by Anne Wagener
At first I think it’s just the wind, but then I realize someone is behind me. I step back, and one of my Fuji apples rolls away. The stranger wears a black trench coat and an unsettling expression. He bends down and picks up my apple, grasping it in his palm with no apparent intention of giving it back. A few seconds lapse as we stare at each other.
I’m standing now with my back to the car and only the shopping cart between me and this stranger, holding my apple and slowly rubbing his index finger back and forth across it. He’s in his early forties, probably, and he’s all roundness and circumference—no wonder he wants my wide Fuji apple.
“I thought you might need some help with your bags,” he says. His voice is very middle-class, and I’d almost call it kind if I wasn’t alone with him in a deserted parking lot. “I was behind you in line, and I thought the cashier should have offered to help you take these out to your car.”
He pulls a Snickers bar from his pocket, and seeing him reach into his coat sends a little shock through me.
“I don’t need any help, thanks,” I say, trying to keep my voice even. One part of my brain is formulating speech, and the other is running fast with text, stock ticker style: shove shopping cart to incapacitate him then jump into car and drive off. Throw milk jug at face. Slide key between index and middle fingers and punch him.
“Oh,” he says, and smiles. He’s still holding my apple, but instead of giving it back to me, he offers me the Snickers. “Do you want this? Hmm?”
“No thanks,” I say. “I should get going.”
He nods but makes no sign of moving away.
“Actually, I could use some help. See, I’m working on this project.”
My hands begin to shake, but I keep the rest of my body steady. I nod.
“I’m building a time machine,” he says, cocking his head to one side. “It’s almost done, see, but there’s one part that’s missing. It’s a computer chip that goes on the motherboard.”
The stock ticker resets to scroll one word over and over: psycho!
“I need your help,” he says. He holds up the Snickers. “There’s a few of these in it for you.”
I slide my right hand into my pocket, fingers groping for keys.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about computers.”
He shakes his head and says, “No matter, I just need a fresh set of eyes is all. See, I’m going to go back to the last decade and make millions of dollars inventing the Internet. If you come with me, we can split the money.”
The door to my car is unlocked, and my fingers have found the car key. Before I can move, the cart begins to roll slowly toward another car that’s parked a few spots away. If he turns to look, or move after it, that’ll give me a chance to get in the car. But he stands in the same place, motionless, his head still cocked to one side.
“I’m really going to need your help.”
He takes a step closer to me. Now there’s nothing between us but cold, cold air and some leaves kicked up by the wind. In my pocket, I slide the car key between my fingers. My hands are numb from the cold.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you,” I say again. The shopping cart makes a thud as it hits the other car, and I jump.
He takes another step closer and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Please!” His voice rises half an octave. “I need to finish my time machine!”
At that moment, the sliding door to the grocery store opens and the cashier walks out, pushing a row of shopping carts in front of him. Checking out my groceries earlier, he hadn’t spoken a word to me and had looked as if he’d been hypnotized by the red light of the barcode scanner.
“Hey!” I shout. The stranger has his hand on my shoulder and is talking loudly about computer chips. His breath is acrid, and I gag. The cashier hasn’t heard me over the sound of the shopping carts rumbling and the wind.
“Help!” I’m screaming now, and my heart is louder than the stranger’s ranting. The cashier looks up at me, looks me right in the eye, and keeps pushing the carts.
“Please, help me!” I call to him. He loads the carts into the corral and looks back at me, blankly, as if he’s not sure what to do.
“Please!” I scream again, flailing my arms. This alarms the stranger, who takes a step back. Trying to catch him off balance, I punch him in the eye, hard, with my key.
Without waiting to see the effect, I open the car door, jump in the front seat, slam the car door behind me, hit the lock button, and turn the key in the ignition. My car grumbles with the effort of starting in the cold, finally revving up. I put it into drive and speed off, looking for just an instant at the stranger in my rearview mirror. He is covering his face with one hand and holding my Fuji apple in the other.
Sobbing, I speed past the cashier. He looks at me with an empty expression, as if he only sees barcodes everywhere, and not faces.
ANNE WAGENER lives and works in the Washington, DC area. To survive the commute, she listens to books on tape and scribbles notes for stories at stoplights (and occasionally while the car is moving). She is working on a collection of short stories.