Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 2...
Dad shattered the entry door with the butt of his rifle, encouraging Beth to stand back just in case it went off. She’d expected it to happen just like in the movies where with one dramatic hit the glass would be rendered a million pieces raining down and sparkling in the sun. Instead it took him a few tries with the single pane rippling against the force of the stock before Dad reared back dramatically and hammered it home. The glass fell like hail, pinging off of his Bean Boots and scattering across the cement.
Beth started forward only to be held in her tracks by her father, arm outstretched behind him and fingers pressed together in the universal sign for stop. He shouldered his rifle, hunched forward with his back arched as he waited to see if the noise had stirred anything living inside. For a minute or so he remained like this, waiting patiently, before moving upright and baby-stepping toward the door. He didn’t bother to work the deadbolt, instead crouching down and stepping inside beneath the push handle like the world’s most half-assed limbo dancer. Glass crunched beneath his boots. The muzzle of his rifle tracked across the darkened interior as he oscillated in place just inside the door.
“Okay,” he said at last, moving upright and stepping farther inside. Beth approached the door and entered in the same careful manner he had, watching him as he continued searching the untouched aisles for signs of movement.
“If there was anyone here I’m pretty sure they would have come out by now,” she said, voice barely a decibel above a whisper.
Dad shook his head dismissively, still scanning the store but noticeably more relaxed. “Can’t be too careful, baby. The world is a different place now. Only the clever ones like us will survive.”
Beth glanced over the rows of blocked cans and boxes, noting that not a single thing was out of place or disturbed. She considered pointing this out to Dad, but decided against it. On a certain level she was certain he’d made note of the obvious, that not a single person had been inside this store since Christmas Eve.
The air was stale and carried a certain spiced funk, the source of which didn’t remain a mystery for long as her gaze settled upon the mold-covered racks of produce off to her right. The formerly vibrant assortment of fruits and vegetables was still arranged neatly in discernable rows, but had long been cocooned in a fuzzy landscape of white and blue and black.
“The meat cases probably look similar,” Dad spoke, stepping closer to her and following her gaze. Beth, who had been starting down the very trendy road of veganism prior to their sudden, forced life of canned cuisine did not want to think about what spoiled meat looked or smelled like after four months, though she reasoned that it would probably have smelled much worse in the store if it had been left abandoned during the summer months.
Beth turned away from the jungle of decay that had overtaken the right side quarter of the store. Her gaze fell upon the nearest checkout line and the impulse rack facing it. Unable to control a smile spreading across her face, she all but skipped her way over to the rows of candy and snatched up a package of Twix. She glanced at her father who returned her smile and lifted the barrel of his rifle upward-facing against his right shoulder. She tossed him the Twix, which he caught almost effortlessly. He gazed down at the metallic gold packaging for a moment, seeming entranced, the smile melting from his face. Beth understood what he was feeling, it was as if they were retreading the forgotten halls of a life they never imagined they’d see again.
Their eyes met once more, and their smiles returned as they tore into the packaging and stuffed their faces with chocolate. Beth chewed ravenously, her taste buds overstimulated after a third of a year since her last chocolate bar. This didn’t faze her in the least. Wasting no time, she seized a Snickers bar and tossed it to her father before tearing into her own and biting off a hunk before she’d even swallowed her mouthful of Twix. They repeated this process until they’d sampled at least five different candy bars from companies that in all likelihood would never produce another ounce of chocolate for the remainder of human history, however long that might be. It wasn’t until Beth was reaching for her sixth, a sharing size bag of peanut M&M’s that her father urged her to slow down.
“We still have to walk home, and a stomach ache doesn’t exactly ease travel,” Dad cautioned, still working over his last bite.
Beth nodded solemnly before replacing the bag. She consoled herself with the understanding that she’d load up as much chocolate as possible on their way out. Turning to look up at her father, she watched him scan the store one last time before turning and walking to the window that spanned the entire lot-facing side of the store. He walked to the front of the line of carriages, slinging his rifle over his shoulder before noisily separating two of them from the back in a clattering of metal that echoed throughout the abandoned interior. Steering them over to the checkout lane where Beth remained, he separated the carriages and gestured for her to commandeer the one in front.
“We stick together,” he said, the tone of his voice advertising that this was not debatable. “No matter what happens, when we’re outside the house we stay where we can see each other. Okay?”
Again, Beth nodded. Gripping the red handle of the carriage with both hands, she started wheeling it forward, already decided on her destination: the cereal aisle. After months of canned beans and Spaghetti O’s, she was practically dying for Pop Tarts and Waffle Crisp. Dad didn’t protest at first, instead keeping pace silently behind her as she dropped a couple boxes of unfrosted blueberry (her favorite) into the carriage, followed by four boxes of Waffle Crisp. She started forward again down the aisle, then paused and went back for two more boxes.
“That stuff is perishable,” Dad informed her, standing before his still empty carriage and smiling in the way that only a father who adores the blissful naivete of his child can.
Beth shrugged, tucking the boxes under her arm. “All the more reason to eat it while we can.” She stuck her tongue out at him and returned the smile before spinning around and dropping the boxes into her carriage. Resuming her forward trek, she paused and swallowed back against her heaving stomach as her gaze fell upon the meat coolers and the neatly wrapped packages of blue decay. Turning back to Dad, he nodded in silent understanding and started them back the way they’d come. From here they tracked and backtracked down each of the aisles, filling their carriages with useful items like more canned goods and most importantly first aid supplies. When they came upon the pharmacy counter, tucked into a corner at the back of the store and locked with a security gate, Dad paused once more and began to study it pensively, fingers tapping on the grocery cart handle. After a few moments he stepped around his cart and approached the metal mesh that separated racks of controlled substances from the rest of the store.
“What are you thinking?” Beth asked, dropping into her cart a couple tubes of moisturizing lotion that had been deemed too expensive and frivolous to be practical in her previous life.
“Antibiotics, painkillers,” he said, eyes searching the gate for areas of weakness. He added, sounding reluctant, “And stimulants for bartering.”
Beth knew exactly what he was talking about. She’d been offered Adderall by a friend of a friend during finals week last year. Though she’d never admit it to those present at the time, she was much too afraid of prescription drugs to indulge. They were, after all, what led to Mom’s death, and a part of her knew that this fact was at the forefront of Dad’s mind at that very moment. This was a subject they never broached. Not ever.
Dad stepped away from the pharmacy and turned to Beth as he unslung his rifle. His face hard, he told her to back away as far as she could while keeping him in sight. Suddenly nervous, Beth obeyed, leaving her carriage in place and walking the length of the first aid aisle before turning back around and plugging her ears. She watched as Dad shouldered the rifle, aimed it at the keyhole at the bottom of the gate and fired off a shot. She was about to remove her fingers from her ears when Dad pulled the trigger twice more, startling her so badly that she crashed into a shelf of shampoo and loofas, sending bottles thumping to the floor. The ringing in her head was piercing and almost unbearable, so much so that she hesitated with her fingers ready to plunge once more into her ears should Dad decide to pump off a few more shots for good measure. She was relieved when he slung his rifle over his shoulder. With a deep, calming breath, she made her way back down the aisle and rejoined him just as he shook the gate loose and hefted it up into the ceiling.
Dad hopped the counter and began sifting through bottles arranged on shelves at the back. After making a few selections and finding himself quickly overburdened, he returned to the front of the counter and shook open a large paper bag before resuming his hunt. Beth waited patiently in front of the counter, her gaze falling on one of the boxes of Pop Tarts in her carriage as she considered rolling the dice on that belly ache Dad had cautioned her about. In the end she decided against it, instead strolling over to a nearby magazine rack and opening a copy of Newsweek with a very stern-looking politician who she recognized but couldn’t name on the cover. Parsing through the ad-peppered articles within, her heart began to ache with longing for a world that would never again be hers. Pictures of couples lazing in the sand with a bucket of lime-topped beers between them, ads for fashion suggestions that had once been paramount in determining her social status at school… headlines reading NORTH KOREA TEST FIRES ANOTHER ICBM…
She closed the magazine and tossed it away, unconcerned with where it landed. Shifting to the book rack, she smiled to herself and began to fill her arms with paperbacks embossed with names like James Patterson, Dan Brown, Sue Grafton, and Stephen King. By the time she made her way back to her cart Dad had filled two large brown bags and left them on the counter. When he finished after at least half an hour of hunting, Beth was twenty pages into Mr. Mercedes and wondering if Stephen King was even still alive. Dad transferred the bags into his carriage (there were now four of them packed to bulging capacity) and walked over to her.
“It’s a good thing there are more books still out there than you’ll ever be able to read. Ought to keep you busy now that Snappy Chats isn’t a thing.” He spoke without irony, inspiring Beth to smile as she heaved herself to her feet and folded over the top corner of page 21.
“Keeps my mind sharp,” she said before taking stock of their packed carriages and asking, “how are we going to get all this stuff home?”
Dad didn’t hesitate with his answer, obviously having worked over and refined his plan with the obsessive attention of a true Doomsday Prepper. “We wait until dark, then wheel it all back in our carts.”
Beth grinned, “Just like homeless people.”
Dad offered a smile of his own, though beneath it Beth decoded a certain sadness. “We’re all homeless now, baby. Let’s go find something for lunch and then see about resting up before we make the trip home.”
“Okay,” Beth said, reaching under her carriage and tearing into a plastic package of bottled water. Pulling a bottle from the package, she unscrewed the cap and tilted it to her lips. After a few glugs she held it out to her father who finished it. When it was empty, he paused with the bottle in his hand, looking it over contemplatively.
“We should fill up a couple of those water cooler jugs up front from the spring outside. This bottled stuff is only going to last us so long. We have to think about the future.”
“How did I get so lucky to have such a smart dad?” Beth gushed, disinclined to remind him of his previous position on the spring.
“I’m only as good as God made me,” he answered soberly. “Remind me that we need to visit the spring before we leave. I may still have most of my marbles in the bag, but I can barely remember what I had for breakfast this morning.”
“Pork and beans,” she said, wrinkling her nose in mock disgust.
“And that’s why I keep you around, baby.”
With that they set off in search of lunch.