Interlude - Alone

Page 2

Simp

The custom remained motionless, a grin on his face, his head cocked to one side.

Gilbert raced to the front counter and found his shirt in a wad beside the cash register. He shook potato chip crumbs off it with one hand as he cranked down the radio dial with the other. "Welcome to Fuel Fast," he said as he pulled on his shirt. "Where our customer service—"

"Good morning," the man interrupted.

Gilbert took his first good look at the man. He was short with sandy blonde hair that looked as if he hadn't combed it in weeks. His stubbly cheeks hung limp beneath his grin. He wore what looked like dirty pajamas, stained and hardened a deep red-brown down one side. Stenciled words across his shirt read Simp Subject 01352 - Property of the CDC.

"Uh," Gilbert said.

"It's a beautiful day," said Simp Subject 01352. "Don't you think it's a beautiful day?"

Gilbert found his pants. "Uh, yeah. Beautiful. Where did you come from?"

The man cocked his head and grinned. "Everything's beautiful. We're all beautiful. I like me."

A red stain ran from the the man lower lip, down his chin and over his neck. It looked as if he'd drank wine from a barrel and didn't bother to wipe it off.

"Yes, we're all...um...swell," Gilbert replied. "Is there something I can help you with?"

The man shuffled forward, the grin never leaving his face. "You aren't smiling," he observed.

"Well, it's been tough being here all alone, and..."

They stared at each other. The man stood at the counter now, his persistent grin dominating his face, though it didn't seem to find his eyes. His stare was vacant, and his pupils were murky gray. Without warning, the man twitched, a full body spasm that sent Gilbert retreating into the wall. The man opened his mouth wide, his jaw making an audible pop. Then his fixed grin returned.

"Are you okay?" Gilbert asked.

The man's smile widened. "Never better, my friend. The sun shines its love on me, and I embrace it. My heart is filled with undying bliss."

"That... must be nice."

"It is. Tell me, why don't you smile?"

Gilbert couldn't make sense of any of this. Was this guy an escaped mental patient?

"Why don't you smile?" the man repeated, his head now flopping to the other side in a mechanical gesture that resembled curiosity.

"I'm not smiling because I've been stuck here for weeks now. My city is gone, and now I'm in a big empty nowhere land. And you're standing too close. I had a chance to leave awhile ago. Someone offered me a ride. I should have taken it."

"I can help," the man said.

"You can get me out of here? Do you have a car?"

"I can ease your pain," the man said, now rounding the counter.

"Um. You should leave my pain alone." Gilbert stepped back.

"I can ease your pain," the man repeated.

"Why don't you have a candy bar instead." Gilbert held up a Snickers bar. "Just leave me alone."

The man closed the distance between them. Gilbert looked for a weapon. His shock baton had been stolen. He settled for a push broom. He held it up, bristles aimed at the man. "Back off," he demanded.

The man ignored the broom, stepping around it. Gilbert swiped it to the side, trying to pin the man to the counter. The man pushed through.

I can ease your pain

Gilbert dropped the broom and climbed backwards over the counter, nearly falling over the other side. He jumped and ran to the far end of the store.

The man showed no sign of perturbation. Through everything, his fixed grin remained. "Relax," he said. "I have only the best of intentions. I can ease your pain."

"I've got Budweiser. My pain isn't a problem."

Cornered against the cooler, Gilbert decided it was time to stop being nice. He pulled a glass door open and took a can of Sky Cola. As the man approached, he hurled with all his strength, aiming for the man's chest. The can clanked against his skull with a painful thunk.

Gilbert held his breath. The man stood still for a moment, the smile fixed in place, but his eyes registered momentary confusion. The flesh above his left eyebrow split in a vicious gash. He leaned his head back and sighed as a fresh trickle of blood oozed into his eye and traced around his cheek in a messy rivulet.

"God, I'm sorry, mister," Gilbert said, taking a step forward. "I just... I didn't know what to do. You're acting so crazy and—"

"I am love," the man whispered with intense rapture. "I am one. I am one with bliss."

He raised a finger and wiped his eye. He blinked twice then turned back to Gilbert. To Gilbert's astonishment, the gash on his forehead was gone. The blood remained, but Gilbert saw only smooth skin beneath it. There wasn't even a scar.

"What the crap?" Gilbert exclaimed.

The man grinned. "Why are you not smiling?"

Gilbert was out of ideas. He smiled.

The man paused. He cocked his head, his teeth sparkling in the florescent light. "Subterfuge?" he asked.

"It's a beautiful day," Gilbert said through a grin of clenched teeth. They stared at each other. Gilbert struggled for something else to say. "I can't be more pleased. I've got joy shining... right out of my... ears. I'm so happy."

"State your generation," the man said, the animation in his voice dropping to a flat monotone.

"Excuse me?"

"State your generation."

"Um. Third."

"Third generation is defective. Current generation is 35.6. Prepare for an upgrade."

With that, the man lunged at Gilbert, the grin opening wide. Gilbert froze. The man wanted to bite him? Seriously? Was he a vampire or—

Gilbert dodged. The man slammed into the cooler door, but his arm hooked out and caught Gilbert by the arm. Gilbert wrenched himself free. He opened the next cooler door and slammed it into the man's face. When the man didn't flinch, he repeated his assault, slamming again and again until the man stumbled backwards a step, his nose and front teeth now looking like bloody pulp.

"Thir' genashun defecive," the man repeated through a bloody grin. He came at Gilbert again. Gilbert was too slow, and the man wrapped his arms around him. As Gilbert struggled, the man's teeth snapped at him. Gilbert leaned his head back, keeping his neck just inches from his attacker's mouth. He struggled, writhed and fought, backing towards the restrooms. When they neared the open door to the ladies room, Gilbert heaved forward, knocking the man into the doorframe. The man's teeth caught Gilbert's cheek and bit hard. When Gilbert thrust his head back, the soft flesh tore away.

Gilbert screamed. He head-butted the man repeatedly, then fought again to get free of his grasp. Miraculously, he succeeded. He kicked the man backwards into the restroom and slammed the door shut.

Silence.

Gilber pressed his hand to his cheek

Gilbert slid down with his back against the door and pressed a hand to his cheek, the blood trickling through his fingers and down his arm. "What the... What was..." He sat panting, tears welling in his eyes. Being abandoned in the desert was bad enough. Now this?

At least he had trapped the man in the restroom. If the man tried forcing his way out, he'd be incinerated. Gilbert hoped it would happen soon.

The store's door bell chimed.

Gilbert froze, his breath catching in his chest.

No sounds. No nothing. Had it been a glitch?

Gilbert waited a few moments, then stood. His knees popped as he rose. He gazed out towards the door.

There was no one there.

He sighed. He turned towards the front counter.

The woman stood only two steps from him, her lab coat caked with dried blood, her left arm ending somewhere at the elbow where her tattered sleeve hung in a tangled bloody mess.

"Why aren't you smiling?" she asked.

Her teeth sank into the flesh of Gilbert's shoulder. At first he screamed. He wrenched backwards, he writhed, he cried. Pain radiated through his body.

But was it really that bad? As she held him, he felt the fight leave him. It was nice, actually. A wave of joy ran up his neck. His head felt light.

Gilbert smiled. He couldn't smile enough to express the joy he felt. The warmth of bliss ran down his limbs. His head lolled to the side, and he took in the beautiful landscape beyond the windows.

There, he saw dozens, possibly hundreds of staggering bodies swaying in the desert, stretched out to the horizon.

They all grinned. They were beautiful. Gilbert grinned back.

He wasn't alone anymore.

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page published 11/28/2016