As if the tacos weren’t enough, Horace wants pizza, too. Gladyce says Horace can have whatever he wants so we all file into the car. It’s not like we can let him go without us, leave us here alone.
Gladyce is secretly in love with Horace, secret only to Horace. She uses the end of her shirt to wipe his lips, mole sauce dripping down. She apologizes for him, whatever he says or does, like the pizza run, risking our lives. Last week, Horace crapped his pants at the checkpoint, his diet inciting sudden diarrhea; later, Gladyce came into my room, whispered in my ear she’d kill me if I ever brought up what he’d done, ever told another soul. Who would I tell? I agreed nonetheless.
At the checkpoint, the guard says, “You guys again?” I nod, show him my papers. He flashes his headlamp at Horace and Gladyce in the back. The guard says there’s been some activity down by the mall. The pizzeria is adjacent to the mall. Gladyce shrugs. I wave and drive on.
The streets are dark, the lights long trashed. Abandoned cars litter the sidewalks. Garbage used to pile up, but the new mayor sponsors Saturday clean-ups. It’s kept the city together, his ads claim. We’ve helped three Saturdays in a row. Not a single casualty, not uncommon during the day, but we have Horace, so we’re not worried.
The mall swells with light. Both Starbucks have lines wrapped around. Taco Tim’s is swamped, twenty-plus cars, more than earlier. The tents selling guns and swords are busiest. A jam box blaring hair metal dares an attack—the tent people’s wet dreams.
The pizza place is relatively empty. A short kid sipping a beer takes our order and a skinny kid stretches the dough. We wait at a gingham-covered table. A woman without teeth sits on the Ms. Pac Man stool, the console’s screen bashed in. She’s smoking a blunt, a pistol on her lap.
Horace goes the bathroom. I thank him for going now, not risking it. Gladyce gives me the stink eye.
“No one knows what I’m talking about.”
“He knows,” Gladyce says.
“Why don’t you tell him how you feel?”
Gladyce looks away. “He doesn’t need distractions.”
Horace is suddenly standing before us. “Who needs what distraction?”
“Ms. Pac Man,” I say. We all look to the kitchen, to the oven.
Just as the pizza comes out, we hear a splat, the world’s biggest bird hitting the pane. It’s one of the things. I’m surprised, the parking lot lit like a Super Bowl halftime show. If these things are anything, it’s unpredictable.
The short kid says, “Fuck” as he puts our pie on the counter, tells his skinny subordinate to take care of it. “It’s your turn,” Skinny says. Shorty reminds him he’s the only one who can work the register. Skinny mumbles something, then pulls a 12-gauge from under the counter and marches outside. The thing rakes at the glass until we hear the 12-gauge, the thing’s head bursting through the window in a tornado of blue blood and shards.
“Fucking Donovan!” Shorty says. “Now we don’t have a window.”
Donovan returns. “I am so sorry, Ritchie.”
The smoking woman grabs Gladyce’s arm as we leave. “Tell him. You don’t have much time.” Gladyce pulls away. Horace is already upon the first slice.
Six months ago, it was me and Gladyce living in the Army compound in the desert. Gladyce was my fiancée’s cousin. The shit hit the fan, my fiancée didn’t make it, and Gladyce and I were in the same place when the soldiers came. We lived at the compound a year. I started to fall for Gladyce, told her so, but she turned me down. “You loved my cousin,” she said, but I think she just didn’t like me.
Then, some of the things got through the fence. Guards were overtaken. The safest place on Earth, they bragged, turned to deadly chaos. We were sprinting down a maintenance tunnel when we came upon a lab, hidden in depths, this guy weeping inside. A dozen guards were goo. Things were heading toward the guy and I thought we’d see him torn apart, but as soon as they came close, Poof! Incineration. Horace proved some sort of antidote, or weapon, his pheromones the key. We found a Jeep in the motor pool and bugged out, things turning to dust if they got too close. We were immune as long as we kept Horace in our immediate proximity. Happy.
When we reach the checkpoint, the nice guard is a stain on the road.
“I liked him,” Horace says. “I hope he didn’t suffer.”
“He didn’t,” Gladyce fibs. “It’s a quick death.”
Our place, when we get back, is swarming with Army types. Out next to a tank is one of the things, furious, in a cage.
“A tester,” Gladyce says. “They’re here for Horace. They want to make sure it’s him.”
I keep driving, as if our house isn’t ours. We weave through troops, no one wondering if we might be the people they’re looking for, returning home. Army guys prove dumb like that.
We’re golden until we pass the cage, the thing inside bursting into flame, Horace too close. Every soldier’s eyes fix on the pile of ash, then on our CRV.
“Fuck,” Gladyce says.
I floor it.
Horace asks why we’re not going home, why the Army was at our house. Dozens of pairs of headlights pursue in the rearview.
“Ideas?” I ask.
“We could get waffles for breakfast,” Horace says. I want to scold him but realize his pizza run is why we weren’t home when the Army came, why we’re still together.
Another checkpoint looms ahead. The Army is there, in force, roadblock-style.
“I love you, Horace,” Gladyce says, kissing his mouth.
Horace looks at her blankly, then holds up the box, offers her a slice. “That’s so great!” he says.
And it is.
Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of four collections of short fiction, including the forthcoming The Amnesiac in the Maze (Braddock Avenue Books, 2023). He serves as Editor of Moon City Press and Moon City Review, as well as Interviews Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. Follow him on Twitter at @mczyzniejewski.