A bit of short fiction
Welcome to another edition of Story Cauldron!
This week I’m sharing a short story I wrote last week at a writing prompt party hosted by Stop Writing Alone. On Fridays, we have a Zoom call in which we get a prompt and have 15-20 minutes to come up with a story. We then read it to the rest of the group. I wasn’t super wild about this one, but everyone else seemed to like it. I’d love for you to give it a read and let me know what you think—did it work for you?
Frank pawed at the bottles on the shelf. His buddy told him to look on the top shelf at the end of the aisle, next to the cough remedies.
Terry hadn’t been able to remember the name of the medicine but was sure Frank would know it when he saw it. “It’s one of those old-timey tonics with a picture of a woman on the label,” Terry told him. “But only one Shop and Save carries it, the one on the highway just at the city limits. I should know,” Terry added with a bit of pride, “ ‘cause I’ve checked them all. But you better hurry—they only get a shipment once a month, and it goes fast.”
Remembering those words, Frank began to panic. What if he was already too late? His pain was getting bad and he couldn’t wait until next month.
He kept looking, shoving bottles out of the way. Finally behind the army of green bottles of Sleepy ZZZs night-time cough syrup, he found one bottle. Mrs. Bellagamba’s Cure-All Tonic, complete with a photo of a woman from another lifetime, her face plump and rosy, wearing a ruffled blouse, and with hair pulled back in a big fluffy knot.
He was just about to grab the bottle when he heard a creaky voice.
In the aisle behind him was an elderly woman on a motorized shopping cart, the kind with a big shopping basket in front. She had to be at least 90 years old, her hair a thin bun of white fuzz. She was wearing a faded flowery housecoat and slippers, and she smelled of liniment.
“Whoops, I didn’t know you were there.” Man, when did those carts get so quiet? he thought to himself. “Can I help you?”
“Sonny, you sure can. Would you be a peach and get my medicine for me?” she asked, her voice cracking with the effort. “I can’t reach that high.”
“Sure, happy to,” Frank said. “Which one do you want?”
“That’s it,” she said, raising a bony arm. “It’s the only thing that works for me.” To his horror, she pointed right at the tonic he had been about to purchase.
“This one?” He reached for a Sleepy ZZZs instead.
“No, that other one, in the glass bottle.”
Oh no, not that bottle. He gritted his teeth as he reached for it. “What does it do?” he asked, trying to sound casual. He held onto the bottle and pretended to read the label.
“Why, it keeps me young,” she said, flashing him a bright Denture-Shine smile. When he hesitated, she tried standing up, wincing with the effort. “Please, would you give it to me?”
He sighed. “Look, ma’am, to be honest—there’s just one left, and I was actually getting it for myself.” Stealing medicine from the elderly. His mother would be ashamed. But he had been there first — that meant it wasn’t stealing, right?
“Sonny, you’re a big strong man,” she said, her voice shaky. Bits of saliva caught in the corners of her mouth. “What would you need it for? But look at me—I’m just a frail old lady. If I don’t get that medicine,” she added, holding out her gnarled fingers, “I might die.”
It was true. It didn’t look like she had much time left. But Frank? He needed it. His arthritis had gotten so bad that he could barely stand on ladders these days, and forget about lifting the long rollers to do the high ceilings—his left shoulder was a mess. But he had to keep going— painting was all he knew how to do. And Terry promised this stuff was like a miracle cure for all those aches and pains.
“I don’t mean to be heartless, ma’am,” he finally said, “but I was here first. I need it so I can do my job, you understand? Without it, I won’t be able to put food on the table or pay my mortgage.”
“Oh dear, that is such a sad tale.” She frowned. “You really won’t do a favor for an old lady?” Then she paused, giving him a chance to reconsider.
Frank gestured with his hands out, as if to say, what can I do?
Sensing they were at an impasse, she tapped her fingers on the handlebars of the motorized cart. “Hmm. I have an idea,” she said, wagging a bony finger. “Wait right here for a moment. I’ll be right back.” As he stood there slack-jawed, she turned the handle on the cart and zoomed down the aisle towards the back of the store.
What was that all about? Frank decided he didn’t care. As soon as she was out of sight, he placed the bottle in his cart and made a beeline for the cash registers.
He almost made it. Halfway between the endcap and the self-checkout, the old woman came speeding across the front of the store, aiming right at him. He froze, a balding man caught in her crosshairs.
The basket of the motorized cart crashed into him, knocking him to the floor.
As he sat there, stunned and with his knee throbbing from the impact, the woman reached into his basket and grabbed the bottle.
“This isn’t my first rodeo, you know,” she cackled from her motorized cart. “For such a big man, you went down so fast!”
Staff and customers throughout the store converged on Frank as the old lady turned her motorized cart and went through the self-checkout to make her purchase.
“You okay, sir?” the manager asked.
“Yeah, but what the hell?” As the manager helped him to his feet, Frank watched helplessly as the woman turned in the cart, and a moment later, walked out of the store without any trouble. “You gonna let her get away with that?”
“Oh, that’s Maude,” the manager said with a shrug. “She’s been doing that since my dad ran the store.”
Thanks for reading! If you wouldn’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you’d take a moment to leave me a comment and let me know what you thought about the story.
Also, I write a second Substack called Unseen St. Louis, in which I write about underappreciated aspects of my hometown. Even if you’re not from around here, you might still enjoy the odd bits of history I dig up. Next week I’ll be talking about beer and caves, and you won't want to miss that!