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Garnett Elliott
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shelteredsouls.jpg
Art by Mr. Byron 2010

 

Sheltered Souls

Garnett Elliott

 

          Snow falling so thick outside the Honda's windows it goes from sheets to white glare. Beth's eyes keep glancing down at the gas gauge.The needle’s dipping below an eighth of a tank. In these conditions it might as well be their air-supply.  Once the gas goes, so does the heater, and on the back roads of rural Minnesota that means slow hypothermia as the white stuff turns their car into a burial mound.

          "Wouldn't have this problem," Jaidee says, taking a hand off the wheel to tap at the gauge, "if you'd gone ahead and bought a Prius, like we talked."

          "A Prius wouldn't grip the road for shit," Beth says.

          Not that it matters much now. They're crawling along at fifteen miles an hour.

          Jaidee sneers. "Wouldn't even be here, you hadn't wanted to check out that last barn."

          "I thought it might have a—"

          "And where's here? I can barely see the road."

          Beth rustles the map across her knees. Purely for show, because with no signs visible outside, it's just a piece of paper with lines on it. "Twenty miles out of Ottertail? I can't tell."

          "We should go back."

          "We have enough gas?"

          Jaidee shrugs, and that's when Beth sees it: a soft halo on the upper-right corner of the windshield. A lit sign. She reads the letters “BUDGET HOTE.” The final “L” is hidden by a sheet of ice. 

          "Turn in here," she says.

#

          They park close to the front door. Outside is roaring chaos, the snow falling sideways as the wind picks up. No way to tell if there are other cars in the lot.  They race for the door, teeth already chattering. Beth slaps her hands against the warm glass to push it open.

          A chime sounds in the frame above their heads.

          She catches the burnt-dust smell of an old furnace. There's wood paneling and thin beige carpet. A geyser of cigarette smoke streams from an ashtray balanced on the front desk.

          "Anyone here?" Jaidee calls out. "Paying customers."

          Her voice echoes down a hallway behind the desk.

          "Guess it's an off day," Beth says. She rubs the cold from her hands and settles down into a chair next to an imitation wood-grain table. The wall opposite has a calendar with pictures of antique tractors. "Rustic."

          "Yeah." Jaidee reaches for the cigarette jutting from the tray. Examines it like maybe she wants to start smoking again.

          "Put that down. The owner's going to be out here any second."

          Jaidee leans her long frame over the desk, puttering with stuff Beth can't see.   "Found the phone." She wedges a receiver between shoulder and ear. Frowns.  "All I’m getting is a fast busy."

          They tried to call 911 on their cell after the gas dropped below a quarter-tank, but couldn’t get a signal. "Maybe the lines blew down."

          "They use cables now, okay? They bury them." 

          "Sorry."

          Jaidee messes with the phone some more, gives up, and sulks over to where Beth's sitting. "I want to talk to the owner."

          "He's probably in the back somewhere, taking a dump." Beth folds her hands over her lap. "Just wait a bit."

#

          Eighteen minutes later Jaidee throws down the 2002 Hunting Knife Catalog she's been flipping through. "You getting hungry?"

          "Nope."

          They'd eaten at a truck stop a couple hours out of Duluth. Redneck kind of place, and the two of them had drawn stares until Beth bent her head to say grace, which sort of mollified things. Beth had scarfed down bratwurst with cups of emaciated coffee. Jaidee, a Vegan, had had to make do with orange slices.

          "Don't get all smug about it, you not being hungry."

          "I'm not."

          "You act superior, sometimes."

          Beth rises with a sigh. "Let's find the owner, okay?" She walks over to the hallway. Cheap fluorescent light flickers down its length, revealing rows of metal doors with numbered decals. "Hellooo.”

          "Hellooo," Jaidee says.

          Silence.

          "If no one's here, why was the front door open and a lit cigarette in the ash tray?" Jaidee says.

          "Someone's here."

          "Then where are they?"

          "Maybe in the basement. Maybe stepped out to—"

          "Stepped out in a blizzard?"

          "Okay. Maybe the basement, then."

          Jaidee shucks off her puffy vest and tosses it onto the desk. "There’s a rack of keys, behind here."

          "So?"

          "So I’m getting us a room."  She’s striding down the hallway before Beth can stop her, key in hand.

          The door to Room Four is ajar. "Wait." Beth peeks inside to semi-darkness.  Lines of white seep along the curtains, showing the outline of a bed. She reaches inside to snap the lights on. Someone's turned down the linens, and there's the sound of water coming from behind the closed bathroom door.

          "People at last." Jaidee pushes past her into the room. Sits down on the bed’s edge.

          "What the hell are you doing?"

          "Waiting for whoever’s in there to finish their shower." 

          "You ever hear of privacy? Let’s wait out in the hall."

          Jaidee ignores her. The room sports several pieces of mongrel furniture, including a dresser with a TV bolted to the top. Jaidee walks over and turns it on.  Snow. She clicks channels, but it’s more of the same. "Cheap-ass place.  No cable."

          "Are you even listening to me?"

          "I’ve spent three hours trapped in a fucking snowstorm. I need to talk to another human being. Someone besides you." 

          The shower noise cuts off.

          "Come out into the hallway," Beth says.

          The bathroom door opens a crack. Steam escapes around the edges.

          Jaidee just stands there, arms folded. A minute goes by and the door doesn’t open any further. There’s no sounds coming from the bathroom. Total silence. 

          Jaidee calls out, "Hey in there. We need to talk to you."

          No reply.

          "Screw this." Jaidee shoulders the door, Beth right behind her. They step into a wet white mist. Beth can see the shower curtain drawn across the narrow stall. It's fogged, but not so much she can't tell there's nobody standing there. 

          Jaidee snatches the curtain back anyways. She checks the whole of the cramped bathroom, like someone could be hiding behind the toilet.

          "This can't—" she says, her breath coming fast, "this can't—"

          Beth watches the condensation on the mirror above the sink. It disappears as the cold air rushes in. Soon, the glass is clear and reflecting only the two of them.

#

          Beth drowses in Room Six, but she's too disturbed to sleep. From the hallway comes the tinkle of keys and the tromp of Jaidee's Ugg boots as she opens doors to search the other rooms.

          They shouldn't even be here.

          It was Jaidee's idea to make the road trip, ostensibly to get more antiques for their shop. Search out abandoned farmhouses and old cabins, scrounging pieces that would fit in the Honda's trunk.  But Beth knew the real reason. Their relationship was in trouble. 

          The blizzard had ambushed them driving into Ottertail county. One moment it was bright November skies, the next a wall of advancing black. Sleet gave way to snow.

          "Beth?"  Jaidee stands in the doorway. "I checked the rooms. There's n-no one else here."

          "We're safe, okay?"

          "This place is haunted or something."

          "It's just—I don't know. Weird."

          "It feels like there's something about to happen, but never does. Like it's not really empty.  Do you get that feeling?"

          "No," Beth lies.

          "There's one more room." Jaidee holds up a large key. "The basement.  Remember, how you said the owner might be in the basement?"

          "Yeah."

          "Will you check with me?"

          Beth gets up and takes the key from her hand.

          There's a fire exit at the end of the hall and a steel door marked STAFF ONLY. Beth fits the key. The door groans inward and light from the hallway spears down a stairwell. Their footfalls echo off cinderblock as they descend.

          The basement's black as a cave. A single red light glows at the far end.  Beth gropes along the wall until she finds a switch.

          An old furnace takes up a third of the space. All pipes and grates, with a black box at the center. The pilot light flickers inside. As Beth stares the machine comes to life with a whoomp of natural gas, the pilot turning blue-white, pipes expanding in a series of creaks.

          Then, above them: footsteps.

          The sound's so undeniably solid it echoes over the furnace noise. Tromp, tromp. Someone walking up there.

          Beth races for the stairwell. As she clears the top she catches a whiff of fresh cigarette smoke. The fire door exit makes a click sound, like someone's just passed through and closed it.

          Triumph. Answers at last. She jams her hip against the release bar and swings the door open.

          Resistance. Howling cold and white light.

          A head-high wall of snow pours through the exit, only a quarter of the way open because it won't move any farther. Beth gets a face-full of stinging wet. She jumps back. The little avalanche follows her into the hallway, stops inches from her boots.

          Impossible. "We haven't been in here that long," she says. "No way the drifts could get that high."

          "Close the door," Jaidee says.

          It's imperative, all of a sudden, to block out that wind. Beth manages to pull the door shut after some digging, her hands wrinkling from the snow's contact. 

          "Where'd the guy go?" Jaidee says. "If he didn't go out that door, where'd he go?"

          Beth thrusts freezing hands in her pockets. She stalks down the hallway. No one's at the front desk, but there's still the lobby. The door to room four is open and she glances inside as she passes, on the chance their phantom owner’s hiding in there. He's not. The curtains are drawn back. Snow has piled up outside the window. So much it's blocked nearly all the light. Maybe an inch or two left near the top. 

          "We were in here an hour ago," Jaidee says. "It wasn't like that."

          "Someone's screwing with us. Got to be." Beth heads for the lobby like it's her last hope. The owner—she pictures him as a guy—must be some kind of sicko.  Playing games with them. Well, she isn't helpless. She'll kick his redneck ass.

          But the lobby's empty. Just the tractor calendar and the shabby chairs.  Nobody standing there. Beth's anger drains and she sees the snow stacked outside the front windows and door, just like in room four.

          Jaidee starts to cry.

          Beth wants to comfort her, but hell, none of this makes sense. She reaches out and touches the glass door. Feels the coldness on the other side.

          And then she knows. "We're still out there," she says.

          "What?"

          "We're still outside, in the car somewhere."

          "We're in a crappy hotel."

          Beth shakes her head. "It's a hallucination. I don't know how we're both doing it at the same time, but we are. Hypothermia. Hypothermia's doing it."

          Jaidee stops crying to frown. "Bullshit. I'm not cold at all. It's warm—"

          "That's how you freeze to death. In the end, you don't feel the cold." She remembers reading that somewhere. "It's supposed to be peaceful."

          "I don't feel peaceful."

          Beth turns to look at her partner. Any moment, she expects the illusion to lift. She'll see things the way they really are: Jaidee sprawled back in the Honda's seat, eyelids fluttering. Each breath a wisp of white in the absolute cold. Her lips turning blue.

          Beth squeezes her eyes shut. 

          The room darkens as snow veils the last half-inch of light above the window.

 

homeless2.jpg

DAY OF THE DOLLAR

by Garnett Elliott

 

            Arizona sun cooked the blacktop to shimmering.  Hugo Ortiz felt the heat seeping up through the soles of his Vans as he grabbed a green plastic cart and herded it back over to the Dollar Budget store.  It wasn’t even eleven A.M.  The parking lot had another eight hours to bake before the sun went down.

          Less than a third of the shops in the little complex were still open; the empty windows gaped like missing teeth.  Only the Dollar Budget did any decent business.  Hugo had read somewhere little stores like his were sucking the life from Wal-Mart.  Hard to believe, judging by the half-dozen customers that had braved the morning’s heat to snatch wrapping paper or a can of generic chili before hustling back to their cars.

          The store’s front doors opened, spilling a wave of refrigerated air.  Walt leaned his thin body out.  “That blind fucker’s back.  Tell him to clear off the lot before he starts panhandling again.”

          “I saw him,” Hugo said.  “He isn’t bothering anybody.”

          “He’s bothering me.”

          Walt wore a forest green manager’s vest.  He had only two months seniority on Hugo, but no arrest record, and he was white.  His wispy goatee looked like a sad imitation of Hugo’s own thick patch.   

          Hugo spat, half-expecting a sizzle when it struck pavement.  “You do it.  You’re the shift manager.”

          “You’ve got cart duty.”

          “That doesn’t mean I have to kick all the homeless off the lot.  You want him gone, call the police.”

          “You’d like that, huh?”  Walt’s eyes glittered.  “Police attention?”

          “Fuck you.”

          “I’ve already called the cops so many times they stopped responding.  Tell me someone’s on their way and thirty, forty minutes go by without anyone showing up.  You take care of it.”

          It was too damn hot to argue further.  Besides, Walt had the ears of Hugo’s asshole P.O.  One phone call and he’d be pissing into a cup, hearing the same threats of revocation.  He shrugged his broad shoulders and shuffled off to the southeast corner of the lot.

          The blind guy was loitering there, his head cocked to one side and his red-tipped cane gripped in both hands.  Hugo called him Hustler because the cane reminded him of a pool cue.  Also, he wasn’t really blind.  Hugo had caught him once trying to read a magazine out by the dumpster.  He just didn’t see too well. 

          “What’re you up to, now?”  Hugo said.

          Hustler made a show of jerking an ear towards him.  He wore a pair of ancient Ray Bans so dark a laser couldn’t shine through them.  Brown and yellow nicotine stains streaked his graying beard.

          “Just waiting.  That a crime, waiting out here in this heat?”

          “As long as you’re not bothering our customers.”

          Hustler shifted closer.  Hugo thanked God there was no breeze to stir the man’s industrial-strength funk in his direction.  “AC’s out at the shelter.  Broke down this morning.”

          Two blocks north squatted an old apartment complex, converted by the city into a shelter for homeless and general fuck-ups like Hustler.  Hugo had heard you had to have a handicap or mental problem to get a bed there.  The shelter’s occupants routinely grazed the Dollar Budget’s parking lot, hitting up customers for money. 

          “Sorry to hear that,” Hugo lied.  “Why don’t you go bug the manager at Pollo Loco?  Buy a coke and drink it inside, where it’s cool.”

          “That’s not a bad idea.  You got money for a coke?”

          Hugo’s hand shifted to his pocket, but he stopped himself.  How many times had he given change to this fucker?  Dude never said ‘thank you’ or anything.  “How ‘bout this,” he said, temper making his voice sharp, “you take off now, or I’ll smack you.  I’m tired of policing your ass.”

          Hustler’s grip tightened on his ratty cane.  He hefted it like he was tempted to take a swing.  “I’m leaving, motherfucker, but because you asked so nice I’ll be coming back.”

          He turned and walked away with his head high, sweeping the cane in front of him in little semi-circles.  Watching him go, Hugo felt a twinge of guilt. 

          But only for a moment.

          He hurried back to the Dollar Budget and its functioning AC.

#

          By lunchtime the temperature outside had hit a hundred and sixteen degrees.  Hugo wolfed a batch of carnitas in the back room, while trying to talk his oft-time girlfriend, Merida, into letting him come over after work.  He ate with the phone wedged under his chin.  Merida was playing it cagey, even after he’d offered to spend some father-type time with her five year old son.   

          “I need you on the registers,” Walt said, sticking his head through the doorway.  “Donna’s going out on her lunch break.”

          Hugo ended his call.  “Since when do you let people leave for lunch?”

          “She’s been working without a break--or complaint--all morning.”

          Donna was a squat, dishwater blond with graying teeth, but by Dollar Budget standards she rated a goddess.  Walt had been trying to get his pencil-dick inside her since first hire. 

          “What’re you smirking about?” he said.

          “Watching you play favorites just to get a piece.  You’re practically begging her for it, man.”

          Walt folded his arms.  “Sounded like you were begging someone, just now.”

          “That’s different.”  Hugo ditched the remains of his lunch and ambled out to the registers.  Business had remained slow since mid-morning.  There were only two customers in the store, a young Hispanic couple pushing a stroller, poking through the ultra-cheap baby clothing.  Both the guy and girl wore matching Raider’s caps and t-shirts, though for variety, the guy had his cap on backwards.  Way to buck the stereotype, esse.   

          Walt was marching back to his tiny cubicle of an office, just beyond the checkout aisle.  He stopped by the front windows.  “I thought I told you to take care of those people.”

          “What do you mean?”

          “The blind guy’s back.”

          Hugo came over.  Hustler stood at the outer fringe of the parking lot, and he wasn’t alone.  Three more refugees from the shelter were with him.  Hugo recognized the old ex-hooker he called Pins N’ Needles, on account of all the safety pins rammed through her skin, and the guy with Parkinson’s he’d nicknamed Shaker.  Behind them came some poor bastard with his back crooked at an impossible sideways angle, lurching from one foot to the other. 

          “Ah, shit,” Hugo said.  “He told me the AC was broken at the shelter.  They probably want to come inside and cool off.”

          “No fucking way.”  The Raiders couple looked over and Walt lowered his voice.  “They’re not coming inside my store.”

          Hugo nodded, thrust open the front doors and stalked out into heat and sunlight.  He’d told Hustler to clear off, and now the son of a bitch was back with reinforcements.  Anger made the blood slap against his temples. 

          “You wanna go to jail, is that it?” he called out to the little group.  Laughter floated back.  “Probably cooler in jail,” Hustler shouted.  

          That fucking tore it.  Hugo rolled his hands into fists and waded over.  The wiser part of his brain told him to calm down; he was on probation and didn’t need any trouble, but he couldn’t stand being laughed at.  Not by these losers.

          “Here comes the guy threatened to smack me,” Hustler said.  “I bet he’s mad.”

          “He sure looks mad,” said Pins N’ Needles.  She was leaning against a walker, sunlight glaring off her multiple piercings.

          Hugo stopped about five feet away.  “I’m through warning you.”

          “We just want to do a little shopping,” Hustler said.

          “Huh-uh.  Manager says you can’t come inside.”

          “Somebody could die in this heat.” 

          “It’s not my problem.”

          Chuckling, forgetting about his blind act for a moment, Hustler pointed his cane down the street.  “I’m afraid it is your problem, now.”

          Hugo turned.  He felt the pork he’d eaten congeal into lumps of cold grease.  

          Less than a block away shuffled a mass of homeless-types.  Some lugged oxygen bottles, some rode on power chairs or motorized scooters, but they all moved with singular purpose towards the Dollar Budget parking lot.  There must’ve been at least a hundred.  It was as if the shelter had vomited them all out at once. 

          Distracted, Hugo didn’t notice Shaker approaching him, until he’d crept within spitting distance.  He was a middle aged guy in a polo shirt, and would’ve looked normal enough if his body wasn’t in constant agitation.  “You gonna k-kick us out now?” he managed, lips trembling. 

          The man with the weirdly-tilted torso was right behind him.  Hugo felt himself take a step back.  His anger had evaporated, replaced by panic.  These guys wouldn’t be a problem individually, but as a mob . . .

          He turned and bolted for the store.  Walt and the Raiders Couple were at the windows, their faces blank with shock.

          “Open up,” Hugo shouted.  He sprinted under the storefront’s awning.  The door didn’t budge when he tried to shoulder it. 

          “Jesus, Walt--”

          He could see the reflection of Hustler and company closing in.  What the fuck was wrong with them?  Their eyes had this sort of glaze.  He rattled the door.  Shaker was almost on him, both hands reaching out to grab.

          The door swung open.  Hugo slipped inside.  Walt shut the door tight and locked it before Shaker could thrust his foot through.

          “What the hell did you say to them?” Walt said. 

          Hugo bent and rested his hands on his knees, breathing heavy.  “Just clear off, like before.  The AC broke down at their shelter.  I guess the heat’s driving them nuts.”

          A whack startled everyone, as Hustler bounced his cane off the door.  Pins N’ Needles pressed her weathered face up against the glass.  So did Bent-Back and Shaker. 

          “You guys need to call 9-1-1,” said the Raider’s mother, chewing her gum so hard it smacked.  Hugo noticed the baby in the stroller for the first time.  A little girl wearing a Raider’s jersey, with half a dozen zircon studs in her right ear. 

          “There’s a long story about that,” Walt said.

          “Fuck it.  I’ll call.”  Raider’s Husband tugged a phone with a black stylized skin out of his pocket.  He punched a button to talk, but his mouth dropped when he looked out the window. 

          The human tsunami Hugo had glimpsed was already rolling over the parking lot.  They lurched, staggered, and limped towards the Dollar Budget, that same glazed look on their sweating faces.  “Blind guy brought over the entire fucking shelter,” Hugo explained.

          Walt licked his lips.  “They look just like . . . just like . . .”

          Hustler rattled the doors.  “Let’s get away from the windows,” Hugo said.  “I’m getting a fish-tank feeling.”

          They moved back into an aisle crowded with Fourth of July decorations.  Raider’s Husband was arguing with a feminine voice on his phone.  “Well, how long then?  Look, I’ve got a baby here.  What?  Alright.”  He muffled the phone against his shirt.  “Bitch says she’s contacting the police.”

          Walt shook his head.  “They’ll take their sweet time.  They always do.”  

          Raider’s Husband got back on the phone.  “My truck’s out there in the parking lot, okay?  Custom paint.  If one of those fuckers even touches it, I’ll sue this city starting with . . . hello?”

          The front windows were darkening.  Two dozen people had joined Hustler’s vanguard.  More came swarming behind.

          “We can’t get trapped in here,” Walt said, panic slipping into his voice.  “That’s what always happens.  The people get trapped.” 

          “Let’s take the back door,” Hugo said. 

          Walt was already moving, followed close by the Raiders couple.  Their stroller bumped up against a cardboard display, knocking red, white, and blue streamers into the aisle.  Hugo kicked them aside.  Behind him, he heard something crack against glass, but didn’t turn to look.  Walt shouldered the door with an EMPLOYEES ONLY sign.  They poured into the cluttered stock room.

          “I’ve got this,” Hugo said, and pushed open the heavy fire door along the far wall.  A blast of kiln-hot air struck his face.  He got halfway out and almost bumped into the biggest homeless dude he’d ever seen.  A linebacker, the guy looked like, or had been in a former life.  His shirtless chest was a mosaic of cigarette burns and shallow cuts, all barely healed.  He stared down at Hugo with red-rimmed eyes.

          The woman standing next to him was worse.

          She must’ve weighed four bills easy, breasts and belly straining against the tight fabric of a Pink t-shirt.  When she saw Hugo she made a moaning sound.  Her lips parted in a grimace, revealing the mass of silver wire clamping her jaws shut.

          The two surged towards the door.  Behind them came three more homeless that had been picking through the dumpster.  

          Hugo scooted backwards into cold air and slammed the door shut.

          “What did you see?” Walt said.  “You’re shaking.”

          “We can’t go out this way.”

          The fire door shuddered with a meaty thump.

          “You mean we’re trapped?”  Raider’s Mom said. 

          A crash echoed from the store.

          Hugo thrust his head out the stock room.  The front windows had gone near-black with the press of bodies.  Hustler and Shaker were using someone’s power scooter as a battering ram, smashing it against the door.  The safety glass had already shattered into a million spidery cracks.

          Hugo looked past the registers, at Walt’s tiny corner office.  It had a one-way window of bulletproof plastic and a thick door, unlike the flimsy one leading to the stock room.  Just a closet, really, but he couldn’t imagine how anyone would break in. 

          “Walt, your office is basically a panic room, right?”

          “Good idea.”  Walt pushed past him, fumbling the key ring out of his slacks.  Hugo followed, the Raiders’ stroller bumping at his heels.  Walt opened the door to the cramped space and reached his hand in.  “Wait.  What’s that?”  He pointed behind Hugo.

          Hugo turned his head.  Something heavy crashed against the base of his skull.  He staggered backwards, white lines flaring at the corners of his vision, and saw Walt inside the office, brandishing a laptop.  He must’ve clubbed him with it.  The office door slammed shut and the lock made a snick noise.

          “Chicken-shit,” Hugo shouted, his head throbbing.

          “Sorry guys,” came Walt’s muffled voice.  “But it’s too small in here for a bunch of people plus a stroller.  I’d get claustrophobic.”

          “What about the baby, for Christ’s sake?”

          “Sorry.”

          With a tinkling crash, the top panel of safety glass fell inwards.  Hustler and Shaker threw the scooter down.  An obese dude in a wife-beater tried to dive through the opening in the doorframe.  He didn’t fit so well.  Fangs of left-over glass cut red furrows in his shoulders.  He screamed and attempted to push himself back out, but there were too many people pressing from behind, forcing him through.  Skin ripped along his forearms.

          “The stock room,” Hugo said.  “Back.”

          The stroller’s wheels rattled double-time.  Hugo staggered after.  His head swam from Walt’s sucker punch, and when he saw the couple make it through the doorway he had the queasy feeling they, too, would slam it behind them.  They didn’t. 

          “Think that’ll hold?” Raiders Husband asked, frowning at the door’s little snap-lock after Hugo had shut it.

          “I doubt it.  They build these stores cheap as possible.”

          Behind them, the fire door continued to shudder with repeated blows.  The big moron must still be out there. 

          “We just came in to get stuff for the baby,” Raider’s Mom said, eyes tearing.  Hugo glanced down at her daughter.  She sat quietly in the stroller with her hands folded, brown eyes stoic.

          “Once those guys have cooled off everything will be okay,” Hugo said.

          She shook her head.  “I saw them try to grab you.  They’re crazy.  Your boss is crazy, too, locking us out like that.”

          “Walt’s just an asshole.  Why don’t you try calling 9-1-1 again?  Tell them the homeless have broken in.  They might step things up.”

          Raiders Husband was already digging out his phone.  Hugo pushed the lunch table in front of the interior door and stacked boxes on top of it.  None of them weighed over forty pounds.  He noticed a ventilation grate above the doorframe.  By standing tippy-toe at the edge of the table, he could peer through the grate into the store.  

          Homeless swarmed every aisle.  They pressed up against the racks from cleaning products to discount beauty supplies, with more still pushing in through the shattered doors.  Despite what Hugo had hoped, the AC didn’t seem to be calming anybody down.  Looting had already started in the snack aisles.  Bags of low sodium peanuts were being ripped open; generic soda guzzled.  The obese guy who’d been shoved through the door was on his hands and knees, oblivious to the blood streaming from his cuts.  He snatched up a box of cheap licorice and tore out a handful of bright red strands, before jamming the whole mass into his mouth.

          Disinhibition seemed to ripple from the snack aisle, and now the whole crowd was grabbing dishes and potholders, tearing open containers of plastic toys, neon-colored kitchen sponges, and aluminum pie tins.

          “Look at those fuckers,” Raiders Husband said, joining Hugo alongside the grate.  His wife pleaded with the phone in the background.

          “I must’ve kicked half these guys out of the store at one time or another,” Hugo said.  “Human cockroaches.  I’d always figured they are the way they are because of fucked-up choices, but now . . .”

          “You’re feeling sorry for these losers?  They’re looting your store.”

          “Maybe.  But look at that bent-back guy.  I’m pretty sure he was born like that.  Some of the others, too.  All I’m saying, a problem with our genes, a car accident, and that could be us down there.”

          Raiders Husband snorted.  “Bullshit.”

          The handle to the stockroom door rattled.  Hugo thrust his face back up against the grate, trying to peer down.  All he could see was the press of several bodies.  “They want to get in here,” he said, jumping off the table.  “Help me brace the door.”

          He leaned his back up against the stacked boxes and pushed with his feet.  Raiders Husband joined him.  “How’s it going with the cops?” Hugo asked the mother.

          “They’re on their way,” she said.  “Two squad cars.”

          That won’t be enough, he started to think, and then the door bucked against his tailbone.  He heard multiple groans coming from the other side.  Plywood cracking.  A hinge burst loose with a ping and went flying over his shoulder.

          “Push,” he said, heaving with his feet.  It was like trying to push against a strong river current.  Another hinge popped.

          “You hear that?” Raiders Mom said.  “Sirens.  They’re coming closer.”

          Hugo thought he could hear wailing, in the distance.  Would they arrive in time?

          The fuck they would.

          “Tell them we’re trapped in the back room,” he said.  “Tell them--” 

          The door bulged in the middle, split.  Boxes tumbled aside.  Hugo was forced back, his shoes scuffing against the linoleum.  Raiders Husband ran to his wife.  They pushed the stroller into a corner.  Raiders Mom threw down her phone, snatched up a nearby box-cutter and snapped out an inch of gleaming razor.

          Hugo heard a familiar chuckle.  He turned and saw Hustler leaning through the sundered doorframe, kicking boxes out of the way.  His sunglasses hung askew, revealing his not-so-sightless eyes.  One was milky with cataracts, the other clear.  That good one settled on Hugo, and Hustler’s lips peeled back from rotting gums in a smile.

 

Mr. Elliott lives in Tucson, Arizona (though he's spent some time in rural Minnesota). Recent work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Plots With Guns, and All Due Respect. He's also got stories in the red hot anthologies Beat to a Pulp: Round One and Discount Noir from Untreed Reads.

 

 

 

 

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