I wrote this story over a year ago following a prompt. The prompt was:
“A Medieval Italian peasant appears in a drugstore in Texas. He has a message to deliver.”
This is what I came up with, for better or worse. I hope anyone reading this enjoys!
“Mea Culpa” by Anthony Engebretson
Shirley tapped her crooked fingers on the dusty counter. The clicking rang throughout the empty shop.
She sighed and wiped her face with an already soaked towel. The air conditioning was broken and it was hotter than ever outside. On top of that, the yellow walls were peeling, the pipes were leaking, the oven in the apartment upstairs was broken and for the past few months, the whole building stank like something had died.
Just another day at Filch Drug Store.
A large black snake slithered along the shelf of condoms. Seeing it made Shirley leap from her seat as quickly as her brittle body could handle.
“Fred!” she shrieked. “Fredddd!”
She screamed for two more minutes until Fred shambled out of the back room, smacking his lips.
“Yeah?” he droned.
“Where the hell were you?!” Shirley fidgeted, her eyes on the snake.
“Inventory check my ass! You were sleeping!”
“Nope.” Fred yawned.
Shirley pointed at the snake. Fred squinted his eyes in its direction for a few moments before slowly nodding.
“Huh, guess we better do something about that.”
“You better do something about that!”
Fred picked up a three-month-old magazine from the rack along the counter, rolled it up and shuffled over to the snake. The creature gazed at the approaching old man with caution.
“Go on, now.” Fred prodded its head with the magazine. The snake hissed angrily.
“You’re just pissing it off!” Shirley snarled.
The snake drooped onto the floor and slithered away from Fred.
“See, there ya go,” Fred muttered to his wife.
He followed the snake as it crawled along the floor and through a gaping hole leading to the outside.
“Huh,” said Fred, observing the hole. “That’s no good.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Shirley moaned.
“Guess that’s how these critters keep getting in.”
“Where’re all these snakes and lizards comin’ from anyway?” Safe again, Shirley sat back down on her creaky old stool.
“It’s Texas, dear.” Fred shuffled back toward the counter.
“We’ve never had this many before and you know it!”
“Whole town’s gone to hell if you ask me. When’s the last time we ever had an honest customer? Just a bunch of dirty ole junkies. Scratching and moaning at the door like goddamn animals!”
“Yeah.” Fred plopped the magazine back onto the rack.
“Our shipments are late… We never even got a check for that fire.”
Fred sluggishly nodded; he’d forgotten the fire.
Shirley shook her head and buried her face in her hands.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way!” she yowled.
“Oh, come on now.” Fred shuffled to her and limply patted her back. She shook him off and he threw his hands up in apology.
The front door flew open and a pale, emaciated man limped in. He slammed the door behind him and cautiously peeked out the front window.
“Well see, there you go. A customer.”
Shirley shot Fred an exasperated glare. “Does that look like a customer to you?”
The man was dressed in what looked to be a rutty white robe that cut off at his knees; discolored torn blue hose covered his legs. He wore a blue stocking cap that was so long it made him resemble a cone head. He looked like someone who got lost on the way to the Renaissance fair. Fred sighed and nodded: definitely a junky.
When he deemed himself safe from whatever he was running from, the man turned to the elderly owners of the shop, who stood stiffly watching him. He feebly approached them, his dirty face contorted in agony. In a harsh, whispery voice, he spoke to them in a language they couldn’t understand.
“We don’t speak Spanish,” Fred explained.
“That’s not Spanish! You’ve heard Spanish!”
“Some kind of Italian, I think,” Shirley decided.
“What’s he saying?”
“I don’t know. I don’t speak Italian!”
The man looked at them both, his voice cracking into a remorseful whimper.
“Tell him to leave,” Shirley hissed at Fred.
Fred casually leaned on the counter. “Hey, mister. You should go.”
The man didn’t stop.
Shirley nudged Fred. “Throw him the hell out of here!”
Fred sighed. He tottered around the counter and toward the man.
“Alright buddy.” Fred made limp shooing motions with his wrists.
The man stopped. He was almost child-sized compared to Fred’s tall, yet stocky build. He shrank as Fred towered over him.
“Don’t have to go home…” Fred didn’t bother finishing the statement.
The man had something clenched in his left hand. He opened his palm to reveal a little brown pouch. He opened the pouch, allowing Fred to peer inside.
“Per Dio. Per Dio,” the man whispered over and over.
“Huh,” Fred observed. “Hey hon, wanna come look at this?”
Shirley sighed irritably and waddled over to her husband.
“What the hell is this, Fred?”
She looked into the pouch the man kept pried open. Inside, there was a small pile of gold coins.
“Holy shit!” Shirley squeaked.
“I don’t know…”
The man closed the pouch while the couple gazed at him curiously. He pointed to the pouch and pointed upward. “Per Dio…”
Trembling, he made the sign of the cross and whimpered, “Mea culpa… Mea maxima culpa…”
Suddenly, the man heard or sensed something that made him jerk and scramble to the store window. Peering out, he gasped and charged into the back room.
“Hey!” Shirley and Fred both shouted at him, with varying levels of enthusiasm.
The couple shuffled to the window. They couldn’t see very well. It had been awfully dark and foggy outside lately, even though it was also quite hot. They figured it was just El Niño or something. They never really paid attention to the news and rarely left the store lately. Fred was the only one who even had gone outside in the past few months. It was just to take out the garbage.
All they could see in the muddled darkness were the silhouettes of tall, lanky figures, at least five or six.
“Huh,” Fred muttered.
“You think they’re after that guy?”
“Nah. Well, maybe.”
“Could they be the mob or the cartel or something?”
The figures began moving toward the shop.
Shirley wheezed, “Should we hide?”
“Might be a good idea.”
“Well then, let’s go!”
They shuffled into the back room where the mysterious man was curled up among cardboard boxes. Shirley slammed the door shut and locked it. Her eyes darted around the room.
“Where’s the gun?” she demanded.
“Gun? Oh…” Fred rubbed the back of his head.
Outside they could hear the sound of the front door opening and feet stomping along the floors. The mysterious man whimpered.
“It’s in the bathroom,” Fred explained
“Why the hell is it in the bathroom?!” Shirley hissed.
“I was cleaning it…”
“In the bathroom?!”
“I also had to go…”
Shirley limped to the back room’s window. Her ankles felt swollen from today’s unusual strain.
She struggled to get the window open. It seemed sealed shut.
“Fred!” she hissed at her idly looming husband.
Fred clumped to the window and the two struggled to push it open.
A pounding came on the door of the back room.
“Open up,” a deep, gravelly voice said on the other side.
The mysterious man wailed. Clutching his gold, he scrambled over to Shirley and Fred, cowering at their feet.
The couple slowly started getting the window open; hot, acrid air from the outside seeped into the room. Shirley left the work to her husband while she peered down at the pouch the mysterious man was cradling.
“You know, Fred.”
“If the mafia or whatever’s after this fella, then the gold must be real.”
“I guess…” The window was about a quarter of an inch open.
“What if we take the gold for ourselves and leave this guy to the wolves.”
“Well… I guess we could finally pay for repairs.”
“Screw that. I mean, we can get away from this damn curse of a store, start a new life somewhere.”
“I thought this was our new life?” The window was almost half open, barely enough for the mysterious man to crawl through, but not enough for the elderly couple.
“We’re coming in!” the deep voice boomed.
“I thought it was… But it’s the damn death of us and you know it!”
“I don’t know if I want to steal again.” The window came to a halt, half open. It was still not enough. The couple wouldn’t be able to stretch or bend far enough to get through the space.
Something massive cracked against the door. The mysterious man wept, recanting something in his language.
“Come on! Get it open,” Shirley screamed, “and whaddya mean you don’t want to steal again?”
“Felt kinda bad about it…” Fred’s back cracked as he tried to jerk the window up.
There was another crack against the door. It was about to break.
“Y’know what,” Fred sighed, “I think that’s actually as far as this window opens.”
The door burst into pieces. A gang of tall, naked pale men marched into the room. Their faces were almost skeletal, their eyes hollow and black; their lean bodies were contorted and animal-like.
Their leader raised a claw-like finger and beckoned the mysterious little man to come to him. In his deep booming voice he said something in Italian.
The mysterious man screamed and scrambled for the window, pushing Shirley and Fred aside. Two of the monstrous men stepped forward and pulled him from the window by his legs, dragging him to the leader, who snatched the pouch from his hands.
“Throw him back to the snakes,” the leader thundered.
The two thugs dragged the little man out of the room while he screamed in terror.
The leader chuckled and turned his attention to Fred and Shirley, who had stood like mannequins as the scene unfolded.
“Oh, Fino. Thought he could offer this as penance to his ‘God’. Show that he’s sorry. Of course, he stole this gold from one of the moneybag pushers in the ‘Greed’ sector.”
Shirley and Fred stared at the leader gapingly. Shirley nudged Fred to say something.
“Er… So, you fellas the Mafia?”
Shirley glared at her husband, who shrugged.
The leader and his remaining gang laughed, a deep dissonant sound that shook the entire building.
“You’ve been in Hell for three months and you don’t know what a demon looks like?”
“Hell?!” Shirley gasped.
“Huh,” Fred mumbled.
“You didn’t notice all the torment and suffering around you?”
“I never really go outside, but Fred!” She smacked her husband. “You’ve been outside! How could you not know we were in Hell?”
“Never really looked around,” Fred shrugged.
Shirley turned pleadingly to the demonic leader.
“Well, you know that fire you folks had? You don’t remember getting any repairs afterward, do you?”
“Why do we deserve to be here?”
“You deserve to be where all the other thieves are! Stealing from your boss…”
“He was an asshole!” Shirley snarled.
“Yes he was; he’s getting his, I assure you. Look, if you were stealing out of necessity, we’d let it slide. But you all just wanted to go buy some awful little drug store in middle of nowhere, Texas.” The leader pointed an accusing claw at the couple. “You’re not even licensed pharmacists!”
Fred shrugged again.
One of the demons nudged the leader. “We should go, boss.”
“Yes. Lots of work to do. Enjoy your eternal punishment.”
The demons filed out of the room. Shirley hobbled after them.
“Wait! But… Why did the damn drug store have to come with us?” She found herself in the middle of the store once the last of the demons vanished into the darkness beyond the store.
Another wall peeled and gunky water leaked through the ceiling in several different places. Over in a corner, the soda machine coughed, sputtered and died.
Shirley looked around her, groaned and gently fell to her knees, sobbing.
Fred, meanwhile, remained in the back room, shaking his head. “Huh, well how about that.”