"Invoking Ganesh," by Joshua Harding, is the First Place winning story in the horror category for the Tenth Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year's awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer's Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusives, you can read Harding's winning entry.
by Joshua Harding
Sandeep was cleaning the Slushie machine when his first customer committed suicide. The gunshot popped like a Diwali firework and shattered the rear windshield of the girl’s Camry. At first Sandeep thought she’d had a backfire until he saw the spider web of cracks in the glass and the spray of blood.
It was 2:34 am.
The young woman had just bought a pack of cigarettes—”Merits in a box,” she’d said—and proceeded to light one up right in front of the register.
“You can’t do that here,” Sandeep said. He knew it was going to be a long night.
The girl responded to his scolding by blowing a cloud of blue, mentholated smoke toward the hotdog rollers. She was in her early twenties. Brunette with blue eyes and an aquiline nose through which she deftly French-inhaled her smoke. She was wearing a scoop front, leopard print tank top, distressed jeans, and high heels. Her makeup and jewelry looked as if she’d just left a nightclub, though the nearest venue was over four hours away in Albuquerque. “You gonna stop me, Hajji?” she asked.
“Miss, I don’t want any trouble.”
“You think I’m trouble?” She trailed her fingers along the Hostess display, knocking several fruit pies to the floor. She let out a high, barking laugh that rang loudly in the empty store. “That’s awesome! I’m trouble….troublesome…double-trouble. The girl your mother warned you about!”
“Please leave. Now,” Sandeep said.
“All right, there, Gandhi, don’t get your diaper in a twist.” She turned on her heel and pushed through the door.
Sandeep emerged from behind the counter and peered around the O-P-E-N sign to watch her cross the parking lot to her Toyota. The scent of her cigarette and perfume lingered. He stooped and restored the fruit pies to their rack and threw out five hotdogs.
The young woman climbed into her car but remained parked beside the pump. A tiny, blue cloud escaped through her window.
“You can’t smoke near the pumps,” Sandeep said to himself. He shook his head and bent to retrieve a rag out of a red bucket below the beverage station. He began wiping the Slushie nozzles when the shot fired.
“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
“A girl just shot herself in the parking lot!”
“Ok. Just stay on the line with me, sir. Where are you located?”
“On Route 70 east of Roswell. At the Kum & Go!”
“We’re sending someone now. Are you with the girl?”
“No! I’m calling you!”
“Where is she now?”
“She’s still in her car.”
“What is her condition?”
“Good God, woman! The back of her head is gone! She’s dead!”
“Please remain calm, sir. We’re sending someone out right now. Stay where you are.”
“All right.” The line disconnected and Sandeep thumbed the number for his manager, Dick Bliefnick. The call went immediately to voicemail.
“Boss, there’s been a shot, man! A woman shot herself! In the parking lot! I called 9-1-1 but you really need to get out here, man!”
Just then the door chimed and swung open. A large, hairy man dressed all in denim stepped inside. Sandeep hung up the phone and stared dumbfounded at the new customer and wondered if he’d seen the dead girl. “Busy night, huh?” the man said.
“Yeah…” said Sandeep, “…busy night.”
The man strolled up and down the aisles, idly taking his time with his selections. He had a full beard and an earring and black rigger’s boots. He had a blue bandana tied around his head, buccaneer style and whistled as he shopped—Three Dog Night’s Shambala, if Sandeep guessed right.
Sandeep glanced outside and saw a Kenworth parked on the far side of the parking lot. No trailer was attached to the rig and it looked like it was still running. The trucker would’ve walked right past the dead girl’s car to enter the store. It was a miracle he hadn’t noticed her—or had he?
When he’d made his selections, the trucker approached Sandeep and meticulously laid a package of Good ‘n’ Plenty, some Twizzlers, Corn Nuts, and a Red Bull before him.
He leaned on the counter with his arms slightly akimbo. The front of his denim jacket opened and Sandeep saw a 9mm in a leather holster under the man’s left arm.
“Will that be all?” Sandeep asked.
“And this,” he said. He plucked a pink, stuffed elephant from a rack. “He’s gonna look out for roadblocks and obstacles for me. Sit him right on the dashboard for good luck.”
Sandeep rang up his purchase while the trucker cradled the elephant to his cheek. His salt and pepper beard crinkled against the tag which read: “Webkins.” The elephant looked at Sandeep from the man’s shoulder with an accusatory stare.
“Wait. Give me a Mega Millions,” said the trucker. He laid a rumpled single on the counter. “I want these numbers: 33 84 22 10 37 71 and 9.”
“All right,” Sandeep replied. He took the bill and pulled up the numbers while the trucker cuddled the elephant some more. Sandeep reached subtly below the counter and fingered the knob of a cricket bat he kept there just for reassurance while he handed over the lottery ticket.
“Can I get the keys to your john?”
Sandeep reached above the cigarettes and retrieved a brass key chained to a broken broom handle. The trucker gathered his purchase in both arms, strode to the door, and pushed it open with his backside.
Sandeep went out the empty the trash by the pumps. (He needed to keep busy, but figured the can nearest the dead girl’s car could wait until they came for her.) The wind gusted from the southeast like a dusty hairdryer. The Milky Way stretched from the north horizon over the roof of the store. The neon sign that said, “Lotto” winked seductively on and off. A meteor traced a white line to the west and was gone.
A Mercedes had pulled up ten minutes before and still sat outside the carwash. The driver’s silhouette moved slightly in the sodium lights. As Sandeep was hauling a bag of paper towels and greasy Karl’s Jr. wrappers to the dumpster when he noticed the blood trickling out from under the restroom door.
He dropped the trash and banged on the door. “Hello?!” he cried. “Sir?! Are you all right in there?” He shook the handle. “Hello?!” Sandeep stood back and tried to avoid stepping in the puddle. Helplessly he took in the tableau: the dilapidated outbuilding, the grimy, locked door, the sublime darkness of the desert, and the blood. “God damn, Dick! I told you we needed another key!”
Red and blue lights cut through the darkness on the horizon. Sandeep turned and could see the cruiser still about two miles away across the flat skillet of the plain. “About time!” he said.
The cop broke down the restroom door first.
Inside, the trucker had eaten all of the Good ‘n’ Plenty, Twizzlers, half the Corn Nuts, and finished the Red Bull before he’d smashed the mirror and slit his wrists with a shard of glass.
“Good God, man!” whispered Sandeep. The cop rummaged through some papers on the floor in front of the dead trucker. He plucked up correspondence from a divorce lawyer and something from Teamsters Local 74 detailing severance benefits.
The cop whistled as he read the documents. “Christ, my union would give me so much more payout if I were to get the axe.” The lottery ticket fluttered from the cop’s hand to the edge of the sink. He picked it up, considered it, and turned to Sandeep. “Here,” he said and tucked the ticket into Sandeep’s shirt pocket right below the embroidered Kum & Go logo. He peered at Sandeep’s nametag. “You keep that, Sand…Deep. Maybe you’ll have better luck than he did.”
They searched the girl’s car next. The cop took in her outfit: the tight jeans, the high heels, the makeup. He made a show of peering down the front of her tank top to where one of her small breasts lay partially exposed. “She’s dressed to kill, ain’t she?” he asked Sandeep with a leer. The backseat was drenched in blood and the head restraint had been blasted apart by the gunshot. It looked like a boll of cotton or a cloud of powder thrown in a Holi festival.
The cop turned the key in the ignition. The speakers came alive and Katy Perry blasted out mid-roar. The cop snapped off the radio. “I hate that song,” he said. The young woman’s cell phone, which had been charging in the power jack, blinked on.
The cop retrieved it and scrolled through a recent series of texts. “Where u at fatty?” he read aloud.
“Still crying? LOL!”
“Why don u just die? Everyone hates u!”
“Ur clothes suck! Wherd u get them walmart?”
“Fat bitch!” He tossed the phone back on the passenger seat. “Guess we know who she dressed to kill, huh?”
“How awful…” said Sandeep.
The cop straightened. “All right. Let me call the coroner and I’ll meet you inside.” The cop flicked a piece of headrest foam from his sleeve as he sauntered over to his cruiser. The carwash started up and the Mercedes rolled slowly inside. Steam rose and floated away on the wind eastward towards Clovis and the Texas Panhandle.
Back inside the store, the cop made himself a cup of coffee. He shook three packets of Dixie Crystals into it then topped it off with the powdered bone dry creamer. He didn’t offer to pay for it.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” The officer sauntered up the magazine aisle and thumbed through the racks as he spoke.
“No. I’m from Mumbai,” replied Sandeep.
“That’s Bombay in English, right?” the cop replied. He plucked up a copy of Barely
Legal and made a show of trying to peer sideways through the plastic wrapper. “Sure.”
“Bombay, huh?” said the cop. “How far you’d say that is from here?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Sandeep. “It’s a twelve hour plane ride just to get from Mumbai to L.A.”
“Bombay to L.A. Huh. Funny how Columbus came to America looking for you guys. He still had a long way to go.”
“Did you work in a gas station before coming to the States?”
“No. I was a physicist.”
The cop looked nonplussed. “Why you working here?”
“I’m waiting on my security clearance to work in Los Alamos, but being a foreign national makes the process longer.”
“Got any family?”
“A wife and daughter, back in Mumbai.”
“Huh.” The cop scrutinized a section of young, female flesh at the corner of the magazine. “Play any sports?”
“For a while I was a semipro cricket player.”
“Cricket? What’s that? Like baseball?”
“No. It’s nothing like baseball.”
“How do they handle suicides back home for y’all?”
“How do they handle them?”
“Yeah, like, is it illegal? Will you go to hell for it? Or is it like Japan where you off yourself after missing someone’s birthday?”
“No. For Hindus, suicide is not acceptable because it is like a murder. But there is Prayopavesa, which is fasting to death, but that is only acceptable for people who have no will to live or responsibilities or family or children.”
“Starving yourself? That’d take too long. You’d have to be pretty committed to pull that one off.”
“I think these people were very committed,” said Sandeep, gesturing toward the parking lot.
“What about lighting yourself on fire?”
“That’s called Suttee. Widows would throw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. They don’t do that anymore.”
Just then the carwash alarm went off. The cop peered over the top of the magazine. The alarm shrieked insistently from behind the counter. The trouble light strobed from atop the carwash shed and washed the desert scrub across the highway. Sandeep stepped behind the counter and snapped off the alarm as the cop pushed through the door.
Inside the wash the soap wands frothed from where they had retracted to the ceiling during the emergency shutoff. The air was thick with steam and cleaning fluid. Sandeep and the cop stepped through the ankle-deep puddles to where the Mercedes sat tilted at an awkward angle.
As they came around the front end Sandeep spotted the guy’s leg. It was folded up into the driver’s side fender. The drainage trough was opaque with blood.
“Holy shit!” cried Sandeep as he took in the grisly scene.
“Is that an acceptable way to go in Bombay?” asked the cop. He crouched down on his haunches for a closer look. The guy had apparently left his vehicle and laid face down in the tracks while the carwash pulled the car forward. He had shoved a brand new Ping driver through the wash’s safety lever. Whether he hoped to drown himself, crush himself, or foul the carwash’s works with himself, who knew?—but he got all three.
“Holy shit, man!” cried Sandeep. The front wheel had rolled over the guy’s ass and crushed his spine and ribcage before splitting his skull like a ripe avocado. His belt had gotten caught in the brake rotor and pulled his backside and legs up inside the wheel well and around the tire like dough around a rolling pin.
The cop stood back up, using the hood of the Mercedes to steady himself. “Guess I better tell the coroner to bring another truck.”
“Your call is being answered by an automated voice message system. Dick Bliefnick. Is not available. At the tone please record your message. After you are finished, you may simply hang up or press pound for more options.”
“Dick! Answer your fucking phone, man!”
The door chimed and the cop entered the store again. This time, disconcertingly, he had his shotgun with him. “Well,” he said, “I told dispatch we got a trifecta out here now.”
“What’s taking so long?” asked Sandeep. He took hold of the cricket bat again and only then realized his hand was shaking.
“Dunno,” said the cop. “But I found repo papers for the Mercedes and a foreclosure notice for a ranch in Santa Fe in the last guy’s car.”
The cop strode to the counter. He noticed a small, golden figurine seated on top of the register. He was seated in a full lotus position and had four arms, and an elephant’s head. The cop picked the figurine up. “Who’s the “little elephant guy?” he asked.
Sandeep replied, “That is Ganesh. He is the remover of obstacles.”
“What obstacles are you hoping he’ll remove?” the cop asked as he laid the figurine back on the register.
“What do you mean?” asked Sandeep.
“I mean, what do you want him to help you with? Getting your clearance? Getting out of this shithole? Getting your wife and kid?” The cop switched his rifle to his other shoulder.
“Sure. I guess,” said Sandeep.
“You said you had a daughter, right, Sand-Deep?” he asked. “Yes.”
“Yeah, mine was about four when she was shot.”
“What did you say?”
“She found my gun…and she got shot.”
“I’m so sorry….”
“That’s my obstacle, Sandeep. My. Obstacle.” He dropped the rifle down into both hands. “Can Ganesh remove my obstacle for me?” Sandeep grasped hold of the cricket bat. “I would love to have your obstacles, Sandeep.” The cop looked up and down the length of his weapon, considering it lovingly. "You know what else I love?”
“…No,” whispered Sandeep.
“Chamber music.” Sandeep’s brown furrowed. He stepped slightly back from the counter, making no attempt to hide the bat now. “This is my instrument,” the cop said, hoisting the rifle. “It’s like a violin ready to play dirges at our funeral.” Sandeep raised his bat. “I cradle it to my shoulder and draw my hand across it like a bow.” He pulled the pump back deftly and a round entered the chamber with a loud clack. “Hear that? It’s like music. Chamber music.”
Sandeep swung the cricket bat before the cop had a chance to level the barrel in his direction. He swung it with more force than he’d ever used on strike back home. The bat connected with the rifle’s muzzle and knocked it towards the storefront window. The gun went off and the O-P-E-N sign exploded in a rain of pink and blue glass.
He brought the bat down across the cop’s arms and knocked the rifle to the floor.
Then he leapt over the counter and took off down the snack aisle faster than he’d ever run the pitches. The rifle went off and struck the display nearest his right shoulder, powdering the Doritos, as Sandeep burst outside.
In the parking lot Sandeep turned back to the store to see the cop coming through the door. Holding only the cricket bat, Sandeep took in his options: the bat, the pistols in the restroom and the dead girl’s car, and the four vehicles. The Mercedes was too fouled with its late driver’s body. The driver’s seat of the Toyota was still occupied. Sandeep couldn’t drive a semi.
“You know what, Sandeep?” asked the cop. He crossed the lot toward the pumps. “I think your Ganesh is gonna remove my obstacle tonight.” He grasped the hose still plugged into the young woman’s car and withdrew the nozzle. “I think that Suttee is my ticket.” He pressed the trigger on the handle of the nozzle and baptized himself in premium unleaded. “I should’ve been the dead one!” he shouted. The gas dripped from his outstretched arms. “It should’ve been me! If my little girl was cremated, I would have crawled in there with her!”
“What are you doing, man?!” cried Sandeep. The cop pulled a Zippo lighter from his breast pocket right beside his gleaming badge.
“No! Please don’t!”
The cop flicked on the lighter. He blossomed into a lotus of flame with his arms still outstretched like Agni accepting a sacrifice. The orange tongues rose to the ceiling of the canopy and blackened it with pork-flavored smoke. The cop dropped to his knees and slumped forward onto the pavement at the rear of the Toyota. Sandeep stared in horror. Then he noticed the fire from the cop’s body was reaching the gas nozzle that lay on the ground near his feet. Suddenly, Sandeep awoke from his stupor of shock. The flames licked at the end of the gas line and the pyre of the dead cop stood between him and the emergency shutoff inside.
Sandeep dropped the cricket bat and leaped into the cop’s cruiser. He slammed it into gear and stomped the accelerator as the first of the pumps exploded. He swerved and fumbled the door of the cruiser closed as the speedometer neared eighty and the darkness of the night swallowed him whole.
Through the rearview mirror, Sandeep could see the burning gas station illuminating the desert like a giant lantern. The radio murmured something in the corner of his hearing. “Tonight’s winning Mega Millions numbers are: 33 84 22 10 37 71 and 9….”