Saturday, November 28, 2015

Black Friday at the Discount Emporium (#FlashFictionFriday*)

“Okay, honey! I’m heading out now. Be back in a bit. Love you!”

It was 3AM and Will didn’t wait for Blanche to respond. He knew she would be asleep again in seconds. She had no interest in early morning shopping, no matter what the deals were. He actually admired that about her.

Normally Will didn’t bother either. But this year he was determined to get a deal on an item he’d been coveting all year long. He didn’t need it, but he wanted it. Desperately.

It was a 78 inch curved-screen TV with all the bells and whistles. Every review he’d read gave it at least 4.5 stars out of 5.

They had a pretty good TV and it wasn’t all that old. But the moment Will laid eyes on a picture of this Beaut-O-Tron -- his pet name for it -- it was nearly all he could think about.

He had to have it.

Blanche was none too thrilled and they’d had some heated discussions on the topic, discussions he didn’t wish to rehash in his head at the moment.

The last discussion, finally, ended in his favor. But only because he’d caught wind of a Black Friday sale at a giant discount warehouse on the other side of town he’d never shopped at before. In fact, until he saw the flier in the paper a few days ago, he didn’t even know the store existed.

Will started the car, sipped coffee from his thermos while the engine warmed a couple of minutes, and then pulled out of the dark driveway.

He never was out so early. He was not anything close to an early bird, ever. It was kind of fun, yet a little eerie at the same time. It felt like the middle of the night instead of the early morning.

As he drove through the cold town, store parking lots were jammed with cars of the other Black Friday warriors. Or crazies. All depending on your perspective.

Will thought of himself as neither, believing his endeavor was more about being frugal and practical. After all, the TV retailed for around $9500 and he was going to get one for only $500!

And he was certain he was going to get one.

He felt really fortunate coming across the notice. Although, the whole thing about the flier was odd, he hadn’t thought it about it too deeply. Until now.

It was poorly printed, all text, on cheap paper. The TV was the only item listed. There was some vague verbiage about deals throughout the store, but nothing else specific other than the address. The store was open 24 hours a day.

At work, he’d asked a couple of people if they knew anything about this store and no one had. Although one guy who was known to stay up all night watching bad TV said he thought he may have seen a commercial once around 1AM. But he couldn’t be sure.

When they asked him why he was curious about it, he changed the subject. He didn’t want to stir up competition for the deal of a lifetime!

The name of the store was weird as well. General Hay D’s Discount Emporium. What kind of a name was Hay D.! Most store names touted the owner’s last name, the family name. Of course, General being a play on words for “general store.” At least that’s what he guessed.

Neither he nor Blanche had ever seen a commercial, ad, or any other flier touting the store. They both thought perhaps it was new and the TV was their loss leader to draw people in.

Will hoped no one else had noticed the flier. He wanted that TV more than anything else he could think of at the moment. Well, except for Blanche. He loved her dearly, even though he felt she was a bit fanatic about her faith.

He attended church with her where she was an active member. For him, Sunday morning was enough. He preferred the substance of sports over the fairy tales of faith. When he died he knew he’d just stop being. Poof. The end.

All that mattered was being a good person while you were alive.

To this end, he fueled his desire for the TV by imagining it was as much for her as for him. But if he examined that faulty belief too closely...which he didn’t.

After crossing town, it took a few minutes to locate the store. It was past the edge of town, with no direct path from the main thoroughfare, over a mass of railroad tracks, at the back of what seemed an industrial area. Signage was surprisingly poor.

But Will was determined and navigated aided by his phone’s GPS and then, there it was!

When Will pulled up to the store, there were a couple of dozen cars in the lot. He felt both hopeful and apprehensive.

On the plus side, he wouldn’t have to battle mobs to get to the TV. On the negative side, again, it seemed really odd that more people weren’t here.

He parked in the nearest open spot, got out of his car, looked back toward the lot entrance where no one else was pulling in, and then trotted to what appeared to be the main entrance. He had to admit he was a little excited.

He thought he could see a few dark figures moving about as they crossed aisles. When he got in the store, he was greeted with the usual Yuletide tunes bleeding out of the PA system. The lighting was adequate but not overly bright.

There was no one manning the cash registers nearest the door. Anyone he thought he saw was nothing more than a glimpse as they moved in and out of aisles between massive shelves.

He strolled down what he assumed to be the center of the store trying to orient himself. He could not figure out how things were organized. There was no quickly discernible logic to the layout.

This didn’t bother him too much. It seemed somewhat typical of discount warehouse stores, and he viewed this as an enjoyable challenge. Besides, he figured he’d bump into a clerk eventually if he needed help.

But asking for help would be a last resort act for Will. He generally insisted on doing things on his own, taking pride in his intellect and inherent skills. Will was not one to ask for help or draw attention to himself, which he had been taught wasn’t proper.

After meandering up and down various aisles, he noticed some signs high up in the ceilings that seemed to reference departments. After exploring the areas under a couple, he got the clear impression the signs were nothing more than suggestions. Only a handful of items in each “department” could be connected to the broad categories announced by the signage.

As he continued to maneuver through the store, he sipped his coffee. He was glad he thought to bring his thermos in with him. He was also glad he’d made himself some breakfast before leaving the house. And was further gladdened he’d stuck a few breakfast bars in his coat pocket.

He took one out and munched it as he searched.

Deeper and deeper he went into the store and still no sign of his Beaut-O-Tron. So far he’d seen no TVs at all. Or any clerks. Or, he realized, he had not encountered any other shoppers.

For a moment this thought caused concern, but then he turned a corner, and there it was!

His TV! The Beaut-O-Tron! His dream come true!

And there was only one left!

Having thought ahead and grabbing a cart when he came in, he gently settled the TV into it. The TV was surprisingly light and not too hard to handle. With some adjusting he got it braced securely in the cart and turned to head back to the entrance.

He hesitated, looked around, and it hit him. Will had no idea where the front of the store was. In fact, he wasn’t sure where the back of the store was!

Even standing in what should be a main aisle and following the ceiling, he could not make out where any walls might be.

This was definitely disconcerting. He’d taken several turns since coming into the store and in the process misplaced his sense of direction.

Will leaned against his cart, protective of his treasure, and tried to sort out what to do next.

There was no way he was going to call out for help. Nope.

There were no customer phones near him and he couldn’t recall if he’d passed any. Certainly, he thought, there must be some.

Will was pretty sure which aisle he’d come through last and decided to go back what he thought was the way he’d come and keep an eye out for a phone, a clerk, or another customer.

He also thought for sure he’d come across the overhead department signs and remember which areas he’d passed through.

As an afterthought he reached for his cell phone intending to call Blanche and then look up the store number. That’s when he realized he’d left it in his truck where it had been serving as his GPS.

He smacked his head and said, “Idiot!” out loud, having done this far too many times. And each time swearing it would never happen again.

He took another sip of coffee and started walking, carefully guiding his loaded cart through the aisles as he looked up and down each one, hoping to spot a person or a phone.

After about half an hour, Will emerged from the canyons of tall shelving into an area of lower displays that he could see over.

“Odd,” he whispered out loud, “I don’t remember passing through here before.” But he figured he’d been so preoccupied by trying to find the TV the area just hadn’t registered with him.

At least he had a line of sight for several yards in at least two directions. A few yards straight ahead was another labyrinth of tall shelving. As he slowly turned, straining his vision to take in all he could see, no person or phone came into view.

Near him was a display of patio furniture and feeling a little tired from all the walking, sat down and pondered his situation.

As he sat trying to recall and visualize the path he took when he entered the store, a sense of unease finally made it into his consciousness.

“Okay,” he said out loud. “This is a little weird, but there’s no reason to panic. At least not yet. Surely there’s a logical explanation.”

Ever the rational optimist, Will reasoned that it was only because the store was so large and unfamiliar to him, he’d gotten a little lost. He was certain he would eventually regain his bearings, spot someone or some familiar aisle that would lead him out, back to his truck, and his Blanche, with his prized score -- the Beaut-O-Tron.

Thinking about the silliness of his pet name for the TV, he chuckled out loud to himself.

Refreshed and in better spirits, he stood, looked around again, chose a direction to try, and started out, pushing the cart with his precious TV.

He decided he keep going in one direction assuming eventually he would literally hit a wall. Then, he’d just follow the wall until it inevitably would yield the entrance, or offices, or something.

He walked on, his thoughts dancing down and back a myriad of vagrant trails of memories and random discussions with Blanche, familiar lyrics from Christmas songs breaking in from time to time, and always the fear pushed back, tamped down, denied. For now.

“Hey! Hey, you!” Will called out, thinking he’d glimpsed someone cross the aisle ahead of him.

Leaving his cart he ran to where he was pretty sure the person had been, looked up and down in all directions, but no one.

“HEY! ANYONE!” he yelled as loud as he could, not caring a whit about propriety at this point.

No answer. Just the endless loop of Christmas songs. He’d realized some time ago that there were only a couple dozen songs being repeated.

He walked back to his cart, having never lost sight of it, glancing up and down each aisle as he passed them.

Will was beginning to be concerned. He looked at his watch. He’d been in the store for three hours!

And in all this time, he’d not once passed a display, a department sign, or stack of shelves that was familiar. Every step, whether forward, back, or sideways, yielded something different.

Yet, everything was generally similar. The differences might be in the way merchandise was presented, or in the mix of items, or quantities. Some shelves were fully loaded and others only lightly.

And even though he had been moving steadily in the same general direction, he never came to a wall or a door. Just endless warehouse and merchandise.

There were no courtesy phones. No clerks. And -- this sent a chill down his spine -- clearly no customers on this Black Friday.

“Okay,” he said out loud, “This is officially bizarre.”

Every time he thought he saw someone, it was only a mirage, a trick of his imagination. At least, that’s what he assumed because no matter how loud he called out or how fast he moved toward where he “saw” someone, there was never any response and never anyone there.

Just miles of aisles. Canyons of cheap merchandise.

While he regularly encountered stacks of the same items, like stacks of shirts, or displays of toasters, or bags of potting soil, or shelves of electronics, he never once came across another TV.

This made him feel alternately lucky and befuddled. He was still thrilled to have laid hands on his coveted Beaut-O-Tron, but truly perplexed that there were no other TVs of any brand or size anywhere he’d been in the store.

And he was convinced he’d covered miles in the hours he’d been walking.

As he had earlier determined, he’d walked straight for endless minutes and had then decided to turn right, then left, then right, and so on, making a zigzag path toward, he hoped, something, heading in the same general direction.

But nothing.

At his next turn he again came out into a more open area, but it wasn’t the same spot he’d been before. While there were more displays of patio furniture, it was all different. Nothing was the least familiar, just similar.

Tired, worried, confused, Will sat down to rest. He pulled a breakfast bar from his pocket and sipped his coffee. He was surprised that the coffee was still hot and that he had no need to use the restroom. This awareness added to the perplexity of his situation.

He felt very alone and more helpless than he could recall. A tad discomfiting to say the least.

As he sat looking around at the merchandise and holiday displays, a silly idea slipped into his awareness. It was triggered by the thought that he was missing the morning news, an essential part of his and Blanche’s morning routine.

Near him on a patio table was a small, lighted Christmas tree, plugged into an extension cord. He could plug the TV in!

“Why not!” he spoke out loud to himself, and began to unbox the massive treasure, happy to have a project, something to do that wasn’t just walking aimlessly down another aisle.

The built-in stand required a little assembly, but he always carried a multi-tool knife and had no problem screwing things together.

He positioned the TV on the table, plugged it in, and turned it on. Nothing but fuzzy static.

He flipped through channels and settings. Nothing changed. He wasn’t entirely surprised but a little disappointed.

Just then he spotted a display of electronics to his left that he hadn’t noticed before. He walked over and to his delight and surprise, there were a couple of digital antennas!

He unboxed one, connected it to the TV, and got reception! Apparently the signals of only one channel could make it into the store, but one was something.

There was no news, but there were holiday movies and programs. He was a little disappointed but at least there were now other people, other presences to keep him company, even if they were nothing but pixels on a screen. A screen that, by the way, was magnificent!

“What a great picture!” he spoke to himself. “What a great bargain!”

Will sat, resting, munching on breakfast bars, of which there always was one each time he reached into his pocket, sipped his bottomless thermos of coffee, enjoying his Beaut-O-Tron.

“This is heaven!” he spoke consolingly to himself as he allowed his awareness to get lost in the shows.

There were no commercials, just brief transitions from one program or movie to the next. During these moments, Will looked around, but decided not to move, thinking that perhaps the noise of the TV would draw a clerk out to investigate.

At any rate, like someone lost in the woods, he thought perhaps it was best to stay put. Surely, if nothing else, there would be janitorial staff coming through. Eventually.

Meanwhile, at home, Blanche awoke around 7AM and headed toward the kitchen to make coffee. She turned on the TV to the local news and wondered how Will was getting along. She tried calling him but got his voicemail. She figured he’d left his phone in his truck again.

His truck!

She had been standing absent-mindedly looking out the kitchen window as she called Will. Just as she was about to leave him a snarky message on voicemail, she saw it, dropped her phone, and bolted for the door, screaming, “Will! Will!”

Will’s truck was in the yard at end of the driveway, the front end pressed up against the tree that marked the entrance to the property, the engine still pushing exhaust out the back.

In her pajamas, Blanche ran to the cab and tried to open the door. It was locked and inside Will was slumped, unbreathing, over the steering wheel.

She screamed, flagged a passing car, and begged the driver to call 911.

Several minutes later her property was swarmed by emergency vehicles and police cars. She was back in her kitchen, sobbing, being comforted by a female officer, who was trying to explain to the unhearing Blanche, that it was apparently a heart attack, that he’d been dead for hours, and most likely went quickly.

On the TV, still playing ignored in the background, flashed a brief commercial for General Hay D’s Discount Emporium, the announcer proclaiming joyously to, “Come on in! We’ve got deals to die for this Black Friday! Open daily 24 hours! Merry Christma...”

Another officer reached over and turned off the TV.

Inexplicably, Blanche shivered as the words of the commercial brushed her awareness before evaporating into sorrow.





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* It’s flash fiction Friday! (To learn more about FFF, click here and scroll down.) 
Flash fiction is nothing more or less than a very, very short short story. And this one, clocking in at over 3,000 words really isn’t a flash, but it is fiction. Which is okay since this also isn’t Friday. What’s it about? You tell me. Seriously, let me know what you think. I think I watched too much Twilight Zone and similar TV programming as a kid. Can you hear Rod Serling’s voice in your head as you read? No? Oh well. But still, what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments! And happy shopping this holiday season!

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