Short As Fictober #15: “The Shambling Man Cometh”

Cal Sims watches the shambling man stumble out of the pancake butter sunset for the better part of a half hour. He’d just been a blurry horizon speck at first, but at the twenty minute mark began to materialize. He’s clad in head to toe denim that’s faded from blue to grey and been patched with an assortment of fabrics and colors. There’s a hitch in his stride, Cal notices, where it’s though one of his legs–and it doesn’t seem to matter which, they’re both culpable–forgets to keep moving forward and lags and drags behind. When this occurs and the shambling man notices, he curses and begins to run. Despite his errant limbs, he maintains a steady course toward Cal and her sister Roz’s ice cream truck, The Freeze Wagon. Cal takes her eyes off the shambling man, and nudges Roz with the toe of her sneaker.

The younger Sims sister marks her page in the book she’s reading, and shoves a now useless twenty dollar between the pages with as much angst and ire an eleven-year-old can.

“What do you want, Cal?” she asks.

Cal gives Roz another nudge. “Kill the tune.”

Their playlist which has been belting strong for the last hour is in the middle of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.”

Roz pushes to her feet, checks the sun.

“We still have at least another hour of daylight left. Plenty of time for a few more customers,” she says, then points at the shambling man. “Like that guy. He looks like someone who could go for a cone of mint chocolate chip.”

Cal walks to the front of The Freeze Wagon and flips a switch, cutting the song before the bear in the song could see what he could see.

That guy is the reason I wanted the music off.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Roz asks.

This is a recurring argument between the Sims sisters. 

Roz sees the good in everyone, and can find a friend in any town amongst any group of people. A mask-wearing brute packing a machete could walk up to their window and ask for a scoop of Bing Cherry, and Roz would serve him and ask him about the notches in the machete’s handle.

Cal would like to trust everyone. She and her sister had been taught by their parents never to judge someone by their outward appearance, and to try and believe that folks are doing the best they can with what they have. And that might have been true before the country caught fire and the oceans ate the coasts. But in this new post-fire-and-flood world, people were getting harder and harder to trust. Everyone’s looking to survive and a policy of kindness doesn’t necessarily equate to survival.

The shambling man’s head snaps up when the music ends, and he begins to run toward the truck.

“Wait,” he starts yelling when he’s twenty yards away. “Don’t close.”

Roz smiles and crosses her arms. “Told you we’d get a sale.”

Cal counter with a frown. “This doesn’t feel right.”

“You’re just being–“

“Just get the zapper.”

Roz groans and unstraps the cattle prod from under the counter, then stands behind one of The Freeze Wagon’s murder holes.

The shambling man reaches the truck and lets his backpack fall beside him. His eyes are all over the truck, wild and sucking in details.

“Do you have anything left?” he asks.

“Mint chocolate chip,” Cal says.

The shambling man runs a calloused tongue over his cracked lips.

“That sounds perfect on a scorcher like we got on us today, eh?”

“For sure,” Roz says offering the shambling man a grin. “What’s your name?”

The question catches him off guard, but he recovers quickly. 

“Jeff.”

“What do you have for trade, Jeff?” Cal asks.

“Loads. Just hold on a minute.”

Jeff digs through his pack, and Cal watches him pocket something before rising with a book in his hand.

Roz practically smashes her face into the plexiglass window trying to get a close look.

“Which one is it?” she asks.

“It’s a Dean Koontz,” Jeff says. “I found a bunch at a grocery story a few towns over. You ever read him before?”

Roz shakes her head.

“Well then, it’s a pretty good trade for you. Certainly worth a double scoop on a sugar cone if you have it.” He places the book up on the counter, but keeps a hand on top.

Roz turns to her big sister. “Can we do it, Cal? Can we? I promise I’ll listen to everything you say. And I’ll be on cleanup duty for a month.”

Cal still doesn’t like Jeff, and if she were by herself would pass on this trade easy peasy, but seeing her kid sister excited and happy lifts her spirits.

“Okay. But just a single-scoop on sugar cone. Deal?”

Cal’s expecting the man to agree, so she’s already turned to grab a cone when she hears the unmistakable click of a gun’s hammer being cocked. She curses herself for forgetting that the man had pocketed an object out of his bag. When she turns back around, Jeff’s right up on the counter and he’s got a snub-nosed pistol pointing through the transaction portal of the ice cream truck’s main window.

“Put your hands up,” Jeff says.

“What do you want?” Cal asks.

“I want you to open this window all the way, and then you’re going to bring me everything you own.”

“I don’t think we can do that,” Cal says.

Once again, the shambling man’s left perplexed by something a Sims sister’s said.

“And why not?” Jeff asks.

“We’re not staying long.”

Jeff shoves the gun further through the window slot. “I will shoot you if you don’t open up.

Cal nods at Roz who plunges the cattle prod through The Freeze Wagon’s murder hole into the shambling man’s ribs. 6,000 volts zip through his body, and he load-of-bricks to the ground.

Roz closes the murder hole and stows the cattle prod. Cal gives her a fast side hug on her way to the driver’s seat.

“Don’t forget your book,” she says to her sister.

Minutes later, the last ice cream truck in the new post-fire-and-flood world barrels down the road for the next town, and Roz starts the music again as she cracks the cover on her new book.

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