Minion and I headed into town to go shopping.
I had my own shotgun on the floor of the backseat, loaded with some of the double-aught buckshot that I’d liberated from the dead JPD officer last night. All I had at the house was some heavy birdshot, and that wouldn’t do me any good if I really needed the shotgun. I left his AR-15 and shotgun at the house for now, because I still felt a little weird carrying around what amounted to stolen police equipment.
I had quite a list of things I needed and wanted. My first stop was the Gun Bunker, one of two local gun shops. I knew Rory Wilson, the owner, from a couple of articles I’d written a while back. He’d seemed very knowledgeable then, and very friendly. I hoped he’d survived, and I hoped he’d be able to square me away with a few things. I needed a better holster than the cheap nylon thing I was currently using, and I wanted more magazines. My buddy had only given me two magazines with the pistol, a Kimber 1911, and if I was going to depend on this gun, I wanted more magazines. I figured to stock up on some ammo and cleaning gear as well.
The shop was locked up with no cars or trucks in the lot. It was late enough in the day that if he were going to open, he’d have done so. If he was alive. Then again, would a small business owner really open on a day like this? Minion and I walked around the building looking for an easy way in, but Rory had put a lot of effort into keeping things secure. A roll-up shutter covered the front door, and bars reinforced the windows from the inside. A line of four concrete bollards blocked the door as well, to keep people from smashing through it with a car. I called the store phone number and heard it ringing inside, but no one picked up. I didn’t leave a message.
We went on to Lowe’s, which was apparently devoid of life. Three pick-ups sat in the parking lot, but when Minion and I got inside, we didn’t see or hear a soul. I wasn’t exactly broadcasting our presence though, and we didn’t go exploring, either. My primary goal here was what the Army used to call “pioneering gear.” I had no idea what I was going to find along the way, so I grabbed an ax, a couple of shovels, a chainsaw and some extra chains, and some heavy rope. I had a decent set of tools at the house, enough to let me do some car repairs, so I skipped most of the hand tools. I did grab some extra batteries for my cordless drill and impact driver. There was a big Dewalt display with cordless circular saws and reciprocating saws and a few other gadgets, but I didn’t think I’d be building a house any time soon. I was just getting what I’d need to be my own roadside assistance guy.
Walmart’s lot held more cars than Lowe’s had, but there were two bodies outside, too. A black man lay next to one of the cars, a blue vest in his hand. I couldn’t tell if he was coming in or going home. All sorts of macabre jokes about the retail giant killing its employees flashed through my mind. Closer to the building, a Latina girl sprawled next to the fire lane bollards, her eyes still wide open, flies clustering around her nose and mouth. Minion sniffed her body longer than he had any other, as though he were looking for something. I finally had to call him away.
We stood inside the doors for a couple of minutes, just listening and looking around. It’s amazing what you can hear in a giant store like that when you’re the only person. We’d come in on the pharmacy side, but I could still hear the buzz of the coolers in the checkout lanes. Minion alerted to a hissing noise, ears up and a low growl in his throat. We had to listen for it again to realize it was the vegetable misters seventy-five yards away.
It took me four tries to find a buggy that wouldn’t squeal or pull. Ordinarily, I’d just take the luck of the draw, but I figured if I had the entire stock of carts to choose from, I’d choose the best one I could find. It’s not like I was holding anybody up.
My plan here was to stock up on canned goods and first aid essentials, then take a turn through sporting goods. I didn’t want to get too much stuff that was perishable, because I had no idea how long the power grid was going to stay in place. We took our time getting through the grocery side of the store because I kept going back and forth about how much I should get. I still wasn’t completely convinced that I was coming back to Jasper when I left.
We were about two-thirds of the way through the grocery aisles when I heard several loud bangs and voices from the front of the store. Minion and I both spun around, and I drew my pistol but kept it behind my right leg. Minion had gone into a very alert sit, ears swiveling and eyes forward. I cocked an eyebrow at his response because this wasn’t something we had ever really trained. He was well behaved at home and understood the basic dog commands, and I had taught him a couple of tricks. But he’d never been off-leash like this before and it was interesting to watch him explore his new-found freedom.
The noises we’d heard hadn’t been gunfire, but I still wasn’t sure what they were. I listened carefully for a couple more minutes, turning this way and that to see if changing the direction of the sounds would help at all. The store was quiet enough that I could pick out at least three distinctive voices, but they were far enough away that I couldn’t understand anything they were saying.
I left the buggy and moved to the end of the aisle, peeking around the corner towards the center of the store. Minion’s paws barely clicked on the linoleum as he padded up next to me, then up to the next end-cap. I watched down my aisle a moment longer, then joined him.
“What do you think is going on?” I whispered. He cocked his head as though he were trying to figure out how to answer me.
A minute later, the voices went quiet and I picked up the sound of several buggies rolling through the store. Crap. Someone else is going shopping. I’m not sure why I immediately thought that was a bad thing, although it probably had to do with the noise of this group’s entry. I hadn’t been sneaky when we came in. It wasn’t that I was worried about somebody stopping me. I was more concerned with startling someone and them having a bad response, especially if they were armed. That this group had been so raucous when they came in suggested that they weren’t at all concerned with who might be in the store. That could mean that they weren’t going to bother anyone they found. But I’d read enough post-apocalyptic fiction — and studied a little bit of sociology — to think these guys might not be exactly benign.
I had it in my head that these guys were going to be headed for the beer and wine, and I was between them and their probable goal. If things held true to the usual fiction plot, one person was probably headed to the pharmacy, and another to sporting goods to see if they could find any guns.
I sighed. I only had two magazines for the pistol, which wasn’t nearly enough ammunition for any kind of a protracted fight. For that matter, I wasn’t really interested in causing more deaths. I decided discretion was the better part of valor, at least for now. I stepped quietly back to my own shopping buggy, turned it around, and then headed down the main drag by the meats and produce. Minion followed almost tentatively, keeping his head moving. I holstered the pistol but kept my hand in my front pocket. It made steering the cart a little more difficult, but it seemed like the best positioning.
We rounded the last aisle and Minion stopped with a soft growl. Two dark-skinned men stood at the next intersection, between us and the nearest exit. They looked like most of the middle-aged Hispanic men I’d seen over the years here: just a little heavier than average with a weathered face. The shorter one had a straw cowboy hat on, and they both wore plaid button-down shirts. I patted my leg to prompt Minion, and we kept going. They were looking down at something, probably their phones, so they didn’t see us right away. We were barely thirty feet away when the nearer of the two men finally saw me and elbowed his partner.
We all stared at each other for several long seconds. Then the partner, the taller of the two by several inches, made a call on his phone speaking Spanish. I’d picked up a fair amount after living in Texas for six years, but he wasn’t talking loud enough for me to understand him. He watched me while he spoke though, so I assumed he was letting his buddies elsewhere in the store know about me.
I nodded toward the exit behind them. “Estoy solo. Me voy.” I’m by myself. I’m leaving. I deliberately put both hands on the cart and headed for the door, staying close to the displays but not cutting through to avoid the men. We were less than ten feet apart when I passed them. I nodded and continued on, pausing as I exited the doors to look for anyone guarding the doors. A shiny blue Ford dually idled outside, diesel fumes filling the entryway, a younger Hispanic man standing by the driver’s door. He watched me until I passed in front of the truck, noting there was no front license plate. I suppose they could have bought the truck before this happened, but the truck almost looked too new. Great minds thinking alike? Assuming they’d picked up the truck the same way they were grocery shopping, I was hardly in a position to judge. The only difference between us was the order of our trip.
I got the canned goods that I’d managed to pick up loaded in my car, glancing back at the boy by the truck every now and then. He was still watching me but hadn’t moved. Minion had jumped in the car as soon as I had opened it and made his way to the front seat, where he sat looking first at the truck, then back at me then at the truck, then me. He seemed impatient. I understood his sentiment and shared it to a point. But I was also frustrated at myself for just walking out of the store. I tended to avoid confrontation in general. That was probably part of the reason I was twice divorced. Communication had always been a weak point for us — mostly on my side. This situation wasn’t all that different. I wanted to avoid any confrontation, but the Hispanic guys in the store hadn’t given any indication that they were interested in a confrontation. The two men in the store had just watched me walk out. They didn’t speak, at least not to me, and really barely responded to seeing me. I hadn’t seen any weapons on them, or any sign that they were armed. They were probably just as confused as I was. Plus I’d only gotten a third of the way through the store. I still wanted to look at some of the big plastic bins and make my way through sporting goods and the first-aid stuff.
I shrugged and called Minion out of the car and we headed back into the store. The guy at the truck was on his phone as we passed. The two men inside were still about where I had left them. The taller one took a step forward.
“I thought you said you were leaving.” He had a Hispanic accent, but it wasn’t at all heavy. I probably blushed a little bit.
“I thought I was going to, but I realized I had forgotten several things that were on my list.” I tried to smile. I was more than a little embarrassed that I had assumed they only spoke Spanish.
“For right now we’re just after some beer and some chicken. We wasn’t sure how long this is going to last, so we figure to smoke up a bunch of chicken and save it that way, in case the power goes out.”
I nodded. It was a good idea. “I’m headed over to sporting goods to look at some of the camping stuff there and I’m going to pick up some first-aid stuff. I’m trying to plan ahead a little bit too.” We stood there for another minute, just looking at each other and not really saying anything. “So what have you guys found out?”
The shorter man spoke up. “Nothing good. There were a bunch of us living south of here, in a trailer park about halfway to Buna. There used to be, I don’t know, maybe two hundred of us? Now there’s fifteen. I’ve never seen something like this before.” He shook his head and wiped his eyes.
I nodded again. “I lost my son. Buried him this morning in the lake. I’ve got family up north and east, and I’ve only been able to get in touch with one of them.”
“Daniel, he lost his whole family. Wife and four daughters,” the tall one said. “I’m Hector.” He extended a hand. We shook.
“I’m Adam. Have you guys seen anything that would explain what happened?”
“No. I’ve never seen anything like this. We woke up this morning, and everybody was just dead. James — he’s the one out by the truck — he say he watch his uncle die right in front of him.”
I had no idea how to respond to that.
“I’m going to go ahead and look around a little bit more. How many more of you are there?”
“Just two more,” Hector said. “I think they’re mostly getting beer and chicken. We’ll probably come back tomorrow or the next day for other stuff.”
I shook their hands again and headed for the back of the store.
Half an hour later, I wheeled my third load of the day into the parking lot. Hector and his crew had left right as I was taking the second load out. I had cleaned out most of the freeze-dried food, not that they had a whole lot, and I had picked up a bunch of vitamins and other assorted over-the-counter medicines and first-aid gear. I had given some thought to breaking into the pharmacy but figured that was going to be more effort than it was worth right now. I had a couple of maintenance medications along with my insulin, but the maintenance meds were more preventative than anything else, and I wasn’t taking all that much insulin right now either. I had just gotten a three-month supply in, so I decided not to sweat it right now.
I’d added to my arsenal as well. I hadn’t been looking for anything, but they had a 20-gauge Mossberg shotgun in the rack, among several other shotguns and rifles, and I picked it up on something of a whim. I already had two 12-gauge shotguns, but I had read more than a couple of articles about the 20-gauge suggesting that it would be easier for a novice shooter to handle. As far as I knew, Hannah was a novice shooter, at least on a shotgun. They had mostly birdshot in stock in 20-gauge, but I picked up several boxes of slugs and I figured I could find a Bass Pro or Cabela’s on my way up to Philadelphia and load up on some buckshot.
My phone rang just as I got the last plastic storage crate crammed into the car. I didn’t recognize the phone number, but I doubted it was going to be a telemarketer. “This is Adam.”
“Adam, it’s Rory Wilson.”
“Rory? I was worried you weren’t able to call back.” That seemed like the best way of saying “I thought you were dead.” I was surprised at how excited I was to hear from him.
“Yeah, sorry I wasn’t at the shop earlier. I… I had to take care of some things here at the house.” Defeat carried through the phone in his voice, almost palpable.
“Who did you lose?”
“Tammy and Micah. Lacey is beside herself.” Tammy was his wife and Micah their son, who I thought would be about eight or nine. Lacey was about twice as old as the boy had been.
“Rory, I am so sorry. Is there anything I can do?” I asked, knowing that he would say no because he was so independent and because there really probably wasn’t anything I could do to help.
He sniffled. “Nah. We’ll get through it. At least I guess we will. What…what about you?”
“I found Kevin this morning when I woke up. I’ve been able to talk to Hannah, and she seems to be okay for now. She’s up in Philly and I’m going to head up after her, probably tomorrow. I haven’t been able to talk to anybody else.”
“Sorry to hear that. I’m glad Hannah’s okay. Do you have everything you need to get up there?”
I snorted. “Who knows what I’m gonna need between here and there, right? I picked up some stuff at Lowe’s and Walmart, and I’m probably in the market for a truck. If you were open I was going to pick up a few things for this .45 that I’ve got.” I really hoped he would be able to come in and help me out, but I wasn’t going to straight up ask him.
There was a long pause before he replied. “Yeah, I’m not doing anything right now. And getting away from the house would probably be a good thing. Hang on a second.” He called out to Lacey, asking her if she wanted to go into town with him. I couldn’t hear her answer, but I hoped he was going to drag her along anyway. She probably needed to get out of the house just as much as he did. “We can meet you at the shop in about twenty minutes. How does that sound?”
“I’ll see you there.”
Copyright © 2019 Bob Mueller
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