Kaput

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And now, as promised, today’s short story
:


                Ruined. Doomed. Kaput. That was the state of my day after wading through the chaos of work, cramming myself like a sardine onto the crowded bus, and fighting my way through driving rain to the grocery store, only to discover that my lifeline, my reason for living, had been replaced with empty shelves. I stared blankly at the chipped metal, errant droplets pattering from the hem of my coat onto the dingy tile. I didn’t ask much from the universe. The usual really: not getting hit by a bus, my apartment not burning down, my hair and teeth not inexplicably falling out. But this? This was a low blow, even for the distant and indifferent cosmos.

                “Excuse me.” I flagged down the bleary-eyed teen in a green vest wheeling a cart of bread down the aisle.

                He slumped forward to lean on the cart, his head swinging to face me, which I assumed was as close as I was going to get to ‘can I help you?’

                “Do you have any Oreos?”

                He stared past me to the empty shelves.

                “We’re out.”

                “Could you look in the back?”

                “We’re out,” he repeated, resuming his agonizing trudge down the aisle, one of the wheels on the cart wailing with each rotation.

                Maybe a packet nestled somewhere out of sight, waiting for me. I shoved aside the other, lesser cookies, hoping for a glimpse of cheery blue and the chocolate delights within. Not just any Oreos either, the double stuff. All I wanted was to slouch on the couch with a packet of Oreos on my stomach, twisting those little disks apart, numbing my mind with some pointless TV, and pretending nothing else in the world existed. That wasn’t too much to ask, was it?

                The slouching teen reappeared, a blue packet in his hands.

                “Here.”

                My savior! But my hopes were dashed as he extended it to me, and I tried to keep the disgust from my face, willing the corners of my mouth into a friendly smile instead of a sneer. These weren’t Oreos. They were abominations, cream sandwiched between two deceitful yellow wafers. Anyone who thought they were even in the same genus was an idiot.

                “Thanks,” I said, taking the packet of little Judases. If they had mouths, I’m sure they’d be laughing at me.

                When he disappeared around the corner, I shoved them between the chocolate chip cookies and Swiss rolls. Having no Oreos was better than having yellow Oreos. Chocolate Oreos were soothing, nostalgic, comforting. Yellow Oreos taunted you, made you embrace your own mortality and tasted bland while doing it.

                I cast a last glance at the shelves, still refusing to accept that they were empty, before trudging to the front of the store, hoping I could drown my sorrows in a few travel-sized packets from the register. Maybe the world knew something I didn’t. Maybe the apocalypse was upon us. What other explanation was there for a store in the twenty-first century being completely and utterly out of Oreos? Tomorrow the world would end, and some lucky bastard out there would at least have a pack of Oreos when it all went up in smoke. If society did hurtle back to the stone age, I knew who I was hunting down first.

               My search by the registers, accompanied by the relentless beeping of scanned items, like an erratic EKG, was just as fruitless. A cart rattled by, limping on a stuck wheel, and a blue packet perched on top of the pile of lunch meat and chips and broccoli blazed out like a beacon. “Milk’s Favorite Cookie.” Forget milk. They were my favorite cookie. Milk could get its own.

                “Excuse me, where did you find those?”

                This was what I was reduced to, scavenging from carts like someone bumming for cigarettes. If I wasn’t careful, someone might think I had a problem, like I was standing there scratching at myself and looking for my next hit. But I did have a problem, dammit. Forty-five little creamed-filled problems.

                “The candy aisle,” she said, nodding down the row of nondescript aisles toward the one I had just emerged from.

                I stared sadly at the passive blue packet. I could grab them and run, fly out the door, my raincoat streaming out behind me like a cape while all the bleary-eyed attendants stared after me, murmuring to themselves, “who was that?”

                But no, I only stood there, at least no longer dripping, watching the cart slowly roll away with a rumble as its lame front-wheel shuddered, leaving straggled black streaks across the dingy tile. From the sheer volume in her cart, I guessed she was a mother just trying to feed her ravenous children. Those Oreos were destined for school lunches and grubby little hands, not my pajama-covered tummy.

               I stood forlornly at the end of a closed register, gazing out at my fellow shoppers weaving in and out of the aisles, their wet shoes squeaking on the floors. The world wasn’t ending. It would turn just as reliably and relentlessly as always, and in time, my distress over a solitary pack of Oreo’s would be nothing more than a faded memory, sparks of electricity that vanished into the ether instead of working its way into the web of experiences that came together to form me. In a year’s time, it wouldn’t matter one bit whether the shelves had been empty or full. It was just another day, like so many others, so many other identical, indistinguishable trips to this same store. If anything, this should be a wake-up call, a reminder that the real things in life weren’t sold in packs on store shelves. Those things faded into a lost haze of existence. The real things, the real memories were out there, waiting to be taken, waiting for me to go and take them.

               With a sigh, I trudged toward frozen foods. Maybe they had Oreo ice cream.

Wait! There’s More…

           The ground wavered far below as I uneasily stepped over the gap to the top of the building. The door slid shut behind me, and with a whoosh, the airbus rejoined the lanes of aerial traffic whizzing past. Rows of dormant aeromobiles lined the rooftop, and at the far end, a sign emblazoned with ‘Fergin’s Discount Transportation Sales & Services’ hovered in midair, affixed to the transparent, electrostatic walls of an office. Inside, a man sat with his feet thrown up on a desk, his back leaning against the wall. Only open air lay behind him, and it looked like he was sitting on the edge of oblivion.

            I wove through the vehicles and knocked against the solidified air of the office wall. A low snore floated through the door.

            “H-hello? I’m… here to buy an aeromobile.”

            He jerked awake with a curse, sending a flood of papers to the floor as he yanked his feet off the desk. “Course you are, course you are, course you are,” he mumbled, jumping to his feet and shaking the dazed expression from his face. “And may I compliment you on your good taste.” He proudly patted a faded plaque. “100% sales rate. Satisfaction guaranteed when you fly off the lot.”

            He popped a giant, pink square into his mouth and loudly gnawed on it as he joined me outside.

            “This is a strange place for an aeromobile dealership,” I noted, inching away from the dizzying drop over the edge.

            “Where else would I sell them? On the ground?!” He guffawed loudly. “Naw, you need to see the vehicle in its natural environment.”

           With a deep sigh, he surveyed the open sky around us, filled with whizzing traffic and towering buildings, before steering me toward a vehicle near the end of the lot. I stopped halfway, eyeing a sleek red model. “What about this one?”

            “Good eye, good eye, good eye,” he rattled, bobbing his head and gnawing viciously on his gum. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to be a good fit for you.” His eyes flickered across the empty lot as he leaned closer, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Between you and me, you’re better off without this one. Gravity manipulator has a nasty habit of malfunctioning. Only upside is the fall would kill you before it turned you into a metal pancake. Now, this bad boy”—he slapped the walls of the gray, amorphous blob next to it—“can’t go wrong. State-of-the-art technology back in its day, and only a 2% chance of it hurtling you into the fourth dimension.”

            “E-excuse me?”

            He slowly shook his head, his eyes fixed on the sloping metal walls, his jaw still working furiously. “Not many of these left in this condition. Honestly, at this price, it’s a steal.”

            “Did you say… the fourth dimension?”

            He ignored me, dragging me across the lot to a black, boxy model. “Now, over here we have an interesting find. Only one owner. Foreign import, but it’s been refitted with all the standard safety features.”

            He nudged one of the blank walls, and a panel popped out, sliding aside to reveal the interior. I peered inside at the deep seats and neon lighting lining the ceiling. “There aren’t any controls.”

            “Ah, that’s the beauty of this model! It’s all powered through, um…”—chew, chew, chew—“synaptic energy. Instead of using the telepathic abilities of the native manufacturers, they put together a new system. You drive it”—he leaned closer, tapping a forefinger to his temple—“with your mind.”

            “Fascinating!”

           The exterior was surprisingly free of scratches or burn marks from atmospheric re-entry. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but I had a feeling this might be the one.

            He bent over, digging through the vehicle. “Yup. It’s real simple. You just stick this”—he emerged holding a headpiece with a giant needle protruding from it—“into your brain, and voila!”

            I gaped at the needle. “Th-through your skull?!”

            He frowned at it, turning it over in his hands. “Ya know, I think it might have to go through your eye area. I’m sure it’s not so bad after the first time.” He extended the headpiece to me. “Wanna take it for a test drive?”

            “I… think I’ll pass.”

            “Suit yourself,” he mumbled through his gum, tossing the hardware back into the vehicle. “Can’t blame you. Don’t trust those foreign builders anyway with their non-auditory communication. It’s not natural…” He shook his head again, his jaw furiously chewing. “Not natural.”

            I myself was from two planets over and beginning to regret this whole situation. “Well,” I clapped my hands together uselessly. “Thanks for your time. You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about. I’m going to sleep on it, and uh… I’ll let you know.”

            He waved a dismissive hand in my direction. “Yeah, sure. Whatever you need.”

            I glanced around, looking for an exit sign or an airbus pad. “How do I… get out of here?”

            He gnashed on his gum, pointing past a line of vehicles, but his extended finger only led me to the edge of the building and a steep drop.

            “There’s nothing here.”

            “It’s there,” he called, lounging against the invisible walls of his office. “You just can’t see it.”

            I scanned the open air, looking for any flicker of electricity or sign of a platform. “Could you show me?”

            He stalked over and frowned at the air, hands on hips, jaw working furiously. “Well, look at that,” he sighed. “Looks like it’s out.”

            “I’ll just wait for the next airbus then.”

            “Sorry. No buses run here without special request.”

            “Can I use your communication device then?”

            “Eh,” he gnawed loudly on his gum. “’fraid that’s not working either.”

            “Well, how do you get down?!” I snapped, reaching the end of my patience.

            “I use my aeromobile.”

            I stared at him, the reality of the situation dawning on me. “So, the only way I’m getting out of here is if I buy—“

            “Looks like.”

            He watched me expectantly. I wanted to argue, but I wanted to leave more. My shoulders sagged. “I guess… we’ll have to make a deal then.”

            “Great!” He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll draw up the paperwork.”

            My payment was exchanged for a worn activator device, and he carefully inspected the vehicle, muttering to himself and making haphazard marks on his clipboard before planting himself in front of me. “Would you say you were satisfied with today’s transaction?”

            “Actually—“

            “Because if you’re not, I am morally obligated not to finalize the sale until you are.”

            “Then… yes, I’m satisfied.”

           He was watching me intently, his jaw tirelessly gnawing. “100% satisfied?”

            “Yes,” I sighed.

           He triumphantly placed the last check on his clipboard before saluting me with it and striding back to his office. It landed with a clatter on his desk before he threw his feet up after it. The panel slid closed behind me, and I eased off the roof, merging into the flow of traffic. Maybe this wasn’t so bad. It was only a 2% chance, and the fourth dimension was supposedly nice this time of year.


This story was inspired by a very unfortunate encounter I had with a, for lack of a better word, skeezy car salesman.

~ R. E. Rule

Published Jun 17, 2020
Updated Dec 11, 2020