Full Refund

by Charlie Bookout

Doug stood in the entryway of Patterson’s Discount City looking up at the newest photo on the ‘Wall-o’-Fame.’ The photo pissed him off, and dragged him out of his usual daydream fog.

When Doug got mad, or scared, he thought he could actually feel the tic-tic-tic of his artificial aortic valve. It was a top of the line bileaflet model invented by St. Jude Medical. The bill had been just under two hundred grand. And although his health insurance had picked up ninety percent of the tab, Doug had to pony up the rest. He had just paid it off after seven years—half way to needing a replacement.

“Another newbie,” he said aloud to himself, still glaring at the photo. “No big surprise.” He had been talking to himself regularly for the last two months; ever since that two-bit floozy Michelle walked out on him. He was completely aware he was doing it, and he enjoyed it. He especially liked the sound of his own voice using swear words. “Damn suck-up!” he said to the photo a little softer. A couple of early morning customers had just walked in.

The ‘Wall-o’-Fame’ had been Mr. Patterson’s brainchild. ‘Meet Our Dedicated Team Member of the Month!!’ shouted the big yellow construction paper letters. They were laminated and taped to the sky blue cinder block wall behind the cart-corral. The sign shop over in Decatur would have done the whole job in those high relief style blocks for under a hundred bucks. But Patterson got Doug to do it for free. ‘It’s your neatness and attention to detail that earned you this little side project,’ Patterson had said. ‘Make me proud, Dougee.’

The newest photo, hung an hour ago by the night manager, was of Gretchen Whitehall. The brass name plate said so. Gretchen with her cutesy braces and her ‘early-warning-tiddies.’ Doug chuckled in spite of his growing rage. You knew she was coming because her boobs rounded the corner long before the rest of her did. He’d heard that little gem in the Cedar Hill High School locker room.

Doug’s uniform was neatly pressed, his shoes shined, and his hair artfully greased. ‘Hang your badges over your hearts,’ Patterson always reminded his employees. ‘Shoppers will know how proud you are to work here.’ Doug’s read, ‘Doug Crittenden – Discount City Team Member for Nine Faithful Years!’ And below that, a pinned-on ‘How May I Help You?’ button. He had rarely been absent or late during those nine years. And although he failed to impress as a checkout clerk, he had always kept the shelves in the Home & Garden department stocked and arranged to military perfection.

But he had never gotten Team Member of the Month. There, in the frame where his picture should’ve been a long time ago, was a glossy photo of just another newbie suck-up cheerleader. “Oh well, before long, none of it will matter,” he said to himself as he went to clock in. “The old man in the park promised me.”

The time clock was in the storeroom. On the wall above it, management had posted an array of OSHA safety regs and the lovely Bloodborne Pathogens and You! poster—something he took to heart every time he had to unplug a toilet or mop up some kid’s puke. He swiped his badge. 6:59 am.

He removed his Telxon scan gun from its battery charger. All the stockers used them to reorder merchandise and track inventory. But Doug’s was special. It was a magic tool that brought order and organization to a chaotic and messy job, and he could navigate through every function with ease. It looked like a souped up phaser from Star Trek. And this one was his—no one else would dare touch it. He had even personalized it: On the shock resistant rubber grip was a Dymo-label which read, “CHARLENE.” It was the name of Private Pyle’s gun in Full Metal Jacket.

He stuffed his coat and lunchbox into his cubby. Below the cubby was another Dymo-label with his name on it. Doug Dymo-labeled lots of things. He didn’t like people’s filthy paws on his stuff. But before he put his thermos in, he opened it and took a couple of painful swigs. This morning, it contained Scotch instead of coffee.

It was the first drink of alcohol he’d had in his life. It was a bad experience, but he had prepared for worse. The bottle of twelve-year-old single malt was a wedding present from his ex-father-in-law. Doug really liked the guy, and had somehow kept Michelle’s filthy paws off of that bottle for three nightmarish years. She would badger him about it anytime she had gone a day or two without a drink. “I don’t like scotch anyway,” she would say when she finally gave up. “But give me a Vodka-Red Bull and I’m ready to partay!”

He walked back to the H & G department unnoticed. If anybody had said “Good morning, Doug,” what happened later might have been different—but probably not.

***

It was an easy morning. The store was always dead just after Christmas. Doug repeatedly slipped back to the storeroom to sample his thermos. At one point he realized that he had stocked the songbird food where the fertilizer granules should go. “Am I drunk?” he asked himself aloud. ‘I don’t know… Are ya?’ he thought he might have heard a couple of isles over.

As he worked, he began to replay what had happened in the park that morning. He had stopped to help a guy with car trouble. He knew nothing about cars, but he’d been doing this kind of thing since the divorce. He had even picked up hitch hikers—five so far. “What if it’s a carjacking and they leave me dead in the ditch?” he would ask himself. “Problem solved,” he would answer himself.

But when he pulled into the park and got a better look at the guy, he had almost changed his mind. Standing there, in his bib overalls and moth-eaten flannel shirt, was the old watermelon man from the crossroads. He looked up from the engine of his sixty-five International and flashed a toothless grin at Doug. “Holy crap! I thought he died,” Doug said.

They hooked jumper cables from Doug’s rusty Pontiac to the man’s even rustier pickup. The truck started. And as Doug was rolling up the cables, the man said, “I can’t offer you money, son. But I can tell you that everything’s gonna be ok. Before long, none of it will matter. I promise.” And Doug stood there gawking, as what he was already thinking of as the ‘ghost truck’ turned out into the early morning traffic.

***

The clink and static of the intercom interrupted Mr. Muzak and startled Doug out of his daydream fog. “Doug Crittenden come to the office,” the unmistakable voice of Tom Patterson boomed. “Doug Crittenden come to the office. PRONTO!” Doug realized that he was suddenly sober. “So it begins,” he said to himself.

When he reached the top of the steps, he found Mr. Patterson leaning back in his chair with his cowboy boots on the desk, cleaning his fingernails with a pocket knife. The office occupied the small second story of the big metal framed shopping center Tom Patterson built back in the early nineties. The property out on Highway Fifty-Nine had belonged to old Mrs. Dawes. And when she died with no heirs, Patterson snatched it up. He was, and still is, the Planning Commissioner for the City of Cedar Hill. So he pushed a measure through to rezone the area as ‘light industrial.’ The city then condemned the land, took ownership, and sold it to Patterson for a closed bid of a hundred and forty-seven dollars per acre. Mrs. Dawes’ farm was, according to the University, home to four of the oldest and largest White Oak trees in the state. Patterson lost no sleep. He pushed them over with his own bulldozer.

Patterson didn’t look up from his grooming. “Are you tryin’ to turn a silk purse back into a sow’s ear, boy?” he asked quietly.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” Doug said as he glanced around the room. He’d only been in there a few times—obviously not as much as Gretchen—and was surprised at how little there was to look at: some left over McCain – Palin ephemera, and of course, the forty-two inch LCD permanently locked onto the Fox News Network. Doug suspected that Patterson left it on around the clock, even when the store was empty; and that the rats might at any moment stage a right-wing coup.

“I’ve had three separate reports that you’ve been drinkin’ in this store. Is that so? ‘Cause I can smell it on you from all the way over here.”

Doug squeezed Charlene’s handgrip and imagined she was a forty-four Magnum like Dirty Harry’s. “Oh, yah,” he half giggled. “All day long.”

Patterson sat for a while longer and then, with some effort, hoisted his considerable bulk out of his luxury desk chair. He finally looked Doug in the eye and said, “Then get your butt to the house and sober up. I won’t have my best people in here three sheets to the wind.”

“Mr. Patterson…” Doug was about to let him have it. This was going to be the you-can’t-fire-me-because-I-quit speech; the beginning of a rampage that would end with a nice long vacation.

“Don’t dig ya’self any deeper, son.” Patterson interrupted, showing Doug the palm of his hand. “Be here bright and early like the teetotaler I know you to be, and we’ll talk about your future here at Discount City. Now I know you just went through a nasty divorce. And me neglectin’ you the way I have can’t have helped matters. We might even talk about that raise that’s overdue.”

Doug’s jaw dropped. He forgot what he’d wanted to say to the boss. And for the first time in a while, he had nothing to say to himself.

***

As he drove home, he drained the rest of the Scotch from his thermos. It was 11:00 a.m. As a new alcoholic, he had evaded detection for all of three hours. And so much for his rampage; not only had Patterson not fired him, a raise was even in the works. “Did he really mention a raise?” Doug asked himself. Then he remembered hearing once that alcoholics sometimes suffered from hallucinations. “I must have imagined it.”

He pulled into the carport and tried to kill the engine. As usual, the Pontiac coughed for several seconds before it finally died. He unlocked the side door that led from the carport to the cold little kitchen of his cold little house. Propane was expensive. But Doug was a master at pinching pennies. He had to be. Michelle had never held down a job. And although there was now one less mouth to feed, he still had the lawyer bill to think of.

He tossed everything he was carrying onto the kitchen table, and a sudden panic halted his breath. In addition to his lunchbox, thermos, apron, coat, and key ring, he had brought home his Telxon gun. “Oh, no…” he whispered, exhaling. The store had made a huge investment in those scan guns. And when Patterson unveiled them a couple of years ago he had given the stockers a warning: “Failure to check one of these babies in at the end of your shift will constitute theft of property.”

“So much for my future at Discount City,” he said. He wanted the rest of that bottle more than ever.

***

By nightfall, he was wasted. He sat in the floor against the couch watching the local news on the stupid flat screen Michelle had insisted on. There was only about a finger left of that hundred dollar Scotch. He reached for the remote but found Charlene instead. He pulled her trigger and cast a zigzag laser pattern across the TV’s screen.

There was a quick flash and a loud champagne cork POP—and the TV was gone.

Doug sat motionless staring at the space where the TV had been. “Mussa been ‘nuther lucination,” he mumbled and passed out.

***

He woke up on the bathroom tile. He was using a roll of toilet paper for a pillow. He stood, and pain blossomed in his head. Everywhere he looked, he thought he could see an image of his eyeball veins pulsing. He stumbled to the toilet and spewed a stomach-full of Scotch and bile into the bowl.

He stood up again and immediately felt better. He brushed his teeth, took his blood thinner pill, and went to his bedroom to look at the alarm clock. 11:17 am. Some, but not all, of the previous day’s events had started to trickle back. “No work today, Doug,” he said.

He stepped into the living room and froze mid-stride. He struggled for a moment to make sense of what he was seeing, or wasn’t seeing. His heart raced, and he thought he could feel his valve again.

tic-tic-tic

“Where the hell is my TV?” he whispered.

tic-tic-tic-tic

“I’ve been robbed… That’s where it is,” he answered himself in a shaky voice. He walked into the kitchen and opened the drawer where he kept instruction manuals. “The police will need the serial number.” Neatly folded in the manual for the Sanyo was the receipt from the electronics store. Penciled at the bottom in Doug’s chicken scratch was a random string of letters and numbers.

He grabbed the house phone from the wall and found the number for the Cedar Hill Police Station written on the fridge’s dry erase board. The memory of how it got there suddenly flashed by:

Michelle had taken a drunken run at him with a frying pan, and Doug had been nimble enough to dodge her. She plowed into the wall, almost knocking down his grandmother’s antique mirror, and landed on her hindquarters. She gave him a shocked and hurt look, as if he’d pushed her down himself. “I’ll call the cops on you!” she screamed. But when the cops arrived and saw the situation, they gave Doug their direct number and advised Michelle never to call 911 unless she had an actual emergency.

Doug had dialed half of the number when he remembered the climax of his evening. “Whoa… Wait a minute Doug,” he said and eased the phone back into its cradle. “If it was a robbery, why is my laptop still sitting here on the table?”

His rational mind tried to discard the implications. “I don’t need to call the police,” he said smiling. “Good riddance Mr. Sanyo; you were just a reminder of her. Besides, I don’t even have cable.” Then a cheery thought came to him. “Maybe I can afford a used one up at Mo-Ark Pawn.”

Maybe he could afford one. He opened his laptop and logged on to his bank account. He then turned to the register of his checkbook. This was one of his soothing rituals. Although he rarely used checks anymore, he still recorded every transaction he made. The numbers nearly always matched perfectly. But when there was a slight discrepancy, he delighted in tracking down and correcting the error.

“Hmm,” he said. All the credits and debits on the screen agreed with the ones in his register. But the balance displayed on the site was too high. He opened the computer’s calculator and clicked some keys. “I’m three hundred eighteen dollars and forty-eight cents richer than I should be,” he said to the laptop. “The bank actually made a mistake! That has to be it.”

The amount seemed familiar. He glanced over at the receipt for the Sanyo and his chest felt suddenly hollow. Printed at the bottom was the total: w/ tax: $318.48.

His barrier of reason fell away. He had read way to much Sci-Fi in his life to believe in coincidences. He retrieved Charlene from the living room. Without hesitation, he aimed at the dish rack by the sink and pulled the trigger. The scan gun beeped, and flash-POP, the dish rack vanished—that stupid dish rack Michelle had bought at Pier One—that dish rack that had been the last straw for his doomed marriage.

His hand trembled as he laid the gun back on the table. He clicked the refresh button on his web browser. The balance had changed. He did the math. It was forty-two dollars and fifty cents more to the black. Doug didn’t need to look for the receipt. The figure was burned into his memory. It was exactly what that two-bit floozy had paid for the Indonesian piece of crap.

***

He spent the early afternoon dancing and skipping around his cold little house while he zapped every last piece of crap Michelle had left behind. He had no explanation for his Telxon’s amazing new function, nor did he care. He only knew that he was positively not dreaming. He may have been hallucinating, but so what… he was going to enjoy it while it lasted.

The gun never failed. He continually monitored his account as he went, and as each knickknack disappeared into oblivion, he was instantly credited the original purchase amount. No depreciation was deducted. It was as if he’d never bought the item in the first place. “It’s no wonder we were starving!” he laughed. “I’ve spent over four thousand dollars on shoes alone!” He shook his head, still laughing. “And I thought the Mustang was a bad deal.”

“The Mustang,” he repeated quietly. His laugh had changed to a sinister grin.

***

He looked at the clock. “Just enough time if I hurry.” He grabbed his keys and ran to his car.

The Pontiac belched smoke as Doug sped down Fifty-Nine South toward the interstate. He reflected on his earlier daydreams: The first one had involved a wood chipper. But the one he saw at Lowes was too complicated, and definitely too expensive. And his favorite—We’re in the deep woods; I kick her into a grave I’ve already dug, and then I shoot her. No mess to clean up. But that idea had hit a dead end when he tried to think of a way to convince Michelle to accompany him into the deep woods, as if there were ‘deep woods’ anywhere near Cedar Hill, Arkansas. A gun hadn’t even occurred to him then. But it certainly did now. He let out a gale of maniacal laughter.

Michelle had been trolling for divorce-sympathy while crucifying her ex on Facebook, and one of her ‘friends’ had weaseled her into a clerical job at a trucking company—a job that was sure to end when said trucking company discovered Michelle could only read and write at a first-grade level. On more than one occasion, she had proudly admitted to Doug that she had earned her GED by sleeping with the instructor.

But she still had the job today. Doug spied the grass-green GT in the trucking office parking lot as he pulled into the gas station across the highway. It was four o’clock. She soon emerged from the building and walked toward her car, waiving goodbye to a few co-workers. He hadn’t seen her in a while. She had a new haircut, a smart office suit, and from where he was sitting, as many as twenty fewer pounds. It was a full divorce-make-over that said to the world, I’ve cast off that anchor of a husband. I’m a young powerful woman. Hear me roar. Doug felt an old pang of attraction that rapidly turned to disgust. If she’d looked like her slutty self, he might have backed out. But ‘new Michelle’ had already sealed the deal.

She barked her tires as she turned onto the four-lane. Doug followed and thought for a minute that she would loose him. He pushed the accelerator to the floor, and black smoke poured from the tailpipe as the Pontiac’s speedometer slowly climbed to fifty, and then fifty-five. “I’m gonna’ blow the engine,” he said. But he didn’t care. If this worked, he’d be getting a new car soon.

There was traffic, and he was eventually able to come alongside her in the slow lane. They were doing seventy, and there was a semi behind her. The scene was set. It was now or never.

He wanted to make sure she saw him just before he did it. She had to know it was him. He honked. No reaction. She was singing along with Britney. He could tell by the way she bobbed her head. He honked again, and this time she looked over. “Ah, there’s that go-to-hell look I miss so much. Ta ta, Michelle,” he said rolling down the window. Charlene splashed her lovely red light down the side of the Mustang’s passenger door.

Flash-Ka-BOOOM! For a brief instant, Doug saw a comical image of Michelle flying down the road, still in the driving position, but with no car. It reminded him of Wonder Woman in her Invisible Jet. Then she tumbled out of sight.

He looked in the rearview. The semi was starting to jackknife, its tires wining, white smoke billowing. The gore was extraordinary. He had read the clichéd phrase ‘smeared over a mile of interstate’ a hundred times, but there was no better way to describe it.

***

He took the nearest exit and drove dirt roads most of the way home. He half expected to meet the ‘ghost truck’ of the watermelon man out there somewhere. And he would thank him; although for what, Doug wasn’t sure.

He felt light as a feather. It may take some doing, but the remains would be identified. The official cause of death would be ‘Trauma resulting from Pedestrian/Motor Vehicle Collision.’ None of the other drivers would dare report what they thought they saw.

Even though she had gotten the car in the divorce, it was still in his name. But he wouldn’t have to make any more payments because she was included in the credit-life policy. And, all five of the payments he had made would probably be back in his account when he checked it.

Their life insurance was another matter. Her lawyer had urged her to remove herself from it, but Doug knew she hadn’t. And as the sole beneficiary, he was entitled to a hundred thousand dollars.

“Charlene my darling,” he said to the scan gun as he pulled into his carport. “You’ve taken me from Shit Street to Easy Street in one day.”

***

He was sitting at his kitchen table later that night checking his account. “Yep, over thirty-five hundred bucks. It’s like I never paid a dime on that ugly car.”

For a second, he caught his reflection in the laptop screen. He smirked at himself. He was still wearing his stupid Discount City badge. Had he had it on since yesterday? He was just realizing how badly he needed a shower.

“I guess I wont be needing you anymore,” he said. He aimed the scan gun at his badge. It was a great way to dispose of unwanted clutter. He pulled the trigger.

Searing pain followed a muffled pop in his chest. He felt a flutter as his heart tried and failed to pump. He gasped and writhed and caught his reflection once more. The Discount City name badge—which Doug hadn’t technically purchased—was still there on his shirt, but the artificial valve behind it was not.

“My God. What have I done?” he asked himself as blackness swallowed him.

The End