Pearl scooped her purse off the passenger seat and hurried into the store. There were no carts in the parking lot and none in the vestibule. When she got inside, she saw why. Lines stretched to the back of the store and doubled back to curve along the walls. People held groceries in their arms, for lack of other options. Pearl opened her bag and withdrew the thin, nylon shopping totes she kept in one of the side pockets.
The shelves were almost bare, something that struck Pearl as being almost as fundamentally wrong as 911 being out of service. She’d grown up in the land of plenty, where stores could not only be counted on to have an abundance of food but multiple brands and varieties of it.
Pearl hurried through the aisles and squeezed between other shoppers to grab cans and boxes off the shelves. Her jaw dropped when a woman snatched a can right out of Pearl’s hand then scurried down the aisle before she could react.
It seemed the whole world had gone mad.
Pearl filled her bags, took her place at the end of the line, and shuffled forward inches at a time with the rest of the shoppers. She took out her phone and read some of the novel she’d started last week, but eventually had to give it up because her arms ached so fiercely from holding up the bags. She couldn’t set them down. She’d seen what happened when someone did that. After a woman put her bag down to answer her phone, a man snatched it off the ground. He’d blended back into the crowd before she even noticed and shouted at him to stop. No one paid this small drama any heed, and the woman had left the line, weeping, to scour the quickly-emptying shelves, her hours of progress lost in a moment.
Pearl wondered if she could let the woman ahead of her in line, but that was one crime the shoppers seemed united in punishing. Line jumpers were forcibly shoved to the back of the crowd.
An hour later, Pearl rounded the end of an aisle and saw the manager heading toward the front of the store with a sheet of paperboard he taped over the door. NO FOOD, SOLD OUT it read. He locked the door and stood by to let out the customers who were leaving. A couple came to the entrance and pounded on the door, despite the manager shouting and pointing to the sign. They rattled the handle, as though the door could be persuaded by persistence. The manager finally turned away to ignore them.
“I’ll give you five hundred dollars for one of your bags.”
Pearl turned and saw a thin, blond man standing to her left, but he wasn’t in line. He had a wad of cash in his hand, and he held it up. “What do you say?”
Pearl wondered if he thought she looked like she needed money. If that was why he’d approached her first instead of the others. “No, sorry.”
The guy didn’t react. He simply turnedaway and walked over to a Hispanic man a few paces away. Pearl gritted her teeth.
A loud crash made people jump and scream. She spun around. At the front of the store, the people banging on the front door had taken a propane gas cylinder from the cage outside and thrown it through the plate glass window. As the manager shouted, a man gripped the woman by the waist and boosted her over the sill.
“Are you crazy?” the manager yelled. “There’s no food left here! I’m calling the cops! You can’t—”
The man hit him with a roundhouse punch that sent the manager sprawling onto the glass-strewn floor. As if that had flipped a switch in the waiting customers’ minds, some of them began to drift toward the front of the store. As more became emboldened, they followed. The cashier shouted at them to stop, but they paid her no heed as they swarmed through the broken window and into the parking lot. It was interesting, if appalling, to watch the progression. Eventually, the line looked like what might be seen on a normal afternoon.
One of the cashiers closed her register and ran up to tend the manager who still hadn’t moved from his place on the floor. She managed to help him to his feet. He put an arm around her shoulders, and she helped him through the store. His nose gushed blood that created a garish red bib on the front of his shirt.
Within a few minutes, Pearl had reached the register. The cashier was crying even as she smiled automatically and recited a mechanical Hello, how are you?
Pearl said she was fine. It was an automatic response on her part, too.
“Thank you for staying.” The cashier scrubbed a hand over her cheeks to wipe off the tears.
“Just the right thing to do,” Pearl replied as she repacked her groceries into the totes after the girl scanned them.
“That seems to be in short supply these days.” The cashier announced Pearl’s total. “What’s happening? Why are people acting like this?”
“The Horsemen have been loosed.”
A chill swept over Pearl and she turned around to stare at the tiny, old lady behind her, who’d spoken in a surprisingly strong voice for her apparent age and fragility.
“Horsemen?” the cashier repeated.
“War, Death, Famine, and Pestilence,” the woman said. “It was foretold in the Bible—”
The cashier rolled her eyes. “Whatever, lady.” She handed Pearl’s change back to her with a word of thanks, and Pearl heard the old woman trying to explain again, but the cashier wasn’t interested.
She stepped carefully through the broken window on her way out and looked around with caution, because it occurred to her that the breakdown of law and order meant she had no choice but to defend herself and the two precious bags of food. Pearl didn’t see anyone lingering nearby, so she walked swiftly through the parking lot, her bags clenched tightly in her arms.