The morning starts out slow, but after the 9am news runs a report of the dawn break-in and assault, everyone in town comes clamoring through the doors to see where it all went down. And of course, as long as they’re here, they might as well get some shopping done. By the time her lunch break rolls around, Lori has only had about five minutes of downtime all morning.
Most of the cashier workers eat at the in-store franchise fast food place, Eat Street, but only for the tables. A 20% “food prep markup” means it is cheaper to buy a sandwich, chips and soda off the shelf than one personal pizza. Lori runs her items through a self-checkout lane, swiping her ID for an employee discount-also not valid at Eat Street, which she never understood since she has yet to see a free-standing Eat Street franchise. She takes a seat in the long booth-bench that also functions as a half-wall partition between the front of the store and the restaurant.
Eat Street is really just a glorified cafeteria with a red and yellow striped awning over the service counter, erected perhaps to be reminiscent of a street vendor or neighborhood deli. Spread out in front of the counter are staggered lines of white tables and red chairs, their flat bases all bolted to the floor to avoid theft or vandalism and thus giving the impression of a very short, very shiny plastic forest.
From her spot at the edge of the restaurant, Lori watches a handful of fellow employees eating their lunches, all of them scattered at separate tables. That is not unusual—when you spend a number of hours forcing yourself to seem excited about a second-grader’s new backpack or a blue-haired woman’s upcoming weekend at the Wisconsin Dells, the last thing you want to do on your lunch break is pretend to be interested in someone else’s lousy marriage or recent sexual escapade.
But, as with everything else she has laid eyes on today, something is off. Not wrong, but not right either. Everyone is too quiet, too pallid, too pensive. It doesn’t make sense—everyone on the night shift is long gone home, there’s no one left in the building that might have witnessed what happened, with the exception of Lori herself. And yet there is still a weird, necrotic shroud that fills and expands and dulls the space between people with impenetrable stillness, holding everyone captive as they stab aimlessly at their salads, chomp down on iceburg-and-wheat-bread monstrosities, or just stare into the space in front of them, hands absently curled around sweating plastic soda bottles. The feeling is so thick that Lori is afraid to eat her sandwich for fear of ingesting a part of it and becoming sick to her stomach.
“GOOD MORRRRRRRNING LANSING!”
Lori jumps, and the entire population of the petrified table forest seems to shake at the offending sound. She turns to see a thin, acne-scarred face with a mop of curly, greasy black hair smiling a metallic smile at her over the half wall.
“How’s your morning going, Lilac?”
Lori’s exasperated sigh hides her secret relief. At least SOMETHING is still normal, even if it is Nathan Drexell, the most annoying sixteen year old in Michigan and Lori’s sole work friend.
“You know I hate that name.”
Nathan’s face wrinkles in a hurt-puppy pout. “Aw, I thought you loved my nickname for you. And anyway, I didn’t invent it. It’s your name already.”
“Lorelai LaCrue. That’s your name right?”
“Lori. LILAC. Rue. See? Smack in the middle.”
Lori wrinkles her nose. “That is stupid.”
“Stupid or not, you can’t argue with word science.” Nathan smiles, and even through her rolling eyes, Lori smiles too. She has to admit, that is pretty clever…and ultimately, it is not the WORST nickname she’s ever had.
“So!” Nathan arranges his hands in a kind of sling, holding his chin in mock rapt fascination, “How’s your mom?”
“Don’t ask. How’s this week’s family?”
“Seriously don’t ask. They have five kids in a two bedroom house. I had to shove an air mattress into the crawlspace over the garage. Crucifixes EVERYWHERE. I give this a month, maybe two. Tops.”
Nathan hops over the half-wall and slides into the booth next to Lori, the thick gauge chain that loops from his belt to his wallet swinging as he does so, threatening to either catch on something or hit Lori in the face. He is sporting yet another black t-shirt with the name of a band she’s never heard of scrawled in some Satanic-looking font. She knows he wears them to piss off his supervisor, and probably the majority of his foster moms as well.
“Hey, did you hear about that thing last night?”
Lori’s interest is sparked. “You mean the injured guy?” He nods. “Yeah, they were taking him to the hospital as I was coming in. He was all messed up. I think he might have…like, lost part of his face.”
“DAMN! That is messed up.” Nathan picks at the crust of Lori’s neglected sandwich. “If I were on the night shift, I’d be stocking the shelves with one hand and carrying a Molitov cocktail in the other. Anarchist’s Cookbook in my pocket, just in case.”
Lori slaps his hand away from her lunch. “You do that now. With the Cookbook I mean, not the Molitov cocktail…I hope.”
Nathan chuckles. “You can never be too careful, Li.”
Lori is about to respond when a commotion starts up in the checkout area behind them. She twists in her seat to see a woman, mid-40s in a baggy and unflattering floral polyester shirt, keel over near the bagging area of register six. The kid behind the counter looks terrified. His head swivels desperately from side to side, looking for help.
The woman collapses fully on to the floor and begins to tremble and shriek, not just sounds but words—foul, cruel words spewed both at random and in bizarre, aggressive sentences.
“Shit eating whores! Greed…fucking leech pigs! You will watch us eat your insides!”
“Whoa,” Nathan stands on his knees to get a better look. Lori scans the aisles to see if help is on its way, but there isn’t a manager in sight. In fact, most people are just ignoring the scene, going about their business as usual.
All of a sudden the woman’s neck snaps up from the floor so quickly and with such force that Lori swears she hears the crack of bone. The woman trains her eyes directly on Lori. Lori freezes. The eyes—they’re white as milk. No color, no pupils—it’s as if they have completely rolled back in her head.
“Your eternal rest is in my guts, bitch!”
Lori’s mouth goes dry. Her body feels like it is made of lead.
Nathan’s jaw is practically resting on his chest. “She’s not talking to you, is she?”
The woman utters a gutteral scream followed by what sounds like a death rattle as she falls flat on her back, still. Several people, all employees, converge around her, blocking her from Lori’s sight. A moment or two later, the woman is picked up and carried toward the back of the store by a man that Lori recognizes as the cheery front door greeter from this morning. As he rushes past where she and Nathan are sitting, his eyes find hers.
“Nothing to worry about,” he announces, presumably to the room. “This woman is having a seizure, she doesn’t know what she’s saying.” His voice is reassuring, but the look he shares with Lori tells a different story. He is worried, and not just about the woman in his arms.
Lori and Nathan watch him dart through the clothing department and disappear at the back of the store. There is a strange feeling in the air, both because of what happened and because a great majority of people do not seem the least bit affected by it. They are still checking out, making purchases, and eating lunch as if nothing had happened.
Lori sighs and sits back down in the booth. The phrase “corporate zombies” has never been more clear in her mind.
“Like I said, you can never be too careful.” Nathan pats the back pocket of his jeans. “Let me know if you want to educate yourself, I can lend you some very helpful reading material.”
Lori rolls her eyes. “Nice, D-Rex. If they catch you with that you are so fired.”
“Aw, you used my awesome nickname! You really do care! ” Nathan snuggles his face into her neck, making overly affectionate cooing noises.
“Ugh, get off! It’s an obnoxious nickname for when you’re being obnoxious.” She tries to sound serious, but one look at his goofy smile and she can’t help smiling back.
Just as her body begins to relax, her cell phone vibrates in the pocket of her sweatshirt. She checks the caller ID, and immediately her body stiffens again. HOME.
The smile drops from Nathan’s face and he sits up straighter. “Don’t answer it.”
“I have to. Besides, I should start heading back to work anyway. See you later.”
Lori gets up before Nathan can protest, leaving her lunch untouched at the table.
“Don’t forget to bring home the carton and the six pack!”
“I meant to remind you this morning but I had to leave in such a hurry because of those damn cops everywhere…remember to pick me up a carton and a six pack before you head home.”
Lori pauses, the phone halfway down her ear, debating whether or not to hang it up.
“Say it back to me. What are you bringing home?”
“A carton and a six pack.”
“Say it again.”
“A carton and a six pack, Mom, I got it.”
“That’s what you said last week and you forgot. I had to run out in my sleep shorts after drinking a handle of Bullitt. It wasn’t safe then, and…let me tell you honey pie, we are WAY past that now. Carl came over with some of his famous brownies, and we are…we are having a goooooood time, let. Me. Tell. You.”
“Okay! A carton and a six pack. Anything else? Halls and Tums, perhaps?”
“You know, you’re becoming a real smart ass, Lori. I hope to hell you snap out of that soon or you are going to end up just like your father.”
You mean dead? You mean bitter? You mean married to an alcoholic, drug addicted cheater? As true as any of those would be, Lori bites her lip until the urge to speak passes.
“A carton and a six pack. I won’t forget.”
“And don’t be late.”
Lori hears a tar-coated guffaw in the background as the words “ungrateful bi-” leave her mother’s mouth before the call cuts out.
“Love you too, Mom,” she mutters, shoving the phone back into her pocket and dragging herself back to her register.