OOPS


By DAVID NICKLE
(Originally published in No More Potlucks, 2010)

(Reprinted here, in honor of the Rapture)



A little electric contraption inside played a song every time you opened it. Da, da da Da. Da, da da Da.


He hadn't heard the song in nearly ten years, but he would have recognized it even if it hadn't been Sarah Michelle Gellar on the front of the card: wooden stake clutched in one hand, hovering over her breast – her airbrush-smoothed face unmistakably stricken.


Whatever had happened with that stake, she hadn't meant it.


Inside, one word:


OOPS.


Yeah, he thought: Not much to choose from in the Apology section of  the Shopper's greeting card aisle, and why would there be? You bought cards because your friend had a birthday, or got a job, or turned 40, or was going to graduate from something. Not because you fucked up.


He closed the card, left it finishing the Buffy riff on the dark shelf as he made his way back to the prescription counter. He spied movement of light and shadow in back, behind the low shelves of stock. He craned his neck.


"Is it ready yet?" he called.


She emerged, flashlight dangling from one hand. "I'm still looking."


"Oxytetracycline. Under 'O'."


"Oh." She showed him a middle finger. "We're not the fucking library."


"Come on. I'm erupting here."


She tilted her head, raised an eyebrow, as if to say: No shit.  He caught a glimpse of himself in the little mirror by the reading glasses. Florid boils the size of grapes crawled up his neck, swirling around the largest one – the first one – glistening on the edge of real eruption, just beneath his left eye. "No shit," he said.


She approached the counter, where bars of afternoon sunlight hit it. Her long ginger hair hung matted down the shoulder of her white pharmacist's smock. She chewed on her lower lip, and as he noticed that, he noticed a small blemish at the corner of her mouth. She must have seen him looking; her hand drifted up to cover it.


"That must really hurt," she said. "You got painkillers? Tylenol Threes? Percocet? Vicodin? I know where to find lots of those."


"That's not wise," he said, "all things considered. I'm more worried about the infection than the pain. I can endure the pain. Stick with the oxytetracyclene, thanks."


"Just trying to help."


"Thanks."


She went back to the shelves and cupboards, clicked on her flashlight, and he wondered: What is she even doing here? She sure as shit isn't a pharmacist.


He took out his own penlight, found his way back to Apologies. Sorry We Missed You, said a clean-cut young man sporting a vintage 1972 leisure suit and drawing a bow on an archery range.  How About a Do-Over? was inside a card with a squalling baby wearing an upturned bowl of pasta on her head. Don't Quack Up Over This, was behind a cartoon showing three ducks in straitjackets, in a padded cell, glaring at the ceiling. He clicked the penlight off and stood in the dim, grey light that was all the gathering storm outside would allow.


At least he had options.


"Hey," she called from the back, "do you have anything to drink?"


"I assume you don't mean fruit punch," he said, and she said, "fuck no."


"You proposing a trade?"


"No. I'm talking celebration." She emerged again, and shone her flashlight on a candy-jar sized container of pills. "See? Found it."


"Great." He dug into his backpack and pulled out a small silver hip flask. An indeterminate amount of scotch sloshed inside.


She had two small plastic cups ready by the time he made it up the aisle, and he measured a dram into each. She lifted hers, took a delicate sip, and made a face. "Nasty," she said, appreciatively.


"Not used to the hard stuff, are you?" he said, and she motioned to his cup with her flashlight: "Bottoms up," she said.


"Bottoms up."


He set the empty cup down and looked at the jar. There had to be a thousand capsules inside. He picked it up, hefted it. "I don't need all that," he said. "Give me a week's worth."


"How many's that?"


He squinted. "You're not from the pharmacy, are you?"


"I am. But I don't work – didn't work back here. I do cash. I was on cash when everything happened."

He poured another dram into his cup. She still had lots left in hers and waved him away when he offered. That was fine; she was going to talk about it now. He let his mind wander as she told her story: about how she'd been on shift two hours when the lights seemed to flare, and dim, and then there came a swishing sound. She had been helping a customer, an older man in a light grey business suit. The swishing sound was the sound of the fabric collapsing in on itself, now that the man had vanished.


"Just 'swish,'" she said, and wiggled her fingers. "Not just him. Everybody. 'Swish.'"


"Almost everybody."


"Yeah."


"Why didn't you go home?" he asked, and she motioned to the glass store-front. The clouds were massing dark again. And, he saw, the insects were back. They tapped on the windows, and a cyclone of them swirled over the parking lot.


"You've seen it out there. You've been out there." She finished her scotch in a gulp, and this time didn't stop him when he poured some more. "I may be crazy but I'm not stupid. There's food in here. Lots of water, in bottles. And with the dispensary in the pharmacy – I thought I could do some good. Because that's important now – right?"


Important, yes. Too late – also likely.


But he didn't say that. "Right," he told her. "Have you done some good?"


She shrugged. "You're the first one to come by. It's been three days. So you tell me."


Although it hurt to do so, he smiled. "You've done some good."


"Think it'll make a difference?"


He sighed. "If I knew," he said, "I don't think I'd still be here."


She asked him more questions: Had he seen anybody else since it happened? When did the boils start? After the event? Had he tried to pray?


Yes, from a distance; and yes, the first one came as he stood alone at the bus stop outside his house, blinking at the flaring sun.


And yes. He had tried to pray.


"But before I get going too long, the question always becomes: What to say? At this point in the game – what do you say?"


She nodded, and announced that she thought she was getting drunk.


"I shouldn't be doing this," she said, flicking the edge of her empty cup with her thumb, knocking it over. "Maybe this is why – I'm still here."


"Drinking on the job?" He considered that. "Maybe."


"Maybe," she said. "Why are we still here?"


He had considered this. The first day, he'd read the Book, and he'd thought it made it clear why he was still here – he'd broken nearly every rule set down in it. But so had most of the others. And most of the others weren't still here. He just shook his head.


"You should take one of those pills," she said. "Make you better."


He unscrewed the top of the jar. He pulled out a capsule – half red, half yellow – and put it on his tongue. He swallowed it dry.


She got unsteadily to her feet, turned and went into a drawer. She came out with an empty pill bottle, and handed it to him.


"Fill it up," she said, and he did.


"Thank you," he said.


"You're welcome. Is there anything else I can do for you?" And she repeated, in a pleading, accommodating tone: "Anything?"


"Yes," he said, and he was glad – and a little sad – to see what looked like relief in her eye when he told her what he needed most.



*


Da, da da Da.


I am sorry, though for what I do not know, he wrote, as he stood on the sidewalk outside the Shoppers Drug Mart, and the locusts lighted on his shoulders, in his hair, before they were carried away in the hot wind that swirled over the cars and trucks that sat empty in the parking lot.


Da, da da Da.


He looked at it again – and crossed it out, and wrote, Forgive me.  Then he scratched that out,  and circled OOPS!, and signed his name below that, and shut the card. He held it lightly between thumb and forefinger, and raised it over his head – and stood there until the music stopped, until the wind snatched it from him and carried it away with the locusts.


"Thank you for the pen!" he said, back inside. "Hey  -- thanks!" He took two more steps into the store. "Hey!"


In the end, he slipped the borrowed pen into the breast pocket of the pharmacist's smock where he found it empty, curled like a sleeping cat on the floor behind the counter.



THE END

copyright David Nickle 2010


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