Welcome to Flash Pulp, Episode Twenty-One.
Tonight’s story, Character, Part 1 of 1
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Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – 400 to 600 words brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
This evening we present to you a thriller on the nature of backgrounds, and the lives lived in them.
Flash Pulp 021 – Character, Part 1 of 1
McGillicuddy had been running The General Store since his father, Pop McGillicuddy, had fallen dead at the register.
Everyone in the area had agreed, in solemn tones, that it was how he would have wanted it. Privately, the junior McGillicuddy often wondered if the old man might have had a few more years if he hadn’t been surrounded by Hershey’s bars and beef jerky.
Still, his Mother had had him up on a stool hocking smokes before Pop’s socks were cold, and he’d remained behind the counter for the majority of the fifty-seven years since.
It was now a warm May Friday, and he was passing across a green pack of menthols while attempting to place the two couples who’d entered together.
“Out of towners? You look like one of the Merkel kids though – maybe one of Mary Merkel’s?” he asked the lamp-jawed twenty-one year old who’d stepped up to pay for his girlfriend’s habit.
“Yeah, Mom, er Mary Platt after she married Dad, but I guess Mary Merkel when you knew her, she actually died five years ago. Last week though, I get this call from the attorney who handles the estate, and he says that Granny Merkel also passed, leaving me the farm.” The boy held out a twenty. “I didn’t have much better to do this weekend, so I figured we’d drive out to see if it was worth selling.”
“Huh,” the old man said.
He’d long considered the people both the best and worst part of manning the counter in such a rural area. He often found himself gumming the day away with the same friends he’d had since grade-school, but, as the only gas for thirty miles, he just as often found himself dealing with the same handful of local miscreants week-after-week.
The Merkels were largely regarded as a bunch of ruffians, but he’d never had trouble with the old woman, who’d come in weekly to buy her lotto numbers.
“Your Gran was a good lady. Don’t remember much about your Ma, though I’m sorry to hear she’s gone.” He handed back some change.
The boy nodded, his short friend stepping up to the counter and laying down a five while shaking his bag of Ringolos.
When all debts were settled, the group cleared out, lamp-jawed Platt tossing McGillicuddy a wave.
As the bell above the door rang their exit, the old man took up his paper, returning to the tale of Nelson Miller’s prize catch.
* * *
When dusk began to settle on the horizon, McGillicuddy stepped out into the heat, broom in hand. In recent years he’d found it tougher to spot the candy wrappers and soda cans that built up along the edges of the small patch of pavement, so he’d taken to heading out a might earlier than his father had, to ensure a pristine lot.
The hum of motors in the distance brought him to a halt, his hands resting atop the worn handle.
A black SUV roared by, its horn blaring – seconds later a battered white van followed, the noise of its engine nearly blotted out by the music that flooded from its open windows.
McGillicuddy recognized the van, but couldn’t place it. Guessing the hooligans were off to Fiddler’s Tavern over in Barkley, he shook his head and reflected on a time when cars were unsafe enough that those sorts of problems resolved themselves.
He lifted the broom and began wrangling a large pile of Werther’s foils that Bill Johnson had likely turned out from his truck’s cup holder. Dumping the full dustpan into the nearby trash barrel, McGillicuddy recalled that Bill was just as careless with his childhood Hubba Bubba wrappers.
“It’s always the same miscreants,” he muttered.
* * *
He was counting the till when the lamp-jawed inheritor re-entered.
McGillicuddy was startled by the arrival; he hadn’t heard an engine pull up.
The boy had pushed the entrance open with great effort, staggering down the aisle with one hand sliding along the magazine shelf for support. His legs seemed to be causing him trouble, as if they were rapidly increasing in weight.
“Cuz-,” he said, collapsing sideways.
As he fell, his flailing arm caught a wire rack full of Doritos. A red, orange and green avalanche buried him on the floor.
McGillicuddy stood a moment.
The lump of snacks remained still.
The old man’s hand went to the phone, but a second interruption came slamming through the door.
It was the mousy girl that the Platt boy had been holding by the waist earlier in the day. She had none of her boyfriend’s lack of energy as she came running at the counter.
As she attempted to speak, her throat would allow only a series of soft clicks. Her face and shirt were soaked with tears and sweat.
She swallowed hard and once again opened her mouth to speak – a spray of vomit drenched the counter’s transparent scratch-ticket display instead.
McGillicuddy did hear an engine then, the store’s glass door gleaming with the approaching headlights.
His newest paralysis broken, the old man once again reached for the phone, but as he did so, he glanced out the window to size up his latest customer.
It was Cindy Merkel’s boy, he realized, finally placing the ratty white van. He hadn’t seen that delinquent much since Gran Merkel had passed, and Sheriff Blair had been forced to set Deputies Jelly and Cameron on putting him out of the old woman’s house.
The tall youth stepped down from the running board, and pulled a goat mask over his eyes.
It was his only attire.
Reaching behind the driver’s seat, Goat-head pulled forth a red handled wood axe.
McGillicuddy was hypnotized watching the streaker stride across the lot. A high pitched tone began to drift from the girl’s throat as a greasy hand pushed open the door. She began to scramble over her own half digested Big Mac and Coke, in an attempt to find safety.
The old man dropped the phone receiver, grabbing the girl’s arm and pulling her over the sick.
Goat-head, the Merkel kid, approached with an even stride, the axe head slick with scarlet liquid.
“Always the same miscreants,” McGillicuddy said, his father’s double-barrel clearing the counter.
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