Three days after I bought the gun, officials at the plant announced that it was shutting down for an indefinite amount of time. The chances of spreading the virus through food sources were just too great a risk. I had a week’s vacation pay coming (I was a lot luckier than many of the other employees), but after that, I was on my own.
On all the news stations, radio and TV, they were advising citizens to stock up on food, toiletries, etc., in case the situation reached emergency status; I thought we had already reached that point. I always did think it funny that the government always downplayed crises such as this. Christ, people were being killed left and right, or altogether losing their minds; hospitals were overflowing, with no end in sight. If this wasn’t emergency status, then I didn’t know what was.
I decided to take the advice seriously, though, and do a little extra shopping. Marina was busy with her daily household grind, so I offered to go myself.
“That’s sweet of you,” she said, and kissed me on the cheek. Then she looked me in the eye, her face clouded with worry. “Please be careful.” I assured her that I would, that a thousand maniacs couldn’t keep me away from her.
On the way to the store, I saw National Guard soldiers on several corners, standing in pairs and waving at the folks who honked as they passed by.
The soldiers were wearing gas masks.
I passed an Army transport filled with masked soldiers, rifles pointed skyward. They were seated around the perimeter of the truck bed, and they swayed back and forth in unison as the truck rumbled down the street. As I pulled into the store parking lot, I noticed a couple of soldiers patrolling along the front of the store. This was all beginning to feel like some kind of bad dream, a scenario that only happened in movies.
The obvious thing I noticed in the store was that I wasn’t the only one there scrambling for extra supplies. Some had carts filled with canned goods, water, toilet paper, soda (it was almost funny how people just couldn’t survive without that), and lots of dry goods as well. The canned goods isle looked like it had been raped; most shelves were more than half-empty, cans scattered across the scuffed floor. It was the nightmare aftermath of a blue light special at K-Mart. I hurried to gather what I could, along with anything extra I could find, and headed to the crowded check stands, taking a spot in the shortest line I could find.
There were several people in front of me, including a hugely obese woman in a flowered dress, oddly enough holding only a gallon of milk clutched to her breast as if it were a child. In front of me was a scrawny old man in western clothes and a cowboy hat that dwarfed his head. His back was bowed from years of bad posture. He was holding a plastic basket filled with vegetables in plastic bags, and he kept clearing his scratchy throat and looking around impatiently. At the head of the line was a bald man of about forty with a long handlebar moustache.
The checker finished totaling his items, and he wrote the amount on a check imprinted with motorcycles, tore it from the book and handed it to her. She ran it through the check verifier and waited a moment. The small blue digital display read PROCESSING, and then switched to CONTACT BANK.
“I’m sorry, sir, it says to contact the bank. They’re still open if you want to talk to them,” she said, pointing at the in-store branch of Compton Bank. She smiled. “I’ll keep all of your things here for you, sir. Ok?
Her smile faded as the man said, “What you’ll just do is run the check through again, little lady.” A red anger visibly rose in his rough facial features.
She ran her fingers through her hair and smiled nervously. “Oh, certainly sir, I can do that for you.” She ran the check through, and for the second time it read CONTACT BANK.
“Sir, it still says to contact bank, if you’ll just… ”
“If I’ll just what, you bitch? HUH? IF I’LL JUST FUCKING WHAT?” His voice climbed to a roar, and heads turned to see what the ruckus was about. Baldy’s face turned bright red; eyes were bulging from their sockets. The checker seemed to shrink right in front of him.
Before she could finish her sentence, Baldy lunged forward and thrust his ballpoint pen deep into her left eye. Vitreous fluid streamed from the wound and down her face as she cried out in pain and terror. Both of her hands shot up to the eye as if to pull out the pen, but both hands stopped short, trembling on either side of the object, too afraid to touch it. The obese woman dropped her milk, which caused the top to pop off, splattering milk in all directions. The thin old man likewise dropped his basket and backed into a magazine rack, his wrinkled hands clutching for support. There were screams and gasps as people in other lines witnessed the spectacle. Somebody called out, “Call 911!” That seemed to silence everyone in the store.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LOOKING AT?” Baldy bellowed, and headed toward one of the exits. Time stood still for a moment, and I realized my heart was pounding out of control. Through the large windows that lined the front of the store, I saw another man employee, a man in a gold store vest run out the other exit and wave down the soldiers outside. He pointed desperately at the bald man who was heading across the parking lot directly toward them. The soldiers approached Baldy. Baldy strode up and ripped the gas mask off the guy nearest to him, and turned to do the same to the other, but the soldier had already drawn a nine-millimeter from a shoulder holster, and was pointing it at Baldy’s head. I could the faint shouts of the other soldier, now without his mask, urging his partner to shoot. There was a muffled report, and Baldy’s head snapped back. He fell lifeless to the ground, and another gasp went through the crowd in the store like a giant whisper.
I had had enough. I left my basket where it was, and headed out the exit. As soon as I hit the pavement there came a loud crash! from the nearby intersection of Fifth and Center. A black sedan had tried to make a left turn in front of a truck that was going straight through the intersection, and both vehicles had kissed metal to metal. People jumped out of their cars and ran toward the scene. The man in the truck got out and staggered over to the sedan. The man behind the wheel of the car was semi-conscious, and his head lolled from side to side. The man from the truck reached in and pulled the other out through the open window, and threw him like a rag doll on the hood of the car. A woman in the street screamed. The man from the truck grabbed him and slammed him down on the hood several times, and then he picked the man up by the back of his shirt and pants, and hurled him headfirst through the windshield. Once again, I heard people screaming. The man’s head had gone through the glass to his shoulders, and he now lay limp on the hood.
I felt panic rising, but I was frozen where I stood, shocked by the scene taking place in front of me. I heard sirens blaring distantly, and the two soldiers from the parking lot (the one had replaced his mask, but it may have been too late for him anyway) ran past me toward the street, breaking my paralysis.
I ran for my car, passing Baldy’s bleeding corpse on the way, and seconds later I was on my way home.
I picked up my gun a mere one day before the government put a ban on all firearms sales in the United States. I had to go through two military checkpoints and a police blockade to get to the pawnshop. Each time I stopped, I had to answer pretty much the same questions: Where was I going? Why? How long had I been in the area? Had I been to the local hospital for blood tests? I lied, and said I certainly had. More questions: Have you ever been convicted of a violent offense? What was I feeling like today? The results of the blockades were long lines of angry motorists. I realized that I had to put on a smiling face in front of the soldiers and police, or risk being yanked out of the vehicle and detained even longer.
On the way home, while waiting at one of the check points, I saw police and army vehicles parked on the lawn of a two-story, red brick house. Personnel were pouring in and out of the front door, all wearing the masks (all police, as well as military were required to wear the ugly things now, even much of the public had taken to it, as if we were some kind of bizarre alien race).
A man ran out and opened the back doors of a black, unmarked panel van before rushing back into the house. A moment later, small groups of men emerged carrying body bags. The bags sagged heavily between the men as they brought them out and swung them into the back of the van. Someone inside the van yanked the bags further in and out of sight. Two of the bags were noticeably smaller, and it made me sick to my stomach to think that children must have been inside them. The whole scenario sickened me.
A man in fatigues and mask spray-painted a bright red X on the front door, and then jumped into one of the trucks that were now pulling onto the street and driving along the shoulder past the backed-up traffic. Cars honked angrily as they passed.
When I arrived home, Marina was curled up on the couch reading a romance novel. She looked up and smiled as I walked in – I felt like I had just walked out of a bad dream and into reality. I had just left a world where everyone was going bonkers and killing each other, martial law was taking over, and entered another world where nothing bad ever happened, a place where I had a wonderful wife who took care of me as well as she could, and I took care of her. A wife who was sitting on the couch in the pink sweats I had given her last Christmas, her long blonde hair tied back, and who was now staring at me as if I had gone crazy.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, jumping up and running to the window. She peeked between the slats in the blinds.
“Oh, nothing, the whole world’s just going crazy. They’re even painting an X on doors like it was the plague or something,” I told her. Then I thought about that last statement. It really was a plague, and millions of people were going to be killed, or just wither away at the hands of a tiny bug no one could stop. Marina must have been thinking the same thing, for she put her arms around me and laid her head against my chest.
“What’s going to happen to us?” she asked worriedly. She looked up into my eyes, waiting for an answer that would perhaps make everything better, give hope in a hopeless situation, but at that moment, I had no answers and even less hope.
“I don’t know, dear, I just don’t know.”
That night, we made love for the last time. Outside, the world was in turmoil, a well-ordered society falling apart at the seams.