Thursday, November 20, 2008


Ted pulled into Kalamazoo at 3:15 a.m. and eased his Jetta onto Westnedge Avenue from I-94. He was tired, there was absolutely no doubt of that. In fact, he'd spent the last three hours struggling to keep his road-weary body from swerving off the freeway. He'd never been a consistent smoker, but he heard that keeping a burning cigarette between your fingers would not only offer up its gag-inducing odor, but also potentially burn down enough to singe your fingers if you nodded off. The tunes remained cranked to a station featuring an evening of nothing but Metal, the passenger-side window was as open as Ted felt comfortable with despite the frigid, twenty-degree air, and the heat remained as low as it could be while still able to keep the windows frostless. All of these things ought to have combined to make a volatile solution for staying awake, but in fact, all they did was make his mind wander off into near-dream land. Frustration and irritation got the better of him, and eeking off the highway was his only safe recourse.
Ted was hungry; not for fast food, but for something a bit more forgiving to his stomach. He was here for the weekend at the Radisson just a few miles downtown, but his stomach was protesting even the minor jaunt to a more comfortable location. So, it was time for a little snack to while away another fifteen minutes to bed time. Just past the off-ramp on the right was a local 24-hour grocery and sundry supply chain called Meijer. Though they were all over the central states, Ted had only heard about them since his travels brought him from Arizona, where such a store didn't exist. The parking lot was a wasteland of sporadically parked autos, a few orphaned shopping carts, and a small group of -what, kids?- trotting through the lot.
Ted shrugged, pulled into a spot, and stretched the stretch of a thousand miles as he cracked and popped his frame free of the car. He sighed deep, hollered a bit as he arced and loosened his spine, and made his way to the eerily-lit front entrance. The low thrum of the automatic glass partition spread open belching free a torrent of stale heat. Ted walked in, and was immediately overwhelmed with the sudden realization that this store was just far too big for a simple snack search and rescue mission. He stopped, looked around, and just barely heard a greeter bid him welcome as she nonchalantly went back to her magazine. Well, one thing became obvious: the food was off to Ted's left. He smiled distantly, and made his way to an aisle with on-sale chips for its end cap.
Ted loomed at the end of the row as choice after numerous variety offered itself like an eager hand. Ted walked past potato chips of every flavor nature never intended, Doritos from spicy to cool, and all the way to good old tortilla chips. He snatched a bag of Tostidos and a jar of medium salsa from the accessory rack just beneath, and quickly retraced his steps back to the junction. He wasn't especially thirsty at the moment, but with his munchie choice, he surly would be soon enough. Ted opted for a 2-liter of Brisk iced tea, and slowly, awkwardly, stuttered to the front check-out. A quick transaction with the only open lanes: automatic for your convenience, Ted left the hugging comfort of the toasty store and seethed a little as the blast of chilly December air punched him in the face.
Ted marched to his car to excise himself from the chill as quickly as possible. He pressed the unlock on his key chain with its characteristic double-honk, and opened the passenger door.
"Excuse me, mister? Could I help you with that bag?"
Ted whirled around as he left the pavement in a panic. He was quick to hold onto the plastic bag's handles and the glass jar of salsa would have certainly broken otherwise. Standing close enough to Ted for him to clearly see his face from under the giant, humming fluorescent lights, stood a boy of maybe ten.
"I can help you load your things for just a ride home."
Ted was speechless. Another glance over the boy's far-too-small-to-be-out-this-late features made him shake his head and gesture a little toward his one, small bag. But the most odd thing about the boy was most certainly his voice. Possibly a product of the cold air, maybe shivering, he sounded empty, hollow, lifeless even. It had risen the hair on Ted's neck to even listen to it and certainly had no intention of doing it again.
"N-N-no thanks, kid. I've got it. You really ought to run along home, it's really late."
The boy just stood there, not even flinching one way or another. Then, it really struck home and Ted felt an icy hand tickle from his ass to the top of his head: the boy's eyes were black. Not just the iris or the pupil: all of it. The boy's eyes were solid, deep, black. No trick of the light here. No optical illusion could have created such possessed and grotesque eyes on a child. No reflection, no glimmer from the lamp, just solid, dead, black eyes. And around his neck hung the weight of a CD-sized necklace. No, an amulet of some kind. It let off just enough of a glow to easily discern its deep, bloody hue.
Ted took a step back, and the boy, forward. Ted dropped his back to the floor of his car, quickly slammed the door, and sprinted to the opposite side. The boy was there before Ted could even recoil.
"I just need a ride mister... just a ride."
The white-yellow protection of the light crackled and burned out. A man; displaced, exhausted, and alone, wailed into the frigid night.

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