Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and fifty-six.
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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 pulls into a roadside gas station, and must convene a jury of his peers.
Flash Pulp 156 – The Murder Plague: Democracy, Part 2 of 3
Once back on the road, we were making good time on the highway when the Escalade’s fuel light came on. I had to ask myself a pressing question: when does looting simply become salvaging? If trapped in the middle of a contagion that transforms friends and family into paranoiac homicidals, is it an ethical issue to run off with a bag of Frito’s and a tank of gas?
The reality – given my operation of a vehicle which I’d borrowed from an acquaintance whom I’d personally ended – was that I’d already made my decision.
As such – and at the vocal insistence of my companions’ bladders – I pulled over at a deserted parking lot of a Gas’N’Go.
I tugged the keys from the ignition and made my way to the glass door. Not terribly excited about the the idea of being shot for plundering, I peered between the scratch ticket advertisements, and followed it up by shouting for service.
My preference would have been to wait it out a moment, but, behind me, I could hear my cohorts stuck in an urgent two-step jig, so I gave the handle a tug. I was surprised when the entrance opened with a cheery bing.
Up until that point, my fellow travellers had watched my prodding with trepidation and locked knees, but, unwilling, or unable, to hold on any longer, Johanna pushed me aside to brave the interior.
As she moved past the Doritos display rack, I shrugged and returned to the pumps.
Across the pavement, I heard Tyrone let out a snort as he surveyed the scene.
Jeremy was still at the vehicle as I twisted off the gas cap. His eyes seemed to be tracking a tennis game taking place between the store’s entry and the highway.
Finally, he said “I’m going around to the rear. Listen, in case I need help.”
“Well,” I replied, “I think you’re probably a big enough boy to -”
“Haw. Haw,” he interrupted, “I mean I may start yelling if there’s some sort of psycho thinking my need to piss is somehow a plan to slowly drown them.”
He trotted around the building’s vinyl-sided corner.
“I’d kill for a cigarette,” said Tyrone. As the blocky numbers tallied the cost of fuel I had no intention of paying for, we watched Minnie, still dancing from foot-to-foot by the gas station’s door. I assumed we were both busy placing silent bets with ourselves regarding her fortitude. “I quit thirty-five years ago, but it seems like a waste of will power, considering the state of the world. Want to head in with me, once my knees are stretched out, and help an old man reach for a pack?”
He smiled at me – the only time I saw him do so.
Still squeezing the handle, I thought of Johanna, and her hidden flask.
“Suppose,” I replied, “we make it to the military blockade. Maybe it takes us weeks, months even, but somehow we all manage to cross over, and, better yet, there’s a vaccine, or even a cure, waiting. There you are, stretching out on a free army cot, a hot meal in your belly and your thinking you’ve made it. Then the news comes down that the routine physical you just took detected a big black gob of cancer in your left lung. You don’t want to be that schmuck, do you?”
There was an edge in his eyes that piqued my curiosity about his response, but I never heard it – that’s when Minnie started screaming.
Johanna had exited the store, and her floral print dress was now slick and crimson.
Stepping in her direction, I tried to suss out where or how she might have been hurt. Jo had her arms out, almost as if to say, “will you look at this mess?” Before I’d halved the distance, she turned towards the still screaming teen, and that’s when the girl finally shut up. She was too busy swinging her fist to be slowed by unnecessary noise making.
As I pulled Minnie away, Jeremy reappeared.
Never one to rush to judgement, he shouted “She’s snapped!”
“No I haven’t – there was a man back there… While I was sitting there he suddenly burst through the door. I’ve never been so afraid in my life.” I couldn’t tell if she was in shock or not, but it was certainly the longest I’d ever heard her speak in a single breath. No longer caring who saw, she retrieved her rye and emptied the container. “I don’t even know how I did it, I hit him with the toilet cover, I guess, and he went into the mirror, and his head was sprinkling everywhere. As we hit each other all the cuts sprayed like we were shaking out a wet towel full of blood.”
She needed a hug, but I’ve never been one for initiating human contact – I should have though.
“How can we know that’s true!?” shouted Jeremy. His cheeks had gone red with the excitement, and his words were accompanied by vigorous arm flailing. “The guy was probably trying to find help, and she had a spazz out. She’s infected, and we should leave her here.”
“Well, fortunately, El Presidente, it’s not your decision alone. I’ve had to do some pretty ugly things in the last few days, and I believe her story. I say she comes.”
“I won’t get in the truck if she’s coming,” said Jeremy.
“You’re a free man.” I replied. I turned to Minnie. “- and your vote?”
The girl rounded on the silently weeping drunk.
“I’m sorry I hit you. I just panicked. I believe your story, though.”
Wheeling towards Tyrone, I was hopeful about the results of the headcount.
I was very surprised to see the codger holding a pistol, but I was more so when Johanna’s face disappeared with three sharp pops.
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