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CONVERSATION WITH A COFFEE ZOMBI
by Stepan Chapman

Trudy was driving south on I-99 in her lime green, modified dune buggy, in the dead of night. She had come out here to brood about her new boyfriend. But her mind was wandering, and she wasn't getting any serious brooding done.

Tires whirring, her dune buggy flew through the warm, dry night of central California. The freeway soared past suburbanoid subdevelopments, floodlit inside their security fences, starkly shadowed by their power poles and satellite dishes. Weary of the scenery, Trudy started to read the signs and billboards.

Bum Boys Steaks & Cakes, Next Right, Free Pancakes On the Patio. Grade-A Milk-Fed Headless Chicken Loaves! Fun For the Whole Mouth! INTERSTATE 99, PLEASE REMEMBER TO LITTER, THE HOMELESS NEED YOUR CANS. Bennie's Grill of East Pentothal, Exit 33, 10 miles. Pool, pets, pecan pie palace, just say when. CAUTION: GILDRAB CROSSING. Save the Hawaiian Insects, Hook-Ups For Power Water Sewage. Third Font Of Word Cursors: Sinners, the Gourd is coming! Trudy wondered what Power Water Sewage looked like.

Off to the west. over the Sierras, heat lightning stuttered inside sooty gray cloudbanks. But no thunder, not a whisper.

Trudy wished it would rain. There hadn't been any weather in the county for weeks.

Trudy loved to drive the freeway at night. It would've been even better if she'd been driving around planting thermite bombs and destroying the highway system while she drove, but nothing's perfect. Trudy had no idea how to construct a thermite bomb. Why, why had nothing useful been taught to her in high school.

Headlights came over a rise behind her. A vehicle smaller than her buggy overtook her, passing in the mid-lane. The vehicle's roof was down, if it had a roof, so Trudy got a good look at the driver. He was a rumpled little man in a bad toupee, with a pale gray-green complexion. He was driving an automatic vending machine. The coffee machine was suspended horizontally between four truck tires, like a soap box derby special on mag wheels.

The shrunken gremlin driving this curiosity sat in a bucket seat recessed into its top side. As he passed Trudy, he waved a small, pudgy hand at her, as though he were on a parade float. He grinned a queasy, ingratiating grin at her. Then, as quickly as he'd appeared, he was gone over the next rise.

It had to be an advertising stunt. But a dwarf?! Driving the highway at this hour?

Just then the passing road shoulder presented Trudy with an even stranger scene. The coffeemat was standing vertically in the emergency lane, its wheels folded from sight. Its front panel was hanging open on hinges, and dense, white steam was issuing from its internals. It had evidently suffered a breakdown. Reinforcing this impression, a dozen yards down the road, the little man was standing on the gravel in his worn, summer suit, holding his wee, fat thumb out, hitching for a ride. Trudy passed him by at a slow creep, eyeing him carefully and wondering whether he was dangerous or just nuts.

Trudy didn't normally give rides to strange men in the dead of night, especially not men as strange as this guy. Trudy never adopted stray puppies, nor did she nurse injured sparrows. But there was something about the unhealthy specimen in the shabby suit that intrigued her. Perhaps she'd been eating too many diet pills. Perhaps the toxins in Eugene's body were calling out to the toxins in Trudy's. Who can say?

Trudy braked her buggy, coasted onto the gravel, and parked. She pushed some of her car debris from the passenger seat to the floor mat -- styrofoam cups, battery cable, parking tickets, eye make-up... The buggy's motor idled.

The small gray man trotted up to the passenger door, yanked it open, tossed in a black leather briefcase, climbed in after it, and slammed the door behind him. Then he turned to Trudy and favored her again with the sickly sweet rictus he used for a smile. His teeth were a luminous greenish-yellow, like rows of fireflies.

"Thank you so much," he said. "For the ride, I mean."

"It's nothing," said Trudy.

"Yes," said Eugene, nodding. "Less than nothing."

Trudy pulled the buggy back onto the freeway. "What's your name?" she asked.

"What? My what? Oh! Sorry! Eugene, Eugene Greer. Terrific pleasure to meet you!"

"Trudy."

"What? Oh! Your name! I see! Very pretty."

"Please feel free to smoke if it would calm you down."

Conversation lapsed. Trudy studied Eugene. His fat little cheeks were pale and waxen. The flesh around his eyes was stained a deep, bruised violet. Stubble darkened his jowels to the gray of his suit. The leather of his shoes was cracked, but caked over with lumpy black polish.

He began to crack his knuckles, at some length, while kicking his feet, which didn't reach the floor mat.

Long years ago, Trudy's mother had warned her against riding in cars with strange men. Trudy had imagined Strange Men with bugged-out eyes and blue skin, who wore strange party hats and dripping raincoats and drove strange limousines full of strange little girls.

So in a sense, Trudy's mother had prepared her perfectly for Eugene.

"Did you... uh... car break down?" asked Trudy.

"My what? Oh yes! My car! It ran out of gas. Foolish of me."

"We could siphon from my tank," Trudy offered. "Does your car take Regular?"

"No no!" Eugene protested. "I wouldn't want to impose. Please just drop me at the next service station."

"Mr. Greer, do you know how late it is? On my planet, gas stations close at night."

"Well, they shouldn't," he asserted. "It's important to stay awake for as long as possible. Sleep is completely unnecessary. Completely!" This being said, Eugene returned his attention to the cracking of his knuckles, adding now the tapping of his shoes against the lid of Trudy's glove compartment. His polyester socks were bunched at his ankles. He rolled down his window, the better to watch the sections of barbwire fence slipping past, and the grazing land beyond. He cranked his head around and watched the road behind, as though he might be pursued.

Trudy decided that she might be arrested at any time for an A.A.E.V.D. (Aiding and Abetting an Escaped Ventriloquist's Dummy.)

"So, Eugene, what line of work are you in?"

"I'm a terrorist," said Eugene offhandedly. "I blow things up. Oh, but that's a secret. It's better if you don't know that."

"Ah," said Trudy solemnly. Again, the conversation lapsed.

Eugene laid his briefcase across his knees, flipped up the snaps, opened the case, and withdrew a red plaid thermos bottle. By opening the lid of the buggy's glovebox, he provided a horizontal surface to set the thermos on. A certain number of greasy napkins, hair curlers, and other assorted trash fell from the glovebox. Eugene unscrewed the red plastic cup and stopper from the thermos, poured himself a steaming cup of black coffee, and drank it with one gulp. He poured a second cup and threw that back as well. Some of the twitchiness began visibly to drain out of him.

"Would you like a cup?' he asked Trudy.

"No thanks," she told him. "I'm not doing anything that requires my attention."

"More for me," Eugene replied happily, and slurped down his third cup. "I need a lot of coffee," he continued earnestly, "because of my health condition. I pretty much need to drink all the coffee in the world, just to stay awake. Haven't got a choice, in fact. If I ever go to sleep, I'll die instantly."

"How awful for you."

"Yes. Isn't it? But it's something I just have to live with." Eugene peered into his thermos, which he'd emptied. His busy little hands whipped a black rubber hose with a spigot from his briefcase, operated some internal controls, and had soon refilled the thermos with scalding water. Next the case disgorged a jar of instant coffee crystals, which he opened and set beside the thermos. Then, with a ploastic spoon, he shoveled roughly half the jar's contents into the thermos. One final spoonful of the brown granules went directly into his mouth. He chewed the coffee crystals like gum, turned to Trudy, and smiled again, his teeth gleaming eerily through a coating of brown goo.

He stoppered the thermos and shook it like a martini mixer. He poured himself a cup of the resultant tincture, sipped it experimentally, and heaved a sigh of satisfaction, sinking into his car seat. He ran a hand through the damp, disordered thatch of hair at the back of his head.

Then Eugene saw a take-out bag of French-fries on the dash and leaned forward, eyeing it with intense suspicion. "Did that come from an O'Hogan's franchise?" he asked Trudy.

"Well," she said, "judging from the trademarks all over it, I'd say that it did. Why?'

Trudy, as it happened, worked the night shift at an O'Hogan's burger pit. She'd only recently punched out, and was taking the fries home for tomorrow's breakfast eggs. But Trudy didn't always admit to being a burger cashier, as it lacked status, and also because she lied to strangers on general principles.

Urgently, Eugene rolled down his window and hurled the greasy bag of waxed paper into the night. "Hey!" said Trudy.

He turned on her with a glare, short of breath from anxiety. "It's for your own protection," he told her. "There's no telling what kind of chemicals they put in that stuff!"

"Ah... Very true," said Trudy. "Quite right. Pitch it out. Would you care for an oatmeal cookie? I baked them myself."

"You're very kind," said Eugene. "But I don't eat."

"You don't."

"I used to, but I had to give it up for health reasons. If I eat anything, I'll die. Eating is overrated, if you ask me. If everyone stopped eating, there'd be an end to world starvation. No more food shortages. Most food contains mercury anyway."

"Well," said Trudy, "it's a tough habit to break."

"I see your point exactly," Eugene replied. "I understand you perfectly."

Trudy took a stick of mint gum from the dash, unwrapped it, and chewed it meditatively. She considered it highly unlikely that Eugene understood anything perfectly. When, Trudy asked herself, was she going to learn better than to lure these damaged hermit crabs from their shells? Never. Her curiosity always overruled her good sense.

"So you're a terrorist?"

Eugene wheeled on Trudy with his eyes bugging out and his toupee standing on end. "Who told you?!" he demanded.

"You did. A minute ago."

"Oh," said Eugene doubtfully. "That's all right then. Normally I preserve my facade of normality."

"What facade?" asked Trudy. "What normality?")

"My placid facade allows me to walk among my enemies while I plot to destroy them utterly. In this way, I mask my burning hatred for the scum I oppose, the venal criminals who own and operate my targets."

"Your targets?"

"My targets fester in every township of the land, on every byway, like pox sores on the gums of the body politic."

Trudy chewed her gum and tried to keep her jaw muscles from tensing up.

"But have no fear, Trudy! I shall cleave the skulls of those vermin and spit in their brains! And their brains will shrivel and burn in the corrosive acids of my ravaged guts!"

"Eugene, excuse me..."

"I'm speaking metaphorically about the skulls. When I blow a place up, I try to avoid fatalities. And I always make sure that no innocents are injured. Well, usually they aren't. I mean, I've blown up seventeen of them so far, no one's perfect. And they just build more of them! They give me no alternative. Who but myself has the power to confront them with their crimes?! It's no good going to the Media. They own the Media!"

"Eugene! Mr. Greer! Slow down! Back up! Fill me in here. Who exactly are you mad at?"

"Are you familiar with the O'Hogan's Corporation?"

Trudy swallowed her gum. "Ah... No," she said. "Never heard of it."

"Never?" said Eugene. "That seems odd. It's a restaurant franchise."

"Oh, the burger joints! Sure."

"Wiping out those cesspits is all that keeps me going," Eugene confided sadly. "Terrorism is a thankless, miserable life-style, but someone has to do it. We can't just serve up our planet to a bunch of cheese muffin junk plastic corndog disgust fetish..." Eugene lapsed into mumbling.

Trudy noticed one of her O'Hogan's-issue paper caps on the dash, beside her gum. She palmed it and stuffed it behind her seat.

"You actually blow things up?" she asked. "Like with dynamite?"

Eugene smirked. "My methods are far more sophisticated than explosives." He leaned toward her until she could smell the stale reek of instant coffee on his breath. "Can you keep a secret?"

Trudy nodded.

Eugene whispered. "I'm a walking bio-weapon. A toxic arsenal in a suit and a tie, that nothing can withstand. Sometimes I even scare myself.

"Did you read in the papers about that Taco Shack in Nevada that mysteriously crumbled into a smoking sink-hole overnight? The cops called it a sewer gas explosion. I did that. Did you hear about the Magic Pizza Well that burned down in Oregon last week and took a Chicken Heart and a Dairy Blitz down with it? I did that."

"But Eugene, none of those places are run by the O'Hogan's Corporation."

Eugene frowned. "I was practicing."

"Ah. Well, it must be fascinating work. I was just thinking a while ago that I'd like to demolish a few billboards."

Eugene looked offended. "But you can't just go around cutting down billboards."

"Why not?" asked Trudy, unwrapping a new stick of gum.

"It violates free speech, to begin with. And what would you put in their place?"

"I wouldn't put anything in their place, Eugene. I'd just let them lie there."

"That's the problem with you young people. You don't offer an alternative."

"Look who's talking," said Trudy.

Eugene grew suddenly somber. "Yes, but everything is different in my case. I'm dead."

Trudy spat out her gum and started laughing. Having started, she couldn't stop. So on through the Californian night they drove, a wildly laughing young woman and a terrorist corpse.

"You don't believe me," Eugene said glumly.

"Oh but I do! I do! I do believe you, Eugene! That's why I'm laughing! You're dead!" Trudy wiped the tears from her eyes. "I've never met a dead guy before. It's..."

"You're hysterical," supplied Eugene.

"Exactly!" Trudy told him. "I'm hysterical."

"I understand you perfectly."

"Well, I think it's just phenomenal how well you get around."

Eugene shrugged modestly. "Being alive isn't everything. Brains and nerve still count for something."

"But don't you feel...strange, being dead?"

"Not at all," he assured her. "Never felt better.

"How do you manage it?" asked Trudy. "I mean, what keeps you from... You know. Rotting."

Eugene reached into a side pocket of his coat, then held out a plastic bag full of roasted coffee beans.

Trudy sniffed at the beans. "What are they? Magic?"

"Better than magic," he told her. "Corporate super-science. With these genetically altered coffee beans, a corpse can remain animate indefinitely. Of course you need a steady supply. Unfortunately for me, all I have is enough to get me through five more months. I'm a doomed cadaver. But I'll make them pay before I drop. They'll pay dearly for making me what I am."

Trudy passed a motor home with a boat trailer. "Who exactly made those beans?"

Eugene pulled at his hair. "Haven't you been listening? The genetic scientists of the O'Hogan's Corporation! That's why I blow up their restaurants! The bean genes were rewoven at O.R.P.A. That's O'Hogan's Research Projects Associates. Those freak mongers brew up all kinds of twisted shit for the Old Man. These beans are the tip of an iceberg! They're a contigency plan for replacing all of the O'Hogan's fast food employees with undead slaves. Atrocities like myself could save the Old Man a lot of payrole checks. It's called the Glubdubdrib Formula, and it's done with Reverse Transcriptase. Don't tell them you saw me! You have no idea what these people are like. Oh the fear! The fear I have to live with!"

"Eugene," said Trudy. "How long have you been awake?"

"Ever since I died."

"Which was when?"

"When I run out of beans, I'll fall asleep. I saw another coffee zombi fall asleep once. At the secret zombi training center near Salt Lake City. It wasn't a pretty sight. He melted down into a mass of maggots in less than a minute. And those maggots were fast. They were coffee achiever maggots. You see why I had to ditch those French fries? Those lunatics are capable of anything. And Gill O'Hogan is the worst."

"Eugene, maybe you should just experimentally try to go to sleep."

"Ah. You think I'm insane."

Trudy shrugged. "We're all mad here. That's a given. And you must understand that I don't doubt a word you've said. But Eugene! Gilly O'Hogan is an advertising mascot. He's a little androgenous cartoon goldfish in the burger commercials."

"Oh sure," said Eugene with a smirk. "Those commercials. He does that to taunt the public with his invisibility. He's a citizen of no nation and pays no taxes. But he's no goldfish. He owns it all. The majority of the Franchise stockholders are him. Don't you get it? I gave my life to that man, but my life wasn't enough. He had to chew up my soul as well. I wasn't always a terrorist. I used to have a real career, in advertising! But that was before Gill spat me out like an old sock. Now I'm unemployable!" A single tear fell from Eugene's nose. He brushed it away with his cuff and straightened his back. Ten or more vertebrae cracked loudly. Eugene heaved a sigh.

"Were you fired for any particular reason?" asked Trudy, playing a hunch.

Eugene shrugged. "Oh, probably the embezzling. But that was just a pretense. I knew too much. They were afraid I'd go to the media. Well, I did threaten to go to the media."

"You threatened to expose the zombi thing?"

"No, not that. Something even bigger. Well, dead men leak no documents. But really. A guy asks for a little promotion, and this is how management responds."

"They killed you?" suggested Trudy.

"Two franchise thugs strangled me in my bed. But that was only the beginning. They shut me in the trunk of their car and drove to a meat packing plant. It was a night like this. They ran me through an industrial meat grinder, then boiled the meat to a paste in a big steel pot. They put me in an oven and baked the paste down to a black crust. Then they percolated me."

"You poor guy," said Trudy. "I hope you weren't conscious."

"Wide awake the whole time. But they weren't done with me yet. They distilled me into one pound of bent nucleic residues, then cultured me with a recombinant coffee tree virus, which took over and secreted this body. But my vital spark survived intact!"

"How awful for you," said Trudy.

"They took us to that awful training camp in Utah. But I knew I could escape them. I wasn't like the others. I had ambition! They used to send us into town, to practice passing for living people. I smuggled an ammo bag of the beans off the base and cached it in a locker at the bus station. Then I deserted! Hah! While they thought I was washing dishes, I went down the drainpipe! They weren't expecting that. The sewer pipes took me to the Green River, and I didn't reprecipitate until it joined the Colorado. I knew that the bastards who ran the camp would send the attack ulcers after me, so I walked overland into Nevada and lost myself in the high desert. Simple really, if you don't need to eat or sleep."

"What's an attack ulcer?" Trudy wanted to know.

Eugene shivered. "Rover and Spot. They began their lives as the stomach ulcers of a middle-management executive. Then the Franchise geneticists crossed them with a panther and a piranha and taught them to hunt their own meat. God, the horror."

"Let's go cook up some thermite and bomb the bastards back to the stone age!" proposed Trudy. "Up Gill's ass with a piece of glass!"

"That's very good," said Eugene, smiling weakly. "I must remember that. But explosives are obsolete now. No one uses them anymore."

"How do you blow stuff up then?"

"All I need is myself," he told her. "Play just as dirty as the big boys! Fucking A!" Eugene belched profoundly, then winced and grabbed his gut. Painful memories had upset his gastric chemistry.

He fished in his briefcase again, produced a four-ounce bottle of shocking pink stomach settler, and knocked back a slug.

"This stuff is made from mutant bees," he remarked, putting the bottle away. "You can't trust the label on anything anymore."

Trudy drove on through the night, digesting Eugene's tale of woe. "Eugene, this is a fascinating afterlife experience you're having, and I'd love to hear more about it, but could we back up to the Franchise bumping you off?"

"Do you have seatbelts in this car?"

"You're dead, Eugene. You don't need a seatbelt. What I'd like to know is: What was this horrible dirt that you got on the Franchise? It must have been Something Really Big."

"You're young, Miss. That information wrecked my life. Believe me, you don't want to know."

"But I do," Trudy whined. "I'm curious! Come on, Eugene. Please!"

Eugene let his attention drift. He snatched up a pre-moistened towelette from his case and fumbled at the foil packet.

Trudy grabbed the back of Eugene's collar in her right hand. His neck felt like a rotten birch log with only its bark holding it together. He felt as though one good shake would send his head flying.

"Eugene," she said, "either you tell me what the hell you found out or I'm kicking you out of my car right here." She slowed the dune buggy to emphasize her threat.

"Oh all right!" said Eugene. "I'll tell you, you big bully." Let go of me!"

Trudy released him. He straightened his tie. "The Franchise has a secret doomsday plan. On Halloween of the year 2000, Gill intends to decimate the human race. He won't stop at replacing his fast food employees with zombis. Oh no. He wants to populate the entire planet with Carnithane androids!"

"What's Carnithane?" asked Trudy.

"It's a new miracle plastic. It looks like flesh, but it's mutable, and it eats things."

"What does it eat?"

Eugene's red-rimmed eyes smoldered with irritation. "It eats anything that gets in its way! Don't you see?" A plastic that consumes trees, cows, people, buildings, mountains... A new living kingdom with its own plasticene metabolism! The end of the world! He's got to be stopped! He means to replace everyone! Look at me! I've already been replaced!"

All at once, Eugene doubled over, clutching his abdomen. "Pills!" he gasped. "Must have pills! Cah! Cah!"

Working fast, he whipped from his case no fewer than severn vials of pills, which he arranged on the glovebox lid. He uncapped the first vial, gobbled a red capsule, went to the second, gobbled an orange one, and so on down the line, a pill for every color of the rainbow. Then came the nose spray and the motion sickness tablets. Death, it seemed, was no defense against hypochondria.

Well, eat, drink, and stay up late, for tomorrow, we fry burgers, that was Trudy's philosophy.

Eugene set out a disk of compressed laundry detergent.

"Eugene, you aren't really going to eat detergent?"

He gulped the disk down whole. "It's really a very good laxative," he told her.

"I don't know," said Trudy. "I'm worried about you, Eugene. Your plan of attack seems ass-backwards to me, frankly. I mean, you go around blowing up restaurants, victimizing a bunch of low-rent losers, and you call that revenge against Gill? If this Gill character fucked you over so bad, and if you're such a hot-shit zombi terrorist, then why don't you figure a way to shoot Gill in the head? That'd terrorize him pretty good. You want to deal out rough justice from beyond the grave? Fabulous! Kill Gill! Then I'll be impressed."

Eugene glowered at her, his lower lip wobbling. He viced the throbbing purple veins in his temples between his fingers and thumb. He gritted his pitted, yellow teeth, fighting for control. His face collapsed in on itself.

"You're right!" he sobbed. "I'm such a fraud!" Hot tears coursed down his puffy cheeks.

Trudy forced handfuls of facial tissue upon him. Eugene accepted them gratefully and applied them to his eyes and nose. When his fluids were under control again, he stuffed all the tissues into the buggy's ashtray and fastidiously pushed it closed.

A fine, stinging drizzle began to blow into Trudy's face. She reached for her window crank. Her window was already closed. She looked around her.

A dense fog was forming under the buggy's roof, swirling around Eugene's head like a condensation of his misery. The canvas roof began to drip on Trudy's head, shoulders, and lap, plip plop plip. The rain was dyeing her skirt sepia. It smelled of stale, service-station coffee. Puddles formed on the buggy's floor.

"Whatever you're doing," said Trudy, "cut it out!"

Just then, Trudy smelled smoke. Trudy had the nose of a born waitress, could distinguish upwards of ten thousand distinct odors, and even through the stink of thrice reheated coffee, she smelled facial tissues burning. She rolled down her window and emptied the ashtray into the freeway wind. Orange sparks streaked off and bounced Valon the road.

The drizzle of coffee inside Trudy's car turned to a downpour. What a night! With Trudy's luck, she'd run the buggy off the road, and they'd both be killed. No, just Trudy would be killed. Eugene was already dead.

"I'm terribly sorry," said Eugene. "I just can't help it! When I think of what Gill has done to me, I want to spit!"

"Don't spit, Eugene! Please don't spit!"

The buggy's windshield was opaqued by surging sheets of bitter coffee. Trudy turned on the wipers, but the wipers were on the wrong side of the glass. She swiped at the stream with her sleeve and made out the green and white rectangle of a looming road sign. GAS FOOD NEXT EXIT. Eugene saw it too, opened his window, and stuck out his head, to read it as it went past. The worst of the coffee storm removed itself from the car. Trudy groped the dash until she found her squeegee.

This guy was definitely getting out at the next exit. Whatever he was.

Now Eugene was bouncing up and down on his bucket seat, saying "Oh gosh, Trudy, I've got to go the bathroom rally bad! Could you drop me off at this gas station please?! Would you do that, Trudy? Pleeease?!"

"Sure, Eugene. Relax!"

Eugene bounced harder. "Oh good! Oh wonderful! Gas stations are my targets! I'll show you what I can do!"

"Eugene, do you have any sedatives in that briefcase?"

Trudy kept her foot on the brake pedal, because her engine was stubbornly insisting that its accelerator was floored. Without any encouragement, the tape player began to play Cows On the Brink, backwards, at half speed, while chewing up the tape. The effect on the car speakers resembled a horror movie soundtrack. Trudy kicked the tape machine until it fell silent. She had enough to think about. She veered her vehicle onto the exit ramp.

Trudy stopped at the crossroad, fighting her motor every inch of the way. She lunged and jerked her way across a bridge over the freeway and headed the buggy toward a brightly lit strip development, composed of gas stations, fast food pit stops, and of course, a convenience grocery.

Under the radiance of the Rooster Stop Auto-Shop sign, Trudy parked her buggy beside an island of fuel pumps and killed the engine. It took a long time to die.

She turned to her passenger, saying "Eugene, it's been real." He was gone like the fog, briefcase and all. Trudy climbed out of the car and looked under it. She looked around the parking lot. It fit.

She stretched her back, then crossed the cement to the auto-cashier's booth. Set into the front of the booth were a speaker and a cash slot, under a window of frosted glass and chicken wire. Trudy tapped the window.

"May I help you?" asked the cashier.

Trudy explained that she required eight dollars of molten Unleaded, pushed four bills into the machine's cash drawer, and asked it whether the toilet was locked.

"I'm sorry," said the cashier. "We don't stock The Toilet Locked. Would you care to purchase a gallon of milk?"

"No," said Trudy. "I want to use the bathroom."

"I'm sorry, Sir. We don't stock To Use The Bathroom. Would you care to purchase a gallon of milk?"

"No," said Trudy. "Just give me the washroom key, or I'll pry out your tiny mind with a screwdriver, OK?"

"Here's your cash rebate and your restroom key. Thank you for coming to Rooster Stop. Would you care to purchase cookies?"

Trudy bought a package of stale vanilla cookies and returned to her buggy. The fuel pump swung out its nozzle arm. The buggy flipped its gas lid and unscrewed its cap. The pump achieved insertion. "It's a pleasure to service you," said the pump.

"Shut up and pump, you big stud," said the buggy.

Trudy stood and waited for the tank to fill. The night was balmy. Skeins of stars glittered above the mercury lamps. Crickets chirped, in back of the freeway sound, the peaceful, familiar crickets.

A chill ran up Trudy's spine. She looked behind her. There was Eugene, standing on the walkway outside the convenience store, big as life. He was wearing a gray felt fedora and a clear plastic raincoat. This, apparently, was his terrorism outfit. He certainly fit a lot in that case of his.

He stood there, grinning like a fiend, then called across the parking lot to Trudy. "Thanks for the ride!"

"It was nothing," she called back. "Less than nothing."

"Yes," said Eugene. "But I want to repay you. Would you like to see something really interesting?"

Trudy was a sucker for a dare. She walked over to Eugene.

"Come back!" cried the buggy. "Don't leave me! That guy gives me the creeps! Let's get out of here!"

Trudy stood across from Eugene. "Sure," she said. "Show me something interesting."

He turned, beckoning her to follow him, and approached a row of vending machines that stood on the Rooster Stop's walkway with their backs against a yard-tall facade of fake brick and a plate glass window crowded with bright posters. His neck seemed to have locked in one position, as though he had to hold himself contracted against his internal pressurization. His eyes shone like little red telltales on an espresso machine.

Eugene squared off against a candy bar dispenser, a coffee/cocoa/chicken soup vender, and an ice chest. He chose the candy machine for his target.

"This is their weak link," he told her. "This is where I can attack their system!" So saying, he advanced on the vender. His inky shadow skewed itself across the chipped enamel of its casing.

Quite suddenly, like a shrunken Sumo wrestler, Eugene dropped tohis knees in front of the machine, his dripping brow furrowed with grim purpose. With his every breath, his sinuses squeezed off an eery squooshing, or was that his brainpan?

The assault itself was an ugly spectacle. Eugene stuck his right index finger deep into the cavities of his nose and fished around in here. He then extracted a large, nasty gob of black snot. He held out the gob for Trudy's inspection. Trudy regarded it soberly and did not turn away.

Savagely, Eugene smeared his snot into the coin slot of the candy machine. Then he stood up and wiped his finger on his raincoat. He watched the machine for a response.

Nothing happened.

He kicked the machine. It burped a bag of beer nuts into its trough.

"Good trick," said Trudy. "Snacks for snot."

Eugene unkinked his neck and smirked. "The trick," he said, "is just beginning." On cue, the machine dispensed a bag of corn chips, then another and another, and then chocolate bars and peanut butter cups rained forth without ceasing, and overflowed their trough.

"So that's your form of terrorism?" asked Trudy. "Spazzing out a vending machine? Puh-lease!"

Just then, a shower of fine rain spattered down on the parking lot, leaving patches of wet on the cement. Trudy scoped out the sky and consulted her educated nose. Yes, it was raining cold coffee out of clear sky. Trudy moved toward the auto-door to get herself properly under the store's awning. Brown puddles were forming on the pavement, and where they formed, the cement split, and cracked, and steamed with a volcanic rumbling. This drizzle was some bitter coffee.

The candy machine, meanwhile, vomited forth the last of its wares and commenced to disgorge its vital mechanisms as well, including cascades of quarters, dimes, and nickels. Coins clattered and spun amongst the smoking craters. The vender rocked back and forth on its four stubby legs, pitched forward with a pitiful groan, and lay face down, half on half off the walkway.

"Ping!" said the auto-door. "Welcome to Rooster Stop!"

A young woman in a cashier's uniform shouldered past Trudy and gaped at the fallen vender.

"Shit!" she said. "Now I'll have to call the vender guy."

Trudy followed her into the store, to keep out of the rain. The cashier returned to her register and resumed ringing out a short line of the lowlife bachelor types who feel the need to buy a six-pack for double price at four in the morning. She stabbed at the register keys with one stiff finger. She was very slow. Probably a high school underachiever, but she came on like the Dowager Empress Of China managing a filthy noodle shop incognito.

The last man on line was holding three gallon bottles of cola, one in each hand and one in the crook of his arm. One by one, the bottles fired off their caps and deluged the poor guy in torrents of fizz.

"What are you doing?"" screeched the Empress.

"I didn't do anything!" said the drenched guy, rubbing his cheek, which had received an insult from a flying cap.

Eugene walked out from the dry goods aisle, humming innocently. He circulated to the cooler chests and picked out a plastic-wrapped fish sandwich. Trudy cowered against a rack of beef jerky. When did he come in?

The Empress ignored her customers and dragged a mop and bucket out of the utility area.

Back behind the counter the orange/purple drink machine cracked its shell. Bright, chilled fluids gushed and drooled.

The Empress stared at it. Three stubble-faced bachelors shrugged their shoulders.

Eugene popped his fish sandwich into the microwave, closed the door, and waited, humming contentedly.

A foil-wrapped cheese Danish hit Trudy in the ear. She turned her attention to the pastry carousel across from the beef jerky display. Its shelves were rotating on their central post, faster and faster, some clockwise, others counter. Lemon pop-ups and strawberry breakfast rolls, individually wrapped, went winging off in all directions, some of them showering the Empress and the bachelors. Trudy watched, her eyes wide with dread, like a sparrow hypnotized by the swaying of a cobra. It was every custard tart for herself now.

A pot-bellied man in a motorcycle jacket stood in the canned goods aisle, spellbound by the bags of popcorn. The roar of popping corn was deafening. In seconds, the aisle was blocked by fluffy, knee-deep drifts.

Behind the counter, where the Empress was feverishly mopping up orange/purple drink, a pyrex pot shattered on its heating coil, and an angry thunderhead of steam leapt up from the hissing coffee maker.

Then, one after another, every aerosol can in the place exploded. The first three went off in the employee toilet, like firecrackers bla-ba-blam! Then came the furniture sprays and bug bombs in the dry goods aisle. Then the various brands of hair spray in cosmetics. Trudy feared hearing loss and weighed partial deafness against being dissolved alive by bad coffee. She stayed indoors, for the coffee was now coming down the plate glass in sheets.

"It's a sniper!" screamed the Empress, falling flat on the floor. The bachelors turned slowly to the plate glass and the downpour, wondering how the bullets were getting through the window, if a sniper was involved. On cue, the windows exploded, wall to wall. And the door for good measure. Now everyone was on the floor in the sloshing beverages, except Trudy and Eugene. They both knew exactly who was causing all the havok, and he was leaning against the microwave, eating a sandwich. The Empress screamed at the top of her lungs, as if that would improve matters. "Ping!" said the Auto-door. "Anksth orf oimng to Ooerstr Ostp!"

Biblical floods of cold decaffeinated coffee foamed up from nowhere and surged from one end of the store to the other and back. A riptide carried away the jerky stand and nearly knocked Trudy off her tennis shoes. Where was all this weak coffee coming from, Trudy wondered.

Every can of beer or pop in the store blew itself open, creating geysers of spray above the surface of the darkly roiling fluids. Trudy swam for the parking lot.

Eugene was standing on top of the register counter, his head obscured by a miniaturized thunderclouds, laughing like a demon in its chosen hell. His raincoat was bulging out in strange places, as Eugene's constipated steam pressure shifted about within him.

Luckily for Trudy, the rain had stopped. Sacrificing her best working shoes, she pounded across the pavement to her buggy and jumped out of her shoes into the driver's seat. The buggy had saved its tires by standing on its retractable car stands. With its mistress aboard, it lowered its tires to the concrete, revved its engine, and accelerated off the parking lot, without even asking her permission.

"May I sorry?" said the auto-cashier. "Have a pay in advance, Asswipe. Nice help you day such a toad, tiny screwdriver? We don't stock Your Momma! AAARRRR! WHEEEEE!" Sparks flew from its speaker.

Unfortunately for the auto-cashier, one of the fuel pumps was piddling on it. Trudy watched in her rear view as the entire strip development went up in an orangey-blue fireball, which lit up the withered Californian prairie for miles around, and could be seen from as far away as Fresno.

"Did you see that?" said Trudy.

"In high res," the buggy assured her. "That's one for the fire department."

"Thank God," said Trudy. "I thought I was going nuts!"

"All you people are nuts," the buggy told her. "You said it yourself. Someda a guy like that will build an A-bomb in his carport. It's poor diet, if you ask me."

"I will never, as long as I live, pick up another hitchhiker."

"Oh sure," said the buggy. "Where have I heard that before?"

"Buggy?" said Trudy.

"Yes, my mistress? Light of my life? Purpose of my being?"

"Take me home," said Trudy. "You can drive."

--STEPAN CHAPMAN


 
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