Red Apple Snacks by Slimebeast
Red Apple brand snack foods aren't made with apples. I mean, I guess that's probably obvious to most people, but as a kid I assumed they were. Even when the bag said "potato chips" or "sourdough pretzels" right there in bright lettering, I still didn't give the actual ingredients a second thought.
That's one of the main reasons Tracy Zackowski made fun of me from second through fourth grade. There were other reasons, but they're not important to these events and I'd rather not publicize them, anyway. One fateful childhood conversation in the sandbox lead to a protracted argument about whether or not Red Apple brand pork rinds were made of apples.
I was on the wrong side of history, naturally, but at the time I thought the other kids were incapable of reading the words right at the top of each package. "Red". "Apple".
Tracy and I walked the same way home from school, and every day it was the same routine.
"Cottle's is coming up." He would say it casually, at first, referring to the small gas station and market that sat in the middle of overgrown brush between the school and our homes. The first warning changed now and again, "Let's go to Cottles," or "Have you been to Cottles this week?"
It didn't matter if I walked ahead of Tracy, or if I lagged way behind. He'd run to catch up, or wait until I came to him. As we'd walk closer and closer to the dreaded Mom & Pop store, he'd get more and more excited. Questions would turn to demands. "We have to go to Cottles, they have something you want."
The store was a bit run down. I guess some would call it creepy, especially if they had to stop for gas in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night. We only saw it during the day, however, so to the both of us it was just a familiar landmark. One that had morbidly fascinating deer carcasses in full view whenever a hunter paid to have their kill butchered.
The main issue was the vending machine. The obnoxiously loud, humming behemoth barely fit between the entrance and the front window. It was always stocked to capacity with a certain product I'd become way too familiar with.
Red Apple snacks.
Every time I passed the place, Tracy would erupt in laughter. He'd point me to the machine, sometimes even push me toward it, all while telling me to "Get me a bag of apples". It wasn't funny the first time, and I could barely keep from screaming my head off when years passed and the joke didn't let up.
Once, he even handed me a quarter and told me to get anything I wanted. When the joke was over and the jeering laughter finally stopped, he demanded it back. I think it was the nonsensical nature of it all that bothered me the most. He refused to let a long-defunct running gag die a peaceful death.
As that time passed, many things in the neighborhood changed. A residential project began construction near the school, the farm near my home was sold to a Saudi Arabian businessman who simply wanted it shut down and left abandoned, and a family with three daughters around my age moved in next door. The changes weren't necessarily all good or all bad... an abandoned farm made for great kickball games... but the fact that things were changing so rapidly in the first place made my young life seem hectic.
The biggest event, though, one that rocked the entire county, was the murder at Cottle's Market. I didn't know all the details then, and I still don't know them, now. Civilized people didn't speak of such things, apparently, and local news had too much respect for the Cottle family to publicize the events.
All I knew... all I know... is that Mr. and Mrs. Cottle were killed in some unimaginably brutal fashion. A way that caused my father to go pale when he heard. A way that made Mrs. Panteleon so sick to her stomach that she clutched a wastepaper basket in her lap, just because one of the kids asked her about it.
It was a fair few months before I was allowed to walk home past Cottle's Market again. Even then, that told me that there had been no arrest or capture related to the murders. Looking back on it, I was allowed to walk home again around the same time Kirby, the school janitor, stopped coming in to work. He'd always been a weird person. Unkempt. Fidgety. Someone on the peripheral of any given situation. I could never tell if he was humming or just talking to himself.
I can only assume Kirby was somehow brought in for the killing. I had seen him outside Cottle's at one point, shirtless, scratched up, and hauling pig carcasses in through the side door. Obviously, he'd been given extra work helping Mr. Cottle with his butchery service. It would be easy to railroad him. I don't even think he would've necessarily understood what was happening. Not with mental clarity, at least. If that's what happened, they made a mistake. A very big, very bad mistake.
It was getting dark when Tracy and I left the school musical. It was Little Shop of Horrors. I had wanted to be the Dentist, but ended up as one of Audrey II's nameless offspring at the very end of the show. Since my Dad worked nights and my Mom was still an unrepentant alcoholic at that point in time, I guess they wouldn't have been able to come see me sing, anyway. Not that any of us could carry a tune.
"Cottle's is coming up."
I stopped in my tracks. I had only been allowed to walk home again for a few days, and I assumed he had given up the gag out of fear due the gruesome murder. I was wrong, of course. He had simply forgotten about it until that moment.
"Have some respect." I snapped back, quickly brushing past him.
"You know what I could really go for?" Tracy giggled.
There was no point to it, anymore. No more "comedy" to wring out of it. He had gone from immaturity, to bullying, to what now seemed to be outright sociopathy. I tried my best to ignore him, to not give him the reactions he was trying to pull out of me.
"Do you have any quarters?" He asked.
"You cussed. Now you owe me." Tracy acted as if I wouldn't know what he was going to say I owed him. Red Apple chips. Red Apple shoestrings. Red Apple whatever. A proud product of Faceless Co. There was no conceivable way on Earth I was going to be surprised by anything at that point.
At least that's what I assumed.
As we passed Cottle's Market, Tracy and I both froze. There was no need for one of us to ask the other if we saw it. It was an immediate and simultaneous reaction. Our eyes locked on the vending machine.
The building still had a fluttering, tattered length of crime scene tape stuck to a doorway now left off its hinges. The shattered front window was long boarded up, with the shards of glass carefully swept away. Where there had once been a brownish-red smear from the building to pump one, there was now nothing more than a slightly darker patch of worn pavement.
It would've been nothing special to look at, anymore, if not for the humming, brightly lit vending machine. It was still as empty as I'd last seen it... except for the glossy apple in the C5 slot. The fresh, shining, red apple.
Almost as immediately as I had been transfixed by the sight, I turned to Tracy and punched him hard in the upper arm.
"No!" I shouted, "I'm tired of your stupid jokes! We're gonna fight!"
It wasn't the most eloquent challenge, but it got the point across.
Tracy just looked at me, rubbing his arm absently as a huge, smarmy grin spread across his face. It was like watching a cartoon wolf salivate over an unsuspecting hen. All at once, Tracy sprinted to the vending machine, his hand shooting into the pocket of his jean shorts. He drew out a handful of coins that glimmered in the fading evening light and jammed one into the machine's coin slot.
"What are you even doing?" I called over. I was finally ready to fight Tracy. To the death, I imagined. The fact that he was running away, but not out of fear of being beaten, confused and frustrated me.
Tracy turned back to look at me, the vending machine's light making him all but a silhouette.
"You're gonna eat it!" he sang, laughing, "I'm gonna make you eat it!"
Shaking my head, I started to walk away as Tracy punched the corresponding code into the number pad. I heard the beeps, then a thunk, then Tracy's annoyed groan. Looking back for what I thought would be one last time, I saw the apple wedged against the glass. It had failed to drop properly.
"Good," I muttered to myself, still fuming, "Lose your stupid quarter."
Then, I heard the shriek.
It wasn't a yell or a scream. It was a piercing, sharp, echoing shriek that reminded me of the squirrel my dog found and ate during one ill-fated Thanksgiving.
Looking back again, I saw Tracy on his knees at the foot of the machine. His arm was in the take-out port, up to the shoulder. He had reached in for his purcharse, but now appeared to be stuck. He frantically gestured for me to come over.
This time, it was my turn to laugh. I pointed at him, making sure to drive home his embarrassment.
"Help me, you idiot!" he called, "I'm caught on something! It's caught in my skin!"
Rolling my eyes, I made a purposefully slow, plodding trek back toward him. I didn't even consider leaving him there to rot, since helping him out might change his opinion of me. If it didn't, I'd at least have something to hold over his head. Mutually assured ridicule, I guess.
He shrieked again.
Even from the road, I could see the spatter of red as it exploded inside of the machine. I could hear the sharp plink of liquid bursting against glass. Tracy's head lolled to the side, and his feet kicked out from under him in an involuntary spasm. I dropped any selfish thoughts at that point and started running to him.
Tracy looked up at me again in what I can only assume was a moment of regained consciousness. Silently, weakly, he reached his free hand out in a pleading gesture.
Then, the sound of cracking bone sent a shudder through me. I blinked reflexively as Tracy's head, torso, and legs appeared to file themselves away in the crimson slot. It happened so fast that the rapid blinking has forever burned the memory into my mind as a grisly, awkward, stop-motion film.
By the time I reached the machine, only the sound of a mechanical hum remained, and only Tracy's limp feet protruded. One of his Hexalite shoes came off in my hand as he fully disappeared within.
I banged on the machine as hard as I could. I kicked at it. I threw rocks. However, the glass... now fully opaque with blood... didn't even suffer a single crack. Something dropped to the bottom with a wet, sickening thud, and though I didn't dare open the gore-flecked slot, I knew it was an apple.
A very, very red apple.