Try Before You Buy

Here in its entirety is one of my favorites from this collection.  This is the story that has been adapted into a short film called "Lovesick."  I hope you enjoy it!

           Something’s Going Around

(written in Baqubah, Iraq, 2008)

Dina Williams started this particular morning like she started like most others: Dina prepared for work.  She woke up alone in her small apartment to the sound of the alarm clock.  It was a harsh jarring sound, and as usual awakened her with a start.  She once tried one of those clocks that woke one up gently with natural sounds, but she slept right through it.  No, the only thing that would convince Dina to join the living was a staccato electronic shriek that reminded her she had another day ahead of her.  After clawing at the clock for a moment to quiet it, wearing boxer shorts and a tank top, she padded to the bathroom flipping on the TV news as she walked by.  Living alone, she left the door open as she went about her business, and then followed up with a shower.  She brushed her teeth and hair.  The news was typically grim: The war continued in the Middle East; North Korea continued to threaten its Southern neighbor with nuclear conquest; a new famine started in Africa due to drought.  Hurray for humanity, well on its way to extinction. 

As she dressed for work, she looked in the mirror, trying to assess herself objectively.  She was never a dainty-cheerleader type of pretty, but certainly well on the good side of attractive.  About five and a half feet tall, she still had the body of a softball player, with athletic legs accentuated by the pink skirt she wore for work.  The apron usually removed any sexy that might have gone with that, but she was a waitress and waitresses wore aprons.  She had noticed more tips since she started working at this new restaurant than she’d had at previous jobs where she wore pants.  She was forced however to pull her dusky blonde hair into a tight bun that made her feel like a schoolmarm.  Ah well, health codes.  She tried smiling and giving the new greeting.

“Welcome to Remy’s Java, Eggs, and Sausage Depot; can I get you any of those three?”  One time a friend, when she still had those, told her she had a smile that made anyone who saw it warm inside.  She had not smiled of her own accord for a while though.  Connecting to people was not really her thing since High School, and the three years since graduation had pretty much been her wandering around the West Coast, dishing out greasy food and bad coffee wherever she went.

Currently she was working tables 7 through 15 at Remy’s Java, Eggs, and Sausage Depot in Bakersfield, California.  She had not been working there too long; in fact, as she left her studio apartment, she was heading for her third day of work.  She waited at the bus stop, trying to ignore the looks of leering men driving by.  Like they’d never seen a waitress?  Were there any men left who weren’t just assholes?

She arrived half an hour before her shift, but Connie the night girl wanted to leave, and Ernie the day manager didn’t care if Dina clocked in early.  As she went up front in the small restaurant, she saw Trish.  Trish had been working here for several years, had a couple of kids and a dumb but loyal husband at home.  Dina realized if she herself had actually stayed with a guy after high school, she would then become Trish in a few years.  Right now she didn’t know what she was going to be.

“Hey sugar,” Trish said, “You ready for another great day of slinging sausage?”  She wiggled her eyebrows a bit, making the comment more lewd than it really was.  Dina chuckled a little and took the coffee carafe to start her first run through.

“It’s the story of my life, Trish.  About all I know.”

Trish clicked her tongue.  “Don’t you worry sugar, some guy will come whisk you out of here one day.  Then you’ll only have to worry about his sausage!”  She laughed outright at her own joke and went about her business.  Dina just shook her head.  Men were not on her list of priorities.

About two in the afternoon she took a ten-minute break.  The lunch rush, if you could call it that, was over.  Ernie’s radio was playing some news—food shortage in Asia—while Dina rubbed her feet a bit.  She heard the door chime as someone new came in.  After a few, Trish came to the back.

“He’s in your section sweetie, I got him his first coffee, said he’d wait to order food.”

Dina thanked her, slipped her shoes back on, washed her hands, and went out.  She pulled her order tablet out and approached the man flipping through the over sized menu which made it all the more obvious how few choices really existed here in Remy’s.

“Welcome to Remy’s Java, Eggs, and Sausage Depot, can I get you…” She stopped mid-sentence.  She knew this man.  Although she’d been moving around the state, she’d seen him before.  The first couple of times the little man now seated at table nine showed up, she chalked it up to coincidence.  Most of California lives along the I5 corridor and the fact he’d showed up in both San Jose and Marina was not a huge stretch.  Now the skinny little man with the greenish pallor was here in Bakersfield, and no one came to Bakersfield unless they had to.

“You?  Why the hell are you following me?  Don’t look at me like you don’t know what’s going on.  I’ve been a waitress for three years, in five different restaurants, and somehow you always find me!  Who the hell are you?”

He honestly looked a little embarrassed and glanced nervously around.  “There’s no reason to raise your voice, Dina…”  He knew her name!  Of course, to be completely fair her name was hand written in all caps on her nametag.  Trish had used a permanent marker to make it after peeling off an old sticker marked “Jenny.”

“I’ll raise my voice if I damn well want to!” Dina stated, defiantly.

He looked up at her and lit a cigarette, regardless of the fact Remy’s had gone smokeless due to state law.  The smoke from the end was thick and nearly black, as if he was not smoking tobacco but something far viler.  The smoke didn't seem to rise, but instead seemed heavier than air and hovered on the table surface, swirling in sludge-like patterns.  The man was in a button down shirt with an odd little paisley pattern on it.  The material looked thin and old, and the buttons were like the snaps you’d see in the Seventies rather than regular slip buttons.  She noticed each one had a tiny skull and crossbones set into it, like the little twerp was trying to be for cooler than he really was.

“Sit down Dina.  You caught me.  OK?  You caught me.  But time is wasting, and you may as well hear the whole story.”

“I’m at work you little weirdo, I can’t sit down.”

He pushed aside thinning black hair that seemed to crawl down into his face from the few places it still grew and looked at his watch.  Then he slowly took one more drag off his cigarette.  The smoke rolled out of his mouth as he spoke, crawling through the scraggly mustache and goatee he wore.  “Everyone in a forty mile radius will be dead in 36 hours.  I think you can give me a few minutes.” 

Well.  That was an atypical line.  Dina looked at the sickly little man for a moment, filled his coffee cup, and sat in the chair across from him.  The place was fairly empty.  There were a couple of people at the counter, and an old woman drinking oily coffee in the corner, tapping her foot to the music from Ernie’s radio. 

“This better be good, and if you are wrong and you get me fired I will make sure you never step in another Remy’s again.”  He smiled.

“You haven’t given a damn about what other people think for a long time, Dina.  I always liked your spirit, that’s why I started watching you.”

“Great, you’ve been watching me.  That’s really creepy, and to be honest, you look kind of creepy.  Are you some kind of perv?  Who are you anyway?”  He flinched a little under her glare.  Rather than the warm smile she once used, this was really the treatment most people got these days.

“Dina, who was your first high school boyfriend?  And did anything strange happen to him?”  She blinked oddly at that, a weird question from a weird man.  The fact was, she had a weird answer.

“High school?  You mean Michael?  He got sick about two weeks after we started going out.  They said it was Ebola.  They quarantined the school while they did blood tests on all the students to see if anyone else was exposed.”  The man nodded.

“And your next?”

“Randall.  He got e-Coli from a King-in-a-Box Regalburger.”

“Then?”

“Bobby got rabies.”

“Then?”

“Javier got bubonic plague.”

“Then?”

“Then I stopped dating.  Four dead boyfriends in three years kind of puts a damper on romance.”  She hadn’t gone through the list in a while.  Her early luck with boyfriends was really why she had started moving around.  It was hard to make attachments when people you showed interest in dropped dead.

“Yeah,” said the little man, dropping his cigarette into his coffee before drinking it.  “That’s why I did it.”

Dina blinked.  Had he had just claimed responsibility for her first four boyfriends dying of a rather odd set of diseases?  She replied, “What?”

“Look Dina, I am by nature a bit of a petty creature, and I will freely admit I was jealous.  I am not going to tell you what I did was right.  It was just… well, I saw you and adored you from the first moment, and I wasn’t happy watching teenage boys slobbering over you.  So it was a little game I played.”  Dina picked up the coffee pot again.

“If you don’t get to the point and start actually answering my questions, I am going to break this over your head, scream rape, and call the cops.  Who are you?  How the hell did you possibly infect someone with Ebola?”  The man smiled, showing blackened teeth.

“They used to call me Death, but people kept confusing me with the Angel of Death who is someone else entirely.  I go by Pestilence now, and I am one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  See?  Look out there,” he said, pointing out the window.  Dina saw only exactly the type of car she would expect this little creep to drive.  It was a pale green Ford Pinto spotted with rust.  If anything, it looked like the car itself was diseased; in fact, it bore a striking resemblance to the man across from her. 

“I thought Death rode a white horse when he killed all the kids in Egypt?”

The little man looked fairly offended.  “No, see?  Now you’re doing it.  That was the Angel of Death, and he doesn’t even have a horse.  Conquest rides the white horse.  Sunday school probably told you I ride a pale horse, but if you look at the original Greek it’s ‘Hippos Khloros’ which very specifically means pale green hor…”

“That’s a Ford Pinto.  It looks like it’s falling apart,” Dina said, cutting him off.

The little man shrugged and sipped more coffee.  “People see what they want to see.  But that’s not the point.

“I have been meandering about starting plagues and such, waiting for the Apocalypse.  That’s how I first saw you.  I was making sure the kid who stocked the vegetables in the grocery store across from your school sneezed on the tomatoes.  As I was leaving, I saw you.  You were just coming from a softball game.  You were dusty, and I think you were bleeding from your knee.”  Unthinking, Dina placed her had on her left knee where she still could feel the slight scar left over from sliding for a catch.  The man continued.  “You just captivated me.  You had this smile, and I hadn’t seen something so beautiful in decades.  Something in your spirit just drew me in, and I fell in love.”

Dina looked at him stunned for a while.  Then she asked the only question she could.

“Why the hell should I believe any of this?  By the way, I wasn’t even 15 then, so you should be rotting in jail.”

“I told you, I was waiting for the Apocalypse, and a person’s soul is never just their physical age.”  He lit another cigarette, and for the first time, she noticed that no one else in the restaurant seemed to be noticing them.  “Well, anyway, the Apocalypse?  The wait’s over.”

“You’re telling me the world is coming to an end?”

“Dina, the world has always been coming to an end; it’s just sooner rather than later.  But I decided I couldn’t just let you get caught up in it all.”  Pestilence leaned toward Dina, and she found herself leaning toward him.  Such a disturbing little man, yet in his eyes there was…vulnerability, perhaps?  He continued.

“You see, I have been avoiding it.  It was supposed to start before, about, oh seven years ago.”  Dina thought for a moment.

“That was when you saw me.” Pestilence gave a meek smile.

“Yes.  I saw you, and I was willing to put off the only thing I exist for in order to protect you.”  He put his hand on hers and though his skin was like a corpse, somehow, she felt a warmth deep beneath the cold.  “I love you Dina, and I couldn’t risk that you would be caught up in the end.  I couldn’t risk that you would die of the new plague.”  With his free hand he pulled something like a black snowflake from his pocket.

“This is the new Black Death.  It will kill a quarter of all the Earth, and it’s my job to break that seal and let it be.  I have been avoiding my brothers—War, Famine, Conquest—trying to find a way to save you.  I can’t avoid them forever.  If the Supreme wants his Apocalypse, he will get it.  But then, I had an idea, a way to save you.”

He held out the black snowflake to Dina.

“Be the carrier,” he said, a hopeful little smile playing across his mouth.

Dina looked at him and blinked again.  She ran her hand over her head, and checked the bun holding her hair in place.  It was something solid, unlike the rest of her existence.  Her whole life was being brought to her for examination by this weird little delusional man.  She considered herself to be some kind of bad luck in high school; somehow all the boys she liked being taken by strange illnesses.  When she graduated she moved around, never trying to get too close to anyone for fear whatever curse she carried would take them too. Her parents called on occasion, but hadn’t been too sad to see her go.  The only constant in her life she realized was this thin, short, sickly pale-skinned man before her.  He had this ridiculous story.  He apparently was the cause of her misfortune: Pestilence, the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse.  He loved her.  He adored her, enough even to stave off the Revelation itself to protect her.  The hell of it was she was beginning to believe him.  Something in his manner, the little black snowflake in his hand, even the ridiculous looking car outside made her think he wasn’t just a crazed pedophile who’d been watching her since she was 14.  Maybe she was just looking for something to make her life seem reasonable.  Pestilence himself stalking her: Hell of a way to have everything fall into place.

She really wanted to strangle him.

“You have ruined my entire life!  Made it so I can never love anyone and now you want to make it where everyone around me will die?  How do I possibly even consider this?”  In spite of her yelling, no one seemed to notice.  Yet another common thread in her life.

“Dina, this is going to happen.  I am giving you a chance to come through it all, and be part of what’s left.  It’s a gift to you; as part of the system you are immune to the system.  You would be safe.  You could be…” he dropped off.

“Be what?  What would I be?” she demanded.

He looked into her eyes.  “With me.  You could be with me and I would stay with you for all eternity.  I could show you the new world, the next world, the overworld, the underworld.  All of it for you.  Please?” 

She looked at him, fury in her eyes.  How could he be so cruel?  How could he try to make her into this?  How could he say all this, and still actually look at her with that much love in his eyes?

The door chimed and another customer came in.  Reflexively she looked out to see what the new person was driving; you could tell what type of tipper they were by what they drove.  She prayed not to see a Corvette.

Indeed, it was not.  Parked next to Pestilence’s Pinto was a brand new bright red Mustang.  The car radiated power like it was alive, as if it waited there for its driver like it was a living thing.

The man came directly to the table where Dina sat with Pestilence.  He was tall and broad, wore a blood red suit; even the shoes were the color of a freshly polished apple.  He wore close-cut black hair.  His skin was dark, but his ethnicity was hard to pin down.  He stood with presence, impossible to ignore.  Pestilence looked up, and obvious disappointment showed.

“Hi War.”

With that, things for Dina became even a bit more surreal.

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“I would like a cold glass of orange juice please, and wheat toast with no crust.  Thank you.” War actually spoke in a very soft, even pleasant voice.  Trish, was waiting on them all, as if it were perfectly normal that Dina was no longer working and was having an afternoon meal with a soft spoken mammoth and a spindly dealer of death.  As Trish walked away, War looked to Pestilence seated next to him.  “So this is she?  This is the mortal for whom you have delayed the natural flow of the Universe?”

“Yes.  This is Dina and I want to keep the plague from her.  I want to make her the carrier.”  War looked from Pestilence to Dina.

“Look, I don’t know why he thinks you are so special, but for three years all we heard was ‘Dina this’ and ‘Dina that.’  We thought he had already been about his business, but he was apparently just following you.  I started the whole war thing, and Conquest got invasions going, and Famine started ruining food supplies, and all we needed was for him to start the big plague, which we finally realized hadn’t happened.  Instead, he disappears.  Now where do I find him?  Here with you-”  War was interrupted by the waitress bringing his toast and juice.  He thanked her very politely before he continued.

“You’ve always been sentimental, Pestilence.  While the rest of us have done exactly what we supposed to do you always have some little scheme going because you want people to like you.  Do you remember Mary?  Do you remember how much trouble you got in with the Maker over that?  He almost started the Apocalypse right then.  Do you remember World War One?”  War asked, and took a bite of his toast.

“This is nothing like that!  Mary came to me…” Pestilence started, but Dina interrupted.

“Who’s Mary?” she asked.  She hoped that didn’t sound like jealousy in her voice. 

“She was…” Pestilence began, but War washed a bite of toast down with juice, and also interrupted Pestilence.

“Her name was Mary Mallon and Pestilence decided she shouldn’t die of the typhoid outbreak he was supposed to start in New York.  See, she caught him one day sprinkling the disease into a soup pot in some kitchen and she starts obsessing over him.  She followed him around like a schoolgirl for a while, begging him to 'release' her the way he released the others.  You’d think he’d do the smart thing and just give her Typhoid; oh no.  He made her the carrier.  Felt sorry for her like she was a puppy.  They locked her up for years while she would rant about him.  Finally, he had to go in and give her pneumonia.  I was there, she was still raving about how he must love her to let her carry his plague.  She died in quarantine.”  Pestilence looked at his coffee.  He had a face full of pity, the look you would give a run-over dog as it lay dying in the gutter.  The type of pity God reserved for infant death.

“She was a confused girl, and had no real idea what she was dealing with.  I was trying not to hurt her.  She was a poor, sick soul who needed help, and I gave her death,” he said quietly.  War only shook his head.

“You are Death.  That is what you are supposed to give everyone.” 

Pestilence turned more toward War now, and showed a bit of defiance.  It was the first assertive thing Dina had seen him do.

“Well I don’t want to give it to her,” he said, pointing across the table to Dina.  “I want to offer her more than just death and madness.  I want to give her a place to belong.  I want her to choose, not force something awful upon her!”  He was cowed again though as Dina spoke.

“You killed four of my boyfriends out of jealousy!  How is that not forcing this on me?” she asked.  Pestilence looked out the window and would not meet her eyes.  He spoke softly, almost to himself.

“I was protecting you.”

The table was silent except for War chewing his toast and sipping his orange juice.  Finally, the red-clad giant broke the awkward pause in conversation.  “Look, I’m late for an ethnic cleansing in Central Africa, I need him to get this thing going.  Please tell him yes or no.  Eventually the Planner is going to come looking for him, and I don’t want to be him when that happens.”  Pestilence blanched a little.

“Did I come up in a meeting?”  War nibbled his toast.

“Things have to happen; it’s how it all keeps moving on.”  Dina couldn’t believe this.  These two were discussing the end of human civilization over toast and coffee.

“Look, I’m done, I have work to do,” Dina said, getting up and leaving these… whatever they were to finish their little chat.  She’d had enough, and really didn’t want to be part of this anymore.  Dina went back to work, and actually cleared War’s check (he might as well have been driving a ‘Vette; he tipped like a tightwad).  He went out to his car, and for just a moment, from the corner of her eye Dina did not see the tough looking Ford, but rather just a hint of a crimson stallion.  Then the car roared away, as its driver likely went to wipe out a small country.

Pestilence stayed where he was, and Dina asked Trish to serve him.  As Dina went about her work, she would glance at him and he would be watching her with sad eyes, as if pleading for her to come back to him.  It was so pathetic, so creepy, so…

...so sweet.

=================================

 

The day went on.  The dinner crowd was starting to come in, though really dinner crowd meant about three more tables of people.  As Dina bussed the table two down from Pestilence she kept glancing at the back of his head.  Each time she glanced at him she thought of others.

Michael had been her first high school boyfriend.  She met him arguing over the sports field because he wanted softball practice to make way for his football team.  He was cute though and popular, so when he’d asked her to go out she was more than a little excited.  Things were great for about a week and a half, and then he started bugging her to go further than the make-out sessions she enjoyed with him.  The night before he died, they were in the back of his car.  She had just turned fifteen, and he said he had a special present for her.  The “special present” was somewhere between what he had pulled out of his pants and the hand under her shirt.  She had stormed out of his car and walked home.  However, she was thinking of calling him the next day when the Center for Disease Control showed up at her door to start doing blood tests.  Michael was dead, his innards liquefied, with no indication of where the infection had possibly come from.  Dina was clean, as was the school.  It had been a mystery, but now she knew the truth.

 Randall was next.  They’d been dating for about a month when he called her to tell her he had to work late stocking the soda fridge at the local convenience store, and would not be able to take her out to King-in-the-Box afterwards.  Actually, he had gone ahead to the restaurant, but rather than Dina, he was in fact out with Jessica from World Cultural Geography.  His burger contained e-Coli.

Bobby was the adventurous type.  There was no dare he wouldn’t take, and no place he wouldn’t go.  He had a bit of a mean streak in him though, and once she thought he was going to smack her when she laughed at him falling from the flagpole someone dared him to climb.  Three days later a bat got into their geometry classroom.  Despite her protest, Bobby was trying to kill it to impress her when the creature bit him.  No one thought too much of it, and since he’d smashed it pretty good there was nothing really to test.  Then he started getting weird around the water fountain.

Finally, there was Javier.  He was a gorgeous exchange student from Brazil.  He was suave and polite and talked about taking her back to Brazil.  He was a little secretive though, not telling her where he went every couple of weeks, when he’d disappear for a night.  Turned out he was going down to a dirty little neighborhood in Seaside and hanging out with a bunch of meth dealers.  He was blasted out of his mind in their basement when a rat bit him.  By this time Dina was on a first name basis with Phil of the CDC as he checked to see if she had been exposed to the bubonic plague by Javier before he went from having odd little red marks on his skin, to uncontrollable sneezing fits, to falling down dead. 

She thought of all of them, and it kind of occurred to her: Really, all of them treated her like garbage.  All of them had acted like assholes and not one really cared what she thought, or had done a damn thing for her.

After all of that, she had closed herself off to the world; who wouldn’t?  She found it difficult to reach out to people, and she started wandering.  However, who had reached out to her?  She really had no friends, no one who had bothered to see why a young woman would be so remote, and no one bothering to take the time.  Trish was about as close to a friend as Dina had in three years, and their discourse each of the three days they had really known each other pretty much just consisted of Trish telling Dina all her problems would be solved by the right man.

Maybe Trish was right.

This “man” Pestilence; in his own twisted way, he had looked out for her.  With no chance of reciprocation he cared for her, to the point of holding up the clockwork of the universe itself.  Yes, he killed her boyfriends, but he had a point.  He was really protecting her.

She looked at him now.  He still sat there, still drinking coffee, though he had stopped smoking the foul cigarettes some hours ago.  For all she knew, he preexisted all of human time.  He held the power of life and death over the world, and God Himself had appointed him to play a first string role in the end of the world.  Yet, right now he looked like the saddest thing the universe had ever known because she, Dina Williams, wouldn’t go with him; wouldn’t accept his protection; didn’t want to be part of what was really just the next logical step.

In his own way, he had been better to her than anyone she had ever known.  And he loved her without reservation or caveat.  All she had to do was, well, be the next Typhoid Mary; carry the next plague.  Carry a plague that was going to happen in spite of her decision.  And unlike Mary, when it was over he would be there, continuing to care for her regardless of what the new world looked like.

He looked over his shoulder and saw her looking at him.  Somehow, he managed a weak smile.  Despite his cold appearance, it made her feel warm.

She set the coffee pot on the table of the people she was serving and walked over to him.  He looked up and actually wiped away a tear, his expression showing he was hoping she had not seen it.  She just looked at him for a moment and then she smiled.

“So, would you at least take me to a movie after?”  He stared at her for a moment as if he hadn’t heard her, and then slowly it sank in.  No weak smile now, but a broad one than seemed to change his whole countenance.  With a slightly shaking hand, he held out the black snowflake.

“You know what you are in for?  I don’t want to see you end up like Mary.”  Dina took the snowflake from him, looked at it for only a moment.  Then, looking into his eyes, she placed it in her mouth, where it dissolved on her tongue.  She then leaned forward and very softly kissed Pestilence.  His lips tasted bitter, but like anise, and Dina honestly found she wanted more.  Pestilence got up, dropped a ten on the table, and together they walked out, hand in hand. 

Behind them, people started to cough.

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