Isolation Tales 1: Dale & Wayne Go Shopping
As we head into the steeply rising curve of Covid-19 I’ve decided to publish some stories online, just in case anyone gets fed up with watching reruns of ‘Dad’s Army’. Here’s one requested specifically for these troubled shopping times, set in a supermarket even worse than the ones in King’s Cross. It was first published in ‘Sharper Knives’ in 1992. Be warned; it’s kind of disgusting…
Dale & Wayne Go Shopping
‘There’s nothing else for it,’ she said, raising her hands in apology. ‘We have to go to the store.’
‘Christ, Dale, isn’t there another way?’ asked Wayne. He walked to the refrigerator, yanked open the door and peered inside. At the back of the bare shelves he found an almost empty jar of peanut butter and two curled slices of packet ham, so dark and stale that they looked like jerky. In the icebox there was half a pint of mildewing pistachio flavoured ice-cream and a bottle of amyl nitrate. ‘I mean, it ain’t as if we’re gonna be holding any dinner parties in the next few days. We can get by on takeouts.’
‘Wayne, my belly can’t handle any more pizza.’
‘Then we’ll get burgers.’
‘I don’t know what they put in them these days. Last time we ate at BurgerShack I nearly died, remember?’ She pulled a bothersome strand of blonde hair from her face and tied it back. The heat in the apartment was dishevelling them both. ‘Besides, I have a recipe I want to try out. Let’s just do it without thinking about it, then it’ll be over quicker.’
‘I guess you’re right,’ Wayne conceded as he selected a long-bladed knife from the kitchen rack and slid it under the belt of his jeans. ‘I just wish the sun was a little higher. We could always try somewhere different this time.’
‘We know the layout of the Pricefair, Wayne. And it’s real near for us. We’ll be safer there. See what else we need, honey.’ Her blue eyes studied his for a moment before flicking away. As her husband checked the kitchen cupboards, Dale chose a short wooden-handled knife with a broad blade and tucked it point down in her side pocket. Then they left the stifling apartment and walked around the back of the block to the van.
It was little more than a three-minute drive to the vast supermarket at the corner of Grove and 23rd. They parked as near to the building’s main entrance as they could. As usual, the lot was almost empty.
‘Jesus, it’s going to be dark soon. I don’t like this,’ said Wayne, searching around. ‘Leave the van unlocked, just in case we have to make a run for it.’
They walked across the lot in perfect step, low-slung sunlight yanking their shadows tall across the cracked tarmac. Brightly coloured special offer posters filled the gold-reflecting windows of the store. No details of the interior could be seen from outside.
‘This is it.’ Wayne dug his hand into his pocket and touched his silver dollar. ‘Make me lucky today.’ He looked over at Dale. ‘Make us both lucky. Now you touch it.’
Dale touched the dollar.
‘Ready as I’ll ever be.’
They stood at the threshold of the supermarket, drawing one last deep breath before breaking the electronic beam which shot the glass doors wide before them.
‘Okay, where’s the list?’ called Wayne as Dale ran for a trolley.
‘In my hand.’ She raised a fist so he could see. ‘Eggs,’ she shouted back. ‘We need eggs. Go quickly. I’ll meet you there.’
Above them, Henry Mancini’s ‘Theme From A Summer Place’ played on the Muzak system. Wayne dashed into the first section, the steel-tipped heels of his cowboy boots skidding on the tiled floor. He knew where the eggs were, end of the shelf on aisle one, but in front of him was the first sign of trouble. An elderly woman in a heavy woollen coat, burning pretty fiercely. She must have been on fire for some time, because her charred body had collapsed in on itself, and the floor was blackened all around her. Wayne moved cautiously past the crackling pyre. The woman looked like an immolated buddha. Her wire basket had fallen to one side, unfortunately devoid of produce. She’d barely had time to pick up a carton.
That was the problem with the eggs. Sometimes they were booby-trapped with this napalm-like stuff that stuck to your skin and stayed alight for hours.
He reached up and grabbed the box beside the one she had removed, figuring it was unlikely that two cartons next to each other would both be tampered with. Cautiously he raised the lid and checked inside. One dozen fresh farm eggs. A good start.
‘Make sure you get Free Range,’ called Dale, sliding into view at the tip of the second aisle. ‘It’s easier on the hens.’
‘A whole lot easier on them than us,’ muttered Wayne, deciding not to take the risk of switching the cartons. Ahead, Dale’s trolley slewed to one side and slammed into a rack of tinned fruit. A can of cling peaches fell to the ground with a bang, followed by a second. Wayne and his wife dropped to the floor with their hands over their ears, but nothing happened.
Dale climbed to her feet and hefted one of the cans into the trolley. ‘A nice little bonus,’ she said, grinning at him. ‘Let’s get on.’ They had no way of knowing what the noise might have attracted while they were hanging around. She consulted the items on the list. ‘Butter and cheese.’
‘Oh, not the cold cabinet,’ complained Wayne. They both remembered seeing a man torn limb from limb in the yoghurt section last month. They carefully wheeled the trolley past a pair of black-shirted punks who were randomly stabbing at the back and neck of a cowering man, and arrived at the cold cabinet. The Muzak had now changed to ‘Lara’s Theme’ from Dr Zhivago.
‘This is so unhygienic,’ complained Dale, pointing at the various packaged cheeses. ‘You’d think they’d clean it out every night.’ A black pool of blood lay scabbing over between packers of Edam and Cheddar. Blood spattered most of the products on the shelves. The reason for the mess quickly became obvious. A man with no head lay half out of the cabinet, the ragged stump of his neck glutinously leaking onto the frozen pastries. Some kind of razorblade device had swung down on him when he’d reached in for a pound of margarine. Trying not to look at the twisted form beside her, Dale pointed out the brand of butter she needed as Wayne darted his hands in and scooped it up.
‘And grab that cheese,’ she said, waving her hand at a block of Emmenthal. ‘Don’t take the front one. There’s some kind of wire hanging out of it.’ The front cheeses were indeed wired up, probably to the mains electricity supply. One touch would burn the skin clean off your bones. Wayne leaned gingerly forward and checked at the back of the shelf, but it was overrun with hairless baby rats, plump pink forms that wriggled away, scattering to the touch. ‘Could you make do with a piece of Stilton?’ he asked.
‘Actually, that would be nicer for what I had in mind,’ said Dale. ‘Is it safe?’
‘Nothing is safe anymore,’ he replied, grimacing as he flicked the tiny blind rodents aside to reach a chunk of shrink-wrapped Stilton. ‘What’s next?’
‘Oh, great.’ He tossed the cheese into the trolley. It was becoming hard to steer because the front wheels had been standing in blood, and were now rolling crooked crimson tracks across the cream plastic floor tiles. Above them, the tannoy system was playing the theme from Born Free.
The Household Items aisle was notoriously dangerous even by Pricefair standards. A group of drugged-out kids were standing in front of the shelves, popping the tops from economy sized bottles of bleach and chugging them down. It was a manhood thing, a kind of dare. Lots of kids were doing it now. One child of no more than eight or nine had fallen to the floor and was convulsing as the acidic liquid seared its way through his internal organs.
Two of the taller children moved menacingly toward them brandishing opened bleach bottles. Wayne could see that their lips were badly burned. One of them swung his bottle, spraying bleach at Dale. She ducked behind the end of the aisle as the liquid splashed around her. With a shout, Wayne withdrew his knife and ran at one of the larger children, a girl, slashing a cheek, then an arm. As she screamed and fell back he grabbed a large plastic bottle from the shelf and threw it to his wife. Dale caught it in a seasoned swing as if accepting a Bronco pass. Then Wayne was running, sliding out of the aisle, safe in the knowledge that he could not be followed because the Bleachers would never risk surrendering their home turf.
The centre of the store was quiet enough. Here the spoor of violence had grown stale. They passed a half-rotted corpse folded up in a lawn lounger in the Garden Furniture section, black body fluids leaking through the multicoloured fabric. The scene had an ugly peace about it. At least there were no signs of recent disturbance. In Jams & Jellies, sticky gossamer nets of brown crawly things pulsed with life on the shelves between the pots. Something with a lot of legs ran past Dale and vanished under Special Offer Soups, brushing the backs of her legs as it went. An old Jim Reeves song was now tinkling from the ceiling speakers.
‘For God’s sake let’s get out of here,’ said Wayne, pulling the cart to a halt. ‘We got everything we need.’
‘We don’t, Wayne. I still have to get some other stuff.’ She tapped the paper with her index finger. Wayne looked over her shoulder at the list.
‘You can cross those frozen diet dinners off,’ he said, grimacing. ‘I saw a man lose his nuts trying to get a Weight-Watchers meal out of the cabinet.’
Over on aisle six the air conditioning ducts set in the ceiling had been blocked up with something alarmingly bulky and human-sized, and the rising temperature caused sweat to sheen their faces. Dale smudged damp hair from her eyes and sighed. ‘Okay, we’ll just get some dessert. Please, Wayne, it’s been so long since we had a nice cake. A black forest gateau, maybe.’
‘Well … all right.’
The Cakes & Pastries freezer was suspiciously devoid of life. As they wheeled their errant trolley to the far end of the store they could see someone leaning over into the refrigerated cabinet, pushing and shoving at the cartons within.
‘I don’t like the look of this,’ Wayne whispered. ‘Slow down.’ As they approached the cabinet, they could see that the figure was convulsing, knees jerking back and forth beyond muscular control, shoes banging and skittering against the wall of the freezer unit.
‘Hey, mister, you okay?’ called Dale. There was no reply.
Suppressing a shudder of alarm, Wayne looked over into the dessert compartment. One of the gateau boxes had exploded in a tangle of metal coils. He quickly pushed Dale away. ‘You don’t wanna see this, honey, believe me.’ But he could not resist another look himself. The wires had sprung from the booby-trapped box to pierce its victim’s face in fifty different places, gripping flesh and bone with springs of steel.
‘Okay, does it, we’re out of here,’ shouted Wayne, grabbing his wife by the arm and hauling her and the trolley off in the direction of the checkout.
‘Wait,’ cried Dale, pulling back. ‘We’re passing right by Savouries. I want some ketchup, and a pack of those little silver balls you put on cakes.’
As the song on the tannoy changed to The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ rearranged for xylophone, they ran past the Savouries section, where a pair of leather-jacketed teenagers were sawing the head from a squatting female shopper with a large kitchen-knife. Wayne noticed that the knife worked pretty well considering it was still in a bubble pack. ‘I think you can forget the ketchup,’ he said.
A bored-looking girl sat playing with her hair at the express-lane till. Dale and Wayne yanked the runaway trolley to a stop beside her and began throwing their purchases onto the conveyor belt. Dale could tell that the checkout girl was stoned out of her mind by the way her eyes kept involuntarily rolling up into her head until only the whites showed.
‘We gotta find a new place to shop,’ said Wayne.
‘Yeah,’ his wife agreed. ‘I miss the friendliness of the local corner stores.’ The girl at the till managed to run each product over the barcode laser but had most of them the wrong way up, so that half of the prices failed to register. Her hair was matted with overperming, and a thin strand of drool hung suspended between her lips and her sweater. Suddenly she jerkily hoisted the bleach and shouted ‘Pricecheck on this item’, in a slurred screech before letting the bottle slide from her hand. As Wayne deftly caught it, she coughed and blew a chunk of nose-blood onto the register.
Trying not to look, Dale stood the eggs on the conveyor belt. The checkout girl turned her attention to the carton and stared at it with bulging eyes.
‘This yours?’ she asked in amazement.
‘I figure so,’ replied Dale sarcastically, ‘seeing as we managed to get it off the shelf.’
Wayne stopped filling the takeout bag. ‘What’s the problem?’ he asked.
‘Eleven items,’ slurred the girl, pressing a button beneath the till. ‘This is the express lane. Ten items only.’
‘Then we’ll put one ba –’ Wayne managed to say before the bullet shattered his skull and his body was punched into a backward somersault, landing him in the end aisle.
As Dale’s voice rose in a scream another burst of gunfire came, shattering her arm and shoulder, tearing open her neck in a powerful geyser of blood as she spun around with her hands raised and toppled to the floor.
The Pricefair manager, a ginger-haired boy of twenty-one, dropped the scorching pistol back into his overall pocket and turned to the checkout girl.
‘I told you before, Charlene,’ he admonished, ‘Warn ’em before you start ringin’ stuff up. I gotta reset the total each time.’
Above them, the overture from Mary Poppins began to play.