Judgment Day

“The Fall of Man”

by A.A. Garrison

The end came in the shape of a man.

His name was John J. Kline. An otherwise ordinary child, the young John J. had been systematically shamed for his need to defecate. Mrs. Kline, from a likeminded lineage, stressed early in her son’s life that defecation was inherently wrong, and warranted punishment, and that these truths were self-evident. To be found on the home’s toilet was to earn a night in a special closet, and sometimes lashings. Such an upbringing taught John J. an inhuman control over bodily functions, and a flagrant prejudice against those lacking this skill. These things, combined with a winning smile, eventually saw him successful in politics.

There followed several decades of platitudes and power plays and other political vampirism, all while John J. Kline insisted he did not produce solid waste. Then, in his fiftieth year, the man’s career peaked, with the establishment of the Anti-Defecation League. Mr. Kline served as president and founder, lending his angelic image to the spurious organization. Beaming publicity photos were taken, featuring Kline’s megawatt smile and grandfatherly features, to prove he could do no wrong. The League, which billed itself as an upright crusade against the world’s defecators, served as mouthpiece for a small but growing demographic in suburban America. This being an earlier, less-fanatical time, the ADL became known as an absurdist faction, popularized by being the butt of various jokes. However, popular is popular, and the ADL’s gospel was spread, all the same.

Within the space of a generation, millions migrated to the Anti-Defecation lifestyle, as we will anything that empowers at others’ expense.

And so the wheel started its turn. The revolution’s first symptom would be pamphlets promoting the Anti-Defecation doctrine. The party line was simple: defecation was a symptom of inferiority and godlessness, because a healthy, normal body had no waste to eliminate. The anus was vestigial, like the spleen or appendix, as confirmed by hugely unbiased studies. Though written by Anti-Defecators themselves, and bearing the fallacious logic of a racist tract, this literature was rather persuasive, if only because it punished rejection.

In time, it was not uncommon to find these brochures stashed in bathrooms and equally anonymous public venues, alongside messages from other people who were definitely not cowards. In the ADL’s home state, a backroom deal saw the brochures replace Gideon bibles in hotels, to great celebration. Anti-Defecator TV and radio stations arose, slowly, like some gradual but determined disease. There was resistance, and ridicule, and calm requests that the ADL review the facts behind its policies, but these things served only to fuel the Anti-Defecators, who used them as proof of justification. “Righteousness will meet opposition,” was their blanket refute to their detractors, whom ADL literature portrayed as sneering diabolical figures.

It took mere years to get an Anti-Defecator into Congress, and a decade for the Whitehouse.

John J. Kline, by then a revered patriarch in the community, had been first choice for office, but he kindly declined, instead opting to control things from out of sight, like all good manipulators. The President elect, a groomed, true-blue, Anti-Defecator-belt showman who might’ve trailed strings, was fast to instate a “faith-based initiative,” under which the first public bathrooms were removed, out of “decency.” New taxes were levied on toilet-paper manufacturing, and this was definitely not strong-arming. Similar heat befell other sanitation industries, which the new administration linked to organized crime and fascist regimes, as proven by out-of-context quotes and unflattering pictures.

For all its extremity, the legislation would prove only a taste of things to come.

It was in the year 2031 that the President, with his cadre of most trusted aides and advisors, declared the world at danger from a new, universal threat: global warming, from the huge amounts of methane produced by “the lesser peoples.” The country’s alarm was sounded, quietly at first, using a multicolor warning system to establish the present methane level, and then more prominently, by way of a nationwide witch hunt for “pro-defecator agents,” these composed primarily of statesmen that opposed the President or his allies. For all the suspects’ outrage, they were unable to have their day in court, having been declared enemy combatants and imprisoned without trial, thanks to a hastily accepted act with a patriotic name. Rather than criticism, this maneuvering saw congratulation: when the President claimed several hundred prisoners, his audience cheered at the implied time, and waved their flags ever the harder.

As a backdrop to the arrests, the Global Warming doomsaying continued, growing into a cunning and powerful new propaganda. In TV and movies, all villains were methane-spewing defecators, portrayed as ugly, badly dressed individuals with conjoined eyebrows and deviant sexual habits. The uni-brow became a defining characteristic of the defecator stereotype, seen universally in media, including posters and billboards in high-population areas. Government studies had linked Defecation Disorder, as it had become known, with a genetic disposition toward uni-brows and schizophrenia — just as the ADL had been claiming for years. Upon the studies’ publication, John J. Kline was said to have grown a full, vindicated inch.

Tensions soon escalated, turning national. After two Milwaukee rapists were shown to have DD (acronym for Defecation Disorder, as used in ads selling drugs for it), the country exploded in anti-defecator outrage, this soothed none when multiple media personalities echoed the ADL’s stance that most criminals were “that way.” Yet, in spite of overwhelming evidence for the global threat posed by defecators, a pro-defecation movement gained momentum among the youth. A plague of campus demonstrations resulted, these often involving commodes in some capacity. In answer, the government opened camps in the more restless states, in which youngsters were “reeducated” regarding matters defecation. Consequently, the American Psychiatric Association coined a new mental illness: Defecator Sympathy Syndrome, with a broad range of drug treatments, as detailed in the DSM-IV. In the end, the pro-defecator movement puttered out, amounting to only a worrisome few months, which came to be known as the Summer of [redacted].

In the few short years after the Anti-Defecators took the Whitehouse, they conquered every tier of government, along with academia and other social authorities, right down to churches, street gangs, and secret societies (though the Hell’s Angels only partially converted). Change agents were responsible for this, as well as the viral nature of any punishing doctrine. In most social circles, it went without question that to defecate was to be a heathen, subhuman threat to the planet’s future, with the deviant sexual tastes and unsightly uni-brow to prove it. Large treatises were written on the philosophy of anti-defecation, and the general superiority of the non-defecator and his cause, with speculation on what rewards awaited them in Heaven (Anti-Defecator sects warred on whether the “golden crowns” cited were literal or figurative, resulting in several fatalities and permanent limps). Invariably, state decor involved statues of John J. Kline and fellow ADL luminaries.

America’s Golden Age!

But then the infighting began. When the nation’s infrastructure was cleansed of defecators and sympathizers, there arose the problem of having no one to tear down for self-advancement. Thus the Anti-Defecators began preying on their peers, as predators will do. Heads of state accused one another, successfully, of being defecator heretics and/or spies, with great stinks arising by the dozen. Incriminating pictures were circulated, fingers pointed, demands made. The tabloids clogged with scandal, their front pages perpetually showing bathroom spy-photos of the latest ousted defecator, caught in the act. “And he seemed so normal!” friends and colleagues exclaimed, captioned below the images. In reputable newspapers, expert diagrams explained how these defecators had hidden their waste and sexual deviancy and bad dressing, and used ingenious techniques to split their uni-brows. Unfortunately, Anti-Defecators who raised their standing in this fashion were also doomed by it, since they would be decried similarly — where did it end? Whole government departments turned over within the space of months, requiring the installation of revolving doors. Personal surveillance exploded, resulting in paranoia and much looking over the shoulder. On the black market, cleverly disguised toilet-seat buckets became available. The spy-camera industry boomed.

The first Anti-Defecator military campaign went largely unremarked upon, it being a matter of course.

Aimed against defecators abroad, in a whole list of foreign-sounding -stans, the war was unrolled with a theme of “shock and awe,” to halt the enemy in their defecating. Public support was unanimous, yet authorities employed their brainwashing techniques anyway, because why have brainwashing techniques without using them? Another poster campaign blanketed the country; more subtle vilification proliferated the media; talk-show hosts demanded to know why defecators hated us and our way of life; the Global Warming angle was pushed with new urgency, using a devastating thirty-second commercial in which the planet pled for help as it turned brown with methane. In response, a new movement arose: the Defecator Empathizers, a halfway clique, who insisted the defecator population simply didn’t know they were destroying the planet. “We must act humanely in these matters,” their literature urged. “What would Jesus do?” For all its gentleness, the movement spawned riots, and ended when its leader was assassinated outside a Memphis hotel. More riots followed in response, these accomplishing even less. The rioting did, at least, justify martial law, and provide the news with video proof of how crazy the defecators were.

And still the war machine raged on, fed by terrorist attacks pinned on defecator extremists. When the public demanded action, the government complied, gladly, by attacking the terrorists’ country of origin, which was surely guilty by association. A second offensive was initiated when the official Methane Meter jumped, just because it seemed right. In several neutral European countries, it became chic to question America’s anti-defecator policies, if not the Global Warming doctrine itself. In answer, these Euro-monsters were quick to be smeared in the domestic media, depicted with the same uni-brows and deviant appetites and unpatriotic sneers. But, unlike previous attacks, there was no brainwashing at play here, for the writers and cartoonists really believed that any opposition would sport these telltale characteristics. Polygraphs reinforced this.

Of the many military campaigns against the defecator threat, none were unsuccessful, thanks in part to the reassurance of America’s soldiers. So firm were they in their faith, righteousness had ceased to be a question, even as the blood of innocents covered foreign streets (the defecators had no children, as it were). The answer to all doubt: “But if we’re wrong, why do we have better guns?” Back home, survivors’ organizations demanded sympathy for America’s fallen, and sympathy was granted, lest you receive brutal social reprimand (lynching of non-sympathizers turned general, becoming a social function of sorts). After enough ego-stroking victories overseas, the country’s collective head grew big beyond words. An epidemic of broken necks worried the public.

And then, disaster: the man himself, John J. Kline, was shown to be a defecator.

The despairing news was broken by none other than Kline’s top subordinate, a man simply serving his country and the world (and definitely not vying for Kline’s seat at the ADL, though he was the one to receive it). Kline was exposed only after months of exhaustive detective work, surveiled round-the-clock, especially after coffee or meals. Unlike most revealed defecators, Kline did not keep a secret bathroom or one of those special buckets, but had, after several surgical operations, received an artificial orifice in his abdomen, by which his shame was drained into a low-key pouch hung from the leg. Kline, whose checkered childhood had long ago been sanitized, defended himself with claims of it being a developed condition, “by living around all these gosh-darn dirty defecators.” Thus, a minority of bygones insisted on his innocence, clinging to that lost past of Kline’s America. The rest, however, promptly forgot Kline completely, as was encouraged by his successor and various media efforts, to great effect. To observe Kline’s name was to be un-American, and receive a visit from ADL “inspectors.” Within hours of Kline’s dethroning, new history books were issued.

In spite of this, the war effort was not derailed. Thanks to a “with us or against us” stance on Global Warming, and the impossibility that it could be wrong, America had no qualms with invading any country of its choosing. The ones with the longest, most tongue-twisting names were first, then more mundane ones such as Turkey and South Africa. Eventually, the next invasion began by spinning a globe. Some to fall under America’s crosshairs surrendered outright, because they were sympathetic to the defecator threat (definitely not due to a lack of nukes). Of these, several were bombed anyway, for various good, anti-defecator reasons (definitely not because there were fortunes to be made rebuilding these places). America gained territories like fleas on a dog, becoming a political snowball, which only proved the rightness of its cause.

Unsurprisingly, the European Union was the lone holdout, thanks to those uni-browed perverts running the show. A standoff ensued. Diplomacy was the first route, with the Europeans taking great pains to explain the body’s digestive and execratory systems, and the plausibility of modern plumbing, and — very delicately — the “fuzzy reasoning” in the Global Warming myth. But, like holy lightning, the American media was prompt to slay such lies, by simply reminding America of Europe’s uni-brows, which invalidated all arguments with some certainty. On talk shows, it was speculated that something was in the water over there. Experts suggested continent-wide brain damage, as proven by charts and graphs. To seal the deal, the President addressed the nation, with just one sentence: “Well, they just admitted they’re defecators, didn’t they?”

When the EU was nuked, no American lost sleep over it.

And so, when the dust cleared, the world was unified against the defecator threat. Dictated Advised by America and its ADL masterminds, the lesser countries became “civilized,” by criminalizing restrooms and commodes and toilet paper, and adding those new mental illnesses to their lists. But then, the job was just beginning: mere containment of the defecator infestation was not enough; to save the world, it needed to be cleansed. The President, who was now president of Earth, did not use these precise terms, instead substituting a more conscience-friendly theme, reinforced by soothing hand gestures and a certain configuration of the face; but the outcome was the same. House-to-house sweeps began, worldwide, and any signs of defecation earned a certain insignia spray-painted on the door, followed by the arrival of a big roomy truck. As neighbors and family members disappeared, no one said a word — not because there was something wrong, but because there was nothing wrong, really, and don’t argue with me or I’ll report you as a defecator, you crazy jerk you.

Millions vanished into camps, and this too produced fortunes for those contracted for the facilities’ construction and management. To assuage any potential concern, the government reported a worldwide decrease in methane levels, this accompanied by various mechanisms to award silence. At one point, a family of defecators was discovered living above a sympathizer’s home, among them a young girl and her diary, detailing their long, troubled stay in the home’s secret place — and the diary was burned, promptly, per government ordinance on pro-defecator literature. In schools and churches, it was asked how — how?! — could a young girl go so wrong? The answers demonstrated the need for more social cleansing.

Soon, the millions of disappeared became billions, because there were just that damn many defecators running around.

There came a time, some years into the anti-defecator nightmare, when even its perpetrators had second thoughts. Then, the campaign hesitated slightly, as it became clear in the group-mind that perhaps we all do That Thing that was kept secret and dear and denied even by oneself — that perhaps this terrible machine would keep going and going, endlessly and without prejudice, until it consumed its very makers. However, this period was brief, because the brainwashing was just that effective, to the point of sincere belief. For the new Americans, they did not secretly defecate in whatever safe place they could find; they did not have blood on their hands; they did not have to answer for their crimes (what crimes?). Likewise, the world was under dire threat from a lesser species, and the only solution was the sword.

So the bloodshed continued, until there were only two people left.

The pair of men — and they were men, women having been culled to extinction after ADL studies showed a gender preference in defecators — lived in New York City, born and raised. The two had the run of the place, which enabled them to turn it into a battlefield, for they too were trying to kill each other off. Like all self-evident truths, the anti-defecator crusade had not died with its creators. Both being dyed-in-the-wool Absorbers (the title those pure, chosen few bestowed upon themselves), the surviving men continued the war, carrying John J. Kline’s much-passed torch. And since this mentality required an enemy to function, and enemies had grown scarce, it was only logical that the two would war against one another.

What began civilly enough, with each survivor attempting to catch the other In The Act and, thus, confirm their suspicions of defecation, soon evolved into all-out urban warfare. And, with so many of Uncle Sam’s toys lying around, war the men did. Bombs, automatic rifles, landmines; tripwires, RPGs, Humvees; those false-toilets the government had started planting, to trap tempted defecators — all were at the men’s disposal, and all saw play. The offensive escalated to the point of leveling whole blocks, landmarks destroyed, many structures uninhabitable from having been gassed. The Statue of Liberty was missiled by each side, respectively, out of suspicion alone. Remarkably, both men evaded one another’s attacks for some years, long enough for the Big Apple to become a destructed, bullet-riddled waste. Throughout, the two remained healthy and self-assured, as having an enemy will induce.

It was a chilly fall day when the battle at last completed.

Anticlimactically, the men met while scavenging for canned goods in a supermarket. The deciding factor was similarly unexciting: one survivor had brought his machinegun, and the other hadn’t. After gunning down his longtime opponent, the winner rubbed his appropriately large beard and said, “So, no more defecators, then,” before finishing his shopping. Victory felt nothing like he’d anticipated.

However, there was one more defecator: himself.

Upon riffling his dead opponent’s camp, the surviving man discovered in it a map riddled with X’s, and some stool samples, and, most importantly, surveillance pictures of the survivor’s own defecation — That Thing he did after coffee or meals, which he was never ever to acknowledge, not even to himself, per his ironclad brainwashing. But, for all his insistences and assurance, he had been wrong.

Defecation. So that’s why he kept finding toilet paper around the house.

Yet, that did not mean that he reconciled with reality. The ADL’s dogma, the Global Warming threat, the uni-brows and perversions, John J. Kline’s rumored divinity — these tape-loops continued playing in the surviving man’s brain, undiminished in the least. So it was only natural that he turn the gun on himself, to complete his lifelong goal of cleansing the defecator scourge.

The gunshot echoed into the emptiness, heard only by animals. And with that, the world was at last cleansed.

###

“Last Gas”

by Stephen Faulkner

When Allen Nyster arrived to relieve Peter Midlent of duty in the Silo Operations Training Center he did so without any of his usual enthusiasm. He entered the Primary Room as stiffly and quietly as if he were carrying a sleeping animal under his fatigue shirt that he did not want to waken. His face was paler than usual, his expression sullen.

“Bloom’s off the rose, eh?” said Midlent as he gathered up his collection of comic books in preparation to leave. “Important as this duty is, you’re finally finding out that it’s just another job after all, right?”

“Just not feeling too swift. Must’ve been something I ate,” said Nyster and, true to his word, he did look rather drawn. “Hard to get yourself jazzed for eight hours of watching lights and dials when your guts are in a bind.”

“See the doctor about it?”

“Yeah. He says it’s just a mild case of the grippe. Any worse and I’d be having gut cramps that’d have me bed ridden. As it is, I just feel crappy, like the old plumbing needs a good cleaning out. Noisy and queasy-making, that’s all.” Just then a loud borborygmous gurgling issued from his abdomen as if in greeting. “See what I mean?”

“Well,” said Midlent as he handed over his watch keys and headed for the door. “As long as you can hold down your breakfast, I guess you’ll be okay.”

“I think it was breakfast that did it. I’ll be all right, I think. Speaking of food, what’s on the menu for lunch?”

“Mine was the usual – S.O.S.  I think yours should be the same.”

Nyster’s abdomen said Blorp! in response, causing its owner to belch.

“It wasn’t that bad, really,” said Midlent commiseratively. “Anyway, Eisen’s your watchmate until 1600. He’s in the Secondary Room right now, making the hourly check. I don’t know who’s coming to relieve him.”

“Eisen,” said Nyster blandly as he sat down. “Good. He and I get along pretty well.”

At the door Midlent stopped. His long, pleasant face was awash with unspecified concern. “Allen,” he said chummily. “Drink water, lots of it. It’ll help flush out your system.”

Nyster nodded absently at his departing mate, having already opened the small access door on the Primary console with his watch key in preparation to making his preliminary systems check. He did not hear Midlent leave the room.

***

Herbert Eisen studied the last of the readout quickly. All Secondary Systems were working properly. He made the necessary notations to this effect in his watch log and hung the lightweight clipboard on its wall hook. He went5 back to the empty Primary room and sat down before his console. Nyster was in the bathroom for the third time since his lunch break at 1200. His punk demeanor had been obvious to Eisen as soon as he saw his watchmate when he first arrived. That greasy slop called chipped beef on toast sure hadn’t helped his buddy’s growling gut any. He couldn’t blame the guy for not being much help on this watch but he wished Allen could at least pull himself together enough to do the safety run-throughs on schedule. Eisen looked at his watch and sucked impatiently at his teeth – ten minutes past already. This sure won’t sit well with the Commander, he thought, no matter what Nyster’s state of health might be. He looked at the door to the hallway and shook his head. How long did it take that guy to squeeze out a sickly loaf anyway?

Finally Nyster returned, looking even more peaked and ready for the Infirmary than when he had left. He sat down before his switching console and reached a weary hand to the Mode Selection knob.

“What the hell are you doing?” Eisen asked.

“Safety Check,” said Nyster. “Isn’t it time yet?”

“Sure it’s time. It’s ten minutes past time, in fact.”

“Then we have to do it,” his watchmate said and turned the knob to its S.C. position.

“Of course we have to do it,” said Eisen testily as he flicked his own Mode Selection knob to S.C. “I’d just appreciate your letting me know what you’re up to instead of just plopping your ass down and turning dials. I’m part of this watch, too, you know.”

“I’m sorry, Herb. I’m just not feeling too hot right now.”

“I realize that, Al, but we’ve got to follow S.O.P.  You know how the Commander is about order and keeping to schedules, especially when it comes to delicate equipment like this.”

Nyster made a gesture to indicate that he understood, though not that he particularly cared all that much, and began reading numbers off his set of gauges while his digestive tract muttered a base saxophone solo in muffled counterpoint. Eisen held his laughing response to his mate’s stomach growlings to a series of stifled little hiccoughs buried behind the hard tissue of his larynx; the effort made his throat ache. Their gauge readings corresponded within the limits allowed by the Primary Manual. Nyster’s belly rumbles and Eisen’s stifled chortles, however, seemed at musical odds with one another. They turned their Mode Selection knobs back to Primary Function at the same time.

Nyster sat back in his chair with a sigh and surveyed the five main series of blinking lights on his console. Without any prior warning coming from his gut a gas bubble suddenly appeared in his throat and popped, causing a gentle burp. He excused himself, then burped again. More accurately, he belched and this was not caused by any little bubble but was a full, thrusting gaseous release from the stomach which came out with the word “Damn!” enunciated in its burbling baritone. He looked over at his watchmate sheepishly and then both men began to laugh, not uproariously but definitely uncontrollably.

The third belch, coupled with an enunciation that sounded like gorpf, sent Nyster running for the door with his right hand clamped over his mouth. Herb Eisen laughed all the harder, a high pitched whinny that caused the sheet metal framing of his console to vibrate sympathetically.

The next matter off business that would soon be demanding their attention would be the hourly Secondary check and that wouldn’t be for another forty minutes. Plenty of time for poor Allen to toss his cookies and be back, Eisen thought as he wiped the tears from his eyes. Even if it’s something really serious (intestinal virus, ulcer, salmonella, dysentery) I’ll still have ample time to phone in for a replacement for the remainder of his watch. Eisen lost his train of thought once this idea had come to him. What if it is something serious? he thought worriedly.

Allen Nyster returned with the glad news that he hadn’t thrown up. He had hung his head into the open toilet and almost deafened himself with the echo-amplification of his subsequent belches that that closed-in space had afforded, but his lunch had stayed down,

“You had me going for a while there, pal,” said Eisen, relieved. “Thought you were coming down with the Tijuana trots or something. Lunch was too recent to have caused it, I think. What’d you have for breakfast that might have done it?”

“Might have been the bacon,” said his watchmate with a shrug.

“Eggs didn’t taste funny or anything?”

“Yeah but that powdered crap always tastes that way.”

“Too true,” said Eisen, punctuating that phase of the conversation. He looked around him, studied his immediate vicinity as if looking for clues to the solution of a problem not yet identified. “You were here when Midlent left,” he said. “Did he take all his comic books with him?”

“I think so. Why? You itching for a Spiderman fix?”

“Just something to read. We got a half hour to kill and I’m bored.”

“What about that stack of magazines under the Secondary console?”

“That’s Harmon’s taste, not mine. They’re all sleazy girlie mags. You know the type: tongues, tits, spread asses and shaved beavers, girls practically turning their hoo-hahs inside out for the camera. And editorial quality?” He clamped his tongue between his lips and razzed, causing a misty drizzle of spit. “Bunch of hokey sex stories and gross cartoons. Ads for colored condoms, dildos and dial-a-slut. And that’s about it; not my style at all.”

“I see,” said Nyster. His stomach said something in it own gurgling language that sounded like an agreement.

“Besides,” said Eisen in a thoughtful tone. “I’ve read them all already.”

“Oh, I ssss…” Nyster began, then looked over at his watchmate who had not quite successfully hidden a sneaky smile. “Cute, Herb,” Nyster said, smiling too. “Real cute.”

Glorblibum-gwik! said his gut, getting in the last word. Not to be outdone, his rectal end gave out its own long winded summary in shrill and sputtering syllables.

“Oh shit, Allen!” Eisen yelled, He rose from his chair and backed the two steps remaining to him to the farthest reach of the narrow room.

“Not quite,” said Nyster.

“You letting loose from both ends now? If your belly button had a hole in it it’d probably be whistling ‘Dixie’ soon, I bet.”

“I’m sorry, Herb. I just couldn’t help it.”

“Hoosh! Man, do you ever stink like hell,” Eisen continued loudly. He snatched up a pad of report blanks and waved it in front of his face like a Japanese fan. “Woo! Bacon farts have just got to be the worst. Listen, buddy, you feel another one of those babies coming on and you can just take it to the….”

“’Scuse me,” Nyster cut in. He bolted out of his chair so quickly that he left it rocking from back legs to front and back again for a few moments before it settled back onto all fours. He rushed into the Secondary Room just to be away from his watchmate or the next coming volley.

“Allen! Wait!”  The close proximity of the walls of the smaller room echoed Nyster’s rectal reply: A juicy sounding Bronx cheer performed inside a wide, hollow drum.

“That’s not where I meant for you to go,” Eisen said softly as he sat back down. His swiftly fanning report pad was now a grey blur in front of his face.

***

Eisen hung up the telephone and turned to his watchmate. They had just finished the 1400 hourly check of the Secondary System – at least Nyster did. Eisen had refused to enter the smaller room ever since his watchmate’s unintentional flatulence had laid a sickening pall throughout the narrow corridor of air in there. The receiver made a loud clatter as it jockeyed with gravity and see-saw physics before settling to rest in its cradle. “The Commander,” Eisner informed Nyster of the identity of the person with whom he had just been speaking. “He’s scheduled a special test in five minutes. Complete power outage.”

“But that will shut down the entire mainframe.”

“Of course it will,” said Eisen, reacting impatiently to this statement of the obvious. Allen’s ill health surely hasn’t affected his memory, he thought. This is all textbook stuff. “But what happens after that?”

“Auxiliary power kicks in on a count of five and then the…. Oh, yeah, right. Then the Secondary System takes over.”

“Brilliant.”

“So this will be a test of the capabilities of the Secondary equipment, then, to see if it can handle the job adequately enough.”

“It’ll have limited capacity but it should be sufficient,” said Eisen as if reciting from the manual text, glad that his watchmate’s mental faculties hadn’t been affected by the sickness in his gut. “We’ve just done the hourly check, so we should be safe on that score.”

“A second look couldn’t hurt,” said Nyster as he rose from his chair. He trailed a fresh and squeaking aroma behind him as he strode toward the Secondary Room. Eisen held his nose and laughed, then all the harder as the next tuba-toned eruption occurred. “That must be the chipped beef talking now!” he called.

Just then the lights in both rooms dimmed and went out; the familiar sounds of the three integrated computers were silenced. Eisen counted to himself and at six, one second late by his estimation, a deep hum issued from beyond the far wall of the Secondary Room and the less luminous auxiliary lights came on. The Primary Systems stayed dark and functionless; the only sounds in the Silo Operations Training Center were the electronic beeps and mechanical chatter as the Secondary equipment came on line.

“Takeover Sequence running smoothly,” Nyster called as Eisen approached. “Seventy-five, eight, eighty-five percent capacity already. Slowing down now. We still should reach ninety- five percent with ease.”

“Not too shabby, wouldn’t you say? Where’s our main source of depletion?”

Nyster’s belly made a comment, a deep rumbling that sounded like the sonic equivalent of a mudslide at the bottom of a septic tank. With their combined concentration firmly rooted on the job at hand neither of the two men took notice.

“Memory capacity at ninety-eight point eighty-five percent,” Nyster recited. “Modal Operations Circuits at a straight ninety-nine. Not bad. Program Input – what the hell is this? Fifty-eight percent! And look! Program Output at a hundred and thirty point ten percent. What the hell is going on here?”

“It’s taking capability from the Input and bleeding it into Output. But how?”

And look here. Now the Modal Operations gauges are fluctuating, Secondary Systems are rapidly declining; Modal Operations are nearly off line…. All the circuits are going totally batshit here. What…?”

Eisen thought that Nyster had farted again. He couldn’t blame the guy; if this were a real-life predicament instead of just a training operation he would be ready to shit his pants at a moment’s notice, too. But it wasn’t Nyster’s noisy sphincter this time. It was the warning buzzer, a hoarse and rasping claxon wail repeating sharply at two second intervals. Without either man having touched the necessary switches, the Fail Safe door on the Secondary panel had slid open, revealing the ARMING light already flashing. None of the keys were in place or turned; the computer had overridden the electronic locks and turned it functions over to the first phase of the COMBAT READY Sequence of its own volition. The fact that the equipment in the two rooms were not connected to any missile silos and were only for training and practice purposes made no difference to the two men. They treated the situation as if it were an actual emergency, that their reactions and decisions in the next few minutes would be instrumental in either saving mankind or beginning the sequence of events that would certainly result in its worldwide demise.

As they frantically pored over the three softcover volumes that comprised the Secondary System’s Operations Manual, a readout chattered forth confirming the trajectory, cruising altitude, speed and target of each of the three hypothetical missiles under their command. The red ARMING light went out to be replaced by the next one down on the panel: ARMED. Soon the SILO READY mode would be announced in green and then the ten second countdown would begin.

“Output Circuit – negative,” Nyster recited, reading off gauges as he turned a series of dials to their respective “check” positions. “Modal Operations – negative.”

“Try Output – Modal Interface,” Eisen suggested.

“Negative.”

“Input – Modal Interface.”

Pause. Harglflbm! belched Nyster and made a sour face. “Negative.”

“Input Circuit.”

Pause. The SILO READY light came on cover blown, missile exposed, ready to launch. The LAUNCH SEQUENCE light began to blink.

“Negative. But look at this; we’re getting a jumpy reading on the Input-Output Interface circuit.”

“That’s got to be it. Start Override Procedure.”

The LAUNCH SEQUENCE light held steady. The LCD readout came on, showing the numeral 10.

“Sequenced for override,” said Nyster, his digestive tract ominously silent. “And now…. Done!”

Countdown at ten, nine, eight….

Gauges began their backward climb. The sequence was reversing itself. The gauge that indicated responses on the Input-Output Interface circuit remained in its negative position, unmoving. Override had been successful, the burnt-out circuit deadened and bypassed. The Main Activity gauge slowly turned back to its READY position and remained secure.

Countdown at five, four, three….

Eisen’s eyes burned as he watched the readout display flicker on three as if readying itself to go to two. He sank to the floor as the readout blanked and the yellow ABORT Light began to flash.

“Pull that damned circuit,” he told Nyster in a voice that sounded both angry and relieved. “Let’s find out what the hell happened here.”

***

As soon as the Main Power came back on, the brighter fluorescent lights flickered back to life and the phone rang. The Commander was understandably upset. If this had been an actual occurrence rather than just a training exercise the world would have been brought to the brink of an unwinnable war. After he was told at some length what had happened, Eisen could barely hold onto the telephone receiver for the vibrations that the old man’s hearty laughter caused it. Such had been both Eisen’s and Nyster’s reactions when the truth of the matter had become clear to them.

As soon as they had the Secondary System console broken down and the offending circuit out and open in front of them, it sat smoldering in Nyster’s hands smelling faintly of methane. Two of the three silicon chips that were the heart of the palm-sized board had been corroded by what a cursory investigation indicated was something akin to swamp gas, organic rot, vaporous intestinal refuse.

“Fart juice,” Eisen had said, giving the corrosive agent its vulgar appellation. “World War Three started by the well timed, well placed passage of a rank and rancid heinie burp.”

When Nyster’s anterior end gave its full raucous approval of that estimation there was to be no more intelligent communication between the two men. Eisen had to forcibly restrain himself from giggling when he went to answer the ringing telephone.

###

“Quikk Stop Drama at the End of the World”

By Paul Stevenson

Chelsea’s praying for a good apocalypse right about now.  A mushroom cloud on the horizon, that would make her day.  She’d glance out the cashier’s window and see the plume rising like ecstasy in her chest.  Sure, she’d be charred to ash with the bars and sagging churches, but the experience would be exhilarating. Not to mention unmatchable on a resume.  A sonic ripple to blast away the pumps, roll the roof back like tin foil: that’s what she needs.  She can feel the fire now.

Not that she’s picky, understand.  She’d take a boring catastrophe, if that was her only option.  A virulent disease, a fever that left people dried like windowsill bugs, that’d be all right.  Or a mass panic, mobs hurling Molotovs into storefronts.  At this point she is desperate enough to settle for total economic collapse.

Anything to get her out of this 9-5, six-days-a-week job.

Chelsea is manning the cash register when Henry walks in.

The string of bells tied to the doorframe shatters her daydream.  Chelsea hates those bells.  They remind her how cheap her boss is: too cheap to buy an electronic bell, too cheap to give her a raise after five years.  She hates them because they remind her how she’s stuck here, in a backwater hick town, ringing up beer for kids with fake IDs.  Today, however, she has an armistice with the bells, an understanding.  Henry walks in and her heart does a little double take, rising like a hot air balloon.

“Hi Henry,” she calls out.  She imagines herself as a princess, sealed behind a wall of cash registers and small denomination coins.  Henry startles, his glasses flashing fluorescent light.

“Hey Chelsea,” he says.  He flushes, his cheeks rosy like a wooden puppet.  He drops his gaze, shuffles towards the chips and overpriced candy.  Chelsea sighs and props an elbow on the counter.  Her coworker Cutter is snickering behind the deli counter.  Cutter swoons, pouting her best damsel-in-distress face.  She looks ridiculous: a fifty-some woman, breasts bulging like airbags beneath a floured apron.  Chelsea ignores her.

Who cares about Cutter anyway? Chelsea thinks.  She’s old, fat and still working at the Quikk Stop.  She can’t say boo.  She traces a finger across the Powerball logo on the counter.  Of course, you’re fat and working here too, she thinks.

Henry returns laden with Reeses, Twizzlers, and sour cream & onion chips.  He dumps them in a glittering heap of plastic wrappings, and smiles a touch sheepishly.  Chelsea smiles back.

I mean, come on, she thinks, looking at the candy and, beyond that, Henry’s bulging gut.  I’m not exactly asking for someone way out of my league.  She swipes the candy, the scanner emitting a series of falsetto beeps.  Her eyes flutter upward, but Henry is absorbed by his pile of wealth.

Maybe he’s the dragon, not the prince, Chelsea thinks, a pin of annoyance puncturing her giddiness.  She pictures dragon-Henry lolling on a mound of gumdrops, cradling a tootsie-pop in a clawed hand.  Except he doesn’t like tootsie-pops.  I’ve never seen him buy one.  Chelsea hopes dragon-Henry will make time to kidnap her.  She finds the idea strangely arousing, even if Henry isn’t the most conventional dragon.

“You find everything alright?” she asks.  Henry’s gaze is stuck to the countertop.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” he says.  “Great.”

“Any gas, Henry?” she asks.  He shakes his head.  “That’ll be $21.53,” she says.  Wordlessly Henry hands her the exact change.  She tears off his receipt.  He tucks it under his arm before scooping up the candy.

“Do you want a bag?” she says.  She feels alarmed; alarmed Henry is leaving, and alarmed at the color of his face as he presses the pile together with his chin.

“Nope, thanks,” he grunts.  He pushes his way out the door, those stupid bells jingling behind him.

“Come back soon!” Chelsea calls after him.  The door slams, and Chelsea sighs.

“You’ll never get him like that,” Cutter says.  Chelsea starts; Cutter stands next to her, her face matter-of-fact and her arms folded across her chest.  She smells like chicken skin and old grease.

“A dead dormouse could tell you like that boy,” Cutter says.  She pushes a strand of iron grey hair behind her ear.  “I mean, Christ, I ain’t stupid, kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” Chelsea mutters.

Cutter shrugs.  “Whatever.  Look, all I’m saying is you ain’t going about this right.”

Chelsea slumps over the cash register.  She can’t handle this.  “I’ll be fine,” she says.  She’s not sure why she’s even discussing this with Cutter.  There is a long silence as Cutter watches disapprovingly.  “Thanks anyway though,” Chelsea says halfheartedly.  Cutter shakes her head, her lips pursed, and returns to frying chicken breasts.  Chelsea sighs and wonders what the odds are of the pumps exploding, just a small scale disaster to tide her over ‘til the real Armageddon comes.

On Sundays her mother calls.  Every Sunday Chelsea contemplates letting it ring, telling her mother that she was out at a party, or that she was with a man, so sorry to have missed your call.  But Chelsea always picks up the phone.  Her mother has extra-sensory perception.  She would know Chelsea is lying.  Especially if Chelsea told a whopper like she had a man.  Besides, Chelsea loves her mother.

Just not when she calls to ask why Chelsea’s not married yet.

Chelsea is 27.  In modern day America that counts as young.  Youthful, even.  Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain died young at 27.  Grown adults didn’t expire until 30 now, at least.

She wants Henry, no question there.  But does she want him for him, or to shut her mother up?  She’d prefer to snuggle with Henry instead of watching Jay Leno in her underpants, that she knows.  Instead she’s busy digging into a bucket of Mint Chocolate Chip.  She mutes commercials when they come on, and listens to the Stones on the radio.  They tell her she can’t always get what she wants.  Chelsea thinks the Stones can stuff it.  She’s not being unreasonable.  She can lie on Henry’s chest while he eats his cheesy poofs, and they can watch Leno not be funny together.

Chelsea’s boss is a sonofabitch.  She doesn’t use that word lightly.  Her mother always said swearing was the devil’s syntax.  Chelsea’s left a lot of her mother behind her, but not all.  Twenty-seven and cuss words still stick in her throat.  But if someone had asked about her boss, she would have launched that epithet like a spitball.

The boss divides his time amongst his local convenience store chain, the great love of his life.  He fancies himself a rugged entrepreneur, Paul Bunyan crossed with the Monopoly man.  No one dares point out the local gas market isn’t exactly the western frontier.

The boss dresses in cowboy attire.  He thinks it makes him look tough.  Chelsea thinks it makes him look ridiculous, grotesquely intimidating.  It’s like seeing a bowtie on a rhinoceros: absurd, but terrifying when preceded by a foot of sharp horn.

So when he walks in, mustache bristling like a horsehair brush, Chelsea stands as straight as she can manage, mentally scrubbing the grunge from her clothing.  Cutter shrinks behind the counter, her cheeks paling beneath dusted flour.  The boss takes slow steps, spurs jingling like tiny musical notes.  He slows by the deli heater tray, runs his fingers over it.  Chelsea sees a bead of sweat roll down Cutter’s temple.  The boss reaches through the glass door, pulls out a piece of pizza.  The slice droops, cheese stretching in a gooey conglomeration.  The boss grunts, takes it over to the register.

“This one’s on the house,” he says, winking as he dangles cheese over his open mouth.  Chelsea watches impassively as he chews.

“Yes sir,” she says.  He leaves, humming to himself.  Cutter waits until the door closes, then sags onto the counter.

“I thought he’d say something about the pizza,” she says.  She wipes her forehead with the back of her hand.  “God knows I can’t get canned right now.”

“Yeah,” Chelsea says.  Her thoughts feel detached; she hardly understands what she’s saying at all.  “Yeah, no kidding,” she says.

The spritzing rain reminds her of Noah’s flood as she drives home, that and the amber twilight on Main Street.  Sun and rain together are rainbow weather, her mother always said.  Chelsea remembers sitting in her ribboned dress, listening to nuns preach about the Great Flood.  How God lost His temper and pulled the plug.  She listened while the other kids snuck naps behind the furniture.  Chelsea had always been a good girl.  Chelsea’s wipers cut a swath across her windshield, the rubber beating a steady rhythm.  She turns up her street and wishes bullet sized raindrops were coming down.  Tough luck for Chelsea God promised never to do it again.

She parks in her driveway, waits as rain patters on the roof.  Cool stormfront air is seeping into the car; she feels small, tucked away, like a mouse inside a tin can.  Outside stray clouds drift in dark wisps over her neighbors’ rooftops.  She’s watching for rainbows, although she doesn’t see any, and her mother always said if not now never.

Chelsea bets she’d be a good ark captain.  She could handle the ocean spray, the lunging prow on the waves.  Most people would cling to the rail and try not to vomit.  Not Chelsea.    She’d laugh, lean over the rail, hold her arms out like wings.  She blinks.  It’s grown dark outside.  She shuts the car off, the afterimage of arks and blue water fading.

Of course, she thinks, all of the animals got to come on the boat two by two.

“Alright, so I give,” Chelsea says the next day at work.  “What’s your advice?”

Cutter slides a sausage pizza into the oven, closes the door with a metallic clang.  She wipes her hands, leaves flour handprints on her apron.  “What’s this now?”

Chelsea resists the urge to roll her eyes.  “What am I doing wrong?  What should I have done differently?”

Cutter inspects her.  “You know I was a lot like you once.”

The base of Chelsea’s spine puckers up in a ball of fear.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Cutter rolls out the dough for a second pizza.  “Oh, you know.  Thought I’d only be stuck here a little while.  Few years tops.  Never thought I’d be an old biddy working in this shithole.”

“What does this have to do with Henry?”  Chelsea’s voice sounds like a strangled bullfrog.

“Nuthin’ really,” Cutter admits.  She flips the dough, dusts it with flour.  “It’s not so hard to get a man though.  You wanna know the secret?”

“What?” Chelsea finds herself gripping the cash register.  “What’s the secret?”

Cutter flips the crust again, smears on tomato paste.  “Just show ‘im your tits,” she says sagely.  She sighs as she sprinkles cheese.  “Don’t work once you get to be my age though.  Then they just run away faster.”

Chelsea has nightmares that night.

She’s switched jobs with Cutter, but she doesn’t know how to work the fryer.  She wants to deep fry a chicken, but the oil looks awful, like bubbling tar.  She drops in the legs and breasts, the meat sinking like mammoths in La Brea.  She asks for help, but Cutter’s gone.  An old woman punches buttons on the cash register with knobby fingers.  Recognition strikes Chelsea as she realizes this woman is just an older version of herself.  The woman’s lips crinkle in amusement.

Whaddidya expect?

The fryer overheats, sending flaming chicken ricocheting off the walls and ceiling.  Her boss bursts in, his mustache bristling with rage and his eyes burning like oil-soaked drumsticks.

The devil are you doing to my store?

Chelsea sprints past the counter, out onto the street.  Henry is standing on the corner, leaning against the lamppost.  He grins at her.

How do you like your party?

She glances around.  Nothing is happening.  The locals’ trucks gather rust on a glacial timescale, and otherwise the street is dead.  Per usual.

What do you mean?

It’s the apocalypse, beautiful, he says.  She glances at her hands, her stomach, her breasts.  She is beautiful.  Sexy, even.  She glances up, astonished, and Henry shoots a party streamer in her face.  Strings of confetti tangle in her hair.  Better enjoy it baby, he says.

All over the world streamers are going off, but there are no real explosions.

There aren’t even any good fireworks.

She dozes through her alarm the next morning.  She compensates for lost time by brushing her hair while driving with her knees.  Blue Oyster Cult plays on the radio.

Don’t fear the Reaper, they croon.

Easy for you to say.  She rips at a knot with the brush.  You don’t work at a gas station.  She swerves into the employee parking and kills the engine.  She catches a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror: plain, fleshy around the mouth and chin, but with straightened hair.  She finds herself contemplating Cutter’s advice, then catches herself.

What am I going to do, flash him when he goes for the lemon drops?
Still,
she thinks as she heads inside, maybe Cutter knows more than I’ve been giving her credit for.

She’s thinking about zombies when her boss makes a surprise visit.

Zombies aren’t her favorite apocalypse.  Zombies are gross, first of all.  A city full of rotting corpses must reek like nothing else.  And if they catch you, they zombify you, which Chelsea does not care for at all.  Apocalypses are high-risk endeavors, that’s not what bothers her.  It’s just so… unglamorous, so anticlimactic, death by zombie bite.  Defeats the whole point of an apocalypse, really.  And sometimes the survivors band together, reform little pockets of civilization.  Which meant someone needed to manage post-apocalyptic gas station counters.

Still, she’s experimenting when her boss walks in.  He looks preemptively pissed, precognitively aware of future policy transgressions.  Chelsea glances at Cutter, but the older woman is fixated on her batch of onion rings.  The boss stands astride the aisle like a rodeo champion.

“Hello sir,” Chelsea says.  He ignores her, clumps down the snacks aisle.  Chelsea closes her eyes, mentally sorting through the shelves.  Restocked the Doritos, put the new boxes of gum out—

“Who stacked all these goddamned Cheetos?”

Chelsea deflates.  “Me, sir.”

He stomps back, his eyes bulging like hard boiled eggs.  “You care to explain why the sale tags haven’t been taken off yet?  You understand that almost all the profit in this store comes from our snacks?  And that Cheetos are one of our bestsellers?”

“Yes sir,” she says.  She knows.  She’s seen Henry buy Cheetos a dozen times in the past two weeks.

“Then you get that leaving the sale sticker on cuts the profit margin down almost to zero?  I don’t like working for free.  Do you like working for free?”

“No, sir,” Chelsea says.

“Then don’t screw up again,” he says.  With a final flourish he struts out of the store, looking self-satisfied.  Chelsea blinks several times, her eyelids squeezing shut.  The back of her mind swims with water, like someone left all the faucets on in her brain’s kitchen.  It’s not that he yelled at her, or that he’d threatened her job.

It was that the world ran shallow enough to care what color sticker covered the Cheeto Cheetah’s face.

She thinks about killing herself when she gets home, though she knows she won’t.  She’s thought about it before.  It’s not like her life has ever been that different, after all.  She was fat in high school, she is fat now.  A little fatter, probably.  Her senior prom photos looked like vignettes of those dancing hippos from Fantasia.  She hadn’t had a date then.  She couldn’t find one now.  Her life is filled with an appalling symmetry.

Once she’d swallowed five ibuprofen during her lunch break at Quikk Stop.  She’d meant to swallow the whole bottle but the backlog had stuck in her gag reflex.  In retrospect she should taken one at a time, but by then she’d lost her nerve.  She’d probed her face to see if anything would happen.  Her cheeks turned numb, but otherwise no difference.

It’s kind of pathetic, now that she thinks about it.  She has to be honest with herself: for someone who fantasizes about extinction-grade meteorites it’s pretty sad to get cold feet over painkillers.

The worst part is no one would stop her if they knew.  Well, her mother, maybe.  But mothers are obligated in those situations.  Cutter would shrug and tell her to shit or get off the pot.  Her boss would brandish his calendar and ask who would work second shift Monday through Saturday now.

Because that’s just it, really.  Life doesn’t come with a warranty or explosions or princesses or bright lights and colors.  It is.  That’s life’s perfect description.  Is.  Was.  Life exists.  But you couldn’t say much more for it.  Chelsea can muster only so much enthusiasm for work schedules and Willy Wonka’s Gobstoppers.

So when she’s standing in her slippers, staring at the Valium in the medicine cabinet, she knows she won’t do it.  Even though she has fat rolls bunching over her bra and she has work again in 12 hours, she won’t do it.

Even though she’s not quite sure why not.

Business is dead and so Chelsea asks Cutter a question she probably shouldn’t.

“Cutter, when are you going to die?”  Chelsea means the question sincerely, even sympathetically, but she asks and immediately knows she’s made a mistake.  She tries to take it back.

“I’m gonna live forever,” Cutter says.  She says this as if announcing she’s cooking another batch of French fries later.  Chelsea is taken aback.  For a moment she ponders the logistics of immortality, but then curiosity overcomes her again.

“How?”

Cutter shrugs.  “Bunch of different ways people’ve tried it.”

“Anyone actually do it?”

Cutter smiles, her lips a grim slash in the brightness of the store.  “Too early to tell yet, ain’t it?”

Chelsea is lying on her couch, cradling her cell phone.  It’s Sunday.  Her mother will call soon.

She’s been thinking about living forever.  She’s pictured her head, blue-lipped from freezer-burn, resting on a platter.  She can’t afford a full body freeze, not even in her daydreams.  She’s skittish about coming back as just a head, although she wouldn’t have to worry about being fat or heart disease in the family history or bad tan lines anymore.  Of course there’s no guarantee some cryogenic scientist won’t toss her head into a dumpster to make room for his breakfast waffles.

Chelsea isn’t sure she wants to live forever anyway.  She isn’t sure she wants to die, since she’s never done it before, but life had turned out disappointing.  Like when you bake cupcakes expecting the picture on the package, but instead they come out hard and tasting like flour.

Her mother used to tell her God led to eternal life.  When Chelsea first heard about God she’d stood on her porch, hands on her hips, demanding He prove He existed.  As if on cue a rainbow stretched itself across the sky.  Chelsea had been shocked.  The rainbow vanished, winking as it went.  She had pouted, feeling like God was teasing her.  But then, it could have just been a rainbow.  Chelsea understands now why cultists follow prophets who can’t predict the correct date for group grocery trips.  Chelsea would guzzle Kool-Aid by the gallon to find out if that rainbow had been real or not.

Her phone rings.  Her mother.  Chelsea picks up the phone, a smile crossing her face.

“Why yes mother, I do have a boyfriend,” she says.  “His name is Henry.”

Henry doesn’t show up on Monday.  Or Tuesday.  Or Wednesday.  Chelsea jerks her head every time the bells ring, but he doesn’t come.  Her palms are sweaty regardless.  She thinks this is a gross violation of universal law, to have clammy hands and get nothing in return.  She starts wondering if he’s ever coming back when he walks in Thursday afternoon.

She is arguing with an old farmer over a $1.25 coupon when Henry strolls in.  The farmer holds out his frayed newspaper clipping, points to his Coors six-pack with a hand like an old root.

“See?” he says.  “$1.25 off a case of Coors.”  His jaw juts forward in fiery vindication.

Chelsea sighs.  She is about to explain that a). her boss’s policy is no coupons and b.) coupons don’t work after the expiration date, when she sees Henry.

“Fine,” she says, snatching the case from him.  The farmer’s expression morphs into pleased surprise, then clouds over again.

“Do you think I could get a bag for this?”

She gives the famer his change, his bag, and $1.25 from her paycheck for his stupid coupon.  He walks off, clucking to himself.  Henry comes up to the counter, a smile pushing around his lips.

“A little trouble there?” he asks while studying his shoelaces.  He puts the candy on the counter, and she begins to ring it up.

“Oh, not too much,” she says.  She smiles, trying to make her teeth saccharine sugarcubes.  “What are you doing this weekend?”

“Oh, you know,” he says.  His gaze wanders across his Twizzlers and Dots, and his ears flare bright red.  “Little of this, little of that.”

She finishes checking out the candy, puts it in a plastic bag.  Henry grabs the plastic handles, lifts it off the counter.  Words jump into Chelsea’s throat, almost sticking there.

“Henry, wait,” she says.  He stops, glances over his shoulder.  Chelsea swallows, her mouth dry.  “You want to go out this weekend?”

He blinks twice, sweats behind his glasses.  He looks Chelsea up and down, cranes his neck toward the door, then opens his bag and stares down into it.  “I’m sorry,” he says.  “I’m just not—I’m sorry, I can’t.  No.”  He bites his lip, studying Chelsea with sympathy.  “You’re just not my type.”  He hoists the candy over his shoulder like a knapsack, leans against the doorway.  He pushes his way out of the store, bells jingling behind him.

Chelsea stands, numb, behind the counter.  Not my type.  She is vaguely aware of Cutter pretending to have not seen anything.

Her boss fires her the next day.

“It’s against company policy to initiate sexual or romantic relations with customers,” he says, slurring the words together, as if the line is memorized.  He speaks with a tone of sympathy, as if he isn’t the sole owner of the store and as if the policy isn’t his policy.  “I’m not saying you’ve done it, but I’ve had too issues in the past with employees handing out discounts and slacking off because they were off fantasizing about some boy.”

Cutter is emanating waves of mixed defensiveness and apology as she breads chicken.  Chelsea doesn’t blame Cutter.  It isn’t her fault, it’s Chelsea’s fault.  Chelsea should have known her boss would see things this way.  She should have known Cutter would trade job security over camaraderie.  In her shoes Chelsea might have done the same thing.  But that doesn’t matter now.  Her boss’s lips are moving, but Chelsea is no longer listening.  Her fingers are reaching for the knots in her apron.  The cords come undone and the cloth slides to the floor.  She steps out from behind the cash register, pushes past her ex-boss.  He watches her with frozen expression and open jaw.  She has no time to savor it; no, she has no time for anything here anymore.  She pushes against the door handle.  But she’s not seeing the morning fog rolling over asphalt, or pickups coughing down the street, or hearing the bells ringing for the last time.  She’s feeling ocean spray on her arms, and smelling the brine of deep waters moving beneath her.

She even thinks she spies a rainbow hovering out in the mist.

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