DAY OF THE
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?”
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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.
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
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
“What about the baby, for Christ’s sake?”
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
“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
“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
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
“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
The fuck they would.
“Tell them we’re trapped in the back room,” he said. “Tell
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.