I’m Les. That’s right, Les Moore. I know, I know…here lies Les Moore. Killed by four slugs from a 44. No Les. No Moore. Funny. Well, it’s not so funny now. Being dead I mean. It’s my name. Thank my parents for that. But the no Les, no Moore part may happen, and in a matter of minutes. Why? Because I did something stupid and chatty. I talk to people and notice things. I went too far this time. I bargained with the devil’s disciple.
My mind drifts, back and forth between what’s not happening yet and what will. A convenience store line serpentines ahead of me, motionless. I’m not even close to the small sign that says Line Starts Here. I came in on a whim, to feed a craving for soft, red licorice. Can you believe it? What if something bad happens? Like a robbery. Wouldn’t be worth it now, would it? I’d considered the possibility.
A cheesy, dirty hole-in-the-wall store. You know, the places where the paid help looks like they wish they were somewhere else, or someone else. And, though there are three of them…only one’s working the register. The other two are preparing take-out meals. Who orders food to go from a stop and shop? Well, here I am. Stuck in line. I’m holding my smartphone up to my ear, as though engaged in lame conversation about, what else? The fact that I’m stuck in line waiting in a lousy convenience store, that’s what. What do people talk about on their cellular phones? Dumb things. They pay to say obvious things that no one needs or cares to know about. But that’s not my point. I’ve only got minutes to live. I should be calling the police, my wife…but I can’t. My phone’s not working as the disciple had warned.
When this is over, look for a guy about 5’4”, wearing a filthy trench coat. An unwashed white T-shirt and faded, grease-stained, holes-in-the-knees jeans complete his outfit. He’s smoking now, was when I came in. At a gas station for God’s sake. That’s special. He’s got long, stringy brown hair. Doesn’t smell too good either. He greeted me as I reached for the door. I stopped to ask how he was doing. Big mistake. Something should have alerted me that he was off-kilter in some way. The blue-hued, nicotine-stained fingers on his right hand? Or the lack of teeth? Hey, some of us aren’t so lucky. So, I cared. I cared enough to ask. I listened. He took a long draw on a bent cigarette, exhaled, coughed and attempted to pose a question. Unintelligible. I asked “What…?” He hacked again, this time appraising me with a piercing glare and a faint sneer.
“You think you can do it?”
“Do you feel lucky?”
“What?” He stepped closer, easing the heel of an unlaced, greasy work boot behind the open door. I leaned back letting go.
“Get in and out by 9 tonight, and don’t say what again.”
“There’s nothing you can say now…except yes, and take a chance.”
I’m reliving all this, in minute detail in my mind…thinking it might help someone, save someone. Not myself.
“I’ll play along.”
“It’s no game.”
“No, you don’t.” He let the door close. No one paid the least attention, inside or out.
“You recognize me?”
“No, can’t say I do.”
“I represent a caretaker.”
“Souls, are His speciality.”
“So, if I go in.”
“Oh, you’ll go in alright, or else.” He gestured with his cigarette toward the gas tanks.
“Or you’ll blow the place up?”
He answered with an assuring nod.
“Count me in!” Levity was the only thing I could think of at that moment. He pulled open the door and motioned with a sweeping gesture.
I’d encountered a loony, a nut job. Sorry, but there’s not much time for circumspection or political correctness. The place reeks of gas. I’d stepped in a pool of it as I filled my truck at the pump, then walked up to the store. Nice. The smell of gasoline was intoxicating in a sinister way. That was before. This is now. Nothing matters, unless I can get out of here before 9:00. He’d told me about the others, those already in the store.
“See them? They’re dead, or soon will be.”
“They don’t want to give up their phones I guess.”
“That’s what you asked them, about their phones?”
“Yes. In a variety of ways. I suggested it’s the Devil’s plaything.”
“They said no?”
“Every single one. Some offered vulgar suggestions. A few laughed. Most of them ignored me. Too bad for them.”
“In return for what?”
“You gotta be kidding me?”
“Do I look like a kidder to you?”
“No, I guess not. But you didn’t ask me.”
“About your phone? No. Because I know you have one, and now, well it’s about time.”
“Time’s almost up for them. They had their chance. They haven’t realized their phones won’t save them. They’re talking in tongues. No one can understand what they’re saying.”
“So, you want me to go in to save them?”
“Too late for that.”
“Figures.” The man hunched his shoulders, flipped his hair back and smoothed it with his free hand. “It’s a chance to save yourself. Your phone will work again afterward but…”
“I go in and wait for that line, hoping to get out in time?”
“You’re way too literal. Think about what I said.”
His vague answer puzzles me now. The line doesn’t advance. No one’s cashing out yet. That’s literal for you, no pun intended. How can I be so glib? And why’s everyone still babbling into their phones?
Racking my brain. I leave the line, moving through the store. Almost too late. People aren’t noticing. The place smells of sweat, panic and a chorus of voices. All imploring their smart phones to work, to respond, desperate for help yet to no avail.
The devil’s disciple gestures toward the petroleum pool. The glow of his cigarette arcs toward the pumps, the gasoline. I bolt around a counter searching for a door, a window…an exit for employees. He said to get out, that’s it! Not how. Go. Now. I push open a service door, jump, roll. A tremendous blast, fire, screams, chaos and death.
“911 please state the nature of your emergency.” My cell phone’s working. I notice movement from the charred ruins of the convenience store station. It’s him, the disciple. Blackened, burned, blistered. Small tufts of hair dot the withered skin sagging from his skull. His eyes fix on me as he approaches, shuffling through the rubble. He bends from the waist, offering something in his hand. Fingers melted together. I retch. What is it? Dripping in blood. A crimson, froth flecked cellphone and it’s ringing. A macabre, ethereal tone.
“It’s Him, and it’s for you,” the disciple says.