Monday, November 14, 2005

Winds of Change-Winds of Change excerpt



Winds of Change


Several people saw the shooting star as it fell to earth, but nobody thought much about it. Not even when the world started falling apart. I guess there were too many other things to consider at that point, too much death and despair and all-around weirdness. Whatever the case, we didn't make the connection between the star and the disaster until the following day. By then it was too late.

Besides, most of us were too preoccupied with the moon to notice the falling star. It was a blood moon, a brilliant ruby hanging in a sable sky. I had never seen anything like it, and it had my full attention. It was beautiful and frightening at the same time, like a strain of anthrax studied under a microscope. Although I wasn’t really sure why, the sight of the moon, looking like it had been dipped in a vat of blood, made me more than a little nervous. I wasn’t superstitious by any stretch of the imagination, but I couldn’t help thinking of signs and omens and prophecies.

No doubt the police station and emergency room would see their fair share of lunatics tonight. Ask anyone who works with the public. The crazies always come out in force when the moon is full. I couldn’t imagine how much more severe things might become with a full, red moon. Little did I know, I was about to find out.

Thinking back to my morning ritual of oatmeal, orange juice, and The Crowley’s Point Sun, I didn’t remember reading anything on the front page about the phenomenon. Usually if there was any sort of upcoming cosmic activity of importance like an eclipse or a meteor shower, it made the paper. Not so with this.

Of course, maybe the scientists didn’t know this was coming. Maybe this was a bonafide omen of some sort that came from nowhere and would disappear just as quickly. Or maybe I had simply overlooked the article in my haste to get to work on time. Stranger things had happened.

Although I had plenty of other things I should have been doing, I stood there in the vestibule of the store, watching the moon with a childlike fascination. I imagined werewolves, curses, and ancient rituals which were probably being performed at that very moment by secret societies dressed in black hooded robes. I had an overactive imagination I suppose.

That imagination kicked into overdrive when the lights went out.
Apparently, everyone else’s imagination did the same thing. One minute the hardware store was a fully functioning, well-oiled unit. The next it was a perfect example of chaos. Strange how quickly balance can shift in a matter of seconds.

Thankfully, it was closing time and there were only a few people left inside the store. I’m not sure what would have happened if the building would have been full of customers. We probably would have realized that something was wrong a lot sooner. But that would have also meant that more people were dead as a result.

Someone-a child, I think-screamed out in fear as everything went dark. The few people that remained in the store could be seen roaming the aisles frantically in search of their loved ones. It was a natural instinct. Of course, nobody was panicking at that point. Power failures were common enough.

Having experienced similar situations during thunderstorms and power outages, I wasn’t that upset. This sort of thing had happened before, and everything always turned out all right. The fact that it wasn't storming outside, however, bothered me a little. The weather couldn't be blamed for this. Maybe a drunk simply drove his car into a light pole or somebody at the power plant fell asleep and accidentally flipped a switch he shouldn’t have. I didn’t have any good explanations, but I didn’t feel like I needed any at that point. Order would be restored soon enough.

I stood there for a few minutes in the dark, wondering why the backup generator hadn’t kicked in. The generator should have started up immediately unless the mechanics were faulty or someone tampered with it. It was kept in a locked maintenance room at the back of the store. Only the managers had keys to that room so it was pretty unlikely that anyone actually sabotaged the machine. The generator was also serviced on a regular basis which made it hard for me to believe that there might be mechanical failure of any sort.

“Anybody know what’s going on?” Chuck asked me.

“The lights went out,” I said. “We’re all in the dark here.”

“I’m being serious.”

"I haven’t heard anything,” I admitted, dropping the humor. “Maybe a transformer blew.”

“That doesn’t explain why the backup power failed. That’s never happened before.”

“I don’t have an answer for you, Chuck. All I know is that we’re in the dark right now and that there are still people inside the store.”

“Do you think we need to call Mr. Kingsley and tell him what’s happening?”

I thought about it for a moment. Mr. Kingsley was our boss and the owner of Kingsley’s Hardware and Appliance. If I knew him as well as I thought I did, he was probably either pickling his liver at one of the local bars or stuffing dollar bills into some white-trash stripper’s G-string. Mr. Kingsley was a man who didn’t like to be disturbed, especially when getting drunk or fondled. I remembered what had happened the last time I called him in the middle of a lap dance. I had spent the next month working the late shift. I wasn’t too eager to relive my past mistake.

“No need to call the boss,” I said. “We can handle it here. That’s what he’s paying us for. We’re in charge. Let’s just make a decision.”

“It’s just strange that the generator isn’t working,” Chuck said, giving voice to my unease. “The guy tested it last week.. He said everything looked good.”

“So what do you think is wrong with it?” I asked.

“Maybe terrorists are responsible,” Chuck said, only half-kidding.

“Come on, Chuck. Terrorists? Let’s get a little bit realistic here.”

“I’m serious,” Chuck said. “I think we really stirred ‘em up by going into Iraq. This feels like something they would try.”

“Terrorists don’t care about us,” I said, peering out the glass front of the store.

“We’re nothing. A speck on a map. This is the last place terrorists would hit. Besides, if they were going to hit us, they would do it when we were busy, not when we’re about to close up for the night.”

“That’s exactly why it would be so disturbing,” Chuck reasoned, running a hand through his thinning blond hair. “It would completely catch people off guard. An attack like that would really hit home. People would realize that they are never truly protected. I mean, think about it. We always expect the worst at opportune times. The news always posts terrorist alerts on the Fourth of July and on New Year's Eve and at Christmas. But that's to be expected. What about 9:30 on a Friday night? Who would ever suspect something like that?”

“It's an interesting theory, Chucky, but I think we need to start ushering people out of the store. We can talk about this more when we don’t have to worry about people filling their pockets or stumbling around in the dark and injuring themselves. Mr. Kingsley would definitely have our heads if he got sued because of something that happened in his store while we were in charge.”

Of course, fear of shoplifters wasn’t the reason I stopped the conversation. The truth of the matter was that his logic scared me just a little bit. Chuck was thinking like a terrorist, and his rationale made a certain amount of sense. I didn't like to consider the possibility that he was right.

The sound of brakes screeching and the squeal of metal outside only reinforced the notion that something was wrong. I thought about going to see what had happened, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

“Things are going to start falling apart any minute,” Chuck said. “I’m telling you. Go ahead. Think I’m a fool now. I’m willing to risk that. I’ll gloat later.”

“Chuck, there are people in here we need to take care of. Enough yapping.”

“You know I’m talking sense, Matt. The element of surprise is a key weapon to a terrorist. Hitting a little town like this would make the entire country stand up and take notice. It would turn everything on its head. Until now, people in the big cities have felt the pressure while we’ve sat back in our recliners and watched television and gone about our business calmly. We’ve walked around thinking ‘I sure am glad I live in a little place like this because nobody will care enough to come after us.’ Well, what if somebody got wise to that rationale and decided to do exactly that?”

“We need to get some flashlights and get these people out to their cars,” I insisted. “We can play this game some other time.”

Chuck sighed. It was obvious that he had almost talked himself into believing his own explanation and was desperate for somebody else to side with him. “You think about what I said,” he grumbled.

“Fine, I’ll think about. You just think about the fact that nobody is dying in this scenario. The lights are out and somebody wrecked their car outside. Other than that, there’s not been anything to get worked up about.”

“Not yet at least,” Chuck said.

“Let’s just round everybody up and make sure nobody’s hurt.”

“You start at one end,” Chuck suggested once he realized he wasn’t going to win me over with the terrorist argument. “I’ll start at the other. This shouldn’t take long. I just hope we don't run into any of them.”

"Can it, Chuck," I muttered. "And don't start talking about terrorists in front of the customers. I don't want to scare everybody because of your overactive imagination. We shouldn't get people worked up until there's a reason for it."
Chuck started to raise some sort of argument, but I didn't give him the chance. I walked away from him and started rounding up the people who hadn't yet made their way to the exits.

Getting all the customers out of the store wasn’t nearly as easy as we had anticipated. For starters, the Weavers didn’t want to leave, and Jesse Weaver wasn’t the kind of man that people argued with. I had heard too many stories about him to feel comfortable or in control at that point.

Although Jesse Weaver wore greasy overalls and steel-toed boots and had two arms’ worth of tattoos, he was one of the richest men in town. Nobody was really sure how he acquired his wealth, and the really smart people didn’t ask. Some people mentioned bootlegging. Others whispered smuggling and murder. Gambling certainly figured in there somewhere as well. All of the theories were probably true to one extent or the other, and the fact that his sons were following in his footsteps wasn’t much of a comfort either. The fact that they weren't with him was even less consolation. Those boys didn’t go any place that trouble didn’t follow.

I immediately thought of the generator and the obvious problems we were having. Maybe the Weaver boys were to blame. If anybody could have picked the lock to the service room where the generator was kept, I knew it was them. Wisely, I didn’t say anything in front of Jesse and Vera Weaver about their sons. That would have been trouble for sure.

“I’m not leaving,” Jesse Weaver told me when I approached him. “Not without what I came in here for. The wife needs a stove. That’s what you do here. You sell stoves.”

“The power is out,” I said. “You have to understand where I’m coming from. I’ve got the entire store to consider. If you walk around in here and get hurt, it would be our responsibility. You could trip over something in one of the aisles and sprain an ankle.”

“That ain’t what you’re worried about, and you and I both know that,” Jesse Weaver growled. “You think I might just decide to stick a little something in my pocket and walk out with it. Well, despite what you’ve heard about me, I’m not a thief. I’m a lot of other things that I won’t go into here, but a thief ain’t one of ‘em.”

“I’m not concerned about that,” I said, trying to sound convincing. “But you have to understand that I’m in charge of the store.”

“Don’t worry about the store,” Jesse said with a heavy Southern drawl. “It ain’t going nowhere. But I am. I’ve got a stove to load up.”

“Jesse, I can wait on the stove,” Vera Weaver spoke up. “Let this poor man do his job, and don’t give him a hard time.”

Vera Weaver’s voice was a whisper in the middle of a hurricane.

“No, ma’am, you can’t,” Jesse growled. “I told you we were doing this tonight, and I’m not going to let this little pissant keep us from it. I’ll call Jack if I have to.”

“Mr. Weaver, I don’t want to get ugly about this...” I knew it wasn’t much of a threat, but then again I wasn’t much of a threat maker.

I heard a wet smacking that was probably the sound of Jesse switching his wad of tobacco from one cheek to another. “Don’t make me get Jack involved in this,” he grumbled. “Me and your boss go way back, and I have plenty of reasons to believe that he’d take my side in this. He asks me for way too many favors to have one of his errand boys throw me out of his store. Call him on his cell phone if you’ve got any doubts about what you should do. Of course, I’m sure that would put a lot of doubts in his mind about your ability to do this job. Am I right?”

I scowled in the dark, irritated that I had been backed into this kind of corner.

“Whatever, Jesse,” I said. “We’ll get your stove. Just bear with me for a few minutes and let me round everybody else up. I don’t want a whole store full of people stumbling around in the dark. Fair enough?”

I heard Jesse spit in the dark and shuddered to think about where it might have landed. “I guess I can go along with that,” he said.

Hoping to avoid any further conflict, I was just about to suggest that the Weavers wait at the service desk when I heard someone screaming at one of the doors. It wasn’t the kind of screaming you hear at an amusement park or in a horror movie. Rather, it more closely resembled the sound someone might make if they were being skinned alive. To make matters worse, the lights were still out so I couldn’t see what was going on. It was enough to give me chills and make me want to run for cover. But I knew I couldn’t do that, especially not in front of Jesse Weaver. I was supposed to be in charge of things. If I showed any sign of fear at this point, I knew he would take advantage of that and do whatever he wanted for as long as he wanted. I couldn’t let that happen.

Trying hard not to panic, I left the Weavers standing where they were. Steven, one of the other managers, met me at front entrance. Even in the dark, I could tell that he was pale. He had obviously heard the screaming too.

“Don’t go out there,” he said, checking the sliding glass doors to make sure they were shut. “I don’t know what’s going on, but the world is falling apart all around us. Things are happening to the people who have already left.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, immediately thinking of the potential lawsuits that might erupt from this. Steven sat down on one of the benches in the vestibule. It was obvious that he was badly shaken.

“It’s hard to explain," he said at last. "But people are changing the moment they leave the building.”

“Changing? Into what?”

“You form your own opinion,” Steven said. "Tell me what you see."

I had never seen Steven so scared before, and I knew that what he saw must have been bad. His hands were trembling at his sides. He made fists to stop the tremors, but that did little to erase the fear from his face.

"Just stay away from the exits," Steven added, almost as an afterthought. "There's something in the air out there, and it's nasty stuff. It’s changing people."

I thought back to what Chuck had said about terrorists and wondered if this might really be the beginning of the end. I imagined clandestine missions involving the release of seran gas, biologically-engineered anthrax, and vials upon vials of bubonic plague. The screaming outside the store enforced the images in my head, giving them color and texture and dimension. I didn’t want to live in Technicolor though. I wanted black-and-white. That would have made everything so much easier to bear.

The screaming went on for several seconds. You could have almost mistaken it for the wailing of emergency sirens had there not been a few words mixed in as well. The words were mostly curses. Whoever was uttering them was definitely suffering.

“Come here,” Steven said above the painful ululations. Reluctantly, I joined him in front of one of the large storefront windows.

He pointed at a foot-high hillock of what looked like wet sand piled up outside the door. The maroon moonlight revealed a few more scattered about the parking lot like the errant homes of wayward ants. I saw a few glints of metal shining atop the mounds and realized what they were-rings, bracelets, necklaces, watches, and even a few gold and silver teeth.

"Look at the prosthetic," Steven whispered. "That's all that's left of the guy who was screaming. I saw him through the window a minute ago. Now he's gone."
The fake leg lay in a pile of what looked like beach sand. The wind rocked it back and forth in the dust like a rolling pin in flour.

It took me a few seconds to realize that the screaming had stopped. It took me even longer to process what Steven was suggesting. If that hillock of dust and the one prosthetic leg was all that remained of Steven's customer, that meant that all of the hillocks of sand represented people.

I pressed my nose to the glass, straining to see anything that might prove this was all some elaborate hoax. That was when the first bird flew into the glass, making a smack like a wife’s open palm against the side of her philandering husband’s cheek. Startled, I fell back from the window, gasping for breath. The sky chose that moment to start raining birds.

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