Poisoned


by Peter Mackey


Jo, a black-haired woman with a face the ancient texture of the hills, looked past the bins of jerky and lottery cards out to the pumps, where a black Mercedes sedan had just pulled up. Clouds of desert dust swirled in behind it. An S-class, must have cost those people a hundred grand.

This looked promising. She reached under the counter and flipped the switch. Out back, the ice machine compressor chugged to life.

It had to be pushing 110 that day, but all the windows in the sedan were rolled down. A large woman in the passenger seat wiped her forehead with a handkerchief. Her hair-do, once no doubt styled to perfection, was a windblown tangle of blonde sagebrush. Jo guessed the woman was 65.

A older gentleman had hauled himself out the driver’s seat and was walking toward the store. A red tie hung loosely around the collar of his sweat-soaked shirt. He yanked the wooden screen door open and stepped inside. It slapped closed behind him.

“Anybody here?”

Jo made eye contact with the man – tall, proud, accustomed to being in charge. Aren’t they all?

He said, “I don’t suppose you have anyone who fixes compressors? Ours has blown another gasket.”

“No.”

She watched the man inspect her shelves of oil cans and antifreeze, boxes of cereal, six-packs of beer, and packets of nuts embalmed in plastic. Under his breath, he said, “Figures. Stupid Indians.” Then louder, “You have ice?”

“Just you and the missus?” Jo glanced outside. His passenger was extracting herself from the Mercedes with the grace of an arthritic hippopotamus. She was dressed for a party and wore a double strand of pearls. In one arm, she cradled a golden-brown cat.

The man harrumphed. “What’s that got to do with it? Are you rationing your ice per person or something?”

Jo looked him up and down.

The man checked his watch, gold. “Listen honey, we’re behind schedule here. Have you got any ice or not?”

“Five dollars. Machine’s around back.” She took out her leather strap heavy with keys and unhooked the blue one. She held the key out to him. “Here you go, kemosabe.”

The man grunted, handed her a five, and walked back outside into the blazing sunshine.

Her store, Jo/Ann’s Rest, sat at the corner where an access road from the abandoned laboratory complex twisted down the hill to join the desert highway. A tall yellow fence announcing gas and snacks surrounded the place on three sides. A faded red tow truck was parked nearby.

Between the back of the store and the yellow fence, the man found the ice machine, bright white, sparkling clean, unusual for a dusty place like this. It one of those models that made its own ice on the spot. Inside, water trickled, cool and refreshing.

He inserted the key and gave it a turn. Two silver buttons above the door lit up: ‘Cubes’ and ‘Block.’ He pressed ‘Block.’ A loud hiss came from inside, then a thump. He tugged on the door handle and opened the bin. A dense cloud of vapor poured out, flowing over his legs, condensing quickly to water, darkening his crisply-creased pants and leaving a frosty mist on his Berlutis.

“Aggh.” He shook off the moisture.
Inside the bin, a blue glow illuminated the block of ice, almost a cubic foot.

Grabbing it, his fingers tingled with pain. He shouted toward the car, “Eunice! Come give me a hand with this.”

“No Harold. Really? My shoes’ll get dusty.”

“Come on, will ya’. Bring the towel.”

Eunice held the ice machine’s door open while Harold reached inside. He threw the towel over the block of ice and hefted it out. Needle-sharp cold stabbed his hands. He waddled briskly back to the sedan and set the towel-covered block onto the ground. He stood up, flexing his arms, aching from the cold.

“Christ, that thing is frigid.”

Eunice stroked the cat nestled in her arm. “It’s way too big. It’ll never fit in the cooler with the champagne.”

“You think I can’t see that?”

In the trunk of the Mercedes, he found his tire iron.

He took a powerful swing at the block. The tire iron made a “thung” and some chips of frost flew off, but the block stayed whole. By now the towel had fused with the ice.

“Maybe that woman in the store has an ice pick,” Eunice said.

“Forget her. I’ve got this.” He walked over to the side of the parking area and brought back a football-size rock.

“You’ll hurt your back again,” said Eunice.

“No I won’t. Jesus.” He lifted the rock high over his head and threw it down hard onto the block of ice, which cracked into several pieces.

“Get the cooler,” he said. “And pour out the melt water.”

“I’ll give it to Rudolph,” said Eunice. “Baby needs a cool drink.” She poured the water from the styrofoam cooler into the cat’s dish, dropping in some of the smaller pieces of the new ice. The frosty chunks floated there like tiny icebergs. She left the dish on the floor of the back seat where Rudolph instantly began lapping up the icy coolness.

Harold opened the cooler on the floor behind Eunice’s seat, put the rest of the ice chunks into the cooler around the champagne bottle, and closed the lid.

Eunice pointed to the ground where he had been working on the ice. “Would you look at that? The ground is dry.”

“Amazing for a desert, isn’t it? Probably sublimation. Like that dry ice stuff, the kind they experiment with in high school. Who cares? The champagne’s finally getting cold. The blessed cat’s got something to drink. We are way late for Larry’s. Let’s move.”

All this time, Jo had been watching them. She’d never seen anyone try to crack apart a block of ice with a rock before. Just like a Neanderthal.

The man shouted, “Here’s your key,” tossing it toward her. It landed in the sand. Jo picked it up, shook off the dirt, narrowed her gaze at him, and smiled.
In a cloud of dust, the sedan shot straight down the highway, heading for the purple hills.

#

On the road at eighty miles per hour, the rush of desert air through the Mercedes’ open windows was refreshing only for its motion.

“God, I hate this heat!” Eunice shifted restlessly, briefly lifting one leg from the sticky-hot leather upholstery. “What the point is of paying a fortune for a car whose air conditioner doesn’t work?”

“We’ll get it fixed when we get to Larry’s.” It wouldn’t hurt to try it again. Harold lifted a hand from the leather-wrapped steering wheel and flipped on the climate control. Furnace heat poured into the car.

“What are you doing?” she said. “That’s worse. Besides, I don’t think my backside’s sweaty any more.”

“Maybe you ran out of sweat.” He turned off the fan. Torrents of molten air continued to slam into the car through the open windows.

“God almighty,” she said, “why would anyone have built a road across all this dead dirt? You and your short-cuts.”

The desert terrain rushing past was empty and alien, littered with rocks, some of them the size of cars.

“I’m worried about our little baby in this heat,” she said.

“Your little baby, sweetheart, not mine.”

“I hope he liked the ice water.” She twisted around to look into the back seat. “Oh my Lord. Oh my God.”

“What now? The cat didn’t puke on the upholstery, did he?”

“God. He’s not moving.”

“Probably taking a siesta.”

“No, he’s not sleeping. He’s not moving at all. Check him.”

“Check him? I’m driving eighty and you want me to play cat doctor?”

“Pull over first and then check him.”

“Christ, Eunice, we’re already late for the service.” He looked at her. She was pouting. “Okay, fine.” Without slowing, Harold took one hand off the wheel and reached into the back seat, glancing to inspect Rudolph. The cat lay stiffly on its side, legs straight out.

He touched the body. “God. He’s cold. Really cold.”

“His fur looks funny,” she said.

He felt the fur. “It’s stiff too. And—” He rubbed his fingertips together and turned back to the wheel.

“And WHAT? For God’s sake. What’s wrong?”

“That fur is frosty.”

“Frosty?”

“Yeah like it just came in from a blizzard or something.”

“Harold?”

“What?”

“It’s getting worse.”

“How worse?”

“The frost is growing.”

He stole another look back. The pustulant, cat-shaped mound of frost was spreading across the seat.

“Christ, that’s gonna damage the leather.”

“Is that all you can say? Poor Rudolph. He might be—” She choked up.

“Of course he’s dead.” He kept his eyes on the road. “Nothing that cold could be alive.”

She made quiet little sobs. “What could have happened?”
“Maybe the heat got to him.”

“The HEAT? He’s FROSTY.” She started to cry.

Frosty, he said to himself. Frosty the snow cat.

“He was fine,” Eunice sobbed. “Just a little thirsty. I gave him water with some ice in it, that’s all. Just some nice cool ice water.” She looked up, red-eyed and desperate. “It’s this damn blasty breeze. Maybe he’ll get warmer without the breeze.” She reached for the window buttons and pushed UP.

“Are you crazy?”

“See,” she said. “That’s better, isn’t it?”

“With no A.C.? I don’t know how.” But without the hot, heavy breeze, he had to admit, it did start to get cooler.

He looked into the back seat again. Impossible. The frost had grown outward from the feline-shaped snow sculpture, across the genuine leather seat, toward the lid of the cooler. The synthetic fiber seat belts were untouched.

He stared a little too long. The car was swerving onto the shoulder.

“Harold!” The tires kicked up gravel. He grabbed the wheel tightly and steered back onto the pavement.

From the floor of the back seat came a squealing groan.

She looked at him. “What’s doing that?”

Snap. The top of the cooler ruptured, revealing the neck of the champagne bottle, surrounded by a now solid mass of ice.

Crack. Both sides of the cooler split open.

He glanced back. “Jesus, the ice. It’s growing.”

No longer confined by the cooler, the ice expanded into the leg room behind their seats. The back seat was becoming a glacial mass. Slowly, the ice climbed up the leather door panels, avoiding the plastic inserts and speaker grilles.

She looked at him. “The leather. It’s eating the leather.”
Pop. The top of the bottle exploded. Nearly-frozen champagne gushed into the air, bathing them in the cool, fruity mist of Möet.

“Goddammit, stop the car, Harold. Now!”

He slammed hard on the brake pedal and pulled over. Outside, the oven-baked desert. Inside, Antarctica.

Each of their seats squeezed forward from the pressure of the expanding ice behind them. They grabbed at the door handles, now slippery with frost. The handles would not move.

“Jesus,” she said. “They’re locked. What did you lock them for?”

“I always lock them.”

“In the damn dead desert? Who’s going to break into the car in the middle of nowhere?”

“Shuttup will ya?” He pushed the unlock button. Nothing. The switch was obviously shorted. At that moment, the digital instrument panel gauges, the satellite radio receiver, the full-color GPS map display, all went dead. So did the engine.
The ice from the back seat climbed inexorably across the console between the front seats, gaining speed as the premium Nappa leather dissolved beneath it.

Eunice beat frantically on the door, punching at the lock button, pounding on the window. Her feet were chilly. She looked down. The ice enveloped them.

“Oh God. Harold.”

He turned from yanking on the door handle, glimpsing his blue, frosty face in the rearview. Not good, not good. He tugged on Eunice’s left leg, but the ice had entombed her ankles and was creeping toward her knees.

The ice groaned and crackled, climbing around Harold’s seat, oozing its way down the back of his neck. Piercing stabs of pain shot to the tips of his fingers and toes. His right arm twitched with icy spasms, his hand now bonded with Eunice’s knee.

He twisted to look at her. She was staring at her feet, her last scream frozen in her throat, her neck wrapped in frost. Only her eyes moved. With a final glance at Harold, she pouted her blue lips.

That ice continued its relentless expansion, consuming every last molecule of protein. The interior of the sedan filled with a frosty fog. Anything that had ever been alive inside that car became mist. Then slowly, the mist vaporized, dispersing through the vents into the hot desert air. A dust devil swirled past, showering handfuls of dirt across the luxurious road machine, now resting empty at the side of the highway.

#

Jo climbed into her tow truck and started the engine. She was just about to pull out onto the highway, when an old green camper van drove up to the store. She shut down the truck’s engine and walked toward the van.

The driver, a young woman in khaki shorts and a pale peach polo, called to her. “Your pumps working?”

“Can be.” Jo took out her keys.

“And we could use some ice. Everything’s melted in our cooler.”

The passenger, a young man in jeans and a white t-shirt, hopped out and pulled open the van’s side door, revealing seats full of toys and camping gear. A boy, Jo guessed he was about 7, and a girl, maybe 5, climbed out and ran toward a pile of rocks near the road.

“Careful!” the father shouted.

Jo unlocked the pump. “Regular?”

“Sure, thanks.” The father opened the gas flap.

Jo shoved the nozzle into the tank.

The girl ran up to her mother with a red and brown rock. “Mom, can we keep this?”

“I don’t know, dear. Why don’t you ask the owner?” She smiled at Jo.

Jo nodded yes. “Help yourself. Nature’s bounty.”

“I’m glad we found you,” the man said. “There’s nothing else out here for miles.”

“Not since the lab closed.” Jo gestured up to the abandoned road.

“Why would they locate way out here?”

“Privacy. Cheap labor. Bastards poisoned our groundwater with an endothermic catalyst.”

“Really? You a scientist?”

“Just a hobby.”

The man nodded. “With them closed, that’s gotta be tough for business.”

“Some things are more important than business.”

The gas finished pumping.

“So, about your ice?” the mother asked.

The boy and girl chased each other, laughing. The father rearranged some toys in the back seat. Jo put the keys into her pocket. “Machine’s out of order, sorry.”

The mother looked disappointed.

“But I got bottled water, cold juice and soda.”

Inside the store, the mother stood at the counter with two boxes of Juicy Juice and a six-pack of Dr. Pepper. Jo said, “Thirty-eight fifty.”

While Jo made her change, the mother glanced at the wall next to the cash register. An old newspaper clipping pinned there had the headline, “Worker Killed in MacroKem Accident.” It included a picture of a woman.

“That could almost be you in this picture,” she said. “Quite a resemblance.”

“My sister. Ann.”

“That’s terrible. Up the hill there, that’s where it happened?”

“Rich men scrimping on safety. Hourlies forced to work with toxic chemicals and no protection.”

“They went to prison, I hope.”

Jo shook her head. “None of their kind will ever pay enough for what they did.”

The little girl pushed the screen door open. Her father and brother were right behind her.

The father said, “Have you got any cookies?”

“Sure,” said Jo. “Second shelf there.”

The boy said, “Dad, how much longer?”

“Uncle Larry’s place is about an hour from here.”

“Grammy and gramps will be there too, right?”

“Oh yes.” The man turned to his wife. “Did Harold say when he thought they would arrive?”

“They should be there by now,” she said, putting a bag of Oreos on the counter.

The man said. “They probably drove right through here. It’s either this or I-40, but that’s like 50 miles longer.”

“And boring,” said the boy.

Jo’s chest pounded, her head spinning.

The woman smiled. “Harold and his shortcuts.”

The man looked at Jo. “Did you see a black Mercedes sedan going way over the speed limit?”

Jo’s jaw clenched shut. She looked from the man, to the woman, to the children. Happy, innocent faces. Jo held tight to the edge of the counter, steadying herself.

The man said, “Ma’am, are you OK?”

#

Long sunset shadows stretched across the yard. At the back of Jo’s store, behind the yellow fence, the father and a police officer walked among a dozen late-model luxury cars and SUVs parked aimlessly in the dirt, coated with varying layers of desert dust.

“It’s not here,” called the father.

The officer said, “She probably didn’t have time to retrieve it.” He took off his hat and wiped his brow. “This is the wildest damn thing I’ve ever seen.”

Out front, the mother and her children stood near their van, staring at the officer’s cruiser. In the back seat, Jo sat stiffly, staring straight ahead.

The girl hugged her mother’s arm. “She’s a nice lady, mom. Why’d they arrest her?”

“She did something wrong sweetie.” The mother choked back a sob. “Something very wrong.”

The boy said, “She doesn’t look like a criminal.”

“I know. But when you carry a hurt like that for a long enough time, it’s like poison to your heart.”