bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bipolar Express, Chapter 19

Last week our guys got some time to rest. This week: Bad Chances, Bad Things, and Bad Men. Things are about to get...well...Bad. (And if you can't wait for the last bullet to fly--and you feel like supporting an independent--this story is available on Amazon and Smashwords, too!)

Chapter 19

By the second day in the store, I was already looking forward to leaving. For the first time in a while I had a plan. Not much of one, but a plan. I also had time to worry about how crappy the plan was, but there wasn’t a hell of a lot I could do about that—so I skipped from worry to boredom and landed in a pile of too much reflection.
And that’s how racing thoughts work. You don’t always sit around obsessing over one thing, although that’s when they’re the worst. A lot of the time you just wander from subject to subject, chasing one tertiary thought into the next.  You can’t focus on anything for too long, so in a period of seconds your brain’s all over the place; after a period of hours it runs away completely. Then you’re lost, and you have to figure out how to focus all over again.
I was beginning to understand how a tribal society might be a lot healthier mentally than a culture where everybody has all their needs met. When you’re busy spending all your time hunting and collecting to survive, you don’t have time to sit around and brood.
Yeah, it’s great to have time to think—that’s how civilizations develop. They use that time. To invent things. Sciences. Agriculture. So they have more time. But then you get leisure time. And after you’re all rested and relaxed, you get bored. And boredom gives you time for reflection. And if you look at your reflection too long, eventually, all you’re going to focus on is the flaws.
Think about it, Descartes had to be pretty damn bored to come up with “I think therefore I am.” And that’s deep stuff and all, but pretty soon you’re asking “Why am I?” And you’re not so sure you have a reason. So you invent media, so you won’t have to think about it. Until, ultimately, the media makes everybody stupid—and you end up having to hunt and collect all over again.
The Neanderthals were too busy chasing their next meal around to worry about much else. Me? I was having some serious problems giving birth to the next new branch of science and was ready to move on. I’m sure the other guys would’ve been happy laying around, drinking into the next meltdown, but eventually even they would get bored to death. Or crazy. Or sick.
S.O.S. for the S.O.L.: Hospitals. Graves. Institutions.
Still, this temporary end of the world had probably been better to us than the civilized one had ever been. I was eating better, that was for sure. We had shelter and, strangely enough, we had been crazy enough before that we weren’t as insane as everybody else—or at least that was the theory—we were used to it. There was your new science, figuring out this magnetism thing.
I was reflecting on whether my navigation had been better before I went mental or with the poles crossed, and came to the conclusion that crazy people as a rule have always had navigation problems. It’s how we discovered America. It’s also an example of the kind of answer you get when you can’t focus, and there’s too much time on your hands.
            After everybody else woke up, we spent the rest of the day opening samples of food and cooking what we wanted to in the smoke room. If we liked it, we opened another until we didn’t like it anymore. We ate until we got sick. Then we ate more.
            Nobody ever opened the Dick Sponge Pudding, though. Peer Pressure, I suppose.
            We packed for the next day’s trip. The plan was to find one more place to squat for the night, preferably right next door to the Art Institute, because we had no idea how long it would take to get there. We could only guess what was going on in The Loop. It could be filled with raving maniacs, or, the street regulars might have all been stricken sane.
            Wes made a sled out of some barbecue parts and a cookie sheet. If he couldn’t get the dog to pull it (and he wouldn’t), he’d pull it himself. He was going to load it with food and drink and give it to Jack’s brother. “You have to pay the ferryman,” he said.
            I started to say if he doesn’t show up we can use it, and then kept my mouth shut. Even when I tried to add a positive, negatives crawled all over it.
            Frosty had decided to stay. I hoped it wasn’t anything I had said and let him know he was more than welcome to come along. I got the feeling though, he didn’t want to chance there not being enough room for him in the car. He sounded like he thought he might be able to outlive the cold spell, or maybe he wasn’t thinking at all and just wanted to stay with all that food and booze, rather than risk not having it. He might have even decided to drink himself to death. He was drinking a lot, even by our standards, and he wasn’t eating much even though he’d looked like he was starving when we first met him.
I figured if he wanted to check out that way, it was up to him. I’d been there, and nobody had any luck trying to change my mind. Except me, and I changed my mind every five minutes.
            I didn’t take anything to fall asleep that night. I’d taken that one pill the night before and thought maybe I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get addicted. It was that I didn’t want to get addicted and then run out of pills. I stayed awake about half the night, trying not to think. Here we had more food, shelter, booze, wood and tools than we’d ever want, and we were getting ready to risk all of it because, secretly, we needed to find out what was happening to the rest of the world. The city was dying, maybe even a way of life, and we needed a new map.
            When we left here, were we leaving Eden? I almost grinned when I realized I was worrying about the future and everything I had at stake, which wasn’t much.
            Then I heard something skittering around in the walls by the stockroom. At least I thought I did. I fell asleep telling myself that at least tomorrow I wouldn’t have to worry about it.


            At sunrise the three of us walked down the back hall of the stockroom, past the office and the trash compactor. Wes’s little sled scraped the concrete floor behind him with its thin, aluminum grill rails guiding it, while Jack and I headed for the outer door arguing. Jack had Thing on her leash which gave me reason to believe he was in one of his up moods. He and Wes kept calling me “Gloomy” which meant I was back to being myself.
            “Hey, Gloomy, what’s the matter? You think we’re better off staying here with Frosty?” Jack said. “I mean, we have a plan for getting out of this icehole and you’re acting like- like… a clinically depressed guy or something. All we got to do is find a place for the night, meet my bro’ down on Michigan Avenue tomorrow—right between the lions—and we are outta here.”
            “First, all us ‘iceholes’ have to find a place to stay tonight, Jack.”
“No problem.”
“Then we have to make it to The Institute.”
 “More than enough time.”
"Then we’ll have to freeze our asses off waiting for your brother to show up. And—if he shows up—we have to hope nobody carjacks him or something while he’s waiting for us.
            “Nobody’s going to carjack anybody. My brother knows how to look out for himself.”
            “Jack, for all we know there’s a crowd of raving zombies waiting to rip us apart so they can get into Wes’s little sled there,” I said, pointing at the frail, railed, little toy. 
            “Don’t dis the sled.” Wes said. He was proud of the thing. He’d piled it high and it was a lot sturdier than it looked.
            “And don’t worry so much,” Jack added. “We’ve been doing this for weeks now, dude. The people in the city are thinning out. All we got to do is find a place near The Institute to stay for one night.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “But the least we could do is check to see if we could find an unlocked car—just in case. It would give us one less thing to worry about. And, if nothing else, it would make the trip to The Loop easier.”
            “It ain’t gonna work, Holt.” Jack was grinning and starting to piss me off.
            “None of us knows how to hotwire a car, anyway,” Wes said.
“C’mon, man, there’s bound to be at least one car out there with an extra key on the visor, or stuck to the bumper with one of those magnetic key holders or something,” I said.
            “Yeah,” Jack answered, “because everybody in the city usually keeps the extra key to their unlocked car on the seat, right next to their gold American Express card, just hoping some homeless drunk will find it. Never mind that they would have to leave it with fully charged batteries which, if they had, they wouldn’t have left it in the city to begin with. And, if we stop to look for the key to every car we find, we’ll freeze to death. We’ve been all over this.”
            He was not only up, he was right.
            “Frosty!” Wes said, as we got to the outer door. “Via Condios, man. Peace. Love. Out.”
            “And stay out!” Frosty said.
            Jack opened the back door and headed into the cold.
            “Don’t forget to eat. Take care,” I said, taking one last glance inside. Partly to let Frosty know he wasn’t forgotten, and partly to make sure nothing else was.
“Hey, Jack! That reminds me,” I said, as I turned around and headed through the door. “Did you ever get a chance to see that Nighthawks—”
When I turned around the door suddenly slammed me in the head before it caught the edge of my boot. Somebody had been hiding behind it. Whoever it was hadn’t had enough room to get any momentum behind their swing, though.
            “Jack! Wes!” I was trying to tell them something was up. But at the same time I was busy slamming the door back on whoever was behind it. Between the door and the brick wall, they took a beating. I slammed it over and over again.
            The dog started barking, and I heard the garbage cans across the alley rattle. Then the air was still and for a split second everything was quiet. Not a peaceful quiet, but that ominous, foreboding silence, the calm before the storm, or that instant you realize you’re about to wreck your car. That millisecond before you even have a chance to clench your teeth, and you know for a fact you’re about to go flying through the windshield.
I forgot about the cold.
As I turned toward the rattling noise, this big skinhead guy in army surplus clothes came out from behind the trash cans where we had first met Frosty. Jack stood opposite, holding the dog back as she wrestled with the leash. I figured Jack might be able to punch and run, get away, rather than confront the guy. He’d have to, the guy was huge. Jack let the dog go.
That’s when Army Surplus pulled a gun out of his coat, a big old revolver, and pointed it right between my eyes before he swept it across Jacks chest toward the dog.
            Jack’s arm went back like he was going try to pull his little .22 out of his pocket. The skinhead in camo fired point blank. Wes grabbed the back of Jack’s coat and pulled him to the right, but it was too late.
Army Surplus tried to get a bead on the dog.
            Still holding onto Jack’s collar with one hand, Wes swung his homemade barbecue-sled in an arc around Jack and popped the guy in the ribs. Army Surplus stumbled and went down holding his side. The dog pounced on his face.
            “Inside! Get in!” Wes yelled. Everybody else was just beginning to curse.
            I slammed the door back against the guy behind it and held it open for Wes and Jack. When I looked inside the stockroom, Frosty was wrestling some guy in camouflage pants over a knife. Where the hell had he come from?
Wes pulled Jack inside while I pulled the handle of the whiny indoor fire alarm we’d broken out of the trash compactor. I hit Camo-pants in back of the head with the flat part that says “Do Not Press Here.” Camo-pants went down and Frosty wasted no time, kicking him in the ribs repeatedly and matching me curse for curse.
            Wes had slid Jack inside the door and was trying to pull it closed with his free hand. Somebody pulled from the other side. Wes kicked it back open and the door hit whoever was outside so hard it almost slammed shut before the dog ran in. I shoved Wes and Jack toward the middle of the stockroom and sealed the exit.
            Slam. Click. We were locked in.
            Everybody was talking at once and nothing made any sense. Wes had pulled Jack’s backpack off and laid him down. Jack was on the floor crying, “I’m shot! I’m shot,” staring at his bloody hands. Frosty continued to use the word “Fuck” for all four parts of speech and was kicking Camo-pants all over the stockroom. The dog and I were just standing there, staring, trying to figure out what had happened.
            Wes held Jack’s shoulders, and tried to calm him down. I asked the first dumb question.
“Jack, you okay?”
            He looked up at me like he was ashamed and tried to grin.
            “Wes we need some rags, man. Get something we can use for bandages. Bar towels, rags, anything.” I said.
            “I’ll get ‘em.” Frosty gave Camo-pants one last kick in the head and took off running. The dog stood over the body and growled.
First everything had been too fast. Now it was too slow. I wanted it now. Frosty should have already been back, it wouldn’t be fast enough. I wanted to go get the bandages myself. I wanted the control I didn’t have.
            Wes gave me a nod, and I put my hand on Jack’s shoulder. “It’s going to be okay, okay?” I lied.
Wes went over to keep the dog off Camo-pants, while I unzipped and unbuttoned Jack’s coats. There was a tiny hole just below his ribs, but it was leaking a lot of blood. I put one of the coats back over the wound.
Jack was trying to wipe the tears out of his eyes, and he got more blood on his face. If it had been me I would have been screaming.
“How is it?” he asked.
            What was I going to say? It might have hit an artery, you’re a dead man? “I don’t know. I don’t know what angle it went in. Could be bad.”
            “No. It’s one of those good gunshot wounds,” Jack said. God, he was making jokes. I tried not to laugh and cry at the same time.
I couldn’t watch Jack die.
            Frosty came back with some aprons and bar towels. He was already wrapping one around his forearm. I took one of the bar towels and stuffed it in Jack’s wound like a cork before he, or I, had a chance to think about it. Jack screamed.
            “Sorry! I’m sorry, I’m just trying to stop the bleeding,” I said.
Jack passed out.
            Two shots fired outside, and the door shook. Everybody hit the ground. Wes and I leaned over Jack.
            “We got to get him out of here.” Wes already had Jack in his arms and was heading back for the sales floor.
            “What about this guy?” I said pointing at Camo-pants. “He alive?”
            “Maybe we can use him,” Frosty said. He grabbed him by one foot and started dragging him across the concrete floor. The dog followed. I picked up the bar towels and Jack’s backpack, feeling around for the gun inside just in case.
            Wes had thrown Jack on one of the beanbag chairs before the rest of us got inside. I found the gun in one of Jack’s coats. “I’ll be right back.”
            “Don’t be stupid,” Wes said.
Used to be I would’ve laughed at that coming from him.
“There’s a first-aid kit in the office,” I said. “Try to find a way to seal this door. But don’t do it until I get back.”
            “Two minutes,” Wes gave me.
            I had to keep my thoughts in order, one at a time. They were banging on the outside door. The first-aid kit in the office, just worry about that. Repeating it over and over in my head. Thefirstaidkitintheoffice, thefirstaidkitintheoffice. I grabbed it, and sprinted back to the sales floor.
            I handed the gun to Wes. He put it in Jack’s lap next to a full clip lying on the floor. I’d never even checked to see if the damned thing was loaded. If the goon squad had busted in while I’d been in back, I’d have been shooting with an empty gun. Probably had the safety on, too.
            Jack. Damn it. Jack was shot.
            Wes was still holding a bar towel on Jack’s wound. I took another look and started to dress it with a tiny patch of gauze from the first-aid kit. The proverbial Band-aid on a chainsaw wound.
Frosty tossed me a package of cheesecloth from house wares. “Use this,” he said, holding up his forearm to show me he had dressed his own wound with it. I don’t even know what cheesecloth is for, but it makes good gauze.
Soon the wound didn’t look like it was bleeding too badly. I taped some more over it and left the rag corked in. It would hurt like hell when it had to come out, but it might stop the bleeding. I rolled Jack on his side. There was no exit wound.
            I didn’t know if that was good or bad. If they’d used a bullet with a soft-point it might’ve mushroomed larger inside of him, cutting a wider path with every organ it hit, expanding instead of exiting.
            Jack is dead, I thought. What are we going to do? I panicked. Lost. We lost. We were lost before all this started. We had to meet Jack’s brother. If he lived long enough. I had to stay sober. If I wanted to live long enough. Fight these guys. If we lived long enough. Make sure Wes was okay. If he lived long enough. What about Frosty? If we lived long enough. Jack is dead. What about the dog? Jack is dead. Jack is dead. Jack is dead. It was one word.
Stop. Breathe. One thing at a time, I told myself. Jack isn’t dead. Not yet.  
            But he isn’t dead. Stop. Stop predicting the future. Breathe.
            No fortunetelling. Breathe.
            Take inventory. What’s happening right now is the only thing that’s real. Breathe.
            Right now, Wes was gathering some scraps, banging on the inside door, trying to find a way to bar it closed.
            How could he bar it? It opened out. No fortunetelling. Breathe.
            No, we weren’t dead. Wes would figure something out. Wes was okay. Frosty was up in front of the store, probably making sure nobody was trying break in that way. Okay. Everything was okay.
            Except me.
            If I could just act like everything was okay. It would be. Take your mind and your ass will follow. Right now I was worried about my ass being chewed into hamburger by a bunch of army surplus sociopaths. They kept banging on the outside door in back, feeding my imagination. Fear replaced confusion. Then, anger started to replace fear.
            Jack coughed and asked for a cigarette. No blood came up, so I pulled one out of his pack and lit it for him. I knew he probably shouldn’t smoke, but I didn’t want him to think I thought he was dying. Besides, if your number’s up, your numbers up. Might as well die happy.
            “Thanks man. Can you get me something to drink?” he said.
            “No problem,” I said. “Jones Cola.”
            “Jagoff.” I have a feeling he would’ve said it louder, but he coughed again. Something in back of the stockroom crashed. They were still trying to get in. Jack shoved the clip into the Beretta. “When you’re ready, put me in front of the door.” Other than that, there was nothing I could do for him.
I heard metal in the door wrench, and went over to see how Wes was doing. If the stock room door had opened inward we could have just nailed a bunch of boards up, piled stuff in front of it. I never stopped to realize we probably didn’t have any nails to begin with.
The door was our only defense. That wasn’t good. How do you set up a blockade to keep somebody from pulling open a door? Old slapstick media came to mind. A little tramp with a Hitler moustache blockades the door to keep the heavy out. The heavy just pulls the door open and steps in. More funny stuff from my head.
            Wes, bless his gray hide, had found a way to bar the door. He’d used his trusty crowbar to bend it inward where the bolt had been, before we had yanked it out. Then he found a shaft of iron used to make shelving, and wedged that almost three feet deep into the hollow part of the metal door. Barred across the middle of the wall, a 2x3 iron girder hung half-in and half-out of the steel door. If there was a way to hold the girder in there, it was better than the original bolt.
            “All we got to do’s shove some of this in there to stick it in place,” Wes said, pointing to a pile of scrap metal and rebar scrounged from the display tools. “Prob’ly take us a half-hour to open it from this side after that. Then pile a buncha stuff up. Get in their way.” He backhanded one hand with the other like he was slapping somebody around.
            “You are a mechanical genius,” I said.
            “Long as the hinges on the other side hold out, we’re fine.”
            “You mean they might be able to just pop the door off the hinges from the other side? Take the whole thing down?” Shit.
            “Or not,” Wes said. “I didn’t get a chance to look at it‘s a rush job, y’know.”
            “It’s a steel door. Maybe there are special hinges on it.” I hoped.
            “Or not.”
            They were still beating on the outside door. The rhythm hadn’t quite reached ramming speed.  
            Meanwhile, Frosty was trying to go through Camo-pant’s pockets. It didn’t look like he was doing too well with it. He raised his eyebrows, and gave me a give-me-a-break, help-me-out kind of look.
            “How’s the patient?” I said, starting to go through his pockets.
            “Breathing, but he’s out cold,” Frosty said.
            “Over four minutes can be brain damage.”
            “I got a feeling he had that already. Check this out.” He kicked a pile of paper and some change over toward me. “Read the card.”
            I picked up what looked like a folded cardboard 8x10 with barely legible felt-tip marker on one side. It said:

            This is to certify that JUNE-BUG Skate WHeeler is the property of C. DAGO RED of the Founding Fathers because D gained rights because BUG is to Stupid & Race Handicap to take care of himself. JUNE-BUG is the property of D until he works his debt off—long as D. doesn’t let him have to much to drink. JBSW is marked by a scar on his right forehead, and a dragon with a skull tattoo.
Signed this 1/15 New Ice Age, respectfuly”

            Under that were two illegible signatures.
            “So let me guess,” I said. “Our redheaded vegetable in camouflage is ‘Dago Red?’”
            “Don’t meet a lot of redheaded Italians,” Frosty said. “Of course, seeing as how I’ve never met a slave-owner before either…”
            “Wow,” I said. “You don’t think it might just be some kind of biker joke or something?”
            “Most of the men I’ve met of Red’s obvious reading comprehension wouldn’t have bothered to write it down if it was,” Frosty said. “Probably a fucking term paper for this idiot.”
            “Lemme see that.” Wes had come over. “‘Property... Race handicap?’ Uh-uh.” Wes was shaking like he was going to explode at first, then it was like he caught himself and just shut down. He’d resigned himself to a different emotional state. Dissociation. He wasn’t going to let it shake him. He looked at Camo-pants like he was a lower species, a condescending look I’d never seen Wes give anybody. “I ain’t survived twenty-eight years of bullshit and The North Pole to end up being some mohfucka’s slave.” His voice trailed off into a jigsaw of consonant sounds as he walked away, cursing under his breath most likely.
            “That’s one vote for not trying to revive him,” I said. “Anybody for first aid?” Frosty turned and headed toward Wes. “Last aid?” They were right. It wasn’t funny. “I’m going to tie him up then.” Nobody cared.
            Frosty went over to show the bill to Jack, and they must have found something funny about it, because they were smoking cigarettes and almost laughing while I went back over to where Wes had barred the door. The beat cops were still pounding outside.
The three of us started pulling shelving fixtures and display cases in front of the door together. We piled a bunch of glassware and garbage and everything else we could find on top of everything that was already on the fixtures. Soon, we had a barricade that was long, tall, and heavy.
            The beating on the outside door got steadier.
            Wes and I had been gathering everything we could find to use for weapons while we had been moving fixtures around. Frosty started retrieving items from other parts of the store. The dog growled at Camo-pants and waited for him to wake up.
Between us we collected a rather underwhelming array of weaponry and piled it behind the blockade. It looked like an army of South American-Asian-Vikings had been forced to throw all their cookware in a pile. Considering the other guys had guns, it wasn’t very impressive.
Wes found a machete that was more for decoration than cutting. It wasn’t sharp, but it was sizeable. All the other knives were parts of steak sets. The next best things to Wes’s machete—maybe better—were these heavy, show-off sized barbecue spatulas that would’ve looked too big even at a Japanese restaurant. They were about half the length of your arm, had serrated edges on one side, and weighed about five pounds each. Frosty and I procured one each for swordplay. We had mallets for tenderizing meat, giant barbecue forks—two with extendable 26” handles (according to the package), and when he found a set of fireplace tools, Frosty got an iron poker that was relatively easy for him to hold.
            I finally tied the dog up next to Jack, so he could free her if it was to his advantage. The dog knew what we were doing; she hadn’t even bothered to go after all the now-unguarded food. She just kept rolling her ears back, listening and growling.
            Jack reviewed our position. “How many guys you think they got?”
            “I don’t know,” I said. “Lots?”
            “And they’ve got everything they might find in the stockroom, and…”
            “And at least one gun.”
            So we didn’t know what they had or how many of them there were. Or what their objective was. From a strategy standpoint it was a pretty lousy review.
            I tore the plastic off some of the steak knife sets. “Isn’t this the part where you’re supposed to say, ‘I’ve got a plan, it’s crazy, but it might just be crazy enough to work?’”
            Jack grinned again, trying to act like everything was all right, but I could tell he was forcing himself not to freak out. He looked disoriented, like if he could stand up, he’d just fall down dizzy. I took his pulse and when he asked me about it, I told him it was “a little fast.”
Yeah, like a hundred-beats-a-minute too fast. He was bleeding internally. I gave him a shot of that acetone he called vodka to slow his heart rate down. I didn’t think about it tearing up his gut until he started throwing up blood.
            He didn’t puke all over himself though, I’ll give him that. He was professional about it. He held up one finger in the air, as if to say excuse me, and then he just leaned over to the side and threw up on the floor. At first I wasn’t even sure it was blood. There was some food in there, and the liquid looked almost like grape juice. But it was blood. We both knew it. Other than throwing a towel on top of it, to keep cannibal-dog from licking it up, we both just ignored it.
            I left the bottle where Jack could reach it if he wanted to. Between the gut-shot and the pulse rate, it probably wouldn’t matter.
            He was angled by the door, and I put myself just to the left so I could keep an eye on him. Not because I was the medical Samaritan, but because he had the only gun, and if anything happened to him I wanted it on our side. We all assumed some kind of battle station around the barricade, but I couldn’t stop pacing around.
            “Don’t worry,” Jack said. “If it’s taking them this long, they can’t have ‘lots’ of guys.”
Unless, of course, they’re waiting for them to get here, I thought, but I didn’t say it.
            We heard the back door ram open, and a bunch of voices trying to sound like a football team coming out of the huddle. At least five people, maybe ten—I couldn’t tell—but at least they weren’t firing guns in the air like B-media cowboys. ‘Lots’ or not, it was almost a relief we weren’t waiting anymore.
            Something rammed the stockroom door. And then rammed it again. There was some cursing before somebody took the time to try to pull it open, yanked it back and forth, and got nowhere.
            “School for gifted children,” Jack said.
            A voice announced through the crack in the door. “This is the Sheriff’s Department! Drop your weapons and come out! You will be treated peaceably!”
I couldn’t believe these guys were stupid enough to think, we were stupid enough to believe that. Unless, maybe they actually believed it themselves. Somehow, that was even scarier.
            “Fuck you!” Wes said. “We’re federal! You’re outranked! You should have radioed ahead!”  
            “Godamnit!” the voice half growled, half yelled. They did an impressive job of thrashing at the door, considering it didn’t have a handle on it. “We have the place surrounded!” he announced. “Surrender peacefully! Or we will have no choice but to use force!”
            We all looked at each other.
Like we had a choice.
Nobody had a choice.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Bipolar Express, Chapter 18

Safe from the storm for now, there is still something ominous and foreboding going on. However, there's a nice joke about "Heinz Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding,"  that's well worth your time.
Remember, if you can't wait for the last bullet to fly BIPOLAR EXPRESS is available On Amazon!

Chapter 18

            I took the biggest candle and stopped in my tracks when I realized it was just me and the dark. Then I went back, untied Thing, and dragged her along with me. At first I thought she was spooked by something; then I realized she just didn’t want to leave Fine Foods. I grabbed a bag of fancy potato chips to bribe her with and somehow managed to rig a handle for the stockroom door, the dog tugging on the leash and trying to snatch the chips the entire time. After that we headed toward the office in back.
            Sure enough, one of those rechargeable flashlights was plugged in next to the desk. It still held a charge. While Thing hovered around the unopened bag of potato chips, I glanced over the desk top and searched through the drawers. There was a desk calendar, more office supplies, and some batteries. I guessed the cash was either in the safe or nonexistent, shipped to another store. Shuffling through the paperwork I found a memo dated from last February that mentioned employee transfers from “prospective magnetic cold spots.” Sounded like the head office thought this whole Chicago-North Pole shift was going to be temporary.
            Of course it neglected to mention how they knew this. It also neglected to mention that the last time this happened, a couple-hundred-thousand-years ago, nobody had been around to leave an eye witness account—so how the hell would anybody know? After the fact, it was pretty obvious that the Corporate Office had neglected to put a chapter on Shift Changes and the Polar Shift in the employee handbook.
            I checked the stockroom shelves, hoping to find more food or clothing. Most of it seemed to be furniture: future firewood. Pillows, kitchen accessories, more beanbag chairs, wine and coffee beans.
            The ladies’ room was back by the office, while the men’s had been on the sales floor. Guess they didn’t trust the men with the stock. I actually knocked on the women’s door before I went in, as if some lady might still be inside putting on her makeup. Candy wrappers from pilfered stock and toilet paper were strewn all over the floor, indicating that the women weren’t to be trusted either. The plumbing worked, but it didn’t look like anybody had bothered to find that out. Maybe when the electric eye went out, they didn’t know how to flush it manually. Kids these days. I’d get Wes to show them how.
            On the south side of the building a door led to the loading dock we’d seen from outside. The dock was designed like a big garage to keep the stock people from having to unload outside. Inside, there was room enough for two shipping trucks. The garage door on the opposite side was the same one we had seen in the alley. It struck me that if we needed to build a fire we could do it on the dock. The inside door would keep us from getting smoked out, and the outside door would, hopefully, keep the escaping smoke to a minimum so nobody would notice us.
            I rechecked all the exits and led Thing around by holding the bag of chips just high enough in the air to pique her interest. She followed me back to the front, where I pulled the wire out of the stockroom door so it would lock again, then I stacked a box of glassware against the inside of it to act as an alarm. You couldn’t be too cautious, and breaking glass worked regardless of electricity. Seemed more our style, anyway.
            I had expected the gang to still be engaged in the manly art of conversation when I got back, and figured by now they had created entire new galaxies in which to house their legendary he-man members. Instead, Jack and Frostbite were both laying back in their beanbag chairs with their eyes closed. If they weren’t asleep, they certainly weren’t conscious.
Wes held up his bottle as if to say, Hey. Then set it down gently, and curled up using his coat for a blanket. Thing evaluated the scene for food potential, and proceeded to walk around in circles, sniffing, until she found the best spot on the floor.
I blew out the candles and laid there in the dark staring at the inside of my eyelids. A while later I decided I couldn’t sleep.
I picked up another Jones Cola and reminded myself I couldn’t drink alcohol. I didn’t know what flavor the soda was, even after I tasted it. From what little I could see, it was that weird shade of cobalt blue that has no relation to any actual, existing, real food. But it didn’t taste half bad.
If I couldn’t sleep at least I could rest I told myself, and actually believed it for a little while. Eventually though, it felt like time had stopped. I needed to find something to do.
            When I got up and started wandering around, so did the dog. The only thing they had to read was cookbooks, and I really didn’t want to even think about food. Those Gummi Bears and sardines weren’t mixing too well. A small shaft of light beamed through the front window. I used that to steer myself into a comfortable leather chair, just far enough from the front that I could see out without anybody else seeing in.
            I might have even fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember was opening my eyes. I looked over at the dog, and she was sitting down next to me looking outside like she had seen God. I suddenly realized the intensity of the light on the dog’s face—it was changing in brightness, and color.
At first, I thought maybe I was dreaming and she was watching TV or something. But the shifts in light didn’t move abruptly enough, and it didn’t feel like a dream. The frost on the window was real. And through it, I could see bright colors and shapes moving in the dark. Beautiful shapes, like liquid lasers.
            Right in front of me, the sky filled with streams of milky green light, like banshees waltzing over a dead city. Thing nudged my hand with her nose, and when I looked back up it was as if a green and red plasma wave whipped over the street.
            It startled me. For a second I was convinced the aliens were picking up natives in a tractor beam. I waited, unmoving, surprised to find that nothing had exploded or disintegrated.
            I watched the light waves hover over the electrical wires down the street and remembered the first time I had ever seen the Corporation of America Blimp when I was a kid.
            The Blimp had circled over my parent’s house on its way to a Sox game. It was nighttime and all I had seen were the advertising lights. Scared the shit out of me. Every dog in the neighborhood was barking. I ran into the living room, out of breath and not real sure of myself, and told everybody a flying saucer was outside because I didn’t know what else it could be. Everybody laughed, and I was afraid the aliens had already brainwashed them. Finally, they told me that my “spaceship” was in reality a blimp. I had to wait until I saw it for myself before I’d believe them. Then, my sense of urgency deflated, along with my confidence. I went to bed dying of embarrassment ten minutes later.
            But tonight, through the frosted windows of the import store, I simply kept watching the light drifting and waving over the wires. An intelligent man would’ve gone back to bed, but remembering the alien invaders of my youth, I couldn’t have slept even if I’d wanted to. Not because the lights were too bright, but because I couldn’t figure out what they were. I started to stand up, and another green ghost danced up over the horizon and swallowed the sky. It would’ve been a beautiful way for the world to end.
            That’s when I realized the dog wasn’t whining or acting afraid at all. Hell, she looked amazed, if not emotionally moved. No, these weren’t my aliens. These were Jack’s radioactive cosmic storms, the ones that kept us from traveling at night.
And Jack’s radioactive storms were something else completely.
The dog and I spent the rest of the night staring at the lights in the sky, just like our ancient relatives probably had for ages. We were Kings of the North Pole until the sun finally peeked from behind the brownstone across the street. I hadn’t slept a wink, but I hadn’t had a drink. I think I felt okay.
            I checked on the guys and they were all still passed out, so I decided to try and figure out how to make some coffee. I knew grinding the beans was no problem, even without electricity—all you have to do is wrap them in a cloth and bash it with a hammer. If the store didn’t have a hammer, I knew they had a meat tenderizer. I’d made coffee for myself this way many a time before, only then I’d used a t-shirt and a brick. And I’d used the same t-shirt for a coffee filter. Even in those days my wardrobe was always functional.
            We lucked out, and nobody had to drink anything strained through my shirt. I found a French coffee press on one of the end-cap displays. I’d never used one before but how hard could it be? Coffee, water, press.
            I wired the stockroom door open and went out to the loading dock. There was plenty of bare concrete there, so I built a fire using pieces of unassembled furniture for wood, and used packing paper to start the sparks. It took maybe half-an-hour, and the entire loading dock was full of smoke, but at least there was nothing else there to catch on fire. Soon, the dog was enjoying a bowl of British orangeade while I sipped on a mug of Colombian coffee. We took a pot of it up front and went to see what was for breakfast.
            That first morning in the store was like a dysfunctional summer camp for depraved children. When everybody finally woke up, Thing and I had prepared a breakfast of smoked salmon on a variety of crackers and coffee. Wes and Thing had most of the salmon and after that the dog went to sleep.
            Wes found a stereo, but we still couldn’t get any reception on the damned thing. He swore he was getting a station when he turned it on in the stockroom, but I suspected that maybe his medication wasn’t working too well with the alcohol—if he was taking it at all. Jack agreed, but the truth was, Wes was the only one that would know. Maybe he did hear something. Or maybe he was still crazy. You do the math.
            Of course I took offense when Jack suggested perhaps I ought to keep an eye on my own diagnosis since I’d stayed awake all night. Then he continued to try to tune the radio by hitting it with the palm of his hand and bitching about magnetic waves.
            “Speaking of magnetic waves and my diagnosis,” I said. “I think I saw one of your radioactive storms last night.”
            “Yeah?” he said. “Was it all green and blue and red lights, shooting around way up in the sky?”
            “Mostly green,” I said.
            “How long did it go on?”
            “Pretty much all night,”
            “That’s some scary shit, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, it was at first. Then I realized I was just jumpy. It reminded me of something, though,” I said. “You used to live in Holland for a while, right.”
            “A year-and-a-half.”
            “And Holland is Dutch, right? Isn’t that the same as Nordic?”
            “Ya, dat’s close,” He said in a fake Swedish accent. “Dat und the whole Sveedish, Scandinavian area. Even Germany, I think.
            “So you spent a year-and-a-half with all these freaking Norsemen—the first guys in history to invent an entire mythology wrapped around the Northern Lights, and you never once heard anyone tell any stories, or noticed anything that might imply, maybe, some sort of connection between your ‘Radioactive Storms’ and the Aurora Borealis?”
            “Oh man! Are you kidding?”
            “The Northern Lights, Jack! They’re the Northern Lights! Even Canadians know that shit.”
            “Fuck. You know, I never even thought about it.” Jack smiled. “No shit? Wow.”
            I fully expected him to say “Duh,” out loud, but he just kept playing with the radio and muttering, “No shit,” every once in a while. After he got nothing on the radio, he looked up and said, “We’re going to have to watch those tonight—The Northern Lights. Wow. Y’know, I think they are cosmic rays? That’s radioactive, isn’t it?”
            “I don’t know. Nice lame excuse, though.”
            Since I was the only one to have more than one cup of coffee, I was the only one whose caffeine intake I needed to worry about. It was hard not to join in with Wes, Jack and Frostbite as they spent the morning exploring the multiplicity of imported beer and wine on hand. There was a lot of drinking going on that first day, but everyone remained on the cautious side of intoxicated, nursing their buzz, daring the other guy to fuck-up first. Need I remind you, we’re not talking about amateurs here. These were professional alcoholics. Bozos, but professional bozos.
            I knew. I was one of them.
            You nursed that drink because you were afraid of when the next one would be. Or because it might be the one that killed you. Or the one that sent you over the brink. You had to pace yourself.  If you didn’t drink too fast in front of people, then no one would notice—until you moved. I’d been choking on my fear of fucking up in front of people for years. Your average bozo would never do that to himself.
            I somehow managed to stay away from the drink, keeping myself occupied with supplies and looking for things we could use. Eventually, I started playing with some Styrofoam gliders and rubber band powered airplanes I found in the toy aisle. Every time somebody stuck their head up, they were being dive bombed by a miniature airplane or giant insect.
Thing wouldn’t fetch the little model planes, or catch them in the air, but preferred to wait until they hit the ground before she devoured them into tiny piles of non-biodegradable waste.
            We ate nonstop. We played marbles. Seriously, we played with marbles, something I’d never even seen a kid do. Jack showed everybody the rules, and Frostbite kicked everybody’s ass. Probably because he had to work with his remaining thumb so much. I tried playing the ukulele tuned up like a guitar until Wes finally smashed it up. Can’t really blame him.
            Back in the kitchen area we found a barbecue chimney starter, and put that on top of a wok. Using them as an oven and grill, we had big German sausages with beans and sauerkraut for lunch. Seemed like I’d be eating beans for a century no matter what.
            The guys drank while I ate part of a lemon cake. Then we settled down to play cards for the rest of the afternoon, starting with poker, then gin, then spades, well into the night. We bet poker chips, crackers and then foods that nobody was familiar with.
            “Okay, Jack, this one’s so good I am not even going to gamble with it,” I said.
            “No no. Close your eyes.”
            “C’mon,” Jack said.
            “No, close your eyes.”
            Jack finally put a hand over his eyes but I knew he was looking between his fingers when he let out one of those deflating groans that substitute for laughter after a bad joke.
            “Just for you.” I placed it in front of him, and unveiled my secret bid from beneath a scarf. “A can of ‘Heinz Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding!’ I don’t know if that’s where it came from or that’s what it’s for, but there’s some more back there if you guys need it—what with your manly members being so gigantic and all.”
            “Kid, you are ill,” Frosty said, picking up the can and checking the label.
            “Why,” I said, grabbing the can and holding it up like a commercial spokesman before announcing in my cheesiest voice, “What’s wrong with ‘Heinz Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding?’”
            It made me all warm and fuzzy inside knowing that none of us were too mature for a good spotted dick sponge pudding joke. For the next day all I had to do was hold the can up and get some sort of reaction. It was like having a license to annoy.
            By evening, dinner was a smorgasbord of whatever anybody wanted to eat. And beans.
            The bathroom in the wine department was busy, so I went in back to use the ladies. Somebody else must have been using it too, because there was more trash on the floor. And they still hadn’t learned to flush without the electric eye.
            “Hey, did any of you guys use the bathroom back by the office?” I asked when I got out front again.
            “I didn’t know there was one,” Jack said.
            “I ain’t been in no ladies room,” Wes said, like he was defending his honor.
            “Yeah, I didn’t figure it was you because it wasn’t flooded. Frosty?”
            “You use the bathroom in back?”
            “Just when we was cooking back there.”
            “Oh. Well, it’s no problem or anything. Just make sure you guys flush. I don’t want to get stunk out of here.”
            “I always flush,” Frosty said. “Maybe you just got some of that dick sponge stopped up in it.”
            Jack finally got a big garbage can out of the back to fill up, and the trash that didn’t fit in there we threw in boxes. The place was almost livable.
            “What this place needs,” Jack said, “is a woman’s touch.”
            “What I need is a woman’s touch,” Wes said, grabbing hold of a bottle.
            “‘He who caresses the bottle too much, may never caress the woman,’” I said. Somebody had said it to me in Mexico one time.
            “Thanks, Yoda,” Jack said, lighting a cigarette. “But I don’t think we’re gonna have to worry about that tonight.”
            “Or like for the last year,” I said, and fell back into my beanbag chair.
            “Just don’t nobody roll over in your sleep,” Wes said.
            “You think you guys got it bad? I got to have a woman.” Frosty said. “Think about it, I got one finger on my right hand. You ever try to play with yourself with one finger?” After that it got quiet for a little while.
            “So the hardest thing isn’t buttoning your clothes, huh?” Jack said a few minutes later, pulling a blanket around himself.
            “Don’t roll over,” Wes said again.
            “Hey, Jack, as long as we’re testing your memory,” I said, “Your brothers going to be here when?”
            “Three days. High noon. I got it marked on the calendar in my backpack, and today is…” He pointed at the date on a digital Casio, “9-9.”
            “So, tonight, and then two more nights?” I counted on my fingers.
            “That’s right.”
            “And you know he’ll be there?” I said with my usual positive flair.
            “Hell, yeah! He’s my big brother. The guy’s nervously, neurotically, pathologically early. He’s so damned punctual it’s scary. I think he’s missed one appointment in his life, and that was on purpose.”
            “Let me guess,” I said. “A court date?”
            “Close,” Jack said. “Boot camp.”
            “They lock him up?”
            “No, section eight. How can you fight a religious war if you’re God?”
            “Oh perfect. He’s crazy, too.”
            “No, just smart enough not to get drafted in a corporate war. Besides, if you were going to make an appointment with anyone in the world, who better than somebody with a God complex? He has to be there. He can’t lie.”
            “Besides, he’s everywhere, in everything.” I said in a brainwashed sounding voice.
            “He’ll be there.” The way Jack said it I almost believed him.
            “What was that?” Jack jumped up fast for a guy with a buzz on.
            The dog had figured out how to knock down a display and chewed through about eight boxes of cookies before I tied her back up. Within an hour everybody but me had passed out. Looked like we weren’t going to be watching the Northern Lights tonight.
            I still wasn’t sleepy, so I took one of Jack’s little white pills. I think I dreamt I heard something in the stockroom.