IT HAPPENS LIKE THIS: the blonde ahead of us—nineteen, maybe twenty—drops a nickel and bends to scoop it up. She brandishes that ripe-to-bursting firmness women around here experience only once before babies, beer, or slighted time snatches it away.

   She is more than an incident of well-formed flesh. She is a door left cracked to somewhere better, a happier me, a happier life.  She’s transcendence tucked away in temporality, a promise available but inexplicably unredeemed. Or, maybe—because hell if I know— she’s just a decent looking girl who happened to be in the supermarket on an overcast Tuesday evening. Does it really matter?

   Here is the Truth: I am, right then and there, ready to throw it all away—to sell my daughter into slavery, to take my wife by her hair and throw her into an abyss, to empty my savings account, to lose limbs, gouge out eyes, take a bullet to the gut, or surrender the promise of eternal life and blessing, anything, for one shot at what’s inside those jeans. Here is the wretched Truth stripped free from all its lacquer: what a man calls virtue has no traction in the light of his lust; and what he calls self-control is only the lack of opportunity mixed with the fear of failure.

   I am sorry to have to think such honest things. It was easier before.

   My ambivalence perplexes me. Relative to most men of my generation I am good. I am honest, and I am faithful, and I am decent, but right now I am also ready to run, to leave and never look back, to commit myself so thoroughly to this stranger that I erase all memories of my former life the way a called-home soldier blots outs images of war.

   There is a truth I’ve spent my life denying and here it is: some words I said in a church a long damn time ago and a piece of metal on my finger are a paltry defense against the things inside my mind.

   I never do the things I dream.

   I never carry my true thoughts to their logical conclusions.

   I desire but never do.

   The blonde gets her nickel. She straightens up, tossing her long hair over her back as she does. She hands the coin to the cashier, and then, quickly, almost too quickly to be registered, she flicks a sideways gaze at me, a look lasting no more than half of half of a second, but a look which, if I’m not mistaken, plainly says, “It is okay. I understand. And it’s okay.”

   It is a look with a future.

   Only I’m not left to consider it for long. As she zips up her purse and readies to leave, I’m jarred by the cry of my two-year old daughter, who is standing inside the cart and attempting to hoist a gallon of milk onto the conveyor belt.  

   “Daddy help!” she screams, her tiny arms shaking beneath the bulbous white mass.

  “Boyd!” barks Angel, who, depending on the angle, may or may not have noticed the blonde. Although the conveyor belt is full and the cashier is still waiting for the blonde’s receipt to print, Angel continues to yank items from the cart and stack them atop other items with a frantic kind of urgency. Her motions are jerky and seem angry. There is, I notice, no one behind us.

   I help my daughter lift the milk, placing it on top of a microwaveable pizza, which, itself is stacked on top of several cereal boxes. Boxes of bars, bags of chips, and too many cans to count: our weekly needs are far from modest. At the moment, none of it looks consumable.

   “Dammit,” Angel whispers, tossing a pack of breakfast pastries onto the belt.

   “What?” I say.

   “I forgot the eggs,” she says, slapping her hands down on her thighs.

   The cashier’s computer spits out a receipt, but the blonde waves it away. She grabs her groceries, which, as far as I can see, consist only of a bottle of wine, a head of lettuce, and bar of chocolate. She turns to leave. The simplicity seems emblematic, but then everything here does.

   “Daddy, help!” my daughter screams, pressing her stomach into the cart’s edge and frantically waving both arms in my direction.

   “I knew I forgot something,” Angel says.

   “Thank you, come again,” the cashier says, smiling, to the blonde.

   I pivot and watch her exit. With the blend of Angel’s whispered cursing and “daddyhelpdaddyhelpdaddyhelp!” ringing in my ear, I watch her walk through the automatic doors and out into the grey-tinged world. She stops abruptly at the edge of the parking lot, noticing, as I do, that it has begun to rain. She does not cover her head or sprint for her car. Instead, she strolls across the lot, arms calmly swinging, hips bouncing side to side as if without a care in the world. I watch the large, gray drops speckle the fabric of her white jeans. It hurts, almost physically, to watch her walk away.

   I hurt but never have.

   “Boyd!” Angel shouts.

   “What?” I say, spinning around.

   I’m cocked and ready to fire off a vicious reminder that not only do we have no one behind us but, in fact, we have nothing ahead of us, nothing on earth to hurry us home other than dumping the kid in her crib, stuffing our faces on one of the microwaveable pizzas, and planting our asses on the couch to watch re-runs of shows we never liked to begin with. Our future, I intend to remind her, is not the kind which inspires urgency. And since nothing hinges on a carton of eggs itself, or when I go to get them, the best thing, which is to say the only thing to do is relax. Everyone needs to relax. That is what I aim to tell her: “Relax. Be quiet. I’ll get your eggs, but just do me a favor and shut up.”

   I am not above expressing such emotions in a grocery store, but, before I have a chance to make a scene, my daughter leaps from the cart, slamming her face on the edge of the conveyor belt, turning awkwardly in midair, and landing with a whimper on my stomach. I manage to catch her but in doing so accidentally jerk my knee up into her chin. It’s a solid shot, and I know there’ll be blood. The cashier, a kid himself, has the nerve to mutter, “Ooooohhhhh.”

   “Momma!” she screams, slapping at my hands as I try to comfort her. “Momma! Momma! Momma!”

   A crimson mixture of blood and spittle hangs in a rope from her quivering bottom lip. Her wails are piercing. I would give her to Angel, but the cart is still parked between us, making a hand-off difficult, especially since my daughter is still scratching and slapping my hands, demanding that I let her go. I try anyway, extending her to Angel with one hand under her back and the other under her legs.

   “Set her down! Just set her down and go get the eggs. I’ll deal with her,” Angel says, back-pealing out of the aisle and darting through the adjacent one to take my place at the register.

   Her tone inclines me to believe she’s wise to my affection for the blonde and possibly even my willingness to cast her into an abyss. All lies have a shelf-life and maybe my big one’s done. Regardless, I obey. My daughter, as soon as I release her, runs towards Angel, allows herself to be embraced, and repeats, through muffled wails, “Go home! Go home! Owie, owie, go home!"

   I leave before I do any more damage.

   The refrigerated foods section is on the far left end of the store, and by the time I’ve passed the aisles for sodas, chips, laundry detergents, pet foods, and alcoholic beverages, my pulse is, once again, relatively normal. I hang a right beneath a massive sign bearing the zoomed-in image of a chicken above the brightly colored word POULTRY. The chicken, with its puny white head, intensely red comb, and sad black orb of an eye, reminds me of a documentary I watched earlier in the week. And since it is an old mental trick of mine to let a neutral but irrelevant topic take the place of an unpleasant and pressing one—say for example, a miserable wife and a crying child—I let my thoughts drift towards the documentary.

   The documentary, which ran around two in the morning on a public access channel known for producing educational programs, explored the tensions between evolution and creationism. “Consider the evidence for both sides and make a decision for yourself,” was the gist of the show’s appeal, and if the producers subconsciously inserted their biases, I didn’t pick up on them. Their approach was a balanced one. They interviewed one scientist who explained, with the utmost confidence, that the earth is only ten thousand years old, that the God of The Bible made it, and that evolution was an illogical theory which devalued the grandeur of the human experience. He was well-spoken and reasonable, but just as you found yourself considering his arguments, they cut to an interview with an equally confident, equally educated fellow who insisted that the earth was millions of years old, that humans are the product of evolution, and that creationists were, at best, delusional and, at worst, willfully ignorant. Raised a Baptist but more or less a functional agnostic since college, I appreciated the sense of balance and, all in all, found the program immensely interesting. I was glad, if nothing else, to have stumbled onto such an informative program at that hour instead of wasting time watching some fool with nice teeth trying to sell a set of knives, or two fat-heads bickering about politics, or, worst of all, one of those unbearably depressing reality television shows where no one wins because nothing’s at stake.

   Unfortunately, tired as I was, I nodded off several times, lost track of the general narrative, and eventually woke up in the middle of an entirely different documentary on the history of jazz. And until now, until that massive backlit chicken head jogged my memory, it’s conceivable that I had forgotten I ever watched the documentary much less considered any of its implications. But, as I open a carton of eggs and inspect each one for cracks, nothing seems more applicable to my current predicament than the very questions addressed in the program, mainly: “Why am I here?” “Is someone watching?” and, most importantly, “What’s the real difference whether I spend the next fifty years faithfully loving Angel, or leave now without so much as a wave in order to bang myself into oblivion with the blonde or someone like her?”

   I think about these questions and, for the second time since entering Piggly Wiggly, a Truth too awful for words reveals itself: it is not love, nor duty, nor even sympathy that binds me to Angel; it is, and will only ever be, fear.

   I want something else and have for some time.

   I’m far from content and a million miles away from grateful.

   I’m dying and unsatisfied.

   Problem is, I’m not and never have been a gambler. I refuse to trade security for potential, even if it’s true that security has bred complacency. I’m faithful not because I want to be, but because running’s too risky. The thought of wagering something decent for something potentially great and ending up empty-handed defeats me before I ever begin calculate odds or consider outcomes. Not love. Not even affection. Fear—plain and simple.

   But tell me the blonde is outside waiting. Tell me she is out there, engine running, hoping and praying for me to walk out of this store, take her in my arms, and drive off into the night to make the first of so many memories. Tell me that and where am I? I need only to close my eyes and see her bending down to get that coin to know the answer: gone, gone, gone forever. I tell you the truth: take away the chance for loss and I’d be gone in a heartbeat. 

   I pick up an egg and think about those scientists. 

   “I understand the need to believe in a higher power,” the evolutionist had said, with something like sadness in his bright blue eyes. “Faith is a kind of security blanket for those who cannot process the reality of suffering in the world or the thought of oblivion after death. And believe it or not, I understand such a need for comfort. The irony is, when a person chooses to ignore all factual evidence, chooses to thoughtfully deny quantifiable data, in order to place their faith in a god, they are unknowingly asserting man’s strongest, most primal instinct—survival. People want to survive, and if a higher power can guarantee survival, in this life or the next, then it’s natural for a person to gain a great deal of security and even happiness from that illusion. But facts are facts outside of the comfort they bring.”

   “If there’s no creator,” the other scientist replied, “then man is nothing but a high-functioning animal. Love and loyalty and honesty—these things cannot be explained apart from an intelligently designed universe. Remove a Creator, and families and friendships become tenuous pacts kept up amongst wolves. No, if man is truly a product of evolution, then he is subject only to the base instincts of the animal kingdom and driven primarily by self-preservation. It’s like Dostoevsky said, ‘If there is no God, everything is permitted.’ I believe that. Altruism is impossible in a world without objective truth, and love cannot be real in a world without a Creator.”

   This was the last thing I remember hearing before falling asleep, and since it found me in that dim and vulnerable stage just before consciousness slips away, I repeated the final phrase, repeated it mindlessly, half-drunk on fatigue and fully surrendered to the warm, black blanket of sleep: “Love cannot be real. Love cannot be real. Love cannot be…”

   It took three examinations, but finally I locate a carton with twelve fully intact eggs. I close the carton, but do not move. A glimmer in my peripheral vision draws my gaze, and suddenly I am staring at four incandescent red letters. The fluorescent whiteness of everything else on the aisle imbues the sign with an enticing, almost mystical fire. I read the sign and whisper the word to myself, enunciating each syllable as if never having spoken it before: EXIT.

   Suddenly everything seems connected. The sign, the blonde, the documentary, the eggs—all unseen cogs of a larger conspiracy, all tiny intricate signals working in unison, working as organically as a hand obeying the brain’s command to scratch a nagging itch. And I am at the center, aware only that something is about to happen.

   Something must be about to happen.

   And then it does.

   All ambiguities flee from my mind like darkness from a beam of light. Connection between feeling and action, so muddled a couple of minutes earlier, clarifies itself with startling intensity. There in the Piggly Wiggly, my life reduces itself into two choices: EXIT or Aisle 2. That’s it. One or the other, all implications for the soul contained within the choice itself. EXIT or Aisle 2. Simple as that, really.

   I decide that the evolutionist was right. My head and heart confirm it. This world and all its sadness is nothing more than the incidental guts spilled out by a car crash of two drunken, mindless molecules. There is—forgive me, Mom—no one up there to feel one way or the other about my leaving Angel. Forty years from this moment, it’s earthworms and oblivion waiting for me. This life is it—the only one there is, the only one there’ll ever be. And quick as the whole thing goes by, not getting what you want is a veritable tragedy.  Tomorrow I’ll be dead and nowhere. Today’s for living. EXIT it is. I might be a wolf, but I could still have a little fun before turning back to dust.

   I put the eggs back on their shelf and move for the door beneath the EXIT sign. If I run, and if she’s taking her sweet time, it’s not impossible for me to find the blonde and ask about that look. Having made up my mind, nothing seems impossible anymore. I can do, almost literally, whatever I want.

   I reach the door, clutch the handle, and turn it.

  Then: an explosion overhead. It is the intercom, crackling so loudly with static that it barely carries the voice saying, “Boyd Winston, to the front. Boyd Winston, to the front.”

   I pause and watch the rain splatter against pavement outside. The world, dying and pointless though it maybe, is beautiful in its own way. The evening air blows on my face, and I brace myself to run.

   “Boyd Winston to the front. Boyd Winston to the front. This is an emergency.”

    As soon as I hear it, I know it is finished. I’m done. You win.

   I take one last look at the EXIT sign, grab the carton of eggs, and hurry back to Aisle 2. My daughter is still crying, her animalistic shrieks so high-pitched and hoarse they actually hurt my ears. Angel’s face is practically glowing with anger.

   “What the hell took so long?” Angel says, looking at me like I was a thief or a murderer.

   Damn she can glare when she wants to. But peace like a river is a swirl inside my heart. I smile back at her, place the eggs on the now-empty conveyor belt, and surprise the shit out of Angel by grabbing her around the waist and kissing her long and hard on her teeth.

   “You’ve lost it,” she says, trying to stay mad, but letting the start of a smile curl her lips and squint her eyes.

   Love is real. The sadness can be beaten back. Mere living beats it back. It’s a truth worth remembering.

   Since no one else is in the store, the cashier offers to help us carry the groceries to the car.

   “I can do this,” I say, waving him off.

   I load bag after bag onto both of my arms, the awkward, shifting weight almost too much to carry. I do it, though. Arms outstretched, a dull pain starting up in my ribs, I stumble towards our car, Angel on ahead with the little one, laughing as the rain comes down in sheets from the sky. It soaks me, but I don’t hurry. I open my mouth and catch the cold, pure drops on my tongue, feeling, as I never have before, like the battered Christ coming down off Calvary.  

Dan Leach’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals and magazines, including The Greensboro ReviewDeep South Magazine, and The New Madrid Review. A Greenville native, he graduated from Clemson University in 2008 and has since taught in various high schools across South Carolina. Floods and Fires, his debut short-story collection, will be published by University of North Georgia Press in 2017. He is currently at work on his first novel.