Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and ninety.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Shrinking Man Project.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Harm Carter and his traveling companions find hope, as well as a stranger.
Flash Pulp 190 – The Murder Plague: Open Hours, Part 1 of 3
It seemed to me, as I marched through the forest alongside my pair of companions, that I had somehow become the odd man out.
Worse yet, my misgivings regarding the age gap – Minnie being fourteen, and Newton, at a guess, thirty – were stymied by a duo of unavoidable facts. One: that it was a free apocalypse, and, having seen her friends murdered, as well as attempt to murder her, that the girl could do what she wanted. Two: that I was probably only so riled about it as she was of such an age, and, uh, fiery disposition, as to remind me greatly of my own wayward daughter, Rebecca.
There’s a great temptation, when those around you are on the constant lookout for a virus whose primary symptom is homicidal paranoia, to keep all unpleasant thoughts to oneself – but, by avoiding showing my annoyance, I came off feeling like someone’s uncle trying too hard to demonstrate his youthful vigor to a younger generation.
Anyhow, there we strolled, Newton gallantly taking the brunt of our passage through the brush, Minnie laughing over-heartily at his flat jokes, and I trailing in the rear.
Sticking to the woods may have saved us a head on collision with wandering maniacs, but it also made progress tediously slow. Still, better to be bitten by insects than madmen I suppose.
To pass the time, I’d been counting the number of flattened mosquitoes I’d left in my wake, but my tally was lost when, an hour before dusk, we suddenly came to a broad expanse of pavement.
I believe it to be the largest Walmart I’ve ever encountered, but my memory may be coloured by what lay on the far side: We’d finally come across a major highway.
Between road weary travelers, and the local, if diffuse, population, that particular patch of nowhere was deemed a profitable enough stretch to commercially colonize, and I silently thanked the profiteers for their craven decision.
Spanning the parking area were dozens of potential rides, laid out in rows like a used car lot.
“What do you think?” Minnie asked Newton.
“Hmm,” said the big man, hunkering at the edge of an oak’s shade.
I took it to mean “hurrah for transportation, but where are all of the drivers?” – and I had to agree.
Stroking my chin, I said, “my feeling is that we wait for nightfall, then locate a vehicle old enough that I might manage hot-wiring it; or, better yet, one abandoned with the keys in the ignition.”
Then we all nodded, and considered ourselves pretty clever – until the codger started yelling.
“You bunch by the trees, stop gawking and give a fella a hand.”
It’s unnerving to have an invisible stranger address you from afar at the best of times, but, given our recent experience with the persistent sniper, I was especially enthusiastic in my search for the source of the demand.
Atop the wild grass, some distance further along the edge of the cement, was a bobbing red and white baseball cap.
“Hurry, I’m pretty messed up over here,” said the hat.
It was my feeling that if the speaker had had a gun and poor intentions, he would have been considerably less conversational, so I opted to break away from our cover and into the trench.
Minnie, and then Newton, were quick to follow. The altered position made it clear that the exit lanes had been barricaded, by Minivans positioned to form a wall, then smashed to ensure their immobility. Given the massive ditch that otherwise surrounded the place, I began to wonder if we might have to make our getaway in the style of Steven McQueen in the Great Escape, but my considerations were quickly knocked aside by the talking shamble that lay before me.
Or, actually, nearly before me. I came to a stop ten feet away from he who’d summoned us, but I can’t claim it was forethought – the snail’s trail of blood is what did it. He’d come from somewhere across the road, likely the shuttered Dunkin’ Donuts which stood as the only other building of note in sight.
Whatever the case, I was hard pressed to immediately explain his missing left foot.
“It hurts real bad,” he said.
“What happened?” I asked.
A few yards behind me, Newton had halted, rooting Minnie at a safe distance.
The mustachioed man wiggled the red bill of his cap, then set the whole thing back on his head, as if he were a small town mechanic about to explain the cost of a particularly severe repair.
“Well, I was across the way with Selma and we were thinking we’d try and see if we might find food and smokes, or that maybe there was information left over from when the Wally World was an evacuation point. We saw that someone setup those wrecks to keep folks out, but we figured there was coffee left at the donut place, and she, she…” his explanation became lost amongst his tears, and it was finally too much for Minnie, who broke free and rushed to the injured.
Frankly, I was surprised he was so coherent, considering his apparently relatively fresh amputation.
Continuing to cry, Selma’s beau took Minnie’s hand in his own. Newton and I were rapidly closing the distance even as he continued.
“She was gonna murder me. Her thoughts were whispering it for days, but I reckoned I was just hearing the meth. Then she cuffed my leg to a booth and abandoned me with only a dozen god damn stale croissants to snack on. I showed her.” From beneath his muck-encrusted plaid shirt, the storyteller brought up a gory folding knife, miming his escape while maintaining his grip on the teen. He smiled. “Staggered on for a while, but I don’t know how long I’ve lied out. Must’a slept here last night, though.”
Somehow he’d managed to tourniquet the wound with a green and white bungee cable.
Maybe it was my and Newton’s approach, or perhaps it was Minnie trying to pry herself from his grasp, but his face sharpened.
In a flat voice, he said, “you too, huh?”
His first stabbing swing was a miss, but, before he could properly bring his weapon around, his captive began to stomp wildly. We were immediately beside her, but, as we endeavoured to intervene, her simple white sneaker had a shattering confrontation with her assailant’s neck.
There was a snap, followed by a brief silence.
While Minnie wept, and Newton cooed, I searched the body for keys.
I found nothing more than a half-eaten puff pastry, but, in my distraction, I missed the girl pocketing the dead man’s blade.
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