“Expiration Dates” by Erik C. Martin

“Mmm. I think this is the best coffee I’ve ever drank,” Heck said.

His wife of a month, Cassidy, smiled. “You said the same thing last Saturday.”

“And I’ll probably say it again next Saturday.”

Heck took another sip and waited for his cinnamon raisin English muffin to toast. The house smelled like morning.

Cassidy opened the fridge. She pulled out the guacamole, checked the label, and chucked it into the trash. She did the same with a yogurt.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Cleaning out the refrigerator before I shop. They were expired.”

She took out his milk.

“Not that!”

“It expires today.” She opened the jug and poured the milk into the sink. “Sorry. I don’t want you getting salmonella.”

His muffin popped up more burnt than he liked it. “I was going to have cereal.”

“Use my milk,” she said as she checked the Dijon mustard.

“Your milk is lactose free.”

“It’s good.” She tossed out half a bag of tortilla chips.

“The milk wasn’t even past the date. And you know those dates don’t mean anything. They’re just suggestions. Food is good long after it,” he made finger quotes, “expires.”.

She shook her head. “I’m not going to eat bad food. That’s how you get sick.”

A third of a bottle of ranch dressing went into the trash, now dangerously full.

###

Monday. Cassidy asked Heck to stop at the grocery on the way home from work and get a can of beets for a salad. He’d driven up to Alpine to see a new client and needed gas. The mountain roads were empty. He drove ten miles before he saw a gas station. He could tell the building was supposed to be white, but years had turned it mottled gray. The parking lot held not a single car. But a sign on the door proclaimed they were ‘OPEN’ in big red letters. Good enough! Heck pulled in, hopped out, and whipped out the plastic. Black electrical tape covered the credit card reader.

“Darn it. Making me go inside like a schmuck,” he said to himself.

A bell dinged above the door. A white-haired man wearing sunglasses sat behind the counter reading a newspaper, an actual newspaper! He never looked up when Heck entered. He was so still he might have been asleep. He might have been dead. The store smelled like week old hotdog water and burnt plastic. Heck spied an aisle with canned food and other gas station groceries. He shrugged. It couldn’t hurt to look.

Green beans, lima beans, mixed veggies, corn, aha…beets!

Heck grabbed the lone, dented can. Not the usual brand. No big deal. Canned beets were canned beets. Thinking of Cass, he glanced at the date.

“Yowch.”

Well, they weren’t that expired. Easily within the Heck margin of error. He had his markers in his work bag and a steady hand.

It would be simple to make that six look like an eight…

He took the can to the register. The old man looked up from his paper. Heck saw the headline–OBITUARIES. The man took the can in his bony fingers and glanced at the label. He looked at Heck over the top of his sunglasses and smiled, revealing teeth that looked like grains of brown rice.

“Anything else?”

“Twenty in gas.”

The man rang it up, smiling throughout like he had just remembered the most amusing joke.

###

Heck tried not to grin while Cassidy ate her salad. The doctored can had passed muster though she had remarked on the off-brand.

“These better not be from Wal-Mart.” She fingered the dent, frowning.

He assured her they weren’t. She thanked him for stopping at the store.

His own salad had no beets, no broccoli, no celery, or cucumbers. It was lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, and croutons, basically a cheeseburger minus the meat.

After dinner he helped Cassidy clear the table and clean the kitchen. He was drying when she caught him smirking at her.

“What is so funny?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“Come on, spill it!”

“Okay. I played a little joke. I’m not sure how funny you’ll think it is. Those beets you ate, they were totally past their expiration date.”

“What? No, I checked.”

“I changed the date with a marker. Pretty good job, huh? They were fine. You ate them and never noticed.”

She threw the sponge into the sink, splashing him with suds.

“You ass!” Cassidy stormed out of the kitchen.

Heck started to go after her, but stopped himself. He had learned that if he chased her now, they would end up in a fight. The trick was to wait fifteen minutes before starting the apology process.

He picked up a plate and started to scrub. After a few minutes, from the living room Cassidy yelled, “I feel dizzy! There was something wrong with those beets!”

“It’s in your head. You were fine until you knew they were old.”

She didn’t say anything. He ran hot water over the skillet and scraped off food with a plastic spatula. From the bathroom, the unmistakable sound of retching.

She’s making herself sick. The drama! This might take more than fifteen minutes.

THUD!

What the hell?

“Honey?”

“Sweetie?”

Nothing.

Heck put down the sponge and went to the bathroom.

Cassidy was sprawled out on the floor: foamy crimson rivulets ran out of her mouth and formed a small puddle on the white tile. The toilet was filled with red liquid.

Is that from the beets?

“Cass! Are you okay?”

She was not okay. Cassidy wasn’t breathing.

“Oh my God. Cass, hold on!”

Phone, where was his phone? Living room.

“I’m going to get help!”

He ran to his phone. His hands shook but he managed to dial 911. He nearly forgot his address but stammered it out to the dispatcher.

“Hurry! She’s not breathing.”

The dispatcher said something, but Heck hung up, oblivious. He hurried back into the bathroom and rolled his wife onto her back.

What do I do? Rescue breathing…how does it go? Check her airway.

Cassidy’s eyes popped open. They were blood red.

“You’re alive! Thank God!” He leaned in to hug her. Her mouth opened and he caught a glimpse of jagged teeth.

She lunged for his throat. He jerked back and she missed the major artery. Sharp teeth sank into the meat above his clavicle.

“Ahh! Get off!” She clung to him like an animal, but he finally pushed her off and scrambled to his feet. She snarled at him from all fours. Hand pressed to his bleeding wound, he retreated into the living room.

Cassidy stood stiffly, like someone shaking off the rigor of sleep. Head down, she charged. Heck ran, right out the front door slamming it behind him. Cassidy screamed on the other side, a sustained, frustrated wail. She pounded  against the door so hard it rattled in the frame. Doorknobs had become a challenge.

He was half a block away. The bite throbbed. Suddenly dizzy, Heck staggered and held a tree to steady himself. Sirens in the distance, getting closer.

A wave of nausea ripped his core. He vomited onto the sidewalk, dark red and foamy.

The End

Erik C. Martin writes books for YA and middle-grade readers, but loves to write short stories of various genres for adult readers. Erik is a member of SCBWI and the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild. He lives and writes in San Diego, CA. Originally from Cleveland, OH, he still carries a snowbrush in his car.

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Erik C. Martin, Author