Illustration by Mitch HandsoneWhen it rained, it rained on the Gormans cabin, just up Olive Road from the highway, and the Gormans liked that fine. As long as there was firewood, rice, green tea, coffee and kibble, the four Gormans lives were worth living. But there wasnt much firewood left, so Morgan Gorman figured hed wake up early and head into town, to Benders Nearby General Store, to pick up a pound of French roast, 8 ounces of sencha and a face cord of oak. By the time Lenora and little Quentin got up, hed have the fire roaring and breakfast ready.Gorman drove off with his dog, Alex, sprawled out beside him on the passenger seat. Even though he knew deep down that there were men and dogs in almost every country on Earth doing the same thing at the same time, Gorman entertained the image of a man and a dog in a red pickup truck heading into town to buy wood as something distinctly American; patriotic, even, although he wasnt quite certain why. In Gormans American fantasy, he was younger, more rugged and self-sufficient, and Alex was a large yellow Lab, easily visible from a distance. Passing motorists would point at Alex and honk and smile, and Gorman and Alex would smile back.In fact, Alex was half Chihuahua, half Welsh corgi. Even standing on his hind legs, which Alex hadnt attempted in almost 15 years, he couldnt reach the window. But Alex entertained no such fantasies; he just liked the vibrating bench seat.The pie-and-coffee counter at Benders Nearby General Store was a community institution, a popular gathering place where locals converged to eat slowly, share stories, listen to music. Now in their 70s, Ike and Tina Bender had run their store well for almost 30 years. Everyone liked the Benders, and the Benders liked them back. As Gorman pulled into the parking lot, he sensed something amiss. Instead of the familiar pickup trucks and early-80s subcompact sedans, there were shiny sports cars and unblemished SUVs. Gorman killed the engine out back, by the lumberyard. Back in a minute, he told Alex, who shifted only a paw in acknowledgment.Strange sounds came from the store. Some kind of bad . . . dance music?Gorman made his way around to the front. Opened the door, stepped inside, gasped, fell to his knees choking for air, struggled to a stand and rushed back outside, panting, sweating, running for the truck. Barely heard Tina Bender calling out after him.Morgan Gorman? Is that you?Gormans eyes and ears filled with thick, jagged patterns. His sinuses swelled and cracked raw, his heart pounded, his chest collapsed upward around his throat, strangling him, flooding his head with histamines, his lips and eyelids expanding like rising dough. Gorman reached the truck, opened the passenger door and grabbed a very surprised Alex, who duly barked.Sorry, boy, came Gormans scratchy whisper. If Gorman didnt still smell like Gorman, Alex would have attacked the unrecognizable form. Gormans normally human head had swollen into a big crusty marshmallow, leaking goop from all holes.The marshmallows hands found their way to Alexs collar. Around Alexs neck was a vial containing several industrial-strength tablets of diphenhydramine hydrochloride. The marshmallow popped two of these into its mouth-hole, found a can of warm Coke on the floor and, with great difficulty, swallowed. And collapsed on the ground beside the truck.Tina Bender had caught up and now stood above, in silhouette. Do you want an ambulance? she asked.Gorman shook his head, panting. Magenta, he whispered, and slipped away. Gorman had entered Bender's Nearby General Store to find the historically pale-yellow walls and ceiling even up around the skylights painted horrifically magenta. And Morgan Gorman was severely allergic to magenta. He could tolerate small patches a pot of geraniums, for example but not the full interior of Benders. Physicians had warned him that his allergy was such that exposure to vast planes of magenta might have fatal consequences. Which is why he always kept a vial of diphenhydramine hydrochloride handy. The powerful antihistamines emerged victorious from their hardest battle yet, and Gormans consciousness slipped back into place there in the parking lot, with Tina Bender dabbing his forehead with a moist cloth.Youre going to be all right, said Tina Bender.Gorman took a deep breath and felt his head with his hands. He was dizzy and exhausted, but at least he had a human head.So why the magenta? he whispered.Shh, said Tina Bender. Sleep. A few hours later, Gorman sat on the couch in his living room, sipping coffee in front of the fireplace. He listened with his family as Tina Bender explained the magenta situation: Benders Nearby General Store had been selected to receive an extreme small-business makeover courtesy of the popular television show of the same name. It meant a lot of money, and after the makeover was done, the television network covered the cost of undoing their improvements. Most people reject the makeovers, so restorations part of the budget. The makeover-ites dont care; theyre just trying to make a buck. The gaudy cars in the parking lot belonged to the producers, as did the bad dance music used to celebrate the end of the shoot. If he hadnt swollen up and collapsed from the magenta, Gorman wouldve been offered many delicious pastries and cappuccino. We even got to tell them that we didnt like what theyd done, said old Ike Bender, sipping his tea. On camera.And they paid us enough to cover a full year of health insurance, added Tina.You really had us all worried, there, mister! Lenora Gorman sighed and squeezed her husbands hand.Yeah, Dad! said young Quentin Gorman. Mrs. Bender said your head was all puffed up!Alex barked. Everyone laughed. Fresh rain hit the roof. Gorman knew deep down that families all over the planet were having identical conversations, but to him it seemed distinctly American.
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