Roland's General Store

Prue and her brothers enter the town's abandoned general store, which was rumored to have been owned by a "murderer."

“You ain’t scurred, are ya?”

Bobby’s face glowed palely from the dark hole beneath the rotting wood deck.

“I jus’ don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Prue. “It ain’t our stuff.”

“Who says we’re gonna take anythin’?”

“I jus’ know you are.”

Bobby sneered. “You are scurred, ain’t ya! You’re such a girl, Prue!”

“No’m not! Shut up!”

It wasn’t fair, of course, because she was a girl. When Little Ricky was scared they never called him a girl. They just laughed, because he was the littlest, and all anyone ever did around Little Ricky was laugh. Prue had always been just old enough and just tough enough to be allowed to tag along with her older brothers, and she was always worried she might lose that privileged status. She certainly couldn’t be caught acting like a girl. Prue took one look back at the road to make sure no one was coming, then got down on her hands and knees and wriggled through the hole after Bobby.

It was dirty and slimy down here. Prue felt hard lumps and decaying bits of things she tried not to think about beneath her palms. She just kept crawling until thank heavens she emerged through a hole in some floorboards and found herself in a gloomy, dusty space. The first thing she saw was a rickety cabinet with a sign on it reading “SLIGHTLY DAMAGED: HALF PRICE.” Jeremy, Prue’s oldest brother, was already perched atop this, scrutinizing the items on a cobwebby shelf nearby like an undersized art connoisseur. Bobby was brushing himself off and peering into a ziggurat of piled cardboard boxes filled with glassware.

“Where are we, anyway?” Prue asked once she was out of the hole.

“It’s Old Man Roland’s store, dummy,” said Bobby.

“Doncha ’member? Pa used to get his cigarettes down here before he quit smokin’,” said Jeremy, hopping down from the cabinet.

“Oh. Yeah,” said Prue, but of course she didn’t. Being so much younger than Bobby and Jeremy, there were lots of things she didn’t remember that they both did. She didn’t even remember when Pa used to smoke.

Bobby, meanwhile, had discovered a flashlight, and he took turns blinding Prue and Jeremy with it until Jeremy wrestled it out of his hand.

“He was a weird ’un,” said Jeremy, “Old Man Roland. He died two months back. But he closed down the store ’fore that even.”

Jeremy started walking through the labyrinth of abandoned merchandise, prying open boxes and wiping grime off of ancient artifacts like an Egyptian tomb raider. The flashlight beam sliced across the dark room, casting agitated shadows across the splintery walls and boarded-up windows.

“Warn’t he a murderer, Jeremy?” piped up Bobby. “Ain’t it true he killed his wife?”

“That’s what people say,” said Jeremy mysteriously. “’Course, I heard he used to murder little girls, too.” He flicked his eyes maliciously in Prue’s direction.

It was probably just the wind on the shut-up windows, but Prue imagined she heard a whispering noise, as though the old store were confirming Jeremy’s accusations. Prue shivered. Then, thinking the fear might be showing too plainly on her face, she said,

I don’t believe you. I’ve watched CIA, you know. If he’d ’a been a murderer, how’d he get rid of the bodies without bein’ catched?”

“It’s CSI, dummy,” sniggered Bobby.

“Whatever,” pouted Prue.

“Shut up,” said Jeremy to cut off their squabble, and you could tell he was just getting to the good part. “Lord knows I don’t know for sure how he done it. But ” he said, and he tilted the flashlight up so it illuminated the underside of his face, splashing long shadows up from his nose and brows, “I heard he chopped her up — his wife, I mean — into little, tiny bits, an’ he hid the bits all over his store. Like her blood could ’a been hid in the red wine, or her crushed-up jawbone in a sack of flour. Her finger bones hid inside cigarette boxes. An’ then he sold it all off, bit by bit, to all his customers over the years. So her hair could be in the pillow you sleep on every night, Prue! Wouldn’t that be somethin’!”

Prue let out a little scream and Bobby hooted with laughter. He had sneaked up behind her while Jeremy was talking and grabbed her pigtails suddenly.

“I hate you!” she shrieked as both her brothers doubled over laughing. She stamped off into another room, her cheeks hot and bright as Christmas lights.

Here it was brighter, as gray daylight trickled feebly through a filthy window set in the front door. There was a counter, with a derelict cash register on top of it. A peeling, painted sign slumped behind this, proclaiming ROLAND’S GENERAL STORE in red letters. Prue hid behind the counter, partially because she was mad, and partially because she hoped she would get the chance to scare Bobby back if he ventured this way.

“You know, we could take anythin’ if we wanted,” Bobby’s voice chirped from the other  room.

“’Course we can,” said Jeremy. “I’m takin’ this flashlight.” There was the sound of scrawny hands rummaging through cardboard boxes. “Prue, there’s a doll here for you!”

Prue ignored them. She didn’t play with dolls and they knew it. She also didn’t approve of stealing. It didn’t matter that the old man was dead. It had occurred to Prue that Old Man Roland’s ghost could be watching them now. Not that she believed in ghosts. But he might be.

Hiding behind the counter proved boring, however, and finally Prue got up again and started wandering around. It was like the place had shut down from one day to the next, and no one had bothered to clear much of anything out. There were newspapers from three years ago in a stack by the door. The coffee maker was still plugged in. There was even a gumball machine with gumballs still in it.

Prue reached inside her pocket and dug through a handful of loose change until she produced a quarter.

“It’s not stealing,” whispered Prue, either to herself or to the ghost who might be watching (but of course, that probably didn’t exist). “See, I’m paying for it,” she promised, feeding the coin into the machine.

She twisted the handle and listened to the satisfying click-click-crunch-clink as the coin dropped into the bank and the gumball rattled down the chute. She opened the metal flap to retrieve her purchase. The little candy felt awful small and light in her hand.

A flashlight’s beam suddenly blazed across her face, and Prue saw her brothers enter the room behind it, laden with plunder.

“Whatcha doin’, Prue?” asked Bobby, looking elated at the results of his treasure-hunting.

“Jus’ gettin’ a gumball,” mumbled Prue, opening her fist. But when she did, she let out a loud scream and let her prize clatter to the floor. Jeremy focused the flashlight down between his shoes, where it had skittered to a halt.

This time nobody laughed at Prue for screaming. For it was not a tiny, white gumball that lay on the floor. It was a bleached molar — a human tooth — with two fillings still in it.

The End

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