Competition was fierce this month with more entries submitted than in any month previous. Needless to say, all our hopefuls made the decision a difficult one. However, in the end, our winner was clear, capturing the uneasy essence of a classic Twilight Zone episode.
Congratulations to Jamie Gilman Kress for taking the honors in this month’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Jamie’s prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.
Honorable Mentions –
Another Day in Paradise – Erin Lale
Little Kink – David Bartell
Button, Button, Button – David Burga
Litterbug – Chantal Boudreau
There Goes the World
Jamie Gilman Kress
Andrea had counted seventy-four Snickers when the lights flickered once, twice, then held steady.
“Lights are hanging in there and we still have the radio,” George called without looking up from the coffee filter he’d meticulously filled with grounds. “Now, we just need it to stop raining.”
Andrea gazed out the glass front of the store where water fell in sheets. The gas pumps, maybe twenty feet away, looked insubstantial through the torrent. Muddy tracks remained from the customers who’d dashed in just after the downpour began. That’d been over an hour ago, just after Andy clocked in at eleven. Not even the regulars had stopped by since.
“Think we need to reset the pumps?”
“Probably. I’ll do it after I get this pot of coffee going.”
“I don’t suppose you could grab it now? I would, but I don’t have the key to the office.” If she waited for George it’d be a good twenty minutes. He currently leveled the coffee grounds evenly in the filter. Step three of seven in his process and the midnight rush was already overdue.
“Don’t know why they couldn’t put the pump reset switch in the open or leave the damned office unlocked.” George slammed down his spoon and stomped into the back.
Andrea stared after him. George never swore or complained about anything.
Maybe the weather had made him cranky. The rain beat a constant rhythm against the windows that seemed to echo like thunder in her skull. It’d be okay if the rhythm varied, but the water fell in a steady stream never lessening or worsening. Just plip, plip, clap of thunder, sheet of lightning, plip, over and over.
It was unlike any storm she’d ever been in.
A gust of wind forced the door open then slammed it shut as the wind retreated in another direction. Andrea’s head snapped up and she blinked rapidly, staring down at the mop like she held an alien creature. She’d been sweeping. Where did the mop come from?
Her mind felt foggy, like she’d gotten too much sleep, but the clean floor attested to the fact she’d been working. She didn’t remember getting out the bucket that stood behind her. She felt her heartbeat quicken and took a deep breath. It wasn’t like she’d never zoned out before. Cleaning was routine. She did it on mostly autopilot while thinking of other things. People did it all the time. Nothing to be worried about.
She rolled her head back on her shoulders and wiped a hand across her eyes. George was nowhere to be seen. She needed to watch the front.
It continued raining.
The filter of coffee grounds still sat on the counter. Andrea stared for a second and shook her head. Different pot. Had to be.
Andy was putting a newspaper rack in front of the door with the broken hinge so it couldn’t slam again when the man all but fell inside
A pretty standard type for this shift, he had disheveled longish hair, an untrimmed beard, and wore a flannel jacket and jeans with work boots. He dripped water everywhere as he walked to the coolers in the back.
Unexpected tears stung her eyes, a disproportionate frustration washing over her. She’d have to mop again. Worse, it looked like the man wore a brand-new jacket. The water on the floor held a faint orange tint from the dye.
His coat was blue. Maybe it had orange lining.
That must be it.
Andrea watched him veer and swerve his way to the counter with a six-pack of Genny. He obviously wasn’t sober.
She braced for a fight and glanced at the clock. 2:27. Doing the floors only took an hour. And there should have been a beer rush.
Unease danced down Andrea’s spine, but she focused on the customer. She had to take care of this first.
The man gazed at her from wide brown eyes, almost black in contrast to the deep purple circles under them. While he looked right at her, Andrea had the strangest feeling that he didn’t see her.
“I just have to get this back to Brady’s house and everything will be fine,” He mumbled. “Just fine. Brady will be there. The rain will stop.”
Andrea nodded and slid the six-pack behind the counter. “New York State law, sir. I can’t sell alcohol after two.”
The man blinked at her once and then shambled out of the store. She could hear him muttering “…just fine, just fine. The rain will stop. They’ll be there. Please. Someone will be there…” She watched to see if he went to a car. If so, she’d call the police. He shouldn’t be driving.
The radio ceased playing the incomprehensible zydeco music George insisted on listening to and went to the lottery ticket commercial.
The tinny woman’s voice chirped, “Yeah, the odds are one—”
The man headed toward the gas pumps. There were no cars at the pumps and no parking spaces in that part of the lot. Andrea took her hand off of the phone. The man was walking. In the rain.
“—in a billion, but you—”
As he reached the halogen glow of the lamps over the pumps the lights inside the store flickered again. Once, twice, and then held steady.
The radio looped, “can’t win…can’t win…can’t win…can’t…”
The man passed through the pump lights.
The radio went dead.
Just after four now. It kept raining.
George wasn’t in the cooler. He wasn’t in the kitchen or the stock room or the bathroom. He wasn’t anywhere. Andrea feared he’d gone outside.
Every now and then the wind would toss the unblocked door open and the rain would blow inside. All the water had a faint orange tint.
There had been no customers since the drunk guy, no cars at the pumps. No cars on the street, not even the cops that usually patrolled the store. The lights on the pumps cast hard, cold light around them illuminating nothing but walls of water. There weren’t even leaves moving in the wind.
The lights flickered once, twice, and then held steady. Theirs were the only lights on in the neighborhood. Even the traffic lights hung black and dead. Andrea picked up the phone. No dial tone. The lights flickered once, twice, then held steady.
She began to weep.
Six-thirty and still no customers. No George. A high whine almost outside of her hearing had begun, like the air itself hummed to the music no longer playing. Light should have been breaking on the horizon.
It still looked like midnight; the only light was that of the pumps.
On the edges of that light something moved. A shadow. Maybe a person. Something alive. Even a dog would do. Just as long as something lived out there.
A crumbled bit of newspaper blew into the circle of light.
Andrea listened hard, but her own heartbeat had been the only sound for hours. A sob tore from her throat.
The lights flickered once, twice.
And went out.