sputters and beats his wings like a stink bug, always returning to the ceiling of Wal-mart. He bashes his antennae and thorax into the metal rafters, looking for an escape as I sideswipe cereal boxes into my shopping cart: knockoff Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Life.
Headstones name the dead to be remembered. I don’t know where the man I killed is buried — if he is buried — so I call him Coffee.
Coffee had a son in my Geometry class who wore shiny braces and a #44 football jersey. I always wanted a son, one who would grow explosively stronger than myself and play sports on the front page of the local paper. Enough ball to earn a free ride through life.
Being a teacher earns me food stamps to deliver passing grades.
This shopping cart bears a bum wheel pulling me left, veering across common grocery store traffic. I push harder with my left hand to correct this misguided vehicle.
Coffee’s forty eyes follow me whenever I stock up at Wal-mart, the only store for miles. I considered making the road trip elsewhere, but we need to history book each other.
Solve for X: If Coffee’s wife sucker punches me in the face with a velocity multiplied by doctors pronouncing her husband dead upon arrival, how long will my nose make a wheezing noise? My students couldn’t stop laughing behind my back those following two weeks as I contrived mathematical equations on the chalkboard. Different angles to get to the point.
My arm weakens and my cart rams into oncoming traffic. No apologies. The shoppers try to fear-swerve my aim. They mumble to themselves, I hear how their mandibles jabber.
The dairy aisle is freezing, solidifying the milk into blocks that could break a foot if dropped. I don’t notify the underpaid, underappreciated, overwhelmed staff. How will kids drown their cereal? Will the boxes displaying puzzle distractions remain on the shelves?
I’m the teacher. The one with the answers to the questions. Where is your father #44? He’s a bug man hovering above me. An exoskeleton scared to float down and be crushed under my foot.
Walmart is wonderful because it’s a one-stop-shop. I can buy everything I need in one place: batteries, wiper blades, tissues, prescription glasses, SPEED on BluRay. I run into former students of mine. Outside the Math Room we don’t acknowledge each other. I used to say Hi, but they’ve stopped responding.
I grab a newspaper. On the front page: Our high school Hornets win regional, #44 still front and center after my car missed him five years ago. I roll the paper into a tube and monocular Coffee. Each of his spurred tibias grab for the steering wheel to jerk away. The lifespan of bugs ranges from five minutes to fifty years. How long will Coffee consume me?
The coffee aisle is where I first saw him, when he was alive. His family a face full of grinning teeth. I always drink my coffee black, the heat scalding the roof of my mouth, awakening me to start my morning. I haven’t slept in days. Like a tree falling in the woods, I wonder if Coffee is always here, even while I’m away, waiting my return.
Solve for X: If a car is traveling 25 miles-per-hour in a grocery store parking lot and not watching for pedestrians, hitting and dragging the body beneath the car for 15 meters with the nearest hospital a forty-five minute drive, how fast does the ambulance need to move to keep him alive?
Growing up, I was terrified of bugs. It spawned from an overnight camping trip that my parents made me attend. Each rock I lifted revealed creatures scurrying every direction. Now I see how silly my fear was. In the cleaning aisle, I catch a tiny mufflehead by the wings and watch it flail. They can’t bite and only live the last week of May, right before kids graduate. Right before families celebrate a milestone. I squeeze its body between my thumb and index, feeling the smallest of pops. What’s left behind is nothing but a dark smudge. The considerate thing about bugs is that they have no names. I don’t want to call them anything. I can pretend they never had a life to forfeit.
“Did you see that, Coffee?” I yell to him, as he crawls around a condensate lamp.
A woman with a cart full of wasp spray and ant traps questions me, “What are you doing here?”
“I need to press on.”
I self-checkout, scanning the vitamins and fats, over packaged and shipped around the world. Will this be the day Coffee comes down? Sucks the life out of me? He springs towards the ground, but is drawn back up to the ceiling like reverse gravity. We’re becoming old pals who get together as often as I need to replenish my food supply. How’s the family? Job treating you well? Life okay?
I never married. Never found that special person. Not that I wasn’t searching. That special someone must have been in the one place I didn’t look.
Wal-mart’s parking lot is overflowing, the heartbeat for a town in the middle of nowhere. I load my Nissan Pathfinder, drive through the striped lines webbed on the pavement. My rear view mirror reflects a man who’s aged twenty years in the past five. Pedestrians cross, and it’s him, the man I killed, walking with his family as if he’s alive again. As if he’s happy once more. A three corner fly circles my sweaty head, landing and biting me like it has a point. I steady the wheel and let them pass this time, not fumbling with the receipt and coupons to confirm I saved X amount of cents.
Corey Miller was a finalist for the F(r)iction Flash Fiction Contest (’20) and shortlisted for The Forge Flash Competition (’20). His writing has appeared in Booth, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, Hobart, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. He reads for TriQuarterly, Longleaf Review, and Barren Magazine. When Corey isn’t brewing beer for a living in Cleveland, OH, he likes to take the dogs for adventures. Follow him on Twitter @IronBrewer or at CoreyMillerWrites.com.