When It Matters

Clara steered the aging gray minivan into the narrow parking space. She hated driving the monstrosity but she and John might need the extra cargo room. John, her husband, was along to help her look for a bench to put in her flower garden. They had decided to look at K-Mart because she wanted to spend as little as possible on the bench. John had said, “you can’t find cheaper crap anywhere outside of K-Mart except maybe at a yard sale.” Clara didn’t really agree with that. Lately it seemed that the prices weren’t near as low as they had been, and certainly not as low as the quality of the products suggested from time to time. Technically, this store was a BIG-K K-mart, evidenced by the huge tacky logo on the front of the building. Clara had never in her life heard anyone refer to the only K-mart in the county as the BIG-K but it didn’t stop them from keeping that gaudy sign hovering over people’s heads as they walked in and out of the store.

Having pushed the shift lever into park Clara mashed the emergency brake pedal. She carefully removed her seatbelt in such a way as to avoid damaging her freshly painted nails.

Clara said, “Let’s see if we can find my bench fairly quickly and get back home before too late.”

“All right,” John replied.

Clara then took a moment to put on some chap stick and bit of hand lotion. She rarely wore much makeup at all. Never did. She wasn’t opposed to using makeup, because she thought she looked OK without it. She would put a little on if they were going to something special or formal. Or if she wanted to feel made up and pretty. She also liked being able to rub a little lotion on her face from time to time throughout the day. It made her face feel cooler. And with temperatures staying in the mid-to-upper nineties she could use all the cooling off she could get. If she was wearing makeup she wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the cool coconut scented lotion on her face. Her hair could have used some work. Ever since it went gray it was prone to frizzing and sticking out in all directions. It would lay down if she grew it out but she liked it just down to the base of her neck.

John had unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the car door by the time the engine had died. Then he tried desperately not to audibly sigh while Clara dug around in her pocketbook for her chap stick. Hadn’t she just said that she wanted to find something quickly?

When this car-exiting ritual and first appeared a few years ago he had been more frustrated by it. But after 43 years of marriage you learned to take most things in stride, including the small irritations. So John waited with the car door open and one booted foot on the blistering asphalt. He didn’t want to get out just yet because he knew there was likely a minute or so left of the exiting routine and standing around made his knee hurt. Walking around was tough but standing in one place became very painful after only a very few minutes.

Of course Clara knew that John was getting annoyed at waiting on her. But she also knew that if she jumped right out and headed for the store that he would fall behind because of his knee. It pained her to see him reminded of his physical limitations. He had always been so big and strong. Now he was mostly just big. That bright blue polo shirt and tan slacks he was wearing combined with his thinning silver hair and handle-bar mustache made him look like a retired lumberjack heading out to play some golf. The thought made her smile even though she hated that mustache. Always had. A lot of the strength had abandoned John’s powerful frame the past few years. Clara would do anything to keep from reminding him of his failing health.

Clara grabbed her wallet out of her pocket book and checked to make sure her cards and money were all there. She checked one last time to make sure her cream-colored blouse and mint-green slacks were free of lint. Then she zipped up the pocketbook and tossed onto the center console. She hated carrying that heavy thing around if she didn’t have to.

John knew that Clara was finally ready to get going when he saw the bag hit the console. He eased out and shut the door. They made their way across the oven-like parking lot. John was surprised that their shoes weren’t leaving melted rubber footprints behind. Stacks of charcoal, coolers, and pool accessories were on display along the front of the building. You were almost forced to step around them before you could enter the store. Clara found the 4th of July Sale signs somewhat amusing since it was going to be August in just a couple of days.

When they finally entered the air-conditioned store they paused to get their bearings.

“Furniture section is this way,” John said as he gestured toward the center of the store.

“Uh huh,” Clara agreed as she started walking toward the Home and Garden section attached to the far right-hand side of the store. John reluctantly followed. He found nothing more boring than looking at flowers. He knew there were differences between them, but he couldn’t make himself care. He just wanted to find her garden bench and get out of there. What happened to getting home before too late?

As John was wondering if Clara would mind if he looked around in the hardware section while she looked at flowers he noticed a display of garden benches right in front of them. A stack of benches had been placed just inside the entrance to the Home and Garden section along with a sign that read, “SALE! $299.99,” in big black letters and huge red exclamation point.

“Seems overpriced to me,” Clara said as she examined the display model. John read the features listed on one of the boxes and was trying to figure out how they could justify a three hundred dollar price tag on such a cheap looking piece of nothing.

Clara said, “This seems to be the closest thing they have to what I was looking for and I don’t like it. We might as well go pick up some detergent and go on back home. “

“Sounds like a plan,” John replied not trying to hide his joy at finding their shopping trip cut so short. “Maybe we can try over in Kingsport tomorrow,” he added.

They got some detergent and headed to the front of the store where the rows of checkout registers were waiting. John noticed that there were only two registers open. Why did they even have 15 registers if they never used more than two or three? It didn’t make any sense.

One line had three people with buggies that were almost full. The other line had five people in it, but only one of them had much in his buggy. John stepped into the first line and switched the detergent over to his left hand before his right one got too tired.

“Why don’t we get in that line?” Clara asked. “They don’t have as much stuff to check out.”

“Because the line with fewer people almost always goes faster than the one with fewer items.” John replied. He hadn’t paid much attention to things like that before his knee had started acting up a few years ago. When you had pain shooting from your knee to your lower back you became acutely aware of each and every second that went by. John had noticed in those torturous moments that it took a lot longer for a person to pay for their stuff than it took to scan their items and throw them in a bag. Greetings and goodbyes could take even longer, but you rarely had to worry about that at this store. You were lucky if they spoke to you long enough to tell you how much you owed them.

“It’s your knee. I guess we can stand in whichever line you want even if it takes longer,” Clara said half under her breath.

John didn’t say anything, but he did enjoy the moment when their turn to check out came up and they wouldn’t have gotten that far yet had they been in the other line.

Clara paid and then put her debit card back in her wallet. John took the detergent from the checkout counter and they headed out of the store. They stepped back into the furnace-like parking lot and paused to let their eyes adjust to the bright sunlight. But before their eyes could adjust they were overrun by a mob of people.

The people came out of nowhere. John was shocked to see this large human stampede which included a scruffy looking man, who might have been in his late thirties or early forties, running straight toward him sporting a t-shirt with a large rebel flag and “Rebel Pride” printed in large red letters.

“Fuckin’ hell?” John said as he grabbed the man by his shirt just above where the rebel flag’s blue stripes crossed and attempted to throw him aside but the man had too much momentum and John’s knee couldn’t take the impact. John went down but the man recovered and continued past John into the store.

The mob swarmed over both John and Clara yelling, screaming and cursing. John let out a sharp, “oomph,” when tried to get up but was slammed back down by a couple of teenagers. Clara was also thrown to the hard concrete sidewalk in the chaos. Clara felt a sharp pain as someone stepped on her leg. She had no idea where John was.

“JOHN! Help!” she cried. Clara’s cries were cut short as someone’s knee hit her in the temple as she tried to get back up.

The crown disappeared in seconds leaving John and Clara sprawled and bleeding on the sidewalk.

“Ohhh,” groaned Clara as she slowly rose up on her elbow. “There’s nothing in there that should get anybody that excited.”

Silence. Clara turned looking for John and saw him just a few feet away lying very still. She crawled over to him as fast as she could, tearing a small hole in her slacks against the harsh concrete.

“JOHN! Are you alright?!”

She leaned over him and saw that his eyes were fluttering ever so slightly. “Are you alright baby? Say something. SAY SOMETHING!”

Clara turned back toward the store shouting, “HELP! Somebody help us!” She felt John’s hand brush her arm weakly and she looked down. John had opened his eyes, but just barely. She was horrified to see a pool of blood spreading out from behind John’s head. They looked into each other’s eyes as they had so many times over the years, but not as often as they should have done. They both realized that this was the last time they would have the chance to see each other in this life. Their voices failed them but their eyes conveyed the love they both had for each other more fluently than anything they could have said. And then it was over. John’s eyes were still open but they weren’t focused on anything anymore and never would again.

Clara heard what sounded like someone screaming. She realized it was her own voice she was hearing when the pain her throat caused her voice to fail. She found it hard to think. What should she do?

911. She should call 911. Where was her phone? Did she drop it when those idiots ran over them? She found her wallet but couldn’t find anything else. Where was her purse? Did one of those morons steal her purse? She took a breath. No. She had left her pocketbook in the van and her phone was in the pocketbook. She had to get back to the van.

Clara managed to get up but it hurt. One leg wasn’t working like it should but she wasn’t interested in what might be wrong with it. She had to get back to the minivan. Where had they parked? She stumbled out into the parking lot. Her eyes had adjusted to the light but were now half blinded by tears. She was remembering their first date; the various homes they had lived in; and the way he had always been willing to stop arguing as soon as he realized he had upset her. She loved him so much. Why did he have to go and leave her like that? Why?

Clara saw the minivan and started staggering over to it. She was almost there. Her leg was giving out but it only had to make it a little further. Suddenly she was looking into the business end of a shotgun. She froze. She knew she should probably do or say something but she just couldn’t.

A female voice to Clara’s right said, “Don’t shoot her Mike. She’s not one of them. She just hurt her leg somehow and seems to be in shock.”

The gun barrel dropped to reveal a dark-haired young man in his late twenties scrutinizing Clara as if he thought she was the dangerous one. He was wearing jeans and a Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt, the one with the big triangle prism turning the beam of light into rainbows.

“Lady, we need your van,” said the young man.

“I’m being car-jacked?” Clara said in disbelief. God how she wished John were there.

“Of course not,” said the voice, then the young woman who was speaking stepped up to where Clara could see her and continued speaking. “We don’t want to take anything from you. But we need you to haul some supplies for us.”

“Supplies?” Clara asked.

The woman pushed a stray lock of straight blond hair away from her face. “Yeah, supplies. My name’s Becky by the way. You’ve already sorta met Mike.”

Becky looked to be about the same age as her partner in crime, probably also in her late twenties. She was wearing a pink tank-top and white shorts. Clara thought the shorts were a little too tight and maybe a little too short, but the girl should enjoy being able to wear stuff like that while she could.

“OK Becky,” Clara said, “I’m not interested in doing anything but getting my phone so I can call 911. My Johnny… my husband had an accident.”

“Where is he? How bad of an accident?” Becky asked.

“He’s over by the front of the store. I’m afraid he… he isn’t… “

“I see,” Becky whispered.

“You won’t be able to call anybody,” Mike said. He wiped a hand across the stubble on his face. The other hand was still holding the shotgun. “Go ahead and try if you want but phones just aren’t working. I guess there’s too much shit hitting too many fans right now.”

“What are you talking about?” Clara asked.

“When was the last time you read a headline or listened to the radio lady?” Mike asked. “Zombies have popped up almost everywhere and they are spreading fast!”

Clara couldn’t believe this. “What was your name again? Mike? If you are going to carjack someone you should either be willing to go ahead and take their car or you should make up a better story to convince them to drive off to wherever you want them to go. Zombies! Ridiculous! If you aren’t going to shoot me then you can get out of my way and let me get my phone.

Mike stepped out of her way as Clara fumbled with the keys attached to her wallet. She finally managed to get the door open and pulled her pocketbook over to the driver’s seat. She rummaged around for a second before her frustration got the better of her and she turned the pocketbook upside down and poured the contents all over the seat. Some odds and ends fell to the floorboard while a few small papers, probably receipts from forgotten purchases, floated away on the weak breeze.

Clara snatched the phone out of the pile on the seat and hurriedly dialed 911. An incredibly long pause was followed by a recording. Something about how all the circuits were busy and the call should be attempted at a later time.

“Told you,” Mike said. “Phones don’t work. Now let’s get the supplies loaded and we’ll take you with us up into the mountains.”

Clara looked at him. Considered what he was saying and what he had said earlier about zombies.

Mike gestured across the parking lot toward where a KFC restaurant was. “Look over there if you don’t believe me. We need to get the hell out of here.”

It was a long way, but Clara could just make out a group of people slowly surrounding an older couple. The older couple looked to be a few years older than her and John. She heard shouting but couldn’t make out any words. Did she hear moaning too or was that her imagination? The crowd soon obscured her view of the couple as it closed in around them. She looked on in horror as the crowd descended on the couple. The screams didn’t last long but she knew they would haunt her for the rest of her life.

“Why would they want to beat up those people?” Clara wondered out loud.

“They aren’t beating them up,” Mike said.

“You can see them as well as I can!” Clara shouted back at him.

“Look again. They’re tearing them apart and eating them.”

Clara turned, disbelieving, back toward KFC and saw one of the people carrying what could only be the most of what had once been a human leg. She had to look away as she saw the person take a bite out of the severed leg. She was going to be sick. Then realization hit her.

“You have to help me get John. I can’t leave him here to be eaten.”

Mike shook his head. “We’ll need all the cargo room we can get. We can’t waste it on a dead body.”

Clara surprised even herself when she reached over and jerked the shotgun out of Mike’s hand and pointed it at his chest.

“I’m not leaving my Johnny here to be eaten by those… things. Now you are going to help me load him into this van.”

Mike put his hands up in as non-threatening a way as he could manage while trying to keep them as close to the gun as he could. Maybe he could snatch the gun back if he was quick enough.

“Now lady, there’s no need to point that…”

Clara shifted her aim up to Mike’s head and pumped a shell into the shotgun like John had shown her how to do with his duck-hunting gun. An unused shell was ejected from the gun and bounced across the pavement as the next one was pushed into the breech – ready to fire. She felt as if something took over control of her body as she started to speak.

All Mike could see was the rock-solid 12-gauge barrel staring him in the face when he heard Clara say, “You’ve got one chance, and one chance only, to shut up and go get John and put him in this van. Then you can follow me out of here in whatever you two are driving until we get some distance between us and those things. Then we’ll stop and have ourselves a chat about what we’re going to do after that.”

Then Clara curled her finger a little closer around the trigger as she said, “If you decide not to take this chance I’ll leave YOU lying here…  Now choose.”

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