Our boys have found the keys to an Import Store and they’re going in! On the way they’ll find some body parts, somebody will almost crack, you’ll meet a man with no fingers, and there’ll be a party.
Even with all the talk about leaving early, we started late the next day. Jack rationalized it, saying that starting later the weather would be warmer. Wes and I rationalized along with him because we wanted to. I don’t think there’s too much difference between 17 and 27 degrees below. Cold is cold. Besides, I was still out of it and taking every opportunity to rest I could. At least until I was out in the cold.
When we hit the door it was like walking in an ice cube. My face burned. All I wanted to do was turn around and go back. I’d gotten spoiled by all the little luxuries we’d had for the past two days—like food and shelter. At least that’s what I was thinking. Then I inhaled a lungful of fresh air and changed my mind. Oxygen: cold, fresh, untainted oxygen. I’d been locked up for the last two days with a corpse. I inhaled till my brain froze.
We were clean, supplied, and armed with keys to a new kingdom. The dog ran around and played in the snow. She even barked at me when I started to head in the wrong direction. I might have genuinely smiled. Mind you, it’s easier to be emotionally open with an animal than a human. And even if you’re not, they don’t understand sarcasm.
I inventoried my own acceptance and reminded myself not to expect what I wanted. The import store could be empty, already broken into, cleaned out and looted. Or, our card key might not even work.
The big corporate stores might have had time to ship everything to other locations, or had big clearance sales. But there were a lot of smaller stores in the city, too. Where would they put all their stock for the mass exodus?
Or were they still there guarding it?
Any door that hadn’t already been broken into could have an owner with a shotgun behind it. Any other door might have something else. I forced myself to think positive.
The good thing was we didn’t have too far to go. In fact, we’d already passed the store headed south. We checked our coordinates—meaning we looked at the street signs—and turned back around, headed for the address on the girl’s paycheck stub.
We’d be at the corner of Diversey and Broadway after we rounded the next big curve. We were almost there already. Where was the dog?
“Hey either of you guys see where ‘Thing’ went?” I said.
Jack stopped and used his hand as a visor to look around. “She was running around here just a second ago. Might have run off.”
I had a feeling Jack was afraid I might get too attached to the dog. I was kind of afraid of the same thing, at first. I mean, I liked the dog, but I knew it wouldn’t be me that got too fond of it. I’d had a lifetime of practice learning not to get too close. Hell, I’d dissociated myself from the world; and at this point I’m pretty sure I didn’t want it back. Jack and Wes, though…
Chemistry-wise, emotionally, the three of us had a real safe game going on. Male macho with some crazy-talk bullshit thrown in was fine. But throw something else in there—some wrong ingredient, something emotional, something real—and there’d be trouble.
I had a mental picture of one of them getting too fond of the dog, or someone, or something, and then running off into the ice storm on the ultimate emotional jagoff. We’ve all dealt with it to some degree, whether with kids, drunks, or psychotics. There’s always somebody going on about how they should’ve known better than to ever care about something, throwing a fit and running away, screaming “Never again!” The trick is not to care.
So nobody acted like they were bothered by the fact that the dog wasn’t around. I tried to whistle, but my lips were already so numb you could barely hear it. Thing heard it, though. I saw her up ahead of us, playing fetch with a tree limb in her mouth.
She started wagging her tail from the high ground and dragging the branch through the snow like she wanted to play. Only it wasn’t a branch.
It was somebody’s arm.
It was dirty, gray, and wrapped in tattered cloth, like she had dug it up. But it was definitely somebody’s arm.
I almost threw up, but then fear conquered the revulsion. My first thought? The dog was a fucking cannibal.
I saw Jack thrashing his arms around in the air behind him, reaching for his pockets and missing, like he was going to draw his gun and put poor Thing out of her misery. The problem was she didn’t look all that miserable. Or menacing.
The thing with The Thing was that the dog had this incredible overbite. At first glance it made her look kind of intimidating, like a shark. But once you got used to it, the rest of the time—as long as she wasn’t growling at you or trying to rip your balls off—it looked like she was smiling. So when she put the arm down in front of Jack, she had a smile on her face. It was like she was giving him a present. She started trotting around the arm with her tongue hanging out, leaving footprint circles in the snow. And looking up at Jack all goo-goo eyed for approval the entire time.
Jack gagged. Meanwhile, he was still waving his arms around behind him like he was trying to keep his balance and reach for the gun at the same time. Either that or he was trying to wave us back. I finally threw up just listening to Jack retch. Wesley laughed so hard ice came out of his nose.
Have you ever laughed and thrown up at the same time? I almost choked to death. All the while, The Thing just kept romping around her new arm and smiling. She’d brought us a gift, proven her worth. Thing was the great hunter.
Sick as it was, we couldn’t stop laughing. We needed it. I was the first one to talk; I was pretty used to throwing up by now.
“Okay, okay.” Everybody else kept laughing. “The question is: Where is the rest of this guy?”
“We’ll probably spot him if we run into him. He’ll be the guy MISSING AN ARM!” Jack was serious, eyes wide. But the timing was comic. Tears. Puke. Laughter. I couldn’t breathe.
“Least he’s unarmed,” Wes said. I tried not to laugh at that one.
“That’s good, Wes. That’s good,” Jack answered. I stopped laughing when the dog started licking up the puke. I didn’t bother to stop her. I was grateful she wasn’t chewing on the arm.
Wes headed uphill, trailing the dog’s tracks in the snow. Jack started to follow him. I poked the dog with my boot to move her along and hoped we didn’t find the rest of the guy.
“C’mon, dog.” Devil Dog, Hound of Hell. I’d already seen The Thing with human flesh in her mouth twice that week, and was starting to wonder if maybe she’d eaten the rest of the guy.
Around where Broadway curves into Diversey, Jack was making faces and looking down the street where I couldn’t see yet. I figured he had found the body. Turned out, it was a little scarier than that.
In the snow there was a curved trail, like somebody had tried to shovel a foot wide path in the white. There was a big puddle of frozen blood next to the curb where the concrete had been exposed. Tire tracks, and another shovel trail led down the street, zigzagging from one side to the other. The streaks of blood on the snow made it pretty obvious where the arm had come from.
“Somebody dragged somebody else down the street behind a car,” Jack said.
“And cut his arm off. Whoa!” I had never seen anything like it.
“No, look at the trail. The car was parked over on the left side of the street. They just floored it and bounced ‘Armstrong’ off the curb. They ripped the poor bastards arm off.” Jack spit on the ground and it froze.
I looked at the concrete where it showed beneath the scraped through snow. You could see where they must’ve swung him behind the car. Where the blood started was probably where his arm had popped off. I imagined it like a kid’s toy action figure. Only if we found the guy, we couldn’t just snap his arm back on.
“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Jack.”
“Kansas sucks anyway, man.” He kicked a block of white ice over the concrete next to the red ice. “Flatland.” I didn’t know what he meant by that either, other than maybe he didn’t want to think about it.
The three of us looked down the street and started to follow the trail. Not so much wanting to see where it led, but just following instinct. Probably a genetic human trait, people want a trail that’s already been cut for them, bloody or not.
We kept on dissociating down the road, keys to the kingdom in hand.
When we reached Mecca it was closed.
We had walked less than a block when we looked up and saw “World Imports” in big letters. The sun behind the logo cast a dark silhouette that cut through the polar white, burying our shadows in stark contrast. There were bars across all the windows. It didn’t look like anybody had tried to break in yet.
Jack grinned big time. He whipped the card key out of his vest and held it between two fingers, looking for all the world like he was about to lay down an ace in a hand of poker. Then his face went blank.
There was no card key lock.
“What are we supposed to do?” he said. “What the fuck?” He pounded the door once and just stood there. “What the fuck are we supposed to do?” He pounded again. “What am I gonna do!” Pound. “What!” Pound. “What am I gonna do?” Pound “What!” he kept repeating and his voice started to crack. Wes and I looked at each other. Jack was unraveling. He was going to be the one that ran off into the ice storm. Even the dog looked scared. Jack sank down the wall, muttering to himself.
“Whoa, Jack. Hold on,” I said, grabbing him by the arm. “There’s no key card in front.” I had just thought of it. I hoped I sounded more confident than I really was. “Retail stores keep the card key in back, one entrance, to keep the employees from stealing stuff. Usually, there’s an alarm system—which I don’t think we’ll have to worry about—but the employee entrance is in back.” I hoped that was the case.
Jack grinned at me. For the first time I felt like he was actually happy to have me around.
I hoped I was right about the back door. It was getting colder, and if we didn’t get inside, we’d have to find someplace else nearby, and soon. Wes took off around to the back of the building with Jack and the dog following. I trudged behind them.
I was the new morale officer. We were screwed.
A loading dock sat in back with a big garage door on it, locked and padlocked. A delivery entrance was hidden on the wall next to the truck ramp. It was locked, but it wasn’t a garage door. Next to it was a blinking red light—and a slot for the card. That was our door. Looking at the thing I could see why you needed the card key. It was a firewall with a vault door built into it. Wes pulled a crowbar out of his pack just in case, like that might work. But the only way a crowbar would have gotten you in was one brick at a time.
Jack pulled out the card key, and I tried not to think about how it wouldn’t work.
“What the hell are you boys doing?” Garbage cans and a voice rattled in the alley behind us.
Wes turned around so fast the crowbar just missed my head. Jack and I spun around cursing. Taken by surprise, I was trying to hold onto the dog’s collar and gain some composure. The dog barked and skated me across the alley.
Crouching next to the garbage cans was a gray-haired, black man. He wasn’t wearing much more than rags and a beat-up, camel coat that might have been warm enough at one time. He had his arms folded and his hands buried in his armpits, shaking. Jack already had a fist in the air and was rushing the old man like he was going to pound him into a snow-cone. The guy barely had a chance to get his hands up.
“Hold it! Hold it!” he said. “Peace, man. I don’t want nothin’! Peace.” His voice was calm. “Just thought I’d let you know you’d been spotted.”
That’s when I noticed the hands he was holding up in nonviolent protest were missing most of their fingers. He was trying to make a peace sign, but it didn’t quite work without all the digits.
Jack lowered his fist and grabbed him by the collar. He slowly walked him backwards, knocking over the garbage cans between them. The man lost his footing and fell back on a snowdrift by the fence.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d calm down a little,” the man said. “And hold on to that dog.” He pointed at me with the remains of an index finger.
“Sorry, mister,” Jack said, “I’m new in the neighborhood. Makes me kind of jumpy. You’re the second person I’ve seen today that didn’t have all his parts and I’m getting a little worried about keeping mine.”
“Understandable. It’s a bad neighborhood.”
Jack let go of him, and offered a hand to help him up. Then it struck me. At first I thought the man in the alley had lost his fingers to the same people who’d left the arm out on the street. I was wrong.
“Frostbite,” I said. Everybody just looked at me funny. “Your fingers, you lost them to frostbite didn’t you? I’ve seen wounds like those before. At the shelters.”
“Yeah, froze ‘em off,” he answered, “Long time ago, prob’ly ten years before all this.” He waved what was left of a black and white hand in the cold winter air. It looked pinto, painted where the frostbite had gotten him. White spots on black, pink spots on brown.
“Look, no offense, but I don’t really care. I can’t exactly trust you based on when you started freezing your fingers off,” Jack said. “Since you don’t know us, you may want to take this opportunity to beat it. Alone.”
“I am by myself, if that’s what you mean. I wouldn’t have said anything except I don’t really want to freeze to death. As for that store, you may be calling more attention onto yourself than just me. I already seen two different gangs try to break in. You’re the first ones I seen that bothered to get a key—or a crowbar—ahead of time. So I hope you do get in.
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about a response to silent alarms,” he went on, “but if they got a bell or a local siren ringing, I might be some help. You don’t really want to be announcing your presence, and I can shut it down. You can see I’m not part of any gang. I won’t hurt you, and I won’t steal from you. I’m the one taking a risk here.”
I don’t think he could have hurt us.
“You don’t have anything to do with the people dragging bodies around?” Jack said.
“Oh, hell no! I’m more scared of them than I am of you.”
I didn’t think we were all that scary either. Until I saw Jack’s face walking back toward the door.
“Look, if you’re alone, you’re invited to come with us,” Jack said. “But if anything goes wrong, I’ll kill you first.”
He jammed the card key into the slot.
The door opened. Really, it was that simple. Blinking red light. Steady green light. Click. Enter. Like it was programmed just for us.
I ran in first with the dog. I wasn’t being the brave point man, selflessly looking out for the others while seeking out the enemy. I was being a thief. A paranoid thief.
Once I was in all I could see was the dark. An industrial garbage compactor next to the wall in the stockroom blocked off what little light there was. I passed it, following the dog, looking for an office. That’s where the external alarm set-up would be.
Sure enough, there was a glass closet with a couple of desks in it. Looked like management didn’t want the help hanging out in the office too much. There was an alarm keypad next to the door. No blinking red light. No alarm.
Reality may have been trying to free me from worry, but reality had no idea who it was dealing with. Still worried, I sat down and put my feet up on the desk trying to look like I wasn’t. I waited for the gang to come up from behind, expecting them to applaud my quick thinking.
Jack and Wes ran by without even noticing. The man with no fingers stuck his head in and told me not to worry, there were no red lights blinking, do something about the dog. Thing was on the other desk reorganizing corporate structure, tearing through paperwork with his teeth.
By the time I caught up with them, Wes was using the crowbar to open the back door that led from the stockroom to the sales floor. In case I haven’t said it before: Crowbar = Universal Key.
The door wrenching off the lock gave way to the only live alarm we encountered; one of those whiny little fire-alarm jobs they mount on rear exits. You know, the ones with the little red sign that says “DO NOT OPEN THIS DOOR! Alarm will sound.” I took great joy in using the sign to tear the alarm off the door and it warmed my heart to hear the whiny, little, squawking box die in my hands. The rest of it I pried off by its own handle, the one that says, “Do Not Press.” Several hours later I would throw it in the trash compactor.
And all that would have been a million laughs, except the door alarm was battery powered, which meant that the electricity inside the store was most likely out; probably why the big alarm didn’t work to begin with. We were lucky the card-key did.
Shafts of light cut through the front window and reflected off galaxies of dust particles. The motes danced in the light, fell through the dark spaces and settled on all of our newfound belongings. It was a lot more than I had expected.
Everything was still in the store.
The place was huge. When we had agreed to break into an import store, I thought we’d find a bunch of wicker furniture and some Chinese toys. Then I looked up at the display signs and noticed we were standing in the Food & Wine Department. No wonder Jack and Wes were so happy to find the key to this place, it was a drunk’s version of heaven. Only with finer wine.
Before my eyes had time to adjust to the dark, the guy with no fingers was already trying to open a bottle—definitely one of us. Wes disappeared in the dark and came back with a corkscrew and some candles.
“S’all clear,” he said, lighting the candles. “S’a’right.”
The candles made everything brighter, but the light was diffused and kept shifting. It gave the whole scene a surreal feeling—like one of those underground kiddy rides at a theme park. Drunken Dwarves in the Spelunkers Cave, most likely.
The children of a screw-top world had popped the cork on the presidential compound. It was Christmas, New Year, and the whole month of July all rolled into one. Four ravenous, mentally ill, chemically dependent winos had just trod into a den of temptation beyond any level Dante had ever thought of. Of course Dante probably wasn’t a suicidal alcoholic.
“Holy shit, guys! I had no idea the place was going to be this big,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jack answered. “They got a store in San Francisco that’s twice this size. But if I’m not mistaken…” He held the candle out like a magic wand. Half the store was food and drink.
We were laughing. We were gasping. I reached up and pulled a bottle of some fancy, Dutch beer off the wall and Jack grabbed it out of my hand before I had a chance to find out I’d need a bottle opener. At first I thought he was trying to keep me from tearing the palm of my hand up.
“Sorry, dude. Detox. You drink, you die. Free booze is the worst thing that could happen to you right now.”
Fuck. I’d forgotten I was designated driver for life. I’d started to drink on pure reflex. “Oh man, I didn’t even think about it.”
“Yeah, thinking? Not our strong suit,” Jack said. “Not everything here is alcoholic, though.” He glanced around and an evil grin spread across his face. “Perfect.” He reached into a nearby display and handed me a bottle of “Jones brand” cola.
I didn’t get it at first. Then I figured out it was because I was jonesing for a drink. “Thanks a lot—Jagoff.”
Corks popped in the background.
Within an hour everybody was shitfaced but me. Something weird happened, though. I was in kind of an all right mood, and I didn’t want a drink. I mean, part of me did, but the part that didn’t wanted more. I wasn’t just afraid of the pain it would cause. Hell, I would’ve drunk for the pain; wouldn’t have been the first time I danced around health issues. But I realized then that my liver probably had the consistency of a second-hand football. And if I wasn’t still jaundice, I soon would be again. My kidneys were still making my back hurt, and I couldn’t physically throw up anymore. That weird little sentence came into my head. “You’re lucky to be alive.” I don’t think I believed it, but it was there. I accepted the fact that I couldn’t drink. And there was a part of me that didn’t want to.
I wasn’t aware of it then. But part of me wanted to live.
So of course I had to be confronted by a fortress of free alcohol. As usual if I didn’t need it, people were giving it away. Jack told me once that the word “sardonic” comes from a plant the Greeks used as a poison. The victims would die laughing. Looking at my own little comedy of the absurd I can only say that Jack had a sardonic grin on his face the whole time.
I was exhausted, malnourished, dehydrated, excited, and anxious. Still weak and shaking like I could use a drink. Surrounded by free booze and forbidden to. But, I was also surrounded by imported gourmet food. Pearls among swine? Why yes, thank you very much.
Even pigs dig truffles.
The Thing was chomping on an entire bin full of those little foil-wrapped chocolate coins you get when you’re a kid, bronze strips of metal sticking out between caramel colored fangs. I knew I’d have to hold her back or she’d be sick tomorrow. Then I looked around and realized we were all going to be sick tomorrow. I tied the dog up to a counter with the rope from a wooden pull-toy shaped like a duck. She started chewing on the duck.
The entire back of the store’s sales floor was piled chest high with expensive, imported foods and wines. Quality brands I had never heard of. Candy, snacks, meat, vegetables—vacuum packed, freeze dried, and canned. It was the King Solomon’s Mines of groceries. The Lost Tomb of Gluttonkhamen. The Holy Grail of luxuries nobody could afford. And it was ours.
Mind you, none of my thoughts were that deep. They were more like, “Holy shit! Look at all this stuff!” and then, after reflecting on those thoughts and thinking about it a little more, “Holy shit! Look at all this stuff!”
“Here’s to ya.”
“Here’s to you.”
“Here’s to your health.”
“Here’s to yours.”
“Here’s to your mother.”
“My mother?” bottles clinked. Everybody drank to everybody’s mother.
“Here’s to the end of the world,” Jack said.
“Here’s to the new world,” said the drunken guy with no fingers.
I started keying open a can of Alstertor sardines I had grabbed out of a barrel and everything stopped. There was this fraction of a second where everything froze. Nobody said anything. Nobody moved. It could have been five minutes; it could have been forever. It was now. We were here. For that split-second we were humans, being. It was a great moment. I haven’t felt like that since.
I ate the heads off German sardines, and I liked it.
The card key door was locked behind us, and the fire door no longer had an alarm, but it needed a handle. That meant for all practical purposes the exits were sealed. Good.
“Hey ‘Frostbite,’ How’d you lose your fingers?” Three hours later, and Wes still had the kind of tact that didn’t mind asking. We were sitting in back of the wine department resting in beanbag chairs, our celebration only delayed by our need to breathe and digest. Nobody could see us from the front window, and we had plenty of candles to light the place. If there’s one thing an import store has, it’s candles.
“You really want to know?” the man with no fingers said. His name was Carl, but we still called him Frostbite.
“If you don’t mind, I was kind of interested myself.” Jack was hammered.
“It was maybe six or seven years ago, I’d had a fight with my old lady—”
“Girlfriend or Mom?” Wes asked. Everyone but me was drunk enough that no statement was to be taken seriously. Drunken sarcasm as a tool for social change. Interruptions were frequent.
“My wife,” Frostbite said.
“Oooooh, his wife.”
“My wife. So, anyway, just to piss her off, I went out and got drunk on Jack Daniels and passed out on a bench in the park. I hadn’t even noticed it was cold. When I woke up, I couldn’t feel my fingers, and they was all blue.
“I knew it was frostbite, but I didn’t know how bad it was. I had seen old winos that had lost their toes when I was a kid, so I just kept telling myself that my hands were okay. I wound up in the Emergency Room at Northwestern. They stuck my hands in a whirlpool,” he illustrated as if he were dipping his hands in a tub. “And I just watched my fingers wash away.”
We all stared at what was left of his hands.
“The hardest thing to do is get dressed,” he said. Everybody drank to that. Of course, he could’ve said, “There’s asbestos in my eyes,” and everybody would’ve drank to that too.
My mind wandered.
I was getting tired, emotionally and physically. Was I sad because I couldn’t drink? Yeah. But that wasn’t all of it. In the past I-don’t-know-how-many weeks, I’d been pretty damn lucky. I’d almost died, had the luck to have been saved by two mental patients I just happened to know, and joined into a commando breaking-and-entering squad that was finding corpses and body parts strewn all over the North side like Cubs souvenirs in the springtime. Only we’d missed spring. Then summer. Winter and winter were headed our way.
While the other three bragged about the size of their dicks, I took off one of my coats and felt the windburn on my face. Usually this time of year I’d be saying to myself, “Holt, old boy, it’s time to get a coat.”
And whoever was with me would say, “Yeah, it looks like it’s gonna be a cold winter this year.”
And I’d say, “Yeah, we’re due for it. We haven’t had a cold one since the blizzard of ‘15,” and then we’d ask each other if we knew where we could get a cheap coat, and I’d say, “There’s no way I’m going through The Salvation Army this year.” And then I’d end up getting sick or drunk, or both, and end up at The Salvation Army having to take whatever they’d give me.
The thing about having to take a Salvation Army coat—besides having to get preached at to get it—was that all the nice coats went to officers, or members of “The Army.”
That’s right. I swear to you, The Salvation Army had officers. (“Ring that bell harder, Private Pumpkinhead! You call that ringing? I can’t hear yoooou!”) The training center used to be right over there on Addison, if you remember. You can picture them all marching around, drilling each other (“That shirt’s not missing a button, Private Pumpkinhead! KP detail for you!”)
Anyway, the nice gear would all disappear. That would leave just the leftover coats for the noncoms. These big, dayglo, red and yellow, retard parkas that made us all look even more dysfunctional than we really were.
Maybe I was lucky. I mean, here I was sitting down, sheltered from the wind, and deciding whether to munch on Gummi Bears or Pretzel flips. And I wasn’t going to have to get a Salvation Army coat this year.
Then I wondered whether or not The Salvation Army was still in the city. Were there any missions left? Surely there had to be. If there were, though, wouldn’t I have seen somebody, wandering around in a dayglo yellow parka? Somebody trying in vain to blend in with the walls someplace?
Then I thought about ‘the walls’ and ‘dayglo.’ It occurred to me that one of those emergency flashlights, the ones with a rechargeable battery, might be plugged into an electrical socket somewhere in the store. I tried to remember something from when we came in. Then I couldn’t remember what I was trying to remember. Then I realized I couldn’t concentrate worth a damn. I took one of the mood inhibitors I’d snaked out of Jack’s backpack. I was grateful for Jack’s little magic bag, without it I’d have been lost.
The flow of alcohol and conversation between the other three had devolved into a debate involving air-traffic-control and the time-zone changes that would soon be required to house their now gargantuan, ever-expanding genitalia. I mercifully interrupted.
“Hey, you guys think there are any missions left open anywhere?”
“I’ve heard of a couple, but they all got overloaded,” Frostbite said. “Not a place you want to be. One got taken over by crazy people, and the other one got taken over by gangs. Truth is, you guys are the first motherfuckers I seen in about five days. That’s why I exposed myself to you.”
“Don’t go esposin’ yourselves now,” Jack slurred. “Holt, why de hell you want to go to a mission, when we jus’ got in here? You want ta pray? Jus’ take a look around. They got stuff in here, you can pray in six different religions.”
“I was just wondering what all was left,” I said. There were a few moments of silence while the others wondered what all was left. “Think I’m gonna have a look around the rest of the store.”
Then I figured out why I was unhappy. Sure I wanted to drink, but that wasn’t it. I wanted to drink because I was asking myself what was next. I was starting to worry about the future.
No future, no worry.
I tried to add up the dates in my head. I figured we’d meet with Jack’s brother in three days, camp out here for two. I went to look for a calendar and kept worrying.
TO BE CONTINUED:
THERE WILL BE BLOOD