Ray Davidson stood in the only open checkout line at the local Publix grocery store, carrying three cans of green beans, two cans of cream of mushroom soup, and a bottle of Italian Amarone from the expensive part of the wine section: the part behind the glass partition where the manager has to unlock it. Ray Davidson was also mad.
A few hours earlier, Ray and his wife Michelle got into a fight over who had mistakenly used the necessary ingredients for her world-famous green-bean casserole – a staple at all Davidson family get-togethers, especially and including the Thanksgiving festivities which, right at this very moment, was taking place at the Davidson family home three miles away. Michelle argued that Ray fed the green beans to the boys with dinner a few nights back when she was volunteering at the local animal shelter. Ray said that was a bunch crap. He ordered pizza like he always did.
“You probably just forgot to get them,” he said, mistakenly believing this would be helpful.
It was not. It was not helpful at all.
So Ray found himself standing in the checkout line at Publix with several expensive cans of what the can said were “Gourmet Green Beans straight from the south of France.” The wine he bought because he knew it would piss Michelle off. She hated Amarone, and complained every time he went for the expensive stuff.
“Cost of doing business, my dear,” he said to himself, and laughed. At least here he didn’t have to listen to his father-in-law’s jokes, or his sister’s never-ending stories about her trials and tribulations working a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ray had all the sympathy in the world for everyone in the healthcare industry fighting the good fight, but his sister-in-law made herself out to be some kind of angelic superhero. Ray knew better. She was in the IT department. She sat in the basement with the rest of the nerds, and she only went in two days a week. The only thing she’d contracted since this whole mess started was an incurable addition to daytime television.
“She’s always watching that crap,” Ray’s brother-in-law told him earlier that afternoon after his second shot of bourbon. “The hospital computer be crashing all the time and she’s just like: ‘Nah. My stories is on.’”
It all made Ray Davidson wonder if maybe the lockdown laws and shelter-in-place orders which had put the kibosh on the holidays in other states were maybe a good idea after all. At least that way, he and Michelle could fight in peace and privacy like normal couples. Like they always did.
There was a commotion at the register.
A man in a tan jacket and jeans leaned into the plastic partition.
“Please,” he said. “It’s Thanksgiving. I just want to feed my kids.” He shoved the partition hard. “Come on!”
The cashier stepped back, flustered. She dialed the phone next to her.
“Manager to aisle three,” she said over the store intercom. “Manager to aisle three.”
Ray intervened. “I’ll pay for it,” he said. “No need to make a big deal.”
Both the cashier and the man in the tan jacket looked at him in shock. Ray glanced at the conveyor belt. “A turkey and a box of stuffing. What’s that? Twenty bucks? Add it to my total.”
Ten minutes later, Ray was in the parking lot, fumbling for his keys, when he heard a voice from behind.
“Hey man.” Ray turned. It was the man in the tan jacket. “Thanks for that.”
“No problem,” Ray said.
“No, really. Thanks. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feed my kids a Thanksgiving dinner this year. Times have been tough. I recently lost my job. All I had was ten bucks.”
“Well, there you go,” Ray said, still fumbling for his key. He wasn’t really trying to be a Good Samaritan. He just wanted to get home as quickly as possible so Michelle wouldn’t yell at him again.
“It’s getting late and those things,” Ray motioned to the turkey, “take a while to cook, so you’d better get home and get started.”
The man laughed. “You’re right.”
Ray found his key and turned to his car. His phone buzzed in his pocket. Probably Michelle, complaining about how long I’ve been gone, he thought.
The man stepped closer. “One more thing,” he said.
The man in the tan coat punched Ray in the face, breaking his nose with one hit. Ray fell to the ground and spat blood. The parking lot was cold. The smell of antifreeze mixed with exhaust filled his nostrils.
“Better get that fixed, or Michelle will be mad,” he thought to himself, then wondered why he thought that.
He raised himself to his hands and knees, trying to get back up, confused at what was happening. He could feel fresh cuts on his hands and knees. His left cheek had been torn open by the pavement. His nose throbbed as blood poured out of it.
Ray looked up, raising one hand to block out the light poles, which had recently turned on. The man came down again, this time, knocking out a tooth. Everything went dark.
*** *** *** ***
Ray Davidson came to a while later. He was riding in the passenger seat of his car. Everything was dark.
“What the…where are you taking me?”
“Woah, dude!” the man in the tan coat said. “Looks like you had yourself a little accident. Are you feeling better?”
“I said you had an accident. Passed out there for a bit. You were starting to worry me.”
“I didn’t have an accident,” Ray said. “You knocked me out.”
“You’re still stuck on that?” the main the tan coat said. “We were just having some fun. You need to lighten up, friend.”
Ray took stock of his surroundings. It was nighttime now. He was seated upright in the passenger seat of his car with his seatbelt on. They were driving down a remote, wooded road that seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. An old Led Zeppelin song on the radio.
Lots of people talkin’, few of them know. Soul of a woman was created below.
“Ain’t that the truth?” the man in the tan coat said.
“Where are you taking me?”
“It’s Thanksgiving! I’m taking you home to have dinner with me and the kids. You bought us the turkey; I figured it was the least I could do.”
“Let me go.”
“Let you go? You could at least say thanks. Jeez.”
“Please let me go.”
“Calm down, man,” the man in the tan coat said. He took a swig from the bottle of Amarone, then offered it to Ray. “Have some of this. Should take the edge off.”
“That was mine,” Ray said.
“Right, and now it’s mine, and I’m offering you some. Take it.”
“Let me go.”
The man in the tan coat tucked the bottle between his legs, and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small pistol and pointed it at Ray’s head.
“Enough of that, Ray.” Ray made a face of shock at hearing his name. The man in the tan coat grinned. “Surprised? I checked your wallet while you was napping.”
Ray shuffled. The passenger seat was suddenly uncomfortable.
“Enough of that letting you go crap. You’re gonna love Thanksgiving at my place. I need to stop off and get some presents for the kids before we get home.”
The man in the tan coat pulled the car into a Quick Stop gas station and convenient store. He parked in the back, away from everyone else. The street lights behind the gas station were broken. In this remote part of the state, this late at night, they were in near total darkness.
“Here,” the man said. “Turn around.”
He grabbed Ray’s shoulder and twisted him so he faced the passenger side door, away from the driver, then wrenched his hands downward. Ray could feel rope passing around both his hands, pulling them tight against the gear shift.
“Don’t want you running away, now,” he said.
The man in the tan coat gave the ropes an extra tug, nearly drawing blood from Ray’s hands, then stepped out of the car and made his way into the convenient store.
As soon as the man was out of sight, Ray started pulling on the ropes, hoping to pry himself loose. His cell phone was still in his pocket. If he could just get one hand free, he could call for help. If he could get both hands free, he could run.
The ropes held firm for what felt like an eternity, digging into his wrists. Ray could feel trickles of blood pooling against the ropes and dripping onto the gearshift. Just when it seemed like there was no hope, his right hand slipped forward a bit. Not enough to pry it free, but enough to know it was possible.
Ray tugged harder, nearly pulling his right shoulder out of its socket. He had to hurry. What had it been: three minutes? Four? This was his chance. His one shot. The man in the tan coat would be back soon.
“If he makes it back and I’m still tied up, I’m done,” Ray thought, and pulled harder.
Three shoulder wrenches later, and Ray dislocated his shoulder. Two more and his hand came free. Ray went straight for his phone. He pulled it out, and was able to dial 9 and 1 when there was a tap on the passenger side window. The man in the tan coat smiled at him.
“Uh Oh. What did you do, Ray?”
He opened the door, grabbed his cell phone, and threw it to the ground, crushing it.
“Don’t need that anymore,” the man said. Then, he slammed the door shut, catching Ray in the temple with the door. Ray was dazed for a moment. The next thing he heard was the man in the tan coat climbing into the driver’s seat.
“Aww, Ray. I can’t put the car in drive. Your hand is still in the way.” He grabbed Ray’s left arm, the one still tied to the gear shift, with both hands.
“Here, let me help.” The man in the tan coat, yanked Ray’s arm upward, breaking his wrist. The ropes dug into his skin, cutting deep into the meat of his hand.
Ray’s hand was still tied to the gear shift, so the man in the tan coat pulled on his arm like he was trying to pull a tree stump out of the ground. Ray wasn’t sure how many bones he broke before the arm eventually pulled free, but it was more than one.
The man in the tan coat, then adjusted the mirror, put on his seat belt, and moved the gearshift into drive.
“You might want to put your seat belt on, Ray. You never can be too safe.”
*** *** *** ***
Two hours later, and they were deep into the Woods; no signs of civilization anywhere.
“I got you a present,” the man in the tan coat said.
“A present. Back at the gas station.”
“I don’t want anything,” Ray said. “I just want to go home.”
“Oh, but you’re gonna love it.”
The man in the tan coat turned into a disused gravel path off the side of the road.
“Is this where your house is?” Ray asked. “Are we finally going to meet your kids?”
The man in the tan coat laughed.
“You idiot. I don’t have any kids. I left the turkey you bought sitting in a shopping cart back at the grocery store.”
“Then where are we?”
“We’re at the place where I’m going to show you my present!”
The man in the tan coat drove a few hundred yards into the woods, then stopped the car and turned on the headlights.
“Get out,” the man said.
“No,” Ray said.
The man in the tan coat pulled out his gun again.
“What’s that matter?” Ray said. “You’re just going to kill me.”
“Not until you get your present, I’m not.”
Ray got out of the car. The man in the tan coat followed, pointing the gun. Ray stopped when he saw large, burnt patches on the ground.
“What’s this?” Ray said.
The man the tan coat hit ray in the head with the butt of his pistol, knocking Ray to the ground, then kicked him in the stomach several times. Ray vomited in the burnt leaves as the man walked back to the car.
“I need to get your present, Ray!” he said, opening the trunk. The man in the tan coat returned, carrying a large, plastic can.
He gathered leaves and sticks around Ray’s body, then poured out the entire can onto Ray and the kindling around him.
“I want you to know how thankful I am that you helped me out back at the store, Ray,” the man in the tan coat said. “You really made this a Thanksgiving to remember. My kids are going to be so happy.”
Ray coughed, barely able to speak.
“Please don’t kill me,” Ray said.
“Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me.”
The man in the tan coat knelt down close to Ray, held his chin in his hands. Like a father.
“Aw, Ray. This way, we can be friends forever!”
He poured the last of the gas can onto Ray’s head and stepped back. He pulled out a cigarette and a lighter, popped the cigarette into his mouth, and lit it.
“I didn’t smoke while we were driving, Ray. I didn’t want to mess up your car. I figure it was okay, now.”
“Please! Please don’t kill me.”
“Turn around, Ray. Turn around and close your eyes. I hate watching people’s faces when I do this.”
The man in the tan coat stood next to the car, cigarette in hand, with a docile smile on his face.
There was nothing Ray could do. He slowly turned away from the man in the tan coat and closed his eyes.
As he waited for the click of the lighter and the flash that would bring even more pain, and the end of his life, Ray thought of his wife. He thought of their fights and disagreements. He thought of how much he had complained about having to get the green beans, along with all of the little tasks Michelle had asked of him over the years.
Ray thought of his kids, how they were always asking him for a few more minutes of his time at the end of the day when he was trying to finish up something for work or relax in front of the tv with a glass of bourbon. He thought of how he rarely said yes. How he always denied them.
Ray felt regret. Ray mouthed the words, “I’m sorry,” loud enough for only him to hear.
Two seconds later, there was a click, the roar of an engine, and a woosh of leaves.
Ray turned around to see his car backing quickly out of the woods to the main road. He sat in silence in the un-burnt pile of leaves and sticks as he watched the headlights disappear.
A few hours later, as the sun came up, Ray stumbled into another remote convenient store.
The clerk wanted to call the cops, but Ray insisted that he call his wife first.
“Sure, pal. Whatever you want.”
“Thank you,” Ray said. “Thank you so much.”
****** ****** ****** ******
Thanks for joining us with the Free Flash Fiction Thanksgiving Spectacular from the Fondue Writer’s Club, Bar&Grille and Laundromat. One more to go, and then we put the Free Flash Fiction machine on ice until Christmas.
Check out some of the other authors in our tribe. Joseph Courtemanche, Jamie Greening, Kathy Kexel, Derek Elkins, Rob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett.
If you like our stories, check out or COVID-19 themed short story collection, THE COVID QUARANTINE CANTINA, available now in Kindle and Print and soon in Audio.