The Coffin Race by David Henson
After browsing too long at Old Books, I decide to risk a dodgy alley so I won’t be late for work again. When I’m halfway through, three fellows step out of a doorway shouldering a wooden box that looks like a cheap coffin. I pick up the pace, but before I get past them, the guys put down the box, and one of them steps in front of me. Shit.
“You want in?” the guy says.
In the box? I put my head down and try to sidestep him.
He holds out his arm. “We could use some fresh blood.”
What have I gotten myself into? I look around the alley. No one but me and these bruisers. They’re going to mug me, nail me in the coffin and leave me to rot in an abandoned building. I could swing my briefcase at him. Or ... “Here.” I remove my wallet and hand him my cash. Fifty bucks or so. “Just let me through. I won’t tell anybody.”
He takes a ten dollar bill and gives the rest back. “It’s a friendly game. Sawbuck max. What’s your color?”
“Uh ... I’m ... color?”
“Hurry up, buddy. It’s post time. The steeds are restless.”
“OK, OK.” Say a color. Anything. Don’t say red. Blood is red. Scared shitless. “Yellow.”
“Going with the long shot, huh?” He motions toward one of the other guys, who steps into the doorway, re-emerges with a carton and tilts it over the coffin. I half expect body parts to slide out. Instead ... rats. Five or six.
Each rodent has a tiny, bright cape on its back. Red and Green snarl at each other then appear to engage in a mating ritual. Or not. I’m no expert in rat behavior. Orange and Yellow stand on their hind legs and sniff the air.
The guy who took my money ... wager ... kazoos a bugle call and drops a hunk of what appears to be cheddar into the far end of the box. The guys start clapping and cheering. This’d be a good chance for me to flee, but maybe it’s my lucky day. “Go Yellow! C’mon boy ... or girl.” I’ll think of some excuse for being late. Getting hard to come up with reasons I haven’t used before.
Red and Green show no interest in the cheese and start going at it with each other. Guess I know more about rat behavior than I thought. Blue scrambles over the side of the box — I think it really is a cheap coffin — crawls up the leg of one of the guys, perches on his shoulder and pumps his front paws. “Roger, Roger.” The guy gives the rat a kernel of popcorn. “Oh, well. I still love you.” OK, never bet on Roger. I wonder if he always wears blue?
Orange and Yellow return to all fours and crawl toward the cheese in fits and starts. “Go, Sally” one of the guys shouts. Is Sally Yellow or Orange. Not taking any chances. “Yellow!” I scream. “Sorry I don’t know your name.”
“Daisy,” somebody says.
I put down my valise and clap my hands. “Lucky Daisy, don’t be lazy!” Daisy edges ahead of Roger then rises for another smell-around. Roger sniffs Daisy’s butt. Roger-rooter and me are both going nuts cheering when Red streaks to the cheese and gobbles it down. Guess he’s a fast finisher ... in more ways than one.
“We have a winner,” Kazoo-man says and counts down from five. “No Place. No Show.” He puts twenty bucks in his pocket. “Maybe next time, boys.”
I reach for my briefcase then stop. “How ‘bout another race?”
Kazoo-man shakes his head. “Oh, no. Our furry friends get to enjoy themselves the rest of the day. Besides, don’t you have someplace to be?”
I let his words soak in. “As a matter of fact, I do.” I head back up the alley the way I came in. There’s a help wanted sign at Old Books. Maybe it’s my lucky day after all.
“You forgot your briefcase.”
I turn around. “It’s empty. I just take it home for show.”
“All yours,” I say. “It might make a cozy home for your furry friends.”
David Henson and his wife reside in Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in various journals including Sledgehammer Lit. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.