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Story 3

Ana Gardner

Ever work the late shift at a convenience store? Me neither, but even if you did, I don't think you ever came up against what Frank Dobby did in Late-Night Customer. Earth has had to put up with some pretty zany extraterrestrial visitors, but in my opinion, Shraa takes the cake. Sit back, relax and enjoy....

Ana Gardner is a Pushcart-nominated speculative fiction author who originally hails from a small Balkan town. She now lives in the Eastern US and works as a scientist by day. Her works have appeared in Cast of Wonders, Planet Scumm, DSF, and others.


Late-Night Customer

By Ana Gardner


Frank Dobby had been night-shift manager at the Route 89 Shop-A-Lot for twenty-three years, and he thought he’d seen everything.

Shraa had been on Earth for point-oh-twenty-three planetary rotations, and they’d seen enough to know they wanted off the planet, immediately.

Unfortunately, Shraa’s shuttle needed repairs and fuel before it could go anywhere. Though its energy-engine had survived the rough landing, most on-board systems were fried. Shraa could do without mag-grav and autopilot in a pinch, but internal sensors and oxygen generators were non-negotiable.

Luckily, this wasn’t Shraa’s first time crashing onto a backwater, periphery planet. Clocking in at several billion industrial bipeds, Earth was likely enough to have the right supplies. All Shraa had to do was find them.

Luckily, resourceful acquisition was one of their specialties.

A four-lane highway cut through the woods where Shraa had landed. Headlights zoomed over the tops of trees, and the whirr of wheels and combustion engines promised nearby civilization. After climbing the shuttle for a better view, Shraa noticed large neon signs across the noisy road. 

 Shraa hadn’t bothered buying a visual translator. They cost twice as much as basic audio, and most galactic standard languages were haptic-based, anyway. But a shop looked like a shop anywhere in the galaxy. Bright colors, flashing signs. Come and let us sell you things.

Good a place as any to start.

Grabbing a laser-blade and a fistful of currency chips, Shraa engaged the camouflage mode on their suit. The suit’s database included thousands of planets, yet it had only a handful of customization options under Earth; barely anyone ended up this far off the civilized paths.

Shraa scrolled through the short list: gender, skin, eyes, clothes. Earth seemed oddly fixated on category-determined identity. Though, admittedly, Shraa’s databases were outdated. Hopefully, Earthings’ appearance hadn’t changed much over the last few hundred solar revolutions.

After brief deliberation, Shraa picked female (she/her), a tan skin-tone in the middle of the available spectrum, and running clothes. Any crash-landing on an uncivilized, periphery planet was certain to involve plenty of running.

The suit whirred into camouflage mode. Shraa stared at their long-fingered, clawed hand as it blurred, then reappeared looking thinner, paler, and with fewer digits.

“Hello.” They--oops, no, she/her--tasted the odd, high-pitched tone vibrating in the suit’s voicebox. “I am a female she/her woman human, from Earth.”


They grinned and headed toward the flashing neon signs.


Frank spotted the petite woman walking across the highway like it was her grandma’s garden, and for one awful moment he thought she was trying to die.

He was reaching for the phone to dial 911, when the woman skipped over the separator, waited for two cars to whirr by, then darted across the two south lanes and made it to the other side just before a semi passed her with an ear-splitting honk. She turned and waved, then skipped into the strip mall’s parking lot, while Frank swore out his panic through gritted teeth.

What the hell was wrong with kids these days?

He shook his head. Probably she’d snorted too much nutmeg or something. He’d heard from his neighbor that was a thing.

To his dismay, the woman veered toward the Shop-A-Lot. Frank hesitantly eyed the phone. A call to the cops would likely as not lead to more hassle, and though the woman was plainly a nutcase, any night-manager worth his salt knew how to tell tripping from dangerous.

The woman pressed her palms against several store windows, as though trying to materialize through, and she ‘ooh’ed in delight when she finally reached the doors and they slid open. 

Frank put the phone away. He’d sent everyone home but Billy, who was mopping floors in the cafe area, and Billy's sister Sylvie who was taking out trash in the back. The three of them could handle one woman, especially as she didn’t seem so much aggressive as exceedingly parted from her faculties.

She strolled in with a wide, uneven grin, like a kid at a Christmas-tree lighting in the town square. Frank was relieved to confirm she didn’t look armed; nor was she approaching with the skittish hunch of someone geared for mischief. Probably just some party goer with a bad case of the munchies. The college dorms sat just a couple miles away. 

She spotted Frank and made a beeline to his register, and he braced for impact.

“Sorry, Ma'am. I'm afraid we're closed for the night.”

“I just need some supplies.” She had an odd voice, lower than he'd expected, with an accent Frank couldn't place. Her face was unusual too. Oval, almost too oval, with eyes a little too big and far apart, and the neck an inch too long for her height. Like a beginner artist had painted her and messed up calculating her proportions a little.

She smacked her lips together, like she tasted something funny.

“I need... hmm. Nitrogen, iron, electrolyte solution, a molecular sieve and a conductive battery. Oh, and food. You have food, right?” The woman grabbed a power bar from the register display and sniffed it. Frank didn't get to protest before she ripped the wrapper. “This'll do. A week's supply of these. Vary the flavors if you can. But nothing too sweet; I hate sweet.”

Frank cleared his throat. He hadn't worked there for decades without being prepared for every sort of wacky customer that came his way.

“Ma'am, I’m sorry, we're closed. If you can come back tomorrow morning ...You can keep the energy bar. Would you like me to call you an Uber? Ma'am, please put those back.”

She was sniffing at a lip balm, now. “What's an oo-ber?”

Maybe she was a foreigner. “A taxi. A car, to take you back to your house. Where you're staying –- no, ma'am, you can’t eat that!” The woman was about to bite into the checkout divider. Jesus. Frank sometimes wished he could give these new drugs a try.

She put down the divider and smiled at him. “I don't need a ride. I'm here in my shuttle. But I have to fix it. Point me to your repair section while you get my food together?”

Frank sighed. At least that explained why she'd stopped in the middle of the highway.  “We don't have a repair section, Ma'am. If your car’s broken, you can use the store phone to call AAA.”


Maybe she was Canadian.

“Roadside assistance. You're not from around here, are you?” They didn't get a lot of tourists in their neck of the woods, but the occasional road-tripper stumbled through. “Would you like to call AAA? Or perhaps call a friend?” He grimaced. The woman had bitten off half the power bar and was chewing it with her mouth open.

“This is good!” She swallowed, “I mean, probably toxic, but good. What is it? Sugar? You know, there are places that use sugar as shuttle fuel—”

“Are you from Canada?” Frank had heard they did funny things, there. Odd folk. “You got a bit of an accent, there.”

“Oh, that's probably the audio translator. Where did you say you keep the batteries?” The woman ambled past him, down the cleaning supply aisle. “Damn it. I can't read any of these labels. Would you mind reading them for me? What did you say your name was?”

“It's Frank, Ma'am. And I can't sell you anything, we've already closed out the registers. Why don't you let me call someone for you, if you need a ride? Ma'am –- no, please, you're not supposed to open that. Ma'am, please put that back.”

She'd started unscrewing lids off detergent bottles and smelling them. Frank groaned. It was past midnight, and he didn't feel like mopping spilled detergent off the floor.

“Ma'am, please put that back, or I'm afraid I'm going to have to call security.” A lie, as Billy and Sylvie hardly counted as security. Technically that was in Billy's job description, but Frank harbored no illusions about the kid's ability to handle anything.

The woman's expression tensed at the mention of security. “Now, Fronk. That’s not necessary. I just need some basic supplies for my shuttle, and I'll be out of your way. I know, I know, you're closed,” she waved a dismissive hand, “But you and I both know the first rule of business: never say no to a customer!” She grinned her misproportioned grin. “Please help me find the supplies to fix my ride, and I'll make it worth your while.”

Oh, dear.

“Everything alright, Frank?” Sylvie appeared at the far end of the aisle, holding a mop in her hand like a spear, dripping head angled warily at the newcomer.

Frank liked Sylvie. She was ten times sharper than her good-for-nothing brother, and one of the few people he could truly rely on to run the store.

“All good, love. Just helping out the last customer of the day. Can you help Billy lock the doors?” If the woman had friends, Frank didn't want any more of them wandering the aisles sniffing detergents. “Alright, ma'am. Why don't you tell me what supplies you need, and we'll see what we can do?”

He'd learned that rule of business a long time ago: easier to give in than get into a prolonged argument with a customer.

“Nitrogen,” said the woman. “Iron. Conductive battery ...oh, these look about right.” She picked up a box of sanitary pads off the shelf, “Are these silica sieves?”

Frank sighed. He'd have a good story for Alice, when he got home. “Ma'am, those are--”

A flash of light erupted outside the window. Frank frowned: it looked like a shooting star, streaking across the sky, only brighter, much brighter, and larger, and slower. It drew a half-arc over the woods, before it went out of sight. “What ...? Huh. Hey, Sylvie, did you see that?”

“Some kind of meteor?” Sylvie called from the door. “Or some kids lost control of their drone.”

“It’s not a meteorite.” The woman’s uneven face had grown alarmed. “I was hoping this wouldn’t happen.”

“What wouldn’t happen?” Frank scowled. “What was that?”

“Trouble.” She pulled a slick gadget from out of nowhere -- Ye gods, these new phones were getting weirder by the day. -- and tapped its screen. “Apparently, my jamming device isn't as good as what I paid for. Ugh, I can't believe they tracked me all the way to this hole!” She huffed, “You steal one little data crystal, and suddenly you're the galaxy's most wanted.”

Frank choked. “Track you? Wanted?!”

“Fronk, I really need those supplies, now.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Believe me, the sooner I get off this planet, the better for everyone. The Grumm Alliance doesn't care about jurisdiction or discretion. Where are your conductive batteries?”

Frank mentally cursed out Billy again for not locking the doors.  


Shraa cursed out Prime Grumm and his band of thugs for shooting their shuttle off course and dogging them all the way to this dingy planet. And it wasn't even the Grumms’ data crystal Shraa had taken!  Prime Grum had stolen it first, from the First Federation's archives. Shraa was simply …repossessing.

They checked the reading on their sleeve pad. The camouflage suit should hide them from the Grumms' scanners, but the store, with its giant neon lights, wasn’t exactly stealthy. Even Grumm thugs could track if there was a huge sign flashing ‘Come Here’ right in front of them.

“Ma'am.” The Earth seller Fronk was backing up slowly, looking like a frightened Apsaran bullfrog. “Perhaps it was best if you uh, came back during business hours ...”

Honestly. What kind of businessman kicked out a customer? Shraa pulled out a handful of metal chips and crystals from their pocket and tossed them at him.

 “Here. I'm sure some of this is Earth currency. Pick it and help me get what I need to fix my oxygen generators before those goons find my ship.”

“Ship? Earth currency?” Fronk scowled. “Is this one of those you-tube things? Are you part of some sort of show? Because you know I'm supposed to get advance notice, and I certainly never agreed to anything after hours... Hey! Please put those back! Stop!”

Shraa had begun to pick things off the shelves, sniffing for the right materials. In a pinch they could do without the molecular sieve. But they needed a new battery for sure, and definitely had to replenish the nitrogen supply, plus get a tankful of water ...

“Are these diamonds?” Fronk was picking through the handful of currency chips. “Listen, er, ma'am. Ma'am. I wasn't notified of any sort of game going on, and I'm not authorized to approve this -- you can't drink the sunflower oil, ma'am!!”

Oil! Shraa’s shuttle wasn't old enough to still need oil, but they could improvise some sort of combustion-based ignition if the Grumms were using a dampening field. Couldn't hurt to have it just in case.

“Okay, now iron.” They looked at Fronk. “You know what iron is, right? I need that.”

He sighed. “There's some over-the-counter tablets in Aisle three.”

“That thing in the sky’s gone.” Another human appeared behind Fronk, while Shraa headed for what they hoped was Aisle 3. “Could’ve been some sort of military plane?”

“It’s a Grumm tracker ship,” Shraa called back. “Don't worry about it. As long as I fix my shuttle soon, they won't bother you.”

The second human made a strangled noise in Fronk's direction. It had a higher-pitched voice and smelled like of organic compounds. A female (she/her), likely. “What's a Grumm?”

“I don't know!” Fronk sounded exasperated. Poor Earthling. Shraa might've felt bad, but if he'd just given up the supplies from the start, they wouldn't be here. “Look, do you know about any sort of game or show or something going on? Anything at your college?”

“Not that I know of. Maybe it's one of those internet challenges. Are those real diamonds?”

“Of course they're not real diamonds.”

“Of course they're real!” Shraa called out from the next aisle. “I don't stoop to counterfeit currency!” The nerve.

They stuffed several containers into their suit pockets and picked up two large containers of water, which was all they could carry without the additional limb appendices they’d left back on the shuttle. 

“Alright, I got everything except the battery and the nitrogen. Your batteries are no good; I need something bigger. I saw combustion vehicles outside. You must have proper batteries for those?”

“Combustion vehicles?” The female Earthling blinked. “Do you mean cars?”

“Yes, exactly, cars -- oh, no.” Shraa spotted three familiar silhouettes outside the shop windows. “Damn, they’re quick.”

Fronk and the female turned to look. Shraa could tell the exact moment when they registered that the tripedal cyclopes outside weren't human. Their jaws dropped. Their eyes widened. Typical periphery-biped response to shock. Their hearts picked up, and so did their sweat glands.

“Don’t worry,” said Shraa. “They can't scan through my cam suit. So if you just pretend I work here and that you know me, we can send them off on the wrong ...oh, come on!”

The Grumms had held up a palm-scanner, and pointed it straight at Shraa.

Three angry eyes glared in her direction. Then they pulled their blasters and blew out the shop doors.

“Plan B! Plan B!” Shraa took off toward the door at the far end of the shop. “This is what I get for buying second-hand camouflage suits.” They ducked as a Grumm blaster blew out a row of shelves, and they ran out the door into a smelly back alley.


Frank found himself following the woman without having decided to do so. Instinct, he guessed. When someone attacks from the front, you run out the back.

The woman dashed past the dumpsters and ran toward the little lane that connected Shop-A-Lot’s parking lot with the drive-through of a Fast 'n' Greasy. Frank lumbered several steps behind, torn between the instinct to run and last year’s knee replacement that told him to stay.

“Billy!” Sylvie erupted out the back door, dragging her lanky brother behind. Frank grabbed her arm when she made to follow the woman. 

“Go the other way! Don’t follow her! They're after her!” Sylvie gave him the glazed-eyed look of someone who wasn't processing things right. “Left!” Frank ordered. “Run left! Get to Joe's Pizza!”

The only other place that would be open in their little plaza. If they'd heard the explosions, they were probably calling the cops right now.

“Go tell them what happened! Run!”

“What are those things?”

“I don't know!”

“Oh my god!” Sylvie went gray as she stared at the back door. The three intruders had come out: each seven feet tall, bulky gray bodies running on three legs. Three! Three arms stuck out of each body, and each face had only one giant eye in the middle of its meaty forehead.

Three round heads swiveled in Frank and Sylvie’s direction, and various arms brought up what looked like automated rifle weapons.

“Go!” Frank pushed Sylvie out toward Joe's Pizza as one of the tripods broke off toward them. “Hurry! I'll hold him off!”

And he began to hobble backwards out toward the parking lot, in the opposite direction.

Sylvia wasn't fast, by any stretch, but she shot off across the parking lot at a speed that might’ve won the Kentucky derby. Relieved, Frank turned to confront the bear-size tripod barreling toward him.

He should’ve retired, he thought vaguely, and gone on that senior Caribbean cruise Alice kept talking about.

The hulking monstrosity was nearly on him. As it raised its weapon, Frank thought of Alice, and the nice years they’d enjoyed together—

With a deafening metallic screech, a blinding light enveloped him and the monster alike. As a bulky shape burst from the darkness in a cacophony of metal and gravel, Frank cringed away, bringing an arm up to shield his face from the light.

The tripod made a shrill noise and stumbled back, weapon clattering against the ground.

A large SUV lumbered over the rest of the curb from the neighboring parking lot, slamming to a stop only inches from Frank’s knees. The driver’s door flew open.

“Get in, Fronk!” shouted the strange woman. She punched the wheel, honking and making the windshield wipers go off. “Oops. Don’t these vehicles have a weapons system? Hurry up and get in; the light won’t stall the Grumm for long!”

Frank clambered into the backseat, just as the tripod regained its footing. It stumbled away from the blinding headlights and reached for its dropped weapon. The woman stomped on the gas pedal and rammed the car into it. The grey body flipped over the hood with a howl.

Frank gasped. “Wha—

“Grumms don't like bright light.” The woman slammed the gas again, and the car lurched. “Giant pupils. They usually wear protective eye gear, but I'm guessing they thought they wouldn't need it at night. Oops. Hold on!”

The car went over another curb, then flew through the breakdown lane and landed right in the middle of the highway.

Frank made an inarticulate noise of terror. “Turn! Turn! No, not -- You're going the wrong way!”

He shrieked as a pair of headlights came at them at terrifying speed. The woman yanked the wheel, swerving to safety at the last second. Frank shrieked again. Another pair of headlights, then another. His throat was hurting. He wanted to say "Stop!", but couldn't get the words out.

The woman glanced back from the driver’s seat. “Relax, Fronk. This isn't nearly as hard as navigating an asteroid belt in a shuttle with fried auto-pilot. And I can’t let any native fauna die because of me, or there’ll be endless paperwork to file with the Guild, and they’ll up my insurance rates.”

The car lurched again, and somehow they were over the divider and across several more lanes. It took Frank a minute to start breathing enough to realize they'd pulled over into the woods across the highway. He managed to lean out a window before retching.

“Earthlings have no stomach for adventure, hm?” The woman huffed. “The Grumms won’t be far behind; they're pretty quick on their feet. I need you to take the battery out of this vehicle while I work on other repairs. Alright, Fronk? Great. Come on, my shuttle's just behind those trees.”

Half his body still hanging out the window, Frank stared at the remains of his dinner trailing slowly down the door of the SUV.


“I've never fixed anything this fast in my life.” Shraa had burned all twelve fingers and wouldn't smell anything except overloaded crystal for a week, but the generators were back in working shape. All they needed was the battery. “You done with that, Fronk? Fronk!”

“It's Frank.”

The Earthling had gotten his voice back, it seemed. But he still looked like someone who'd smoked a little too much dreamgrass. He lurched through the shuttle hatch to deposit a giant cube in her arms.

This is the battery? It’s huge!” Shraa shook their head, “You periphery bipeds, always so obsessed with size. Never mind, I’ll find a way to make it fit.”

They climbed back inside the cockpit and yanked out a clump handful of wires from under the main console. So much for climate control and automatic door locks. But they had to fit that damned battery in there to loop it into the shuttle’s systems.

“Is this some sort of prank?” Fronk had followed her inside. Frank. Not Fronk. The translator was being funny. Next time Shraa would steal a better one.

“Hand me that compensator, will you? The little round thing on the floor. There you go. Thanks.” Shraa adjusted the battery's output to what the oxygen generators needed; hopefully the fix would hold long enough to get off the ground. The Grumm couldn’t track the shuttle in space—their own vessel was too slow for that.

“Are you an alien?”

Fronk –- Frank, damn it -– was leaning against the wall. Squishing half of Shraa’s luminescent algae cells. The shuttle would be dim for days, until they regenerated.

“Hold this.” They handed him the compensator and crouched to check the battery again. “So Earth doesn’t know about the rest of the galaxy yet, hm? Don’t worry …you’ll all probably get a clue in another hundred solar revolutions or two. I heard some of the real-estate moguls were thinking of expanding into this sector. Hand me back that thing, thanks.”

They flicked the generators on, smiling at the familiar bubbling sounds. Great. They wouldn't suffocate while the Grumms tried to shoot the shuttle out of the sky.

The sky above the woods began to flash with various colors. Shraa squinted. “What are those lights?”

“Cops,” said Frank. “Police. Eh enforcement.” He shifted on the balls of his feet. “Sylvie must've called them. They'll be looking for...”

He sounded like someone not fully awake. Shraa snorted.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m used to evading law enforcement. Just -- uh oh.” Their ears picked up the footsteps before the sensors did. “Looks like our evening together's not over yet, Frank. Let me just activate -- oh, knots, I pulled out the cannon controls. Duck!”

They shoved Frank to the floor just in time: two Grumms had rolled out of the tree line. Their blasters charred the hull as Shraa pulled closed the shuttle’s hatch.

Damned three-legged sore losers.

Shraa threw themselves into the pilot's seat—“Hold on!”—and hit the ignition.

The shuttle sputtered a few times, but in the end the oversized Earthling battery did the trick. The engines lit up and propelled them upwards. Frank began to make screeching noises again, as the floor vibrated nicely under the engine pressure, and bangs from Grumm blasters punctuated their take-off. 


“Sto-o-o-o-o-p!” Frank staggered over to the woman, while something like weapons fire rocked the ship. “You can't!” He began to shake her shoulders, trying to get a hold of the controls. “I—Alice! I have a family! You can’t take me–I can’t—”

“Oh, do quit it.” She huffed, “You know how many life forms in this galaxy would be falling over their feet for a chance to be my copilot? Stop screeching, Frank. I'm not taking you anywhere. I can't afford a copilot's insurance pay, anyway. I’m just giving you a ride home.”

Frank watched open-mouthed as she moved her hands over a flashing panel, then put them on the crystal globe in front of her seat.

“There,” she said a moment later. “We're right above your shop. Sorry about the damage, by the way, but that currency I gave you should cover it. Go on now, hop off. Unless you changed your mind about becoming my copilot?” She winked. “You can use the emergency hatch to get off. Hurry up.”

Frank stumbled over to the door that had just slid open in the floor. Through it he could see grass and gravel. They were barely thirty feet above ground.

“Is this some sort of prank?” He glanced at the main console and the Jeep battery, then back at the woman. “Are you real? What are you? I knew you looked funny.”

“Of course I’m real. It’s this damned second-hand camouflage suit that looks funny. And you wouldn’t believe the itching. There.”

She pulled down the zipper of her jacket, and within the span of an eyeblink, she looked different. Her head was longer, her eyes farther apart and large like fly eyes. She had more… limbs. Frank shook his head. Was he seeing double?

Her uneven grin looked the same, though. Only her teeth were sharper.

“I'm Shraa.” Her voice sounded ...richer. Like there were more voices in one. “Nice to meet you. Now get off my shuttle before I charge you a transport fee.”

Frank kneeled awkwardly by the hatch. A ladder had appeared below. He gripped it tight, then glanced back up at Shraa. “What do you want on Earth?” His throat was dry. “Is this the end? Are you here to kill us?”

“I’m more into retrieval and reappropriation,” said Shraa, “not so much killing.”

“And those things? The ones who shot up the store?”

 “Grumm Alliance. A gang of intergalactic thugs. But don't worry, they don't care about Earth, either. They just wanted this.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out what looked like a rectangular shard of glass. “I reappropriated it from them recently.”

“What is it?”

Shraa flashed him a grin. “The First Federation's oldest archive. A long-lost database from the time civilization first evolved in the galaxy.” One oblong eye winked. “And my retirement fund, more importantly. So you know, all your trouble tonight was in the service of a good cause.”

Her laughing insect-like eyes were the last thing Frank saw before the ladder started moving, lowering him gently to the parking lot gravel. Once his shoes were firmly planted on the ground, the ladder rolled back up, and the shuttle vanished. 

Frank blinked. The night was silent again. The “O” in Joe's Pizza across the lot flashed a few times then burned out. The back door to Shop-A-Lot was open, and police lights reflected off the windows.

Above, the night sky showed only a few stars and some smoke stacks in the distance.

Frank fumbled in his vest pocket, getting out his dinged old iPhone. His hands were shaking as he tapped the cracked screen.

“Alice? It’s Frank. No, no, everything’s fine. I’ll just close up and head home.”

He took a deep breath, smiling at the sound of her quiet, soothing voice. She’d never believe him when he told her what happened that night. Well—she would, but part of her, Frank suspected, would be keeping an eye out for signs of senility.

“I was thinking,” he told her. “How would you like to take that cruise to the Caribbean next month? Yeah. I think I’m ready to retire.”

A light streaked above, like a falling star going in reverse. Shraa, thought Frank. Shraa and that Jeep battery. Good old homemade gear saved the day.

His shoe stuck to something gooey on the pavement. Frank looked back down. A piece of pasty-gray flesh, right next to dark skid marks.

“Yeah, I’m still here. No …” He stuck a hand in his pocket, pulling out a handful of small, glittering diamonds. “You know, I don’t think money’ll be a problem.”

He slowly drew the tip of his shoe across the gravel. The last of the Grumm mixed with dirt and pebbles into an indistinct smear that would be gone by morning, and Frank brushed off the hem of his shirt and ambled back to the door of the Shop-A-Lot.





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