Friday, September 16, 2011
The phone rang once, waking Tina. A moment later, Kelly stuck her head through the bedroom door. “They closed school, Mom,” she said, and paused a moment. “Do you think you could just stay home, too?”
“I’m the boss, I have to be there, hon. Besides, I have to get groceries,” Tina said. “We have the cookout this weekend, remember?”
“You think we’ll still have a cookout? With everybody just… I don’t know. Disappearing?”
“Hey, it’s Friday. They’ll re-appear in time for the weekend.” Kelly laughed. “But we’ll probably close at noon, if people aren’t coming in. Just sit tight and I’ll be back as soon as I can, OK?”
The white pickups were a super-majority this Friday morning — perhaps every third vehicle was something else. But despite — or because of — the nature of the traffic, things moved along quickly and Tina got to Maxcom in record time. The parking deck was nearly empty, except for a few cars near the building entrance. She parked and crossed the breezeway to the office building.
A dozen people milled around the front door. “Outdoor meeting?”
“We’re locked out,” one of them said. “Nobody’s inside, as far as we can tell.”
Tina thought it over for a moment. “Just go home, then. I’ll take the heat for the decision,” she said, giving them her name and position. “HR told me we might close early today — from the looks of it, we closed before we opened.” She walked back to her car and wound down the ramp, thinking she should have just stayed home and not wasted the gas. Something really weird was going on — even the street people were picking up on it; one standing on the sidewalk, across the street from the parking deck, held a sign reading “HIDE YOURSELF FROM THE EATER OF SOULS” — and the white pickup trucks filling the roads had to be related.
She got off at the Pleasant Hill exit, and the red light gave her an opportunity to scan the QuickFill across the way. There were people getting gas, but not one of the vehicles at the pumps was a white pickup. The customers watched the pickups, all with tinted windows and no other adornments, go by. Some looked wary. Some just looked scared.
The Saver-Market was open, thankfully, but only one register was running and Tina saw several people just walk out unmolested. The shelves were stripped of milk and bread, the usual run-up to an ice storm. As she picked up a jumbo pack of ground beef, the thought reminded her of power lines on the pavement after last winter’s storm and the stench of thawed and rotting meat. She put the ground beef back and filled her cart with canned food, several bags of charcoal, and a portable grill. Almost as an afterthought, she grabbed several bottles of wine and piled them on.
The cashier, a business-like black woman, turned from watching other customers walk out to Tina and her full cart. “You might as well walk out with that, too,” she said. “Nobody’s gonna stop you,” as Tina began loading the conveyor. Her name tag said SARA - CUSTOMER SATISFACTION and was festooned with various badges. She seemed a little older than her years, but Tina thought of “her” Sara, one of the early absentees.
“Well, you’re here, and there’s no line for a change…”
The cashier chuckled at Tina’s attempt at humor. “Good point. Don’t pass up the chance for fast service. Um, I hate to ask you this, but can you bag your stuff? There really aren’t enough people to keep the store open, but nobody who showed up today has the authority to close, either.”
“Sure,” Tina said. “So why are you still here, if it doesn’t seem to matter?”
“I guess I’m like you: I prefer to do what’s right than do what everyone else is doing,” she said, zipping cans across the scanner faster than Tina could load them into bags. “I’ll stay until my shift is over, or until someone closes the place.”
“Yeah — I got to work, and nobody had opened the office. I told everyone to go home. It’s a long drive, sometimes.”
“My place is only a couple miles,” Sara said. “I walk it unless it’s raining. Good exercise, and the parking lots are good as sidewalks. That’ll be… wow. $352.87. I don’t see bills that big very often.”
Tina fished her debit card out of her purse and swiped it in the reader. “Yeah, I’m stocking up. You might want to do the same, things are really getting weird out there.”
“Oh, I’ve already got a cartload in the breakroom. I’ll push it home and bring it back later. Enter your PIN, and you’ll be on your way.”
Tina punched 4793, the date of a wedding that ceased to have much meaning long ago, and the screen flashed APPROVED. She pushed her load out into the sunlight.
Every vehicle in the lot was a white pickup.
After a stunned moment, she pushed the lock button on her keychain, and the truck parked where she had left her Subaru chirped and flashed its lights. The truck… beckoned to her, somehow, and she stepped forward, almost leaving the cart behind. She stopped and shook her head, then felt the call again. You can belong, it seemed to say. Join us…