The Prize Inside – No. 103

After fingering through the cash in his wallet, Roy slouched behind the steering wheel. “Nothing else for me.”

He glanced at Wendy in the passenger seat. She swept a finger across her tablet’s screen and scowled as brightened pixels illuminated her electronic demise. Sighing, she thumped the tablet onto her lap and glared at the reconstituting images.

“Did you want anything, Wendy?”

“To pass this level.”

“Anything to eat?”

She squinted through his window at the menu and boxed speaker. “Do you know what they put in that stuff?”

“I know they can probably hear you.”

Shrugging, Wendy returned to her tablet.

“That’s it,” said Roy into the speaker.

A thump, tinny shriek, and then static replied before the drive-through attendant murmured through the grated opening. “What do you want me to do with it?”

Roy frowned. “Tell me how much it comes to?”

“Just stick it in the bag,” said an icy-toned woman.

“What?” Roy’s question rode overtop the attendant’s matching query.

“We’ve got to get rid of it before Hunter gets back,” said the woman, “and you know he’ll find it in the trash.”

The speaker crackled like the pitch of the attendant’s voice. “But they’ll find it in the bag.”

“With enough napkins they won’t even notice.”

Paper rustled amid the squeak of sneakers and the whack of an active microphone against a chin or cheek.

“I don’t know about this,” said the attendant.

“You,” said the woman, “don’t know anything.” A hard slap sounded, followed by a pained grunt. “Do as you’re told and we’ll get through this without either of us getting fired.”

“All right,” said the attendant, “take it easy.”

“I could if you’d listen.” Another crinkling of paper twined with the woman’s disdain. “Give them this and get them out of here.”

Roy gaped at the speaker as the attendant’s voice warbled through.

“Go ahead to the next window, please.”

A click seemed to douse the microphone. Roy held his breath until certain the conversation would not restart before tilting his head toward Wendy, his eyes still locked on the speaker.

“Did you hear that?”

“Hum?” A blurred sequence of taps filled the car. “Hear what?”

“The two of them inside.”

“I’m sure they’ll tell you how much it’ll be when you pull up.”

Roy ran his hands along the steering wheel. “I bet they’ll do something.”

Putting the car into first gear, he eyed the lane abutting the back of the brick-walled restaurant, wary of where it might now lead. The truck behind them honked and, with his fingers gripping tight, Roy rolled forward.

One ragged maple monitored their rounding of the curve, the turn revealing the waiting pickup window. A sickly yellow glow oozed between the glass panes and through the opened frame, painting the asphalt, and making the dropped ketchup packets and squashed french fries glisten. More squelched under his tires as Roy Inched up to the sill.

The scent of hot fat and charred beef seeped from the kitchen and into the car, stirring his appetite. Despite his hunger, however, Roy craned his neck to peer at the cash register and bank of monitors watching the speaker and menu where he’d ordered. Over the counter, he spied a few couples and a teenaged quintet occupying primary-hued tables while a trio of cooks and servers milled behind the scenes, tossing frozen patties onto grills and fries into baskets and then vats of grease.

When a capped attendant with a headset pinned to his ear skittered around a tiled corner, Roy ducked back into his seat. The paper bag the attendant held bulged, with napkins Roy assumed, and a dark patch stained the base. Beads of perspiration coated the supersized cup like the attendant’s pockmarked brow. His sunken chest undulated as if he’d sprinted from the cooking stations and his cheeks were flushed, although a distinctive handprint remained on the left. He held out the bag and cup, the paper crinkling, the ice settling, spindly arms trembling.

“Here you go, sir.”

“Thanks.” Roy accepted both, but the bag nearly slipped free. “It’s kind of heavy.”

“Just…ah, some extra napkins, sir.”

Bringing his order inside, Roy bobbed his head slowly. “How much do I owe you?”

“Ah.” Pressing his earpiece against his head, the attendant swung to the register and pounded on the pastel keys.

Roy tipped his ear when the woman’s voice seemed to spurt through the headset. The attendant closed his eyes and touched his printed cheek for a moment, but another burst of the woman’s icy tone spurred him back into motion.

“That’ll be $5.89.”

“Sure thing.” Roy nudged Wendy’s shoulder. “Can you take these?”

After a press on her game’s pause button, she scowled and snatched the bag and cup, holding each out as if they reeked of more than potato and beef. With a sigh, Roy pulled the crumpled dollar bills from his wallet. He smoothed them as flat as he could before stacking and handing them over to the attendant who fanned through them, each dollar quivering.

“I did,” he whispered into his mouthpiece.

“Is….” Glancing at the bag, Roy waited until the attendant’s attention found him again. “Is everything okay?”

“Fine, sir. Thank you and um…have a nice day, I mean night.”

“You too.”

Driving forward, Roy waited at the exit arrow before turning right and winding back toward the highway. Wendy coughed expectantly when he halted at the first intersection’s red light.

“Sorry.” He plucked the bottom-heavy bag from her hand.

Resting the drink in the cup rest beneath the humming radio, he set the bag in his lap, the meal warming his jeans and threatening to scorch the skin below. While he fumbled with the bag’s folded lid, the light changed and he drove on, feeling blindly for the straw inside.

His searching fingers brushed against something slick and then furry. Roy yelped when the tiny body squirmed and what felt like a hundred paws scratched at his leg.

“Take it!”

Wendy drew her hand from the radio’s knob where she’d been tuning. “Take what?”

“The bag. Please. Now!”

Roy felt her uncertain scan of his lap. “Why?”

“Something moved. Is moving,” he corrected when the something squirmed again. “Something’s alive inside.”

Roy fought against swerving into the next lane as the creature, the beast, the whatever it was, scurried and scratched, tiny nails ripping at napkins, puncturing the thin paper sack, and plucking on his jeans.

“You so owe me for this.”

Reaching over, Wendy pinched the bag shut between her thumb and index finger. She lifted it from his lap and the bottom gave way at the greasy smear. Roy tried to rise on his tiptoes as a dark shadow plummeted toward his crotch. Claws or teeth sunk into his thigh and, mimicking the tiny creature’s shriek, he jerked the wheel aside.

The thump of the car over the sidewalk and grating slide along the protective barricade silenced him, although the punctures in his leg pulsed. His chest burned beneath the grasp of his seatbelt, his arms hollowed from their straight arm on steering wheel, and his head hung on his whiplashed neck. Through the swirl before his eyes, Roy locked onto the blood darkening his jeans. A snickering laugh he eventually identified as Wendy’s worked through the throb pounding in his ears.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.” Wendy’s laugh notched up an octave. “Better than that, I’m right.”

“What?” Leaving his hands curved around the wheel, Roy scanned the shadows by his feet where he thought he heard more scratching. Wendy leaned closer, joining his search.

“Didn’t I tell you they put weird stuff in their food?”