Exercise #21: Once Upon a Time at Phil Mart

Exercise 21 Instructions

It was a busy day when Anthony drove up to Phil Mart, the local Mom’n’Pop grocery store. Today was Coupon Day, which meant that the store would honor any coupon brought in. As a result, Anthony had to circulate around the busy lot a few times before he could find a decent parking space. Just this fact made Anthony’s mind dart nervously to the trunk of the little Chevy Nova he was driving.

“Don’t think about it, Andy,” the man muttered to himself as he deftly moved the shift lever forward to P. “This is just an ordinary grocery run.”

Anthony turned off the engine, opened the door and climbed out of the car. Self-consciously, he gave the powder-blue cotton blanket covering the driver’s seat a little twitch, smoothing it again before he shut and locked the driver’s side door. He hadn’t taken more than three steps, however, when he heard a distinct click followed by an audible creak.

Anthony turned and was surprised to see the door he’d just locked was standing slightly open again. The old blanket on the seat seemed to have been adjusted somewhat so that the edge of a new reddish-brown stain was just visible on the surface of the Naugahyde beneath it.

Blanching, Anthony glanced around, but there was no one near him. Quickly re-adjusting the blanket so that the stain was covered, once again the man’s thoughts returned to the Chevy’s trunk. He shoved the thought roughly aside. Reaching out, he slammed the car door, firmly locking it. Think about something else! he commanded himself. Eggs, milk, cheese. Still feeling very much like he’d stepped on a live electrical wire, Anthony walked toward the Phil Mart, his hands in his pockets. Two TV dinners, a dozen glazed doughnuts, a jug of bleach, he thought.

Without really thinking about it, when he reached the Phil Mart entrance, Anthony looked back and had to fight back a gasp. There sat the little blue Nova, still parked between the silver pick-up and the green VW bug. The driver’s side door was again hanging slightly open, just wide enough for a reasonably slender person to get out. It was almost as though someone had just hastily gotten out of the car and carelessly forgotten to close the door.

Anthony abruptly felt as though his heart had climbed up into his throat and was beating about four times as fast as normal. His hands, clenched in the pockets of his jeans, were slick with cold sweat. His mouth was so dry that running a nervous tongue across his lips was like passing a sheet of sandpaper over a piece of old plastic.

As casually as he could, Anthony walked back to the Nova, his heart jack-hammering in his throat the entire way. His knees felt made of water was he walked and the desire to run was strong in him. Twice he stopped, ostensibly for traffic, but the closer he drew the harder it became to make his feet move forward. There are no such things as ghosts, he told himself over and over. By the time Anthony was four cars away from the Nova, both cars flanking the little sedan had changed. In exchange for the pick-up, there now sat an old Cadillac whose massive collection of ancient to modern bumper stickers all urged Anthony to vote Republican. Replacing the green bug there was a brand-new, cherry-red Nissan whose license plate was surrounded by an aluminum frame that informed the world in bold, black letters that this car had been purchased for the owner by her ex. Ordinarily, Anthony would have scoffed, then probably keyed the car. This time, though, his mind was almost entirely on the little blue Chevy Nova whose keys were still clenched in the fist buried in his right jeans pocket.

Anthony crouched low and looked underneath the car. However, apart from a few slips of paper, there was nothing there. He checked the back seat of the car. It, too, was empty. The front seat, however, had changed again. The blue blanket had been thrown aside revealing a set of recent-looking blood stains, both on the blanket and on the seat it had covered.

“Stop this!” Anthony whispered before he knew he’d done so, reaching out and pulling the bloody blanket back into place and straightening it a bit. This is stupid, he thought, Just someone’s idea of a joke. He tried to laugh, but his lungs felt tight in his chest and what came out sounded strangled and weak.

Taking a deep breath, Anthony shut the car door again, locking it as before. Stuffing the keys into his pocket, he then turned and walked calmly back to the store, not daring to look back when he got to the entrance for fear that he would, once again, see the car door hanging open. By the time he’d reached the check-out stands, Anthony had almost managed to convince himself that he’d imagined it all.

Outside again, Anthony saw that one of the Nova’s neighbors had changed; an old but well-kept Ford Focus in exchange for the Caddy. The Nova itself sat, both doors still closed and locked, in the exact same place he’d left it. As he walked back to the car, however, Anthony was startled when he saw a black and white police cruiser pull into a parking space not six cars away. Forcing his face back into some semblance of disinterested sedateness, Anthony walked slowly back to the Chevy, noting idly that the Nissan’s backing lights were on, but the driver inside was checking her make-up in the rear-view mirror.

Just as he reached the back of the car, however, the driver’s side door swung open with such force that it left a large dent in the side of the Nissan to it’s left. There was a squawk from inside and the backing lights shut off as the woman inside jumped out, her eyes popping so far from her face that she would have seemed comical, if Anthony had been thinking about it.

“You idiot!” she screamed, advancing on him with all the inevitability of taxes in April. “Look what you’ve done to my car!”

Anthony opened his mouth to respond but the irate woman interrupted him before he had a chance to say anything.

“Your insurance had better be paid up, buddy, because this car cost thirty thousand dollars!” as she spoke, the woman poked Anthony in the chest with one perfectly lacquered fingernail. Six cars down, the police officers had gotten out of their cruiser and were taking notice of the situation. Anthony tried to push past the woman, but she stepped into his way.

“Oh no you don’t, buster!” she shrieked. “You’re not going anywhere until you give me your insurance!”

“Is everything all right here?” asked a carefully professional voice.

As if in response, the trunk popped open. Inside, there lay the recently mangled, bloody body of a petite young woman not more than twenty or so. Her bruised, torn face was turned as if to regard the spectators. Anthony began to scream.

Just a little backstory on this one, after you read the instructions, you should know that I experienced a serious bout of writer’s block where this story was concerned.  At one point, I even wrote down a number of possible scenarios to explain why the car was in the parking lot in the first place.  None of them seemed very interesting.  Then, yesterday, I showed the scene to my daughter and asked her what she thought and she said, “Maybe the car is haunted.”  As I sometimes do, I rejected the idea out of hand. Then, this morning, I had a look at it again and I thought how it could work really well with this other idea I’d had involving a murderer.  You have just read the result.  Please leave me a comment saying what you think of it or even that you were here and you read it.


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