Content warnings: death, gun violence

My acid reflux reared its ugly head often, but it couldn’t had come at a worst time—facedown on the floor while an armed heist happened around me. In fact, I’d only been two steps away from the antacids aisle when the two masked gunpeople had stormed into the Walgreens.

“Everyone get on the floor!” one of the gunpeople said. I say “people” because the first gunperson’s voice cracked high on the word “floor.” Gunman didn’t seem like a suitable label. But also because, I’d found out soon enough, the other gunperson was a woman.

They waved their guns about and people hit the floor, including me.

“We don’t want any trouble! You understand me?” the gunwoman said. “If you listen to our instructions, you will not die.”

“That doesn’t mean nobody isn’t gonna die!” the gunboy cut in.

“I was getting to that, Elijah. Jesus Barbara Christ, shut the hell up and start with the Halloween candy aisle.”

I heard shuffling of feet, and plastic wrappings crinkling as the heisters tossed items into a garbage bag.

My gut started burbling with a real ferocity as I squinted my eyes closed and inhaled in the floor cleaner. As often happens when death is within reach, a thousand thoughts cascaded through my mind all at once. I thought about Lina, my wife—we’d been having real troubles lately, in all departments, if you catch my drift. Mostly, she wasn’t happy that I’d quit my job a couple weeks ago at that copy store. But she was a bookkeeper for chrissakes. I’d seen her cushy little office attached to that Baptist church, where she sucked on Werther’s all day. She didn’t have to deal with customers. Customer service was a stone’s throw away from being a ditchdigger. I would know because I’d done both.

“Did you get Kit Kats?” the gunwoman screamed.

“I don’t know,” the gunboy responded.

“I’ll be pissed if we get back to our rendezvous point and there isn’t Kit Kats. I will lose it on you.”

I also thought about our daughter, Kimmy, who’d just turned sixteen and called me a deadbeat the other day. Don’t get me wrong—I love her to death. I’ll always say my best memory in life was holding her for the first time. She was cuter than a whimpering puppy, but her value beyond that? I’d never witnessed her do a lick of work in her sixteen years on planet Earth, not so much as pick a piece of trash off the floor. All she did these days was complain about how we never had any money—and that she wasn’t able to maintain her social life if she was wearing jeans from Walmart.

The heisters moved to the adjacent aisle—the greeting card aisle. “Get some Mother Day’s cards, Elijah. I’m sick of buying that shit.”

“What are you doing?” a man’s voice boomed from the pharmacy section.

“Hey!” Elijah screamed, his voice cracking again. “Down on the floor!”

“That’s stupid,” the man said. “I got a bus to catch.”

“Get on the floor right now, or I will pop you!” the gunwoman screamed.

“You heard her!”

Then the ear-piercing crack of a pistol sounded, and I jumped a mile. A woman lying prone in front of me, right near the Tums, moaned, and then started reciting a Hail Mary underneath her breath.

“You see!” the gunwoman said. “That’s what happens when you don’t obey the rules, folks. You get shot.”

“Any other volunteers out there feel they need to exercise their First Amendment rights?” Elijah said.

“Shut up. Nobody is scared of you anyway. Get some of those Barbies while you’re at it. I can sell those on Ebay.”

At this point, the burning sensation from my acid reflux blazed like a gasoline-drenched bonfire. A river of stomach acid went all the way from my tongue down to the pit of my stomach. A salty taste lingered in the back of my mouth. If I didn’t get Tums pronto, vomiting was not far around the corner. And I didn’t think gunwoman and gunboy would like that very much.

More random thoughts bounced around my head. Dr. Levitz surfaced and took center stage. Three weeks ago had been my first doctor checkup in sixteen years. “It could be cancer,” he’d said after I mentioned my acid reflux. “We will need to conduct an esophagogastroduodenoscopy.”

“Huh?” I’d responded, thinking my doctor had short-circuited for a moment and spewed out all his medical jargon in a single breath.

“We feed a little camera down your mouth, so we can have a look at what’s going on in there.”

Hell no, I’d thought but did not say. Later that evening, I’d told Lina that the doctor said I was fine and wouldn’t need to come back for five years.

Since then, my stomach issues had gotten bad, real bad. Like hot oil being poured down my gullet. My stomach rumbled and groaned and squelched and sputtered and grunted. A Beethoven symphony of gastrointestinal soundscapes.

“I think this is wrong,” an elderly lady suddenly declared from somewhere in the store. “People here are working to make their hard-earned money while you’re stealing their stuff.”

Dammit to hell, people don’t know when to shut up, I thought, cradling my stomach, almost wishing they’d just shoot the woman to get this over with. I only needed to scoot ten feet in front of me for some acid relief.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the gunwoman said. “You want to die because of labor equality?”

“I don’t ca—”

Another piercing gunshot. Another round of Hail Marys in front of me.

“What in the hell is your problem?” the gunwoman said.

“What? She was talking . . .” Elijah said.

“She’s an elderly woman! You can’t— Just never mind. Go gather up the Nyquil and let’s get the hell outta here.”

My heart was pounding, about to dislodge from my chest. I thought of my wife and daughter again. They would be sad if I died, right? Surely they would cry. I might be a deadbeat but I offered them something, right? At the very least, they’d put a little effort into the funeral—a brief eulogy, flowers, a potluck dinner afterward, even if they were the only two people in attendance.

A silence ensued as the heisters navigated through the store—just enough of a window for my burbling stomach to make its presence known.

“What’s that noise?” the gunwoman asked.

The pain was nearly unbearable. I couldn’t shake the image that a colony of fire ants had made my throat their home. And it was my damn fault, through and through. I just couldn’t resist having that spicy chicken sandwich for lunch. I knew the havoc it would wreak; that’s why I’d left for Walgreens before the heartburn started.

“It sounds like a dog growling,” the gunboy said as my stomach continued to gurgle.

A pest, that’s what my wife had called me during a heated argument long ago. I hadn’t thought about her words for all these years until now, during this acid reflux episode at a Walgreens heist. Was I a pest? A pest? Seemed harsh, the more I thought about it, but I did call her a psycho in that same fight.

A deep burp escaped my lips.

“Who’s burping during a robbery?” the gunwoman said. “Elijah, find where that’s coming from.”

The gunboy stalked about the aisles. My gut noises had grown to a cacophonous level. Not even I’d heard it emit such unholy sounds.

I writhed in pain and turned onto my back, knowing that my decision to get that spicy chicken sandwich was my death knell. I’d might as well try to make a break for the Tums, but I couldn’t even move. Whatever was happening inside of me was reaching a fever pitch.

The tumor. Which I was now imagining as my dead father’s reincarnation. My acid reflux had started after my father’s death, so there you go. Leave it to Senior to come back and not haunt me as a ghost—but as a tumor. That’s exactly what Pops would do, the more I thought about it. He loved the long game when it came to discipline—he loved to draw out his family’s suffering. Silent treatment when he was pissed at you, until one day you’re eating cereal and you hear him whispering behind you: You aren’t worth anything in this life.

“We got, like, a minute left. It doesn’t matter. Just come help me,” the gunwoman called out.

“I’m coming. Wait a sec. Burping is talking, in my opinion.”

Death—it’s got that eerie way of stripping you down if you come into close contact with it. And that’s what happened to me. I started sobbing. At the shame of how I’d treated my family. At the pain from my stomach. At knowing that I was about to die because of a spicy chicken sandwich. As tears waterfalled down my cheeks, my stomach thundered like it’s never thundered before—a Honda before, now a Dodge Hellcat. Another wet burp splattered out of my mouth.

“It’s this disgusting dipshit over here,” Elijah said, approaching me.

“Just hurry up. We got thirty seconds left,” the gunwoman called from the pharmacy area. “I got some Xanax and Valium, and once I get Plan-B, we gotta run.”

Elijah’s combat boots stomped my way, just as I discovered the bump, about six inches above my belly button, pushing against my skin. A rounded lump harder than a chunk of concrete. My daddy, I suppose, reborn to deaden my body one cell at a time.

The tumor.

Its excruciating pain radiated to all parts of my body, as if I were two breaths away from spontaneous combustion. The heat in my stomach and throat burned harder than the moonshine I used to guzzle by the Mason jar back at my construction job. I touched the lump, and it didn’t feel right. Tumors don’t pulsate, I was sure of that. But this tumor was certainly pulsating, trembling, convulsing.

When the boy pointed his gun at me, the lump’s migration started. Elijah saw it and froze as a result. I would have been dead already if it weren’t for the lump roiling up my belly and disappearing somewhere into my innards.

“What’s happening over there?” the gunwoman called out.

Elijah was shell-shocked, and I would have been, too, if it weren’t for the fact that my entire body felt like it was being ripped at the seams.

Yet somehow, through this agony, one of my earliest memories flashed in my mind—of when I’d witnessed my older brother stabbing another man with a switchblade. The gushing of blood had made my five-year-old mind curious, interested, intrigued: that we were nothing but sacs of flesh woven together by some miracle of wizardry. How we didn’t just disintegrate into a pile of guts had me fooled then, and it had me fooled now, as I felt that lump work its way up my esophagus. I grabbed at my throat, and young Elijah still didn’t know what was happening. He was still standing there like a deer in headlights, despite the urgent calls from his partner.

And that’s when the sensation of vomiting started. Dry-heaving, but with so much torque, I was certain I was regurgitating my intestines. All the blood vessels in my eyes popped at once, and the world went red. The lump was now perching atop my Adam’s apple. I was closer to death than I had ever been. An image came to mind. Of me standing at the edge of a cliff, ready to swan-dive into a black void below. Lina and Kimmy right behind me, urging me to take the leap, down-talking the reality of the situation, so as to trick me into believing that it would be better for myself and everyone if I plummeted into that unknown.

The lump filled my cheeks. Tasting like a sack of pennies, but slimy and boiling hot, a burning coal resting on my tongue.

Little Elijah, with shaky hands and terrified eyes, raised his pistol again, but I coughed, and the lump sprung from my mouth, landing on Elijah’s nose, steam rising off its gruel-colored skin.

In one quick motion, it expanded outward, forming a multi-fingered gray claw that clamped onto Elijah’s cheeks—first, ripping off the boy’s ski mask, and then in the same manner, removing poor little Elijah’s entire face, like slipping a cover off a lampshade.

Accompanied with Elijah’s gurgling scream was the lump screeching, the sound reminding me of that time I stomped on a mouse when I’d worked that pest control job. The lump then leapt off Elijah’s skull and scuttled past the woman. She gaped at in horror, out of Hail Marys apparently. Elijah’s body crumpled to the floor like a stack of dry wood.

“Where you at, Elijah?” the panicked gunwoman called. “Give me something.”

I heard, but did not see, what happened next. Another gurgling scream, another screech, some more scuttling, and finally dead silence.

The surviving five or so of us customers remained motionless. Waiting out that frosty silence. I knew what we were all thinking: Did the lump fulfill its mission, or was it lurking around the corner? We did not stir, we did not make a peep—we didn’t so much as take a breath. Collectively, we were encased in ice.

And after a long while, as I heard the police chopper arriving in the distance, a calmness floated upon my nerves. It was easier to breathe, I realized. Easier to swallow my spit, easier to move my body and clear my throat. For the first time in a long time, my acid reflux was gone.

Never had I felt so eager to rise up from this place and get the hell home.

I couldn’t wait to tell my family that I’d beaten death.

Ryan T. Jenkins (he/him) is based in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and daughter. A former managing editor at Tor Books, he now runs his own freelancing business as a fiction copyeditor. His short stories have been published in Twelve Winters, Dark Horses, and Abandon Journal. Learn more about his writing at