Pest Control, Part 3

Pest Control, Part 3

I don’t know how far down the line I am right now, so I gotta stop and check myself. I have this LED flashlight thing and it’s plenty bright, but I always get a little nervous when I turn it on, y’know? Like, I’m not sure what I’ll see. I ain’t ever had nothin’ jump out at me, or be waiting in the dark for the right moment, but it always makes me nervous.

So I turn on the light and there’s nothing there. It’s just a narrow little tunnel that goes up over my head in a dome shape, like round tunnels do, and there’s a bunch of crap-water in the bottom. I don’t look at it – not if I can help it. And there’s probably rats down here somewhere too, but they won’t be around the skeeters. Skeeters drive most things off. Since I don’t see any rats or whatever, and I don’t wanna see the bumpy brown fish, I just keep my eyes on my gear.

The light’s just so I can get my map on. It’s like one of those things you read books on, ‘cept I can use it in the dark. It’s got a map of the tunnels and if I’m careful and pay attention, I can follow ‘em pretty well with it. I get my bearings and then turn it back off, and make sure the light’s in reach. I don’t know why. I always like to have it in reach though.

Back in the day, when there weren’t as many of ‘em around, killin’ skeeters was done by people like the CDC. They’d send some goobers out with their white anti-viral suits and stuff, and they’d go muckin’ around in the shit water ‘til they find the nest. Always big fun when a news crew found out about it, too, ‘cause they’d want to go into the tunnels too. At first it was funny to see how their faces get so weird when they realize what’s up down here. But then, some chick bought it on camera when the skeeters went nuts and they don’t let ‘em down here anymore. Matter of fact, they started hiring guys like us ‘cause we can be “discreet.” You know, nobody pays attention to some schlub like me. But some hard-body bottle-blond with silicone tits and botox lips gets ripped up, well…time to shut off the TV, know what I mean?

So here I am and I’m close. If the intell’s right, I mean. Sometimes we don’t get good info on where we’re s’posed to go to find ‘em and then it’s a turd hunt. But I don’t want to take any chances, so I’m grabbing my FLIR and turn it on. It takes a couple of minutes, but when it’s warmed up it’s a big help findin’ skeeters in the tubes.

See, like I toldja before, this is a virus thing. And like most viruses – least, that’s what the CDC says – it causes fever. So even after the host is pretty much gone and there’s only the virus trying to spread itself, the body it’s usin’ is toasty warm and shows up nice on the FLIR.

That’s another reason the creepy-ass suckers come down here. It’s cool, but not cold, and they get out of the light. There’s something called “photosensitivity” they get as part of the virus, and their eyes are real sensitive to sunshine and whatnot. Bright lights make ‘em nuts. So one way to keep skeeters off ya is to blind ‘em with bright lights and move away. Mostly it works.

Mostly.

Problem is, lots of times they panic when you blaze ‘em. When the charges go off, they wake up. By then, ‘course, it’s too late, but sometimes – and not often, but every once in a while now – they wake up while you’re plantin’ the charges. The charges are little fire-bomb things that you direct at the nest. Then you gotta go under or around the nest to the other side and make sure there’s enough charges on both sides. Otherwise, they get away. Just one skeeter gettin’ away can cause a new infestation somewhere else, so you have to get ‘em all.

I ain’t never had a nest wake up on me, but my buddy Turk did. Turk – everybody knew Turk after he started exterminating, but I knew him all my life. We went to school together, got high together, got drunk together, even lost our cherries the same night on a double date. We were tight, man. And he worked for the CDC back when the shit first started, but when it started gettin’ outta hand, he went private. But he kept his CDC suit.

One day Turk was chargin’ a nest over in Dunston. Got everything all set, but when he tried to get back to the front side of the nest – you know, where he came in, so he could go out the same way he got in? – one of the skeeters woke up. Musta smelled him or something. It went nuts down there and woke up a whole bunch more of ‘em.

Turk tried runnin’ but they tore a hole in his suit, and ‘fore long he was just buried. I heard when they found ‘im there wasn’t much left. They had to burn his corpse real quick though, so he didn’t turn. The infection can spread even if you died after exposure. I guess they didn’t want to take a chance, so they cremated him same day.

I never did get to say good-bye to him.

And then that TV reporter chick. That wasn’t pretty, I heard.

I try not to think about stuff like that ‘cause it can give ya the yips, y’know? This is sorta all I have going for me right now in life, so I can’t get the yips.

Anyway, I’m startin’ to pick something up on the FLIR now. Just a brighter spot on the screen, but I’ve seen it before. I know what it is.

Showtime, I guess.

Pest Control, Part 2

Think of me as the Orkin man for bloodsuckers. We don’t call ‘em bloodsuckers, though. They ain’t that dignified, not when you see ‘em like I do. We call ‘em fleas, or skeeters. They’re like that, kinda. Like fleas or mosquitoes. Or maybe spiders. Yeah, you can think of ‘em as spiders.

I’m in a pipe now. It took a long time to get the damned grate off, ‘course. That’s why the friggin’ things do this in the first place. It’s hard to spot ‘em down here. They get dark all the time, they can hear ya comin’, and with the grates and stuff it’s hard to find ‘em. Miles of tunnel, too, so it’s easy to get lost.

‘Course, they can get lost too, and sometimes do. They die if they don’t eat a little every night, so if they get lost it’s either come up or starve. They ain’t too bright though, so mostly they die.

I can’t remember who figured out the sewers. Might’ve been an accident. You know, some poor bastard stumbled on ‘em, maybe. I don’t know, it’s been a while.

The goo in the bottom of the tube ain’t nice. I had to start puttin’ menthol crap under my nose to keep from gaggin’ over the smells. You get used to it, I guess, but I sure can’t figure how the fleas live in it all the time.

My hip waders almost always keep the stuff in the bottom of the tube off me. I don’t know what to call it. But I’m in a sewer, so you can guess what it is.

Municipalities and such hire us when they get hit. I don’t know why they always wait until they get hit, but hey, a paycheck’s a paycheck, right? I don’t ask questions. But they always wait. Nobody hires us to go in and check before somebody gets killed, or it’s a damned infestation like roaches. Then it’s an emergency. Too bad for the victims, but bonus for us. We get paid emergency rates, and that’s why I keep doin’ this shit.

It’s stinky, shitty work and someone’s gotta do it. I ain’t squeamish and like I said, I don’t mind the tunnels, so I put on my waders and mask, my gloves and slicker, and hi-ho, hi-ho, shit diving I do go.

Lucky frickin’ me, right?

Pest Control, Part 1

Everybody thinks vampires sleep in lavish mansions, wear fine silk clothes and live the life of a frickin’ beer commercial or TV show.

Lemme tell you something, that ain’t nothing like the truth.

Vampires ain’t people. That’s the first thing you gotta know. They ain’t human, so they ain’t people at all. They’re not even animals, really. Not if you think about it. They don’t have babies, and don’t really breed at all. So, not really animals. You know?

Think of vampires more like…like germs, sorta. Parasites or viruses. They take a living body and just kinda…take over. Once they have it — the body, I mean — there’s none that person left. Only the vampire. Just like when a virus kills someone, it’s the only thing left. The virus, I mean. That’s how vampires are. They kill the someone and only the vampire’s left.

If they were zombies from a George Romero movie, no one would be confused by it. The only question would be what to do about killing ‘em. You know, head shots or some voodoo ritual or whatnot.

But TV and movies and books and shit made vampires sexy and attractive and oh-so-stylish, so most folks ain’t ready for the real thing. It’s a shock to ‘em.
That’s why I’m down here. I’m an exterminator, sort of.

This is what I do.

I’m AT THE BIJOU Today!

The gracious and lovely Absolutely*Kate from the wonderfully diverse AT THE BIJOU has honored me by featuring my fiction in her amazing little theater today!

She’s done it up right with great pictures and fancy formatting, and included the bio my loving wife wrote for me.

Please, amble over to AT THE BIJOU and give a shout-out to Absolutely*Kate and let me know what you thought of my story (if you haven’t already read it — I had to send her one I published here for my #fridayflash entry back in November of ’09).

All of my gratitude go to A*K and THE BIJOU for selecting me to take a moment in the spotlight. I’m humbled.

-JDT-

#FridayFlash: The Crisp Man

He shifted on the soft, padded seat. It was very comfortable but he still felt … uncomfortable. He didn’t know why though.

“S-see, it’s j-j-just that m-my w-wife is the w-w-one who usually–”

“We understand, Joe.”

The tall man looked like a magazine ad. One for clothes maybe; those fine, fancy clothes from one of those shops where soft violin or piano music drips from the ceiling and walls. He wore crisp, dark, neat clothes. His tie had no flawed edges, no stray wrinkles. His hair was gray around the ears and jet black on top, and every strand, every piece, sat in its place, perfect, a plastic statue, movie star hair. The rugged lines in his face drew Joe’s eyes.

Joe swallowed hard. It was just spit but it went down like he’d swallowed a tire. He almost gagged. “Y-you … You do?”

The Crisp Man nodded. “Of course we do. We know all about you, Joe.”

Joe listened whenever the Crisp Man talked. He couldn’t help it. His smooth, rich voice was hot maple syrup on a cold winter morning. Joe felt better when he heard that voice. He wanted a voice like that.

Joe shifted again. He didn’t like the idea of someone he’d never seen before knowing all about him. He didn’t care for the thought of someone who knew all about him. It felt like someone went through his underwear drawer, or found his dad’s dirty magazines under his mattress.

“B-but I d-don’t know who y-you–”

“It’s all right, Joe. Really. We understand you can’t read the agreement.”

Joe’s blood chilled. They knew him all right. Knew that much, at least. He never told anyone, but they knew. He couldn’t go anyplace where he’d have to write his name, or his address. He couldn’t visit libraries and no one ever saw him with a newspaper in his hand. It’s a small town. People talk. Everyone probably knew. Still, an icy hand gripped his heart when the Crisp Man spoke his secret shame.

Joe shuddered and stared at the paper. The jumble of letters and words seemed alien and threatening. He glanced at the Crisp Man with narrowed eyes, and tried to muster all the fight he had into his words.

“And all I have t-to d-do is m-make my m-mark on this paper? And y-you’ll g-g-give m-me m-money?”

The Crisp Man smiled again and his perfect, TV-star teeth shined at Joe. “That’s all. And take the medicine, of course.”

“Right. The m-medicine. W-what’s it f-for again?”

“It’s for many things, Joe. It will make you everything you want to be. Strong. Smart. And it will take away your stutter.”

“All that?”

“And more.”

“J-just for t-taking the m-medicine?”

“And making a mark in your own hand on the paper, yes.”

Joe looked down again. The letters seemed to shift and crawl over the paper. He stared at the gold pen gleaming on the table, reflecting from the glossy varnish, and the paper next to it. Then he focused on his own reflection in the table. His wild hair, his ragged clothes, his scruffy beard, his hollow eyes, all stared back and urged him to pick up the pen, make the mark.

“We know you don’t have a wife, Joe. You lost her years ago in the fire.”

Joe shuddered again when a chill twisted up his spine. He wiped the sweat from his palms onto his dirty overall legs and put them back on the table. How could the Crisp Man know he was about to lie again, say his wife usually does all the reading and signing for him? But he knew. Somehow, the Crisp Man knew. He could read Joe’s mind, maybe. Like some folks read books and magazines, the Crisp Man saw into Joe’s skull and picked his thoughts out. He couldn’t hide anything from the Crisp Man.

Joe licked his lips. His heart pounded. The Crisp Man reached out and nudged the pen toward him with trimmed, clean nails which glinted under the recessed lights above. The room felt hidden to Joe, dark and mysterious beyond the circles of light from above. The warm carpet and rich table didn’t make the room cozy or friendly. Joe felt very alone, very defenseless, and very watched.

“N-nothin’ bad’ll happen to me from the m-medicine you said, right?”

“That’s right, Joe. Nothing bad.”

“And this p-paper s-says y-you gotta p-pay me t-t-to t-take the m-medicine, right?”

“That’s right. More money than you’ve ever made before. Just for making your mark on the agreement and taking the medicine.”

Joe drew a deep breath and seized the pen, found the line at the bottom of the paper and made a large, clear X on it. He dropped the pen and sat back in the embrace of the soft chair and folded his arms over his chest.

“Very good, Joe. You won’t regret this. Now I’ll have someone drive you home and your first pills will arrive later. We’ll call you and let you know when you need to come back for tests. We’ll send a car when it’s time. Do you understand, Joe?”

Joe nodded. He couldn’t speak. He felt bad, like he’d done something wrong.

“Don’t worry, Joe,” the Crisp Man soothed. “We know all about you, and we’re going to take care of you.”

He watched the Crisp Man get up from his seat and vanish through a door he couldn’t see somewhere beyond the ring of lights. Joe thought, no matter what the Crisp Man said, he might’ve made a big mistake.

A big one.

~fin~

All original content © J. Dane Tyler 2010
All rights reserved

#FridayFlash: Work in the Daylight

Gotta get as much done in daylight as possible.

Most folks take to cellars at night, or underground vaults if they got ‘em. If they don’t they hole up best they can and try to wait it out. But wooden shutters ain’t much.

In the morning we come out and take stock. Did we lose livestock? We hope so, otherwise we might’ve lost people. How many? Anyone lose a door? Window? God forbid, a wall? Gotta get that fixed quick. While some of us do that others get to work, try and conduct business, like we’re normal. Still need money, food, supplies. When traders come through we might make serious money on the rocks. Other times we just do what we can.

Getting supplies is tricky. We tell ‘em to make their delivery drivers stay outside town until sun-up. We only do business during daylight. No, there’s no inn to stay at. No, there ain’t a hotel. No, the saloon don’t rent rooms. All drivers have to stay over in Creigsville for the night and get here quick as they can at first light. We do all we can during the day, then they need to get back to Creigsville by sundown.

Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, well….

Some comp’nies won’t do business with us anymore. Their drivers get spooked or don’t come back, horse teams get lost … it just ain’t worth it to ‘em. So we only work with a handful of comp’nies for supplies.

Some raw materials we can bring in. We got some woods just outside town a bit. Send a couple men out to cut down a few trees, or drag back deadfalls. During the day, of course. We mill those ourselves, no need to send that out.

We raise livestock like I said. It’s just not easy keeping all of them alive through the night.

Some farms produce. It’s just hard to farm under these conditions.

Other stuff we need. Like clothes or textiles, flour, sugar.

Winters are hard.

First thing a traveler might notice is how heavy we build things here. Barns are strong. Thicker than normal. Houses too. We need the strength, but wood ain’t the best barrier. Way back, some folks dug cellars and vaults. Lined ‘em with concrete, when you could still get it. Those are best. Folks can snug up safe and sound in concrete, and if it’s built right, they don’t even hear what happens after dark.

You can tell the ones who do hear by their eyes. Haunted. Gaunt, drawn faces. Paler than others. Yeah, those are the ones that heard. Sleep’s a demon for them. It’s not pleasant when it comes.

Evenings are spent stocking up. Making sure everything and everyone’s where it oughta be. Inside, locked down, by sundown. Everyone.

Sometimes I shudder when I remember times someone didn’t make it, or had one last thing to do. I try not to remember their faces, their screams.

I’m haunted by their screams.

Copyright J. Dane Tyler 2010, All rights reserved

#FridayFlash: The future’s not bright

The Future’s not Bright

Sometimes I wonder what it was like before.

I sit and stare, and my mind will drift. I can paint greenery over the skeletal trees, fill them in with leaves. My mind’s canvas plasters a rich jade color over the dry yellow straw in the fields. The sky’s the hardest. There are so many different pictures to choose from. Some are cerulean, others a more cadet blue. Wispy clouds drifting on gentle zephyrs cast shadows over children on their backs forming imaginary animals and shapes from their amorphous forms.

Sometimes I wonder.

For the most part though, I don’t participate in those flights of fancy. Instead I pace along the transparent wall, and watch them when they come. I know the pus-buckets can’t see through the mirrored surface outside — and I wonder how many lives it took to install — but it’s still unnerving when they put their faces so close.

Faces … ha! That’s a laugh. Those pus-riddled, worm-infested compost piles they stare out of make me sick. It’s even more disgusting when they open their mouths and show those white pustules oozing yellow slime and filled with rotted, broken brown teeth and black flesh when they bite at their reflections. Nauseating. I remember eating in here once, leaning on the glass, when one of them slammed into the window, saw its reflection, and tried to bite. I got a good look at the inside of the mouth and vomited, right on the rich, hunter green carpet.

It’s not bad here. Pretty nice, really. The building is a squat dome connected to identical domes by arched causeways. It’s concrete and steel, but spacious and airy inside. The sleeping quarters … well, they’re for sleeping. An eight by five cubby hole situated with lots of other cubicles at the western end of the hive. You have about four feet of head room. You don’t spend time there unless you’re lying down. It always surprises me when someone leaves the hatch open and reads in there, or has a bunch of pictures hung over the bunk with gum tack. The piss-poor lights buzz and flicker too much for anything but finding the bunk. If I want to read or write a letter or stare at pictures, I’ll find a sitting area or a privacy booth.

Communication with other hives is sporadic at best. Most broadcasts run on a closed loop and play the same things until the machinery transmitting it fails. As fewer and fewer people know how to take care of these things, as fewer and fewer people are educated, learn how things work … well, the future’s not a bright place.

The smoke-choked sky gets to people after a while. Fires smoldering everywhere make the sky black and orange at night, a shade of dingy gray in the day. We’re too close to the ruins of a city for clean air, so it’s either wear SCOBA or stay inside. The suits are good for about three hours of air. Nobody knows how long it keeps the rads off. But that’s long enough to clear the zone and breathe air if you want. Of course, it’s a one-way trip if you do that. Once you’re past the desolation zone, the DZ, vegetation and maybe even some wildlife begin to appear, but you’d have no air left to make it back to the compound.

And who knows how many pus-buckets have found their way beyond the DZ.

Pus-buckets aren’t fast enough to catch animals. They might get an occasional rat or something, but that’s not their primary food source. We think — and it’s only a theory — they stick close to compounds like ours or to urban areas, where survivors might hide. They don’t have enough brains left to make traps or plan ambushes. Still, sheer numbers play in their favor. And they eat frickin’ anything — garbage, mostly, but stragglers too.

Nobody knew when the satellites started firing lasers the consequences would be so catastrophic. Anyone near a target could kiss it goodbye. The radiation cooked surface brain parts and left anyone not disintegrated a twitching blob of flesh.

Until the biologicals launched.

Microbes from the biologicals mutated. Laser radiation did something. Before anyone knew it we had a mess. A walking mess, made of those blobs of flesh reanimated and infecting people as they attacked.

That’s what Stella says anyway. She says her mom was there. I think it was more like her grandmother, but what do I know?

Water’s precious, and not easy to come by. We have a pump system connected to a big reservoir not far from here. It’s covered and underground so there’s no danger of contaminants, but the supply has to last … well, forever, I guess. We could filter water from a lake or something but it’d have to be a damned big one. Oh, and people would have to know how to connect our pump system to that lake, and how to operate and maintain the system. Good luck with that.

Not to mention going outside, in the DZ, to do the work. Amid the hiding, starving pus-buckets.

But last I heard water’s low. Real low. That reservoir’s been our only supply for … well, ever. Since Stella’s mom and that original crew managed to finish construction and come inside, seal the pus-buckets out. I guess they started the compound when they saw it coming, before the lasers went off. They didn’t know the compound would be in a hot bed for pus-buckets later. I guess they thought they were far enough from the city. Damned lasers, stronger than anyone guessed. Even the guys who built them.

Anyway, someone has to figure out how to get more water soon. We figure we have a year — maybe less — left.

No, the future’s not a bright place. Not a bright place at all.

-end-

 

All original content copyright 2010 J. Dane Tyler
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Lost Bet

Lost Bet

I don’t remember what I said to get myself into this…

…But I must’ve been really drunk, because here I am.

She’s staring at me across the table. Her eyes are sort of pus-colored and oozy. Something’s collected in the corner of one, in a booger-knot. I want to tell her about it, but I’m glad it gives me something to look at on her face besides the festering wart on the end of her nose. That runny rot-hole of a wart.

Yeah, if I can focus on that eye booger, I won’t heave. And it makes me look like I’m paying attention.

First thing you notice about this dump is the smell. Damn, it’s like walking into a frickin’ outhouse. I mean, not that bad, but the piss and shit smell’s bad enough. Then you notice the dark. It’s really dark in here. But you’re okay with that because if the place was brighter you might see where that smell’s coming from.

Next you see the shelves and little tables all over. They’re covered by these jars. There’s something in each one. This one’s full of a sort of orangey liquid with some kind of bug floating in it. Not floating, exactly. Not on the bottom either though. Suspended, I guess. This other one’s got some pale blue goo in it. I see bubbles in it but they’re not rising or sinking. They’re suspended too. There’s a rat in there too.

I scan through some of the others. This one’s full of tiny eyeballs. That one’s got a snake thing with little legs on it. That one’s a hand. I don’t know if it’s a monkey hand or what, and I don’t want to know. These things are everywhere. Every surface is covered by them so you can’t see the tabletops anymore.

Then you finally see the old babe. She’s the last thing you notice. She’s sitting still as a frog in a swamp. There’s an oil lamp burning beside her on a little desk or something, and it hides her in flickering shadows. The wood furniture is uncomfortable as all hell. The table in front of her is covered by shiny cloth. Satin maybe? I don’t know. It’s layered one sheet over another, I see that, and there’s a doily thingy on top. There’s fringe dragging the floor, too.

Then you notice the little pot in front of her, and the crystal ball. Wow, really? A crystal ball?

My buddies are laughing it up outside right now. My head’s pounding, mouth’s dry. I sit down and try not to hurl. I look at her gray, dingy straw hair. I look at her bony-ass wrists, skeleton fingers, wrinkled face…anything but that wart on her nose. Anything but that.

“Why came ye here, boy?” she says, and her voice is creepy as hell. Gravelly, like she’s smoked a hundred years. “You don’t believe. Do ye?”

I shake my head, lick my lips, nervous.

“Oh, you will,” she says. “You will.”

 

All original content copyright 2010 J. Dane Tyler
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Summer of Eternal Sunshine

I shut my eyes and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. The bright sky outside made it impossible.

I have no idea what year it was; looking back in light of my wife’s recent post about Daylight Savings Time, it may have come during the period when Nixon made it permanent for fifteen months. I can’t be sure and my memory’s unreliable about such things.

The strong light splashed through my window while the sun dripped onto the horizon. I don’t remember whether I seethed about it or if I just sighed and tried to hide my eyes behind the blankets or pillow. I remember thinking, This is ridiculous. How am I supposed to sleep when the sun’s still out?

I heard other kids playing outside. They had later curfews, later bedtimes. No such luck for me; for better or worse, I laid in bed and wondered why I couldn’t be like them. Why can’t I go to bed when it’s dark and easier to sleep? My fixed bedtime meant fighting my biological clock and trying to rest during the remaining hours of daylight.

It’s an early memory. I can sort of see the curtains through which the westerly setting sun pierced. They weren’t black-out curtains and little could be done to stave off the sunset. The orange-gold rays slashed into the eggshell walls of the 1970s décor and shattered around the room, chasing shadows into closets and under furniture.

I remember the passage of time. How much, I can’t recall. Eventually the sun sank low enough so darkness came, and overtook the room, and me, in short order. But I still remember the summer when the sun wouldn’t go down, when bedtime came while light and play clung to the outside world. I don’t remember much, but I do remember thinking about how it always seemed that way; like the sun didn’t ever go down.

We never lived north of the Arctic Circle where this may have been normal. We lived in Northern California, where days aren’t any longer or shorter than anywhere else in America. But that summer, the sun wouldn’t set, wouldn’t let me sleep. That summer, the sun mocked and taunted with the teasing daylight and the sound of children’s laughter and play outside my drawn-curtain window, drifting from the cul-de-sac behind our house.

 

All original content © 2010 J. Dane Tyler
ALL rights reserved.

#FridayFlash: Shy Cowboy

This is another exercise in character study; this time, I’m attempting to portray awkwardness and embarrassment, shyness and nerves. Please feel free to let me know how you like it, what works, what doesn’t, etc. Thanks for the read!

UPDATED: I’ve made some changes based on the feedback on 18 Dec 2009. I hope this is an improvement over the previous piece.

===========================

He scrutinized his image in the rearview mirror and turned his head from side to side. His hat spat his hair out in tufts, and stubble crept over his cheeks, chapped lips and jaw. He sighed. It would have to do.

The pickup’s door screamed when he opened it. The wind knifed through threadbare denim as he seated his tired hat lower and zipped his jacket. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, sniffed, and headed for the general store’s entrance.

The wooden building seemed as brittle as the winter. His heels thumped a hollow cadence as he went up the stairs and crossed the porch. The bell over the door jangled as he stepped into the warmth. The figure behind the counter fluttered his heart and made his knees quiver.

She turned and beamed. “Hi, Jake!”

He thought he’d faint for a moment, then recomposed himself. “Hey there, Ellie. How’re you?” The moment he said it he felt phony. A blush burned his cheeks.

“I’m good!” She moved to the end of the counter. “Not used to seeing you in so much. It’s nice.”

Another burn in his cheeks. “Oh, well … you know. I keep needin’ stuff, so … um ….”

He felt stupid. He never knew how to talk to her. He’d been watching her, pining for her, for more than a year. She always made him feel special, even when the store was crowded. He couldn’t figure out what to say, how to say it, and he felt like a schoolboy with his first crush. He hoped he didn’t resort to pulling her hair.

She giggled. “Yeah, I guess we all keep needing things.” She leaned over the counter on her elbows and he panicked. He thought he might see down the collar of the T-shirt she wore, but the neck stayed closed. He didn’t realize he’d looked away until he glanced at her again.

“So, I … I … was just out an’ around, an’ thought maybe I’d stop and pick up a few … things.” He cleared his throat and ripped the hat from his head. He’d forgotten his manners and gritted his teeth in self-loathing.

“Oh, well it’s always nice to see you. I guess you know where everything is.” She winked at him and started to turn away.

“Y-yeah, yeah, but … um ….”

She perked a brow and turned back. “Need some help?” She smiled again and he froze, a rabbit in a coyote’s gaze.

He dropped his eyes and his stomach fluttered. “I-I … I wanted to … I think I wanted to ask you … Ellie ….” He swallowed but the lump wedged in his throat.

She leaned on the counter, her face curious and open. “Yes?”

He squeezed his fists to marshal his courage before he remembered his hat in his hands. He relaxed and stared at the crumpled brim and tried to find words, testosterone, and his voice. He smoothed the softened felt.

“Jake? Are you all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Oh, yeah! Yeah, I’m … I’m good! Really!” He spoke too loud and too quick and it sounded forced to him. He inwardly cursed his clumsiness and drew a long breath. “Ellie, look … I’m shitty – sorry, I mean I’m bad – bad at this. I know you got things to do and all, but I wanted to ask you somethin’ and I ….”

She tipped her head and offered a small grin. “It’s okay, go ahead. I’m listening.”

“But … I don’t want you thinkin’ I come in here today just for stuff … I ain’t … I mean, I’m dumb an’ all, but not so I can’t remember supplies more’n a day ahead, y’know?”

She smiled and nodded. “I know that.”

He stared at his shoes. “I sorta … sorta come in to talk to you today.”

“Oh?” She kept her voice even. He couldn’t think straight enough to figure out what that meant.

“So, I was thinkin’ … maybe, if you ain’t opposed ….” Again the lump choked him. He clenched his jaw and eyes shut, then popped them open before he looked her in the eye. “I wondered if you’d–”

The bell jangled and he jumped. His hands stung with adrenaline from the start and he bit his tongue. Bill Wahler and five or six ranchers from up Wildwood way tromped into the store, slapping their arms and rubbing their hands together.

“Woo! Cold out there!” Bill called, and tipped his hat back. “Hey, Jake! How you been, cowboy?” Wahler patted Jake on the back. “Ain’t see ya in a while.”

Jake forced a smile. “Hey Bill, good to see you, sir. Ray, Davey, how you boys doin’?”

The ranchers huddled around him while Bill stepped to the counter. He pulled off his hat and swept his silver hair back. “Miss Ellie, how’s the sweetest thing in the county this fine day?”

Jake heard her laughter tinkle as she spoke with the flirty old man. He chatted another ten minutes or so with the ranchers, walked silently out of the store, climbed into his truck, and made the long, cold ride home.

 

 

All original content © 2009 J. Dane Tyler
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