After 2pm the activity in the checkout lanes is almost non-existent. Everyone who had run in to do some quick errand or something before work or on their lunch break is now back at his or her desk, leaving nothing for the counter attendants to do but sit, tidy up the snack trays at their register, or hover around the ingress of their aisle with their hands clasped behind their backs and rigid, pleasant looks on their faces, ready to pounce on anyone that seems like they might be interested in making a purchase. Refusing to cave into the expectation of “acting busy,” Lori prefers to just stand behind her register and hold on to the hope that, when they wish to exit the store with their items, the customers will figure out where to go.
The rest of the day is a conveyor belt in every sense of the word. Shampoo, dish soap, underwear 3-packs and boxes of hair color all find their way down the lines and over the scanners, each item denoting it’s departure with not so much a BEEP but a BLIP! Toothpaste. BLIP! Shaving cream. BLIP! Motor oil BLIP! Condoms. Lori tests her skills in syncopation. BLIP! Snapple. BLIP! BLIP! Candles. BLIP! Snickers. BLIP! BLIP! Whiskas. She challenges herself to see how few words she can exchange with a customer, paring her interactions down to two (“Hi” and “Here”) before people start to look at her funny.
BLIP! Fence post. BLIP! BLIP! Mentos. BLIP! Dove bar. BLIP! BLIP! Race cars…
Lori’s eyes snap open. She’s not at her register. She’s not even standing up.
“Closing time, Lilac. You don’t have to go home, but…actually, you’re a minor, so you probably do have to go home.”
Lori peers up at Nathan’s towering figure, illuminated by a single overhead barn light as well as a blue glow from a seemingly infinite row of television monitors all presenting “Jungle Cats of the Serengeti in HD,” in HD. She pulls her knees up to her chin and finds they are stiff and tingling, hard to move.
“How long have I been here?”
“All evening, apparently. I saw you around 4:30 watching Mean Girls at the 3D display, and then when I came back at 6 to see if you were still around, I found you were zonked out over here. Looks like you’ve been asleep ever since.” Nathan grabs Lori’s flailing arm and helps her to her feet. “Smart idea curling up behind the 60-inchers. It’s been pretty dead since 5ish, so it wasn’t hard to keep people away.”
“You let me sleep all afternoon?”
“What ‘let’? Like I said, you were out. I thought insomnia was an old-person problem.”
“Hahaha…what time is it?”
Lori swats at Nathan’s shoulder. “Why did you let me sleep so long? I’m not supposed to be here! We’re not supposed to be here. We’re going to get locked in.”
Lori digs her bag out from behind the obscenely large TV and makes a break for the exit. Nathan falls into a brisk, surprised trot behind her.
“Whoa! Hold up, what is the big deal?”
Aisle 20, Canned Goods and Boxed Dinners. Lori is losing the fight with her endlessly twisted shoulder strap.
“What is the exact time?”
Aisle 16, Feminine Hygiene and Dental Care. Always a head-scratching combination.
“11:55. And so what? If we do get locked in…I mean the night crew is just in the back for their shift meeting. We can get one of them to open the doors and let us out.”
Aisle 12, Hardware. The strap relents and Lori secures her bag firmly across her body, wrestling now with the sleeves of her sweatshirt.
“NO! We can’t do that! No one can know we’re still here!”
Aisle 11…Tools? Kitchenware? Snacks? Sporting Good? Supplies for the World’s Weirdest Party?…Lori never knows what to make of Aisle 11.
“Li, slow down! Does this have something to do with that thing, from this morning?”
“I don’t know D-Rex. Probably. I’ll explain it better when we’re on the bus.”
Aisle 9, or the Aisle of Rotation Holiday Crap, currently school and office supplies. She veers to the left. She can see the sliding glass doors at the end of the aisle. Her heart leaps at the prospect of avoiding Grace’s wrath, to say nothing of what her mother is going to do to her when she gets home…
A carton and a six pack.
Lori screeches to a halt, stopping just inside of the motion sensors for the OUT door. The doors open, and close, and open again. Lori mentally checks the form and shape of her backpack. It’s too light, and too floppy to be housing a carton of cigarettes. And she definitely doesn’t remember asking any of the over-the-hill, run-out-the-clock, who-gives-a-shit counter workers to meet her outside with a six pack. Even if she had, they were long gone by now.
The doors open again, beckoning with an ominous whisper: Game over. Come outside. Your mother is going to kill you.
Nathan lumbers to a stop next to Lori, slightly doubled-over and out of breath, one hand holding up the back of his chain-laden baggy black jeans and the other hand on his knee as he gasps for air.
“Thank you…I almost died back there…now…let’s go wait for the bus…the sweet, sweet bus…with chairs and…sitting…”
Lori steps outside the invisible circle, and the doors close one last time. She looks over the rows of unmanned and unnaturally still cash registers to the digital clock behind the customer service desk. 11:57.
“We can’t leave yet.”
“Oh come on…” Nathan wheezes. His face, normally so pale around his acne flareups, is now a feverish and angry red all over. “You know how much I hate exercise. Can’t we just-?”
But Lori is already gone, her bag jostling against her small frame as she bolts to Aisle 8 which is, from the looks of it, the Assorted Vices aisle. It is something of an inside joke in fact—Lori can’t even count the number of times she’s heard a coworker respond to inquiries about weekend plans with “I’ve got a hot date with Aisle 8.”
On the left side of Aisle 8 is a long tall cooler stocked with endless brands of bottled and canned alcoholic beverages. The right side shelves are lined top to bottom with wine and spirits. At each end cap is a condom and personal lubricant display (also available in Aisle 2), and at the very end of the aisle near the back of the store is a cabinet full of cigarette cartons, locked and bolted but very easy to break in to if you have a paperclip on hand…which Lori almost always does.
As she jams the small bit of metal into the scratched lock, she hears the heavy, squeaking stomps of Nathan’s sneakers coming down the aisle.
“Can you grab me a sixer of PBR?” Lori does not look up as she stabs at the microcosm of darkness in her hands.
“Are you serious?”
“It’s not for me. My mom…she thinks she’s twenty, or hip or something.”
“Alright, fine.” Nathan scans the coolers behind them, walking several yards away in his search. Lori watches him out of the corner of her eye, just to make sure he stays on task.
“They only have 12 and 24, unless you want tall boys!”
Lori growls through her teeth in irritation, but is pacified a moment later when the lock pops open in her hand.
“Tall boys!” she calls back to Nathan, throwing the cabinet doors wide, snatching a carton of Camel Blues and shoving them in her bag with her left hand as she reconfigures the lock with her right.
“Got ’em!” Nathan proudly displays his find as Lori runs to meet him halfway down the aisle. Almost in response, a loud emergency tone begins blaring through the mostly empty building. Lori’s ears recoil at the volume. She’s heard it before, but from outside the building, waiting for the last bus pickup on all the nights she has stayed away from home until the last possible second. It is the all-out warning. In 30 seconds, the place will be locked and bolted for the night.
“Ughh….hey, how are you planning to pay for this?” Nathan’s question comes out as more of a belabored groan as they take off running again.
Lori has not thought that far ahead. Can she just run out and deal with the consequences in the morning? Is it really stealing, or just borrowing on credit? She is going to be back first thing in the morning, and she will bring money…but then again, she is also a minor…but then again again, she isn’t stealing…no, BORROWING them for herself…
Lori has almost convinced herself that this would not in fact be stealing by the time she and Nathan burst forth from Aisle 8 and make a mad dash toward the front doors. As Lori’s front foot passes through the semi-circle of space where the automatic open functions, the siren cuts out. In the lingering echo, Lori spots the customer service clock.
Her heart drops into her stomach just as her body slams into the glass. The doors shutter in their tracks but do not break or give an inch. Her forearms and head spark with pain from the impact, but she still slams her hands against the door in frustration a few times, just in case that argument might convince it to open.
Panting, sweaty and defeated, Lori slumps back against the immoveable doors. Several feet away, Nathan is practically draped over a magazine rack, face now the color of raw blood as he gulps in air.
“You saw the clock, didn’t you?” she sighs.
“Yeah, well…I wasn’t running that fast.”
“And you didn’t think to tell me before I smashed my head into the door?”
“I’m sorry! My brain is not getting enough oxygen. All I could think is that it meant I could stop running.”
“Yeah, well, thank God you’re such a light weight. If you were in any better shape you would have slammed into the door. And me. With a six pack of beer in your arms.”
Silence ensues as they both catch their breath, the deep and hollow silence of a large space with no one in it. At long last, Nathan peels himself off the magazine rack and stumbles over to Lori.
“Is your mom gonna be mad?”
Lori shrugs and tries to play it off. “Eh, my mom probably hasn’t even noticed I’m gone.”
Nathan looks at the ground and nods. He knows she’s lying, but he doesn’t apply any pressure or offer any condolence. He doesn’t need to. Instead, he changes the subject.
“Did you see any managers around?”
“No. They’re all in the shift meeting I’m sure. Don’t know why though—they close the registers at 11, everyone is basically gone by 11:15…usually. What could they possible have to talk about?”
“Probably planning the complete and total destruction of the entire human race.”
Nathan grins and arches one of his eyebrows, giving her that look that can always make her smile no matter how bad things are. This time is no exception—she is even giddy enough from adrenalin to giggle a little.
“So!” Nathan bounces his fist against the door and leans forward to stand, making a full recovery from his recent over-exertion. “I guess we should probably go find them huh?”
Lori nods. “Guess we probably should.”
Neither of them move. Nathan looks at her.
Lori shakes her head. “You go!”
They both start giggling, and Nathan rolls his eyes in over-exaggerated annoyance.
“Come on, you juvenile delinquent, let’s move!” He swings an arm around her shoulders and half-drags, half-shepards her away from the door, heading in the general direction of the customer service desk.
“Hey, lemme go! I am not a delinquent!” Lori pretends to punch him in the ribs.
“Stealing beer and cigarettes, Ms. LaCrue? Oh, it’ll be hard time for you, mark my words!”
“Others will follow! My revolution will live on! Beer and cigarettes forever!”
“Tell it to the judge.”
They are just passing the customer service desk when a deep and sudden BOOM-crack! echoes throughout the building, shaking it to the cement-and-steel foundations. Lori can’t control the yelp that escapes her mouth, as much due to the noise as the sudden thick and fathomless black that now billows around her like a cloak.