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"Vivian!" Boltzmann barked. "What are you doing?!"
Vivian was standing in the aisle of a grocery store. She was wearing a powder blue vest and nametag. In one hand she held a can of creamed corn, in the other, a price tag gun.
"It would appear that I am pricing creamed corn," she deadpanned. "Just like you told me to, boss."
"Don't get smart with me, missy," Boltzmann growled. "You know we're short staffed on registers today! Why are you hiding back here tagging the goddamn corn?!"
"Because, as I previously mentioned, you just told me to."
"Oh shaddup, Vivian. Jesus Christ, I swear sometimes you just talk to hear the sound of your own voice."
Vivian's features screwed themselves down against her skull.
"Just go open another checkstand," Boltzmann continued, "before Sherri bites somebody."
With that, the manager waddled his massive girth back to his office and slammed the door. Vivian dragged her feet to the closest unattended checkstand to do as she had been commanded.
The girl behind the register to Vivian's right was a pale, hollow looking waif in a long, black leather coat. She had one of the tabloids open on her empty checkstand and she was filling in the squares of the crossword puzzle. She wasn't actually doing the crossword puzzle, she was just filling in each square individually with black ink.
"Hey Sherri," Vivian groaned. "You've been working this stupid job even longer than I have, yet you never seem to go homicidal. How do you do it?"
Sherri reached into her coat and pulled out a flat silver hip flask. She unscrewed the skull shaped stopper, held it up in silent toast to Vivian, and took a long, hard swig.
A hunched old woman pushed a shopping cart up to Vivian's register. With shaking hands, she began to pile D cell batteries on the belt.
"Are these the right kind of plugs for this?" she croaked.
Vivian looked at a large box perched across the top of the cart. Judging by the diagram on the side, it contained some sort of hideous cyclopic robot head. Her eyes scanned the single row of English text adrift in a sea of foreign characters.
Hibakusha Electronics 5-in-1 Camping Lantern
Vivian was hesitant to believe this claim. It didn't look like any lantern she had ever seen.
"It's for my grandson," the old woman said. "He said he can hook it to his satellite machine and watch the ball games when he's camping."
Vivian felt the need to intervene. She wanted to save everybody the trouble of a return visit.
"Ah, ma'am, I don't think you can watch a ball game on a lantern. Maybe he was talking about something else. In fact, I'm pretty sure he was talking about something else. Do you want me to put this back for you?"
The old woman raised a brittle hand and looked at a crumpled note.
"Five to one camping lantern," she said, holding the note out for Vivian to see. "That's what he wants. You kids, you all think that all us retired people are all stupid, right?"
"No ma'am," Vivian said, "I just was trying to..."
The woman looked at her note again.
"Five to one camping lantern. It says so right here!"
As was her custom, Vivian gave up.
Knowing that the osteoporosis-riddled old woman couldn't possibly pick up the heavy box, Vivian leaned over and awkwardly hauled the lantern over the counter and across the price scanner.
She turned to put the box down, but its corner bumped into her cash register, knocking it from her hands. The box thunked down on the scanner again, jamming its corner harshly into her left breast.
"Ow! Son of a..." Vivian grumbled. "Here, let me take care of that."
She punched the key on the register that would negate the next entry and ran the box over the scanner a third time, neutralizing the errant scan.
"You did that one three times," the old lady said. "Are you trying to rip me off?"
"No no," Vivian explained. "I just made a mistake. I fixed it. It's okay."
She scanned all of the batteries.
"Your total is $98.73, please."
The woman looked skeptical, but quietly pawed through her purse and exhumed a one-hundred dollar bill. Vivian made change and put everything into the cart, and the old woman rolled away with a sense of quiet, uncertain dissatisfaction.
Vivian turned to talk to Sherri, but instead saw only a wall of jiggling, giggling, yellow and purple uniforms.
Sherri's lane was packed four deep with pretty, blond, dangerously popular looking Stillwater High School cheerleaders. She was price scanning an endless cluster nail polish bottles with an overstated boredom. Each bottle had the name of a different shade printed on its cap, but to the layman they were all indistinguishably "pink."
"Oh my Gaaaaaawd," one of the girls mewled. "So, I was talking to Kevin in homeroom, and he was all 'Do you want to go to senior class beach party this weekend?' and I was all like, with you? As if!"
For reasons that were not readily apparent, all of the girls ripped into a peal of screaming laughter. Sherri didn't give them the courtesy of a foul look. She just kept scanning the bottles and staring blankly into the burning red lasers of her checkstand.
"He's just so wrong. Like, really," one of the other girls agreed. "Like he's really cute enough for you to like, go swim in the red tide for and get like a bacteria infection or whatever. I'm so sure. It's not like it would be the first time he ever gave a girl an infection."
The girls burst into laughter again, this time so high pitched that there were parts only very small dogs could hear.
"Oh my Gaawd!" the blondest of the girls gasped, pointing to Sherri's arm, "I looooove that bracelet! The plastic one with the barbed wire stuck in it, right? I have one exactly like that!"
Without lifting her eyes from the conveyor belt, Sherri pulled the bracelet off of her arm, held it at arm's length between two fingers like a sitcom bachelor holds a dirty diaper, and dropped it with a heavy plastic clunk in the garbage can.
"Speaking of 'red tide'..." the cheerleader smirked. "God, why do goths always have to be such bitches?"
Sherri's empty eyes snapped up from the belt, locking onto the giggling girls with a glare like a thousand death threats.
"I am not a goth," she hissed, "I am an individual."
The cheerleaders were suddenly, and perhaps for the first time in their lives, completely silent. After a long moment, one of them finally mumbled a rebuttal.
"Well, you're still a bitch."
"Vivian!" Boltzmann barked.
Vivian jumped out of her skin. How could he always sneak up on her like that? It was like being snuck up on by a dump truck full of barking dogs.
"Vivian, could you explain why you charged this nice young woman three times for this camping lantern?"
Behind the enormous bulk of the manager, Vivian could see the old lady with all the batteries shivering dully.
"I didn't," Vivian explained, "I made an accidental scan, then I took one off."
"I see that," Boltzmann said, "But there's three charges here, each for $79.99. You need to refund her money twice. She only bought one lantern."
Vivian shook her head.
"No, I'll show you," she said, reaching for the receipt. "One is a negative scan of $79.99, it's all taken care..."
"No you don't," Boltzmann said, pulling his doughy hand back. "Don't try to confuse this woman any more with your runaround. Just open your drawer and give her back the $159.98 that you ripped off from her. Or should I say, open your purse."
"But it's not... I mean, there's the two positive scans, and one negative. One plus one minus one equals one. It's all taken care of."
"Vivian," Boltzmann seethed, "I'm going to count to ten, and if you don't..."
"Fine," Vivian boiled, opening her register drawer. "Here's the hundred dollars back that she gave me, and here's another sixty just for being so good at math."
"That's more like it," Boltzmann said. "You're lucky she's such a good sport."
He snatched the bills from Vivian's hand and gave them to the old woman.
"There you go, ma'am. Keep the change. I hope we'll see you in here again real soon."
He turned with a knifelike glare at Vivian before retreating back to his office.
"I'll be watching you, Gray," he snarled. "You watch yourself."
Vivian stared for a moment, trying to figure out exactly where she had gone wrong in life.
A clanking sound got her attention. She looked over and saw Sherri gently knocking her flask against her register. She raised her eyebrows and held it towards Vivian. Vivian waved it away. Sherri shrugged and took another long pull.
Vivian decided that statistically speaking, the day could only get better from here on out.
She couldn't have been more wrong.
© Outpost 132
Artwork by Michael Greenholt
NOTE: This sample is not a straight excerpt from the book, but a
self-contained vignette made up of segments from chapter one.