The sleeping town of Deadhorse, Arkansas woke to find an Ice-N-Go ice machine in the empty lot between the Dollar General and the Shop and Save, installed and ready to serve. For $1.75, the signage said, you could fill a plastic bag with sixteen pounds of ice.
Suspicion settled on the town like a low-hanging cloud, ushering in a season of new discontent.
“Sixteen pounds of ice? Who in Deadhorse needs sixteen friggin’ pounds of ice?” Vernon Jones said the day of the machine’s discovery.
“And $1.75 dollars a bag? That’s cheap. It’s almost like they’re trying to give it away,” Bud Smith said.
Vernon and Bud were fixtures on the bench in front of the Shop and Save, weekday mornings from seven until noon, at which time Vernon had to – as he put it – tend to the old lady. Bud likewise retreated to his own abode, though his had been empty, save for himself, for going on twelve years. During those few weekday hours, however, the Deadhorse natives downed two large coffees each while solving the world’s problems. The most recent problem being the unwelcome ice machine invading their space this fine Tuesday morning.
A man wheeling a box-laden hand truck stopped in front of the nattering gentlemen.
“You fellas studying about that ice machine?” the man asked.
“Yep,” one of the old timers said.
“You figure on why they’re trying to shove their ice down our throats?”
The man was Horace Pendergrass, Pee Wee to friends and relations, and he stocked shelves at the Shop and Save. He also handled ice deliveries when they came. The new vending machine meant competition for the Shop and Save, and to the Dollar General as well.
“Our ice is a dollar more a bag,” Pee Wee said, kicking the hand truck back with a kick. “We may as well quit selling it.”
“I’ve seen ice machines like that in Panama City,” Vernon said, “but they got the beach down there.”
“And the ocean,” Bud agreed.
“Yeah,” Vernon said. “It doesn’t make sense. The only water we got around here is Lake Wedowee, and Lake Wedowee ain’t got no beach.”
“It sure as heck ain’t the ocean,” Bud said.
“I can tell you this much,” Vernon said. “I’m not buying their ice, and nobody else should, either. There’s something funny about it I don’t like.”
By 10:30 that morning, a sign adorned the front of the ice machine. Painted with Shop and Save brand paint on a sturdy piece of Shop and Save foam board were the words, in all caps, BAD ICE! It wouldn’t have taken big city investigators to figure out the sign was written in Vernon Smith’s shaky hand, but no such investigations were called.
Several restless days followed Tuesday’s events.
By Saturday, interest had grown in the stand-alone ice machine, though, to anyone’s knowledge, only one bag had been sold. The purchaser had been one Mrs. Raymond Gene Smith. Mrs. Smith had patronized the machine because, as she claimed, “The line at the Dollar General was too long, and I won’t do my business with those Liberals at the Shop and Save,” though she swore she would have otherwise never given her husband’s money to that, as she called it, mindless automaton. Though Mrs. Smith was, herself, unfamiliar with the term automaton, the reporter to whom she gave her statement had offered it as a suggestion. With not a hint of hesitation, Mrs. Smith had agreed that the word was exactly the one she needed to express herself properly.
Mrs. Smith’s statement appeared in the Monday edition of the Times Beacon. At that time, her single sixteen-pound-bag had indeed been the only purchase made at the machine, a fact agreed upon by both Vernon Smith and Bud Jones. They had been keeping a close eye on the machine, though Mrs. Smith had somehow slipped past their defences. In order to ensure no other purchases were made, Vernon and Bud relocated to the turnabout in front of the Ice-N-Go and into to a couple of lawn chairs retrieved from Bud’s garage.
“Enid’s been dead now twelve years,” Bud said. “She’ll never miss ‘em. Besides, she’d be right proud if she knew it was for the Lord’s work.”
Vernon and Bud took shifts for a few days, Vernon from seven until noon, Bud from noon until five. Sometimes the Shop and Save staff provided lunch (and restroom facilities, as needed), and sometimes locals brought them meals. When Raymond Gene Smith himself turned up with a fever, chills, and, on Wednesday morning, a Covid-19 diagnosis, an already suspicious populace became even more so.
Mrs. Smith gave a new interview to the Times Beacon Wednesday afternoon from the hospital’s lobby to discuss her husband’s situation. Thursday, Raymond Smith’s Covid diagnosis became knowledge for public consumption.
“Raymond hasn’t done anything untoward,” she told the reporter, a college student from the nearby university named Priscilla Cole who, like most people in Raymond’s neck of the woods, dreamed of something more. “He’s been to church and to the store, but he hasn’t done anything to catch that virus.”
“The only thing Raymond has done that’s any different from normal is drink some tea with that infernal ice from that infernal machine.” Here, Mrs. Smith wept into a tissue procured from inside her purse as she and said, “It’s my fault, it’s just all my fault!”
By Thursday afternoon, a rotation was agreed upon by the mass of people blocking the entrance to the roundabout at the Ice-N-Go. Their de facto leader, a man by the name of Horace Manley, local elementary school principal and four-years-and-counting champ of the Lake Wedowee Bass Rodeo, set a schedule in place.
All teams would stand watch during the time frames already in place set by Vernon and Bud, and each team would consist of no more than four individuals. After hours watch would be handled by the night shift employees at the Shop and Save who could be counted on to report any unusual activity, and a weekend watch was deemed unnecessary.
“Most everybody is at the lake on the weekends, and those who aren’t can just keep an eye out,” Horace said. “Shouldn’t be any trouble.”
An uneventful Friday passed.
On Saturday, a regular slate of rec ball games kept the town entertained.
Coach Willie Jackson, who, when not coaching, worked for the Home Depot over at Winston, wasn’t in the habit of rewarding his players for outstanding effort. The lesson contained in his motto, “One hundred percent every play, every day!” was, he felt, reward enough. His way of thinking went out the proverbial window, however, when Ronnie had taken a tumble over the centerfield fence and into the untamed brush and briars beyond. The game ended when Ronnie’s gloved hand emerged from the weeds, out number three tucked securely inside, and waved in the air to whoops and cheers from the assembled fans.
Coach Jackson felt compelled to break his own ‘no rewards’ rule.
“Here’s a dollar each,” Coach Jackson told the boys. “Ronnie’s diving catch saved the game for us, and Dave, you pitched a whale of a ballgame!”
With the games over and most families headed to the lake, Ronnie Simpson and Dave Perkins rode their bikes to the Dollar General for a handful of black liquorice whips, courtesy of Coach Willie Grimes.
The boys skidded their bikes in the gravel of the Ice-N-Go roundabout to discuss their in-game heroics. It wasn’t long, however, before the conversation turned to the mechanized ice box.
“My dad said his boss told him the sheriff said the night this thing got here, a bunch of people saw a beam of light shining all around. Like from the sky. Next thing you know, this big thing dropped out of some spaceship or something.” Ronnie’s arms waved and eyes widened in all the right places. “The sheriff says if you eat the ice it implants a tracking chip inside you.”
Dave snorted. “You really believe aliens put an ice machine here? Man, you’re an idiot, and so’s your dad!”
“Yeah?” Ronnie said. “Where’d it come from then?”
“My grandpa said he heard it was a gift from the Chinese government. You heard about that old lady’s husband that got the virus, right? How do you think he got it?”
Dave let this bit of news take hold in his friend’s heart while they dismounted their bikes and propped their kickstands. Ronnie had to admit it made more sense than aliens.
“That’s right,” Dave went on. “The ice has the Corona in it. I heard my dad talking to Coach Jackson and Principal Manley about it. They said that’s how the virus gets spread around.”
And though Ronnie needed no more persuading, he asked anyway, “Well how come nobody but the old man got sick?”
Dave rolled his eyes and swept his arm around like the lady on the gameshow his grandmother liked to watch. “Look around, Dummy. Nobody’s buying the ice!”
Ronnie took a furtive look around, and punched Dave on the arm. “Come on,” he dared. “Let’s touch it!”
Dave stood his ground but watched his friend race to the ice machine, slap it a good one on the padlocked side door, and race back to his bike. Ronnie punched Dave again on the arm, and said, “Chicken!” though his heart was racing faster than when he had made the game winning catch.
The boys resumed their ride across the street to the Shop and Save. Each took a turn almost crashing his bike on the way home trying both to steer and eat liquorice.
The following Monday, Ronnie Simpson was admitted to the hospital with a rash that spread from the back of his left calf all the way up his neck and into his hairline. The pain left him virtually immobile. Because of the number of Covid patients now flooding the hospital, Ronnie’s parents were unable to visit.
Much as Raymond Smith’s dalliance with the tainted ice had led to the Covid, Ronnie’s rash, it was said, was due to the slap he had given the side of the machine from whence the ice had come.
On Tuesday, several things happened: Raymond Smith died from Covid complications; the Dollar General had to shut down because eight out of ten of the staff tested positive for the virus; school closed for good because many teachers were sick, and a few students as well; two raccoons were killed plundering dumpsters on Happy Hollow Road, both probably rabid, and, as Pete Avery claimed, likely linked to the Corona; no ice sales were made.
A fever pitch swallowed the town. Horace Manley’s leadership was a shaky prospect at best until the Wednesday two weeks removed from the start of all the shenanigans, when Baurice Simpson decided to take charge and save his town.
Ronnie’s Uncle Baurice had some experience with explosive materials, specifically something called Tannerite. Baurice and a buddy from work, Freddie Kitchens, spent many Friday nights drunk and shooting at targets packed with the stuff. When combined with the right ingredients, Tannerite made a small, entertaining explosion; in large enough quantities, it could take down a house.
Baurice and Freddie spent all of Tuesday gathering large enough quantities.
“I’m putting an end to this madness once and for all,” Baurice said upon hearing the news of his nephew’s hospitalization.
He and Freddie took the entire day driving to nearby towns buying the necessary ingredients. No one raised an alarm because the men paid in cash. Likewise, no one questioned why they both missed work. Such was the quantity of the Tannerite concoction that they had to haul it on the back of Freddie’s truck.
Evening came and Baurice and Freddie arrived at the Ice-N-Go to execute their plan. The four citizens on watch, led by Carl Franklin, questioned them briefly but made no real attempt to put a stop to their activities.
“You boys know what you’re doing?” Carl Franklin asked as Freddie hopped out to let down the tailgate.
“Sure we do,” Baurice said. “And you might want to watch, too. This thing ends tonight.”
Carl and his companions stayed to see what would happen, and each of these called home to say they’d be home late and why. These phone calls set off a chain of calls that eventually brought out more townsfolk, young and old alike. Many parked at the Shop and Save, others at the Dollar General. By full dark, all parking spots were gone, so people parked blocks away at the church and walked. No one really knew what to expect, but everyone wanted to see justice served. Some in the crowd carried guns, some garden tools. The boys from Ronnie’s rec team all brought their bats.
By the time the Tannerite was placed, roughly two hundred people had crowded in to see. A bonfire roared on the gravel turnaround, and Pee Wee Pendergrass brought marshmallows from the Shop and Save.
“For the children,” he explained.
Baurice Simpson climbed onto the truck bed and faced the crowd. Tannerite packed the bolted door of the Ice-N-Go. To this he pointed and said, “Neighbors and friends! We have been besieged by an enemy! An enemy so vile as to infect our whole town!”
Mrs. Raymond Smith wailed at this.
“My own nephew is still in the hospital because of it!”
The crowd muttered and heads nodded approval.
“And what else?” Baurice implored. “There’s talk of microchips and government surveillance. Is it our own government? China’s? Russia’s?”
“It’s aliens!” a voice shouted. Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd at that, though a few whispers of agreement passed as well.
“Well, I don’t care what it is. Tonight, we take back our town.”
“Tonight!” Baurice yelled over the roar. “Tonight, we are free!”
The crowd cheered. Baseball bats and garden rakes waved in the bonfire’s light. Baurice turned toward the Ice-N-Go machine and raised his pistol. It was small as pistols go – a .22 caliber – but that was all he needed to detonate the Tannerite. He squeezed the trigger.
The explosion was loud and most of those gathered looked away when it blew the door off the machine. What no one saw – at least not at first – was Freddie Kitchens.
The crowd rapt with Baurice’s words, Freddie took a moment to double check the work they had done arranging the packs of explosive. He didn’t want a disappointed crowd should the Tannerite not be strong enough to do the job.
As it turned out, it was strong enough; it not only blew the door off the machine, but it also blew a hole in the middle of Freddie Kitchens. He didn’t die instantly; as a matter of fact, he heard the crowd cheer with the explosion and wondered if they were cheering for him.
Freddie’s body landed on the hood of Baurice’s truck. The crowd fell silent. Carl Franklin walked slowly over. He dared not get too close for fear the body might somehow have contracted the virus. He craned his neck to see by the flickering light.
“It’s Freddie,” Carl said, his voice full of surprise, yet low and steady.
Then Carl turned to th
The assembled mass moved as one. Those with implements raised them into the air, those without pumped their fists. A roar like that of a crazed animal rose, the citizens attacked the Ice-N-Go machine as if their very lives depended on bringing about its destruction.
Men, women, and children banded together to defeat their common enemy. Baseball bats slammed down, rakes and shovels arced through the night, all hammering and hammering at the machine. What parts that would burn were thrown onto the bonfire, the rest scattered and beat some more.
A few of the citizenry were injured in the melee, some later seeking treatment for cuts, bruises, and burns. Dave Perkins spent the next six weeks in a cast because a teammate – Scooter Carnes – missed the side of the building and connected with Dave’s elbow instead.
In all, thirty-four participants contracted Covid at the gathering; most were certain it had been the Chinese government’s plan all along. Other’s thought maybe it was the American government’s plan, but nobody paid much attention to those on the fringe.
On Thursday, the city council authorized a construction dumpster, and a few people from the rally cleaned up the gravel turnaround. By nightfall Friday, no sign of the ice machine remained.
Peace was restored. The evil that was the Ice-N-Go lifted from the town. People even started wearing masks, just in case. Covid cases all but disappeared, and Vernon Smith and Bud Jones traded in their lawn chairs for the tried and true bench at the Shop and Save. In the end, lives returned to what they once were
Except for one.
Malcom Mitchell, lifelong resident and business entrepreneur, filed a claim with his insurance company. Because he hadn’t yet made the first payment toward his ice machine, he felt as if he might be in line to collect. And collect he did, to the tune of $450, 000. His claim stated losses not only for the machine, but also for a loss of “reasonably expected income over the life of the insured.” The insured, of course, was the recently destroyed Ice-N-Go machine. The insurance company sided with Mr. Mitchell, stating the machine had been lost due to “wanton destruction, and not by any act of God.” Malcolm Mitchell thought that last part might be awfully close to the truth.
Awfully close indeed.
Chip Jett is a teacher at a small school in Georgia. His stories have been in several magazines, including The First Line and Mystery Tribune, and in online publications as well, including Crow and Cross Keys. Find him on Facebook at Jettstories, on Instagram at chipjettthewriter, and on Twitter @chipjett_writer.
Image via Pixabay