ we got a bit of our grampa in us, if you catch what I’m sayin’.”

“And not just the parts o’him we ate,” Teddy said, and they cackled again as Bobby raised the hammer and swung it hard and quick at Lyle’s head.


This time, the blackness didn’t disappear when Lyle opened his eyes. Not at first, anyway. The confusion was just as bad as before, but something in him was fighting; something knew that he needed to regain his wits as quickly as possible, and that if he didn’t, things would be worse.

But his eyes were open, and soon after, his brain was moving, restoring connections, remembering the horrific events of the night. 

He tried to kick. He couldn’t feel the ground under him, but his right leg wouldn’t move — his left leg, though, seemed to float in the air, moving back and forth freely. 

Am I dead? Or dreaming? Or…

He tried to move his arms, but they were tied to his chest with thick rope. He tried to take a deep breath, but the air wouldn’t come. His lungs howled in agony, begging him to try again, but his second attempt was no more fruitful than the first.

A light suddenly shone through the blackness, blinding Lyle for a moment. It seemed to reflect off…something in front of him, something — 

Oh, God. Oh, Jesus, God, no.

The light was high above Lyle’s head, aimed directly at him. Dark shapes shot past it, unclear and indistinguishable in the surrounding blackness. 

He was underwater.

The light was coming from a small boat, and the weight on his foot — unmovable and rigid — was tying him to the bed of the lake.

And he suddenly realized why he couldn’t breathe. Why he’d never be able to breathe again.

Lyle kicked and kicked, his one leg flailing wildly. He twisted his torso, straining against the ropes. He tried to scream, which only brought more wracking pain to his tortured lungs. He tried to blink, but couldn’t. The stuff — the same stuff he’d marveled at hours earlier in the kitchen of a mildewy cabin — wouldn’t let him.

Soon, the fish came. At first, his jerking scared them away, but gradually they recognized the movements as the panicked motion of a particularly large and particularly delicious worm at the end of a particularly big hook.

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