Saturday, June 25, 2011

68/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "In the Waiting Line" by Zero 7

"Do you have any batteries?!" a middle-aged woman screamed in my year. She was yelling at a harried cashier and my head was just in the way. "Do you have any left? Did you hear me mister?"

I was pushing through a throng of people trying to make their way to the checkstands. It was all surprisingly orderly and people where remarkably polite given the circumstances. They were in the process of picking the shelves clean and the whole neighborhood must have been out getting emergency supplies. A couple shoved past with smirks and wine bottles in hand, which was an interesting choice. I suppose there will always be those who choose to sit back and watch unusual events unfold and be ironic about it rather than panically try to figure out how best to survive.

I myself had a half-formed plan. I filled my basket with canned meat, crackers, trail mix, a bottle of multi-vitamins, instant coffee, and a first-aid kit. It was just enough to carry in a backpack in case I needed to be mobile. I also picked up some bottled water from a pallet that the grocery store had pushed out from the back storage room.

By the time I was finished, the checkout lines were halfway up the aisles. As soon as I set my basket down on the floor there were three more people behind me.

"Do you believe this is happening?" asked the man standing in line behind me. Before I could answer the woman in front of me responded.

"I'm not sure what's happening exactly. Everyone's saying different things about it," said the woman.

"It's bad," said the man.

"Do you think they're really going to come here?" I asked.

"Hard to tell," said the woman.

"Of course they're coming here," said the man. "It's just a matter of time."

"Do you think it will be today?" I asked. "I mean, how much time do we really have?"

"I don't know," said the man. "They were going to say more on the news, but I thought I'd come here and stock up first thing."

"Yeah, me too," I said.

"Can you get a signal?" asked the woman. She was fiddling with her cell phone. "I haven't had any bars for the last half-hour."

I took out my cell phone to check. I had a different carrier, but there were no bars either.

"No, me neither," I said.

"I hate this," said the woman. "I feel naked without being able to use the phone." She sighed.

"Are we moving at all?" asked the man, craning his head on either side of the column of people.

"No idea," I said.

"Well, no use getting in another line," he said. "The line goes all the way to the end of the aisle now. All the rest must be the same."

"Yeah, this is unreal," I said.

The lights flickered, and there was a collective gasp. They came on full again, but everyone was silent, looking up or looking at each other's faces.

"They are coming..." said the man quietly. Even though I'd never met him before in my life, I reached out and patted his arm. He looked down at my hand, then held out his own to shake. "My name's Dave," he said. I shook his hand.

"I'm Nora," I said. Dave turned and reached his hand toward the woman ahead of me. She took it and shook.

"Edith," she said.

"Nice to meet you both," he said.

"You know I can't say I've ever met anybody from this neighborhood in the two years I've lived here," I said.

"I guess these sorts of things bring people together," said Edith. "I wish I could get through to my kids in Denver though."

I put my hand on her shoulder. I wanted to say 'I'm sure they're all right,' but I knew they probably weren't. At best they were probably stuck in a line in their own neighborhood grocery store.

The lights flickered again, this time longer before they were steady again.

"Think we'll lose electricity?" I asked.

"Yeah, maybe," said Dave. "Hopefully we're out of here by then."

"Well, just in case..." Edith bent down and reached into her basket. She took out a flashlight and ripped it free of it's packaging, then she took batteries from a fresh pack and inserted them into the end. She tested the light.

"Good idea," I said.

"God this line is interminable," said Dave. "I think we're at risk of a stampede in here."

"Maybe we should just leave now without paying?" I said.

"Civilization hasn't fallen apart just yet," said Edith.

"Yeah, but if it comes down to it..." said Dave.

"Maybe this isn't the safest place to be," I said.

"It doesn't justify looting," said Edith.

"Well..." said Dave.

"I'm sorry. I used to own a store," said Edith. "And I'm a mom."

"The store could be gone tomorrow," I said. "Maybe it doesn't matter."

"I don't know," said Edith.

The lights flickered again, for even longer. Then there was what could only be summarized as a thump. We all went airborne for a second or two. All the products on the shelves leapt up. The shock of it was hard, and there was a tremendous bang. I could feel the hard floor slapping into my feet, and the shock of energy traveling up through my knees and then up my spine and skull. I blacked out for half a second and bit my tongue. My teeth clattered together. On the way down, stuff from the shelves scattered every which way. We were showered with a cascade of marinara sauce jars. We landed with such force that we all fell over. The jars shattered, spraying us with bits of glass and large spatters of pureed tomatoes. There were scattered screams.

"Oh, holy hell!" exclaimed Dave. We all slipped around in the sauce and glass. Edith had a bleeding leg. Dave got up first and pulled me up, then Edith.

"They've landed then. They're here," said Edith with an expression of wide-eyed shock.

"We've got to get out," said Dave. "Screw the supplies."

"Here, take this," said Edith. She handed Dave the flashlight. Everyone around us was staggering and trying to get up. Someone behind us looked dead, sprawled out on the floor.

"Let's get to the front," said Dave. He took my hand and Edith's and started shoving past the peopled and debris ahead of us.

The lights flickered and then went out. There were more gasps, then silence. I think everyone instinctively knew to be quiet. Dave turned on the flashlight, then continued to pull us forward, but most everyone else was still, waiting to see what happened. He shone the light down the aisle, then up the towards the checkstands. Dark silhouettes transformed into washed out people in the glare of the flashlight beam. He shone it up to the windows at the front, which were painted with the weekly deals in garish red and yellow and white fat letters. We could see fingerprints ans smudges, then the window started to frost up. There were more gasps and someone screamed.

"What is that?" I whispered. "They didn't say anything about cold air on the news."

"I don't think it's frost," said Dave. The whiteness, whatever it was, spread rapidly from the frames towards the center of the panes. It was accompanied by a loud crinkling sound.

"Turn off the light," whispered Edith. Dave must not have heard her, or else ignored her. He let go of us and continued forward, waving the light around, examining more of the windows.

The windows exploded in a cloud of white dust. Everyone ducked down. The dust was so fine it carried on the air in smokey swirls. The people at the front started to cough.

"Let's get back," I told Edith.

"Yeah," she said.

We started to inch backward. I wondered if the back room would be any kind of safe harbor. I kept an eye on the front. Everyone was moving slowly, quietly, inching like us. Then there was movement at front, outside the store. Dave's light beam froze, and started to shake. Someone hissed at him, then the light was knocked down out of his hand. It was dark now, completely.

There was a crunching sound from the front. Then a sort of warbling mixed with a low rhythmic beating. The sounds started and stopped, and had at least two sources. It sounded like language to me. Then an extremely bright light shone in from outside the store. There were two large forms silhouetted in the empty frame of the windows. Hulking things as big as SUVs, but organic lumps of muscular flesh. Behind them was something that looked like moving scaffold, rods and beams that were rotating. I couldn't make out what the hell it was, but I knew that the two massive things were not here to be friends.

"Oh my God..." said Edith.

The two hulks just stood there for a full minute, chittering and warbling back and forth. The people in front of us started to slowly stand up to get a better view like prairie dogs. They cut the light into strips. Edith stood up too, but I remained on the floor. They all seemed mesmerized, but I don't know if they were or not. Maybe they just gave each other the confidence to stand and look.

There was a pink flash, and then the sound of a lot of heavy, wet drops. Something rolled towards me. It was Edith's head. She stared at me, and I could see her blink before her face went lax. I looked around, and there were more faces rolling, staring in different directions. The necks were steaming, cauterized. Then the bodies started to fall. Three or four fell on top of me, heavy and warm. I laid down on the floor and let the bodies cover me. I was sweating and I wanted to scream.

The warbling continued. There was another flash, and the top part of the shelves all fell over. Then they started moving inside. I couldn't see them, but I could hear them. There were crashes, and things being thrown around. There were sucking sounds. I found out later they were eating parts of the dead people.

Then there was a high-pitched, loud warble from somewhere outside the store and the things moved out. Eventually the store receded into silence. There was the sound of dripping from one of the shelves near me, but other than that it was quiet.

I waited until morning and a full hour into daylight before I dared move. I extracted myself from the headless bodies. It was starting to stink. I looked around quietly for other survivors but didn't find anyone else in the store who lived. I climbed out the window frame since the automatic doors were jammed (I found it odd that they still had their glass). The parking lot was a shambles. All the cars were twisted and deformed. I could see the tracks of the scaffold thing pushed into the cement as if it was wet and setting that night instead of having been solid for decades.

I saw figures moving around at the school across the street at the elementary school. They were people. I ran over and joined them, the other survivors. The school was spared, but many of the houses weren't.

We don't know why they came, why they left when they did, or whether they would be back. We've mostly recovered our infrastructure, but not our population. A third of us died that night. That day and night is remembered with wreath-layings and candlelight vigils and church services. Sometimes it's hard to believe it even happened, but it did. I remember and I will never forget.


Bill said...

Very nice. You're a talented writer...keep going.

Kelly Thompson said...

Reminiscent of Stephen King's "The Mist" with a little Ray Bradbury like a cherry on top. Great story!

KaOs said...

@Kelly thanks! Yes, it is a bit Mist-esque, and I was worried abou that when writing it, but it was really inspired by the last tsunami alert where I lived in Waikiki. We had several hours advance notice and everyone in the neighborhood flooded down into the local grocery store, tourists and locals alike, to stock up on non-perishable essentials (this had all happened once the year earlier as well). There was an atmosphere of excitement (as only the threat of destruction and impending doom can impart), as well as community--people who would otherwise never even glance at each other became chatty an helpful. So that's really the seed of the story (and I think it was probably something similar for King as well).