DEAR ABBY: My 18-year-old sister, “Cheryl,” left home abruptly a week ago. She suddenly stopped taking all her medications, shut off her cell phone and left town with her underage boyfriend. She is a delightful person who also happens to be diabetic, asthmatic and bipolar. Mom received one phone call (from a landline) mentioning that she “might” be heading toward the East Coast.
I consider my sister dangerous to herself and others because she has a history of reckless violence when she’s off her meds. My question is, how can you find someone who doesn’t want to be found when they NEED to be found? — HEARTBROKEN SISTER IN INDIANA
You know one of those nights when you stay up too late and everything starts jumping around, just out of your line of sight? This was one of those nights, except, like, it started three nights ago. We hadn’t slept, we had to keep moving.
We were in a small town so far outside of Chicago it was more accurate to say we were in the next state. I say it was small, but it had all the trappings of everywhere else in this country: strip malls, the one megamart that never closes unless there’s a quarantine. We sat in the parking lot of that megamart now, listening to the car’s engine tick and cool.
I was on my fifth burner phone and I was staring at it now, wondering who I could call, and if I should bother. I scratched at my face, knowing I was at that in between place between respectable and complete hobo. I missed four check-ins so I knew I was beyond AWOL. I hoped my last message had gotten in or I knew they’d be hunting for me as well.
I turned to the cause of all of this trouble.
“How’re you holding up?” I asked her. She sighed, fidgeted with her book, dogeared a page. She was always glued to her phone in school and in the hallways, but I had backed over it as we were leaving town. Now I knew that the fact of the matter was she just needed to be glued to something, like she didn’t trust her hands if they were unoccupied. As we drove through the nights, too dark to read, she played with rubber bands, made little origami creatures, and finger knitted string into long, useless braids.
“I’m okay,” she said. Her voice bounced off the windshield and struck my ears, making me jump a little. I realized it had been several hours since we’d spoken. Her dark hair was braided back elaborately, more of her hands’ busywork, the long part held in place by nothing that I could see, but loose bits of her bangs covered most of her eyes.
When she shifted in the passenger seat I caught the coppery, dirty smell of old blood. My father’s truck always smelled a little like it for months after the fall hunts, no matter how much he hosed it out. There’d been no time to bathe after we blew town.
“I thought I’d go in first,” I said, pointing in the direction of the megamart that was beyond my fogged windshield. “Make sure this is the right one.”
“I know this is the right one.”
“Well, let’s just–”
“Wilson.” I knew what she was going to say. “I’d like to come in.”
“Kat. There are cameras everywhere,” I reminded her.
“I’m untagged. You know I’m untagged.”
“They’re going to look for you harder since they can’t just scan you. Let me go in and check it out first.”
Kat shrugged, turned away. “My hair’s dark, I look like shit, and I’m with a strange scumbag. They won’t look twice.”
I smiled. It was true, as far as anyone knew I was a stranger. We hadn’t talked at all in school, not until that last couple of days before everything went sideways.
“Okay,” I said, while feeling it was the wrong call. I had a nagging feeling she was getting so stir crazy that if I kept telling her no this close to our goal I would come back to the car and find it empty.
The megamart’s doors made their customary hiss and suck to admit us, chattering away all the while.
“HELLO VALUED SHOPPER. DID YOU KNOW YOU CAN NOW USE YOUR BENEFITS FOR MORE ITEMS THAN EVER BEFORE, LIKE VITAMINLIQUOR AND CHICKIENOBS? HELLO PETER FLAXMAN, HELLO VALUED SHOPPER.”
“Flaxman?” she asked me.
“I dunno. My personal address is set to rotate every fifteen minutes or so,” I said, tapping my arm. “Maybe I’ll find out more at checkout.” I was looking forward to collecting my paycheck, leaving her, doing a little shopping, and getting seriously drunk a safe distance from her radius of dysfunction. Maybe a couple towns from here. Then I would sleep it off and check in with HQ to see if I was still employed.
The store, other than its announcements and talking displays everywhere, was fairly quiet. The autochecks stood idle, except for the stand nearest us. It jerked slightly, repeatedly turning what served as its head towards us, big scanners looking us over.
“DO YOU HAVE A RETURN? STORE CREDIT IS NOW UNAVAILABLE FOR MOST ITEMS.”
I ignored it. There were no people in the front of the store, which seemed unusual, but maybe the autocheck manager was doing maintenance nearby.
“Look,” Kat said, pointing at the wall just inside the door. She walked to a screen displaying a loop of a man giving every valued shopper a politician’s smile and a thumbs-up as they entered. Words coalesced over his head: Store Manager, Todd Van Buren.
“I told you this was the right place,” she said.
“I don’t see the resemblance,” I said. Their hair was the same, but at least one of them was faking it. I had covered Kat’s light hair in the bathroom of a gas station a couple of days ago.
“Well, he’s my half brother. And a lot fatter than he was a few years ago,” she said, with amusement. “He looks like his mother.”
I took a look around the store. The ceiling stretched up fifty feet, shelves towering upwards almost as high, with just a little space for the skylights. My arm twitched and I glanced at my screen reflexively; the store’s map had dropped in. It was a typical setup: government services to the right, worker housing near the back behind that, and an unlabeled area near the back where I imagined we’d find Kat’s brother.
I was itching to get moving “Do you want to take the tram back, or–”
“Let’s look around some before we go into the back,” Kat said. I agreed with her–it seemed like a good idea to get the lay of the land before we went into an area requiring higher authorization.
We started in the main area of the store, in Personal Care, avoiding the Villages for now. It was the usual squalor I’d come to expect from a megamart–malfunctioning vending screens with flickering images of giant lipsticked mouths or made up eyes. Other displays were completely shattered, jagged shreds of screen hanging out. Spills on the floor with varying levels of stickiness. One brown puddle looked like it might be cola syrup, but was so sticky it had entrapped the plastic coating of the sole of a large shoe.
“This place has really gone into the shitter,” Kat said.
“Really? This one actually looks pretty average to me.” A broken screen next to me popped and issued a small spray of sparks, making us both jump back. Kat laughed.
“Did you want to pick up some razors?” she asked.
“Yeah, maybe, if we can find them,” I said. We set off walking, passing through several aisles before getting to the shaving department.
“It’s really empty in here,” Kat said, stepping around a floor-cleaning bot that seemed to have somehow avoided the first aisle for a few months.
“I noticed that.”
A whoop-whoop rolled to the end of our aisle and turned its head towards us making its distinct siren sound. It had a stout body like an antique vacuum cleaner and a flashing light on top of its head to alert shoppers to current specials. Some of them issued discount codes or stickers for the kiddies. Others, I knew, were more like store bulls and were armed to protect against vandalism or theft.
“HELLO FLAXMAN, HELLO VALUED SHOPPER. I’D LIKE TO TELL YOU ABOUT SOME OF OUR SALES TODAY” –the whoop-whoop gave a judder here and its voice changed timbe, lowering– “BUT THIS IS A QUARANTINE SITUATION AND WE ARE GOING TO HAVE TO ASK YOU TO PROCEED TO THE EXIT AT THIS TIME.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“Don’t worry about this,” Kat said. “My brother doesn’t keep a dangerous store.” She switched to the over-enunciation you use on particularly stupid machines, just in case. “Thank you, bot, list sales.”
“AUTOCHECK IS DEACTIVATED AT THIS TIME WITHOUT THE PROPER OVERRIDE PROTOCOL. WE ARE GOING TO HAVE TO ASK YOU TO PROCEED TO THE EXIT AT THIS TIME.”
“Bot, call store manager,” she said, trying a new tack. I heard a noise and looked behind us; a second bot rolled up at the other end of the aisle, and gave the signature “whoop-whoop” of its siren that they were named for.
“PROTOCOL UNAVAILABLE,” the first bot said. “WE ARE GOING TO HAVE TO ASK YOU TO PROCEED TO THE EXIT AT THIS TIME.” The clamps it had as quasi-hands that were used to clear the aisle of debris and errant children were clicking at us menacingly.
“Wilson, what should we do?” Kat asked. I stepped between her and the bot so it couldn’t pick up what we were saying.
“You think we can just ignore it?” I asked quietly. “Do you know any other codes?” She shook her head. On our drive she’d told me stories about spending her summers in the store when she was much younger, getting to know her other side of the family. I looked around–there was nothing in the aisle to slow the bots’ progress if and when they decided to move on us.
The first bot gave its siren another couple of blasts, followed by a whooshing noise. I felt a sharp pain in my left buttcheek, and turned in circles trying to remove it. It pinned my coat and my pants to my ass so every move I made wiggled it around a little, making it more painful.
“JESUS FUCK!” I said.
“HELLO VALUED CUSTOMER, PLEASE ENJOY A COMPLIMENTARY FLU SHOT, COURTESY OF TERRITORIAL GOVERNMENT EAST.”
“Oh my god, it darted you!” Kat said.
“Is this thing going to just annoy us until we leave?” I said.
“Probably,” Kat said. She gave me a slow blink then, and I saw one of her blue eyes drift down her cheek and give her chin a little nip. It drifted back up to its proper place on her face like a fish lazily being carried by a river’s current.
“I’ve got a plan,” I said. It took me ages to get it out, and I hoped she understood me. “Follow my lead, tell it we’re leaving.”
“Bot, we are exiting the store, thank you.”
“THANK YOU VALUED CUSTOMER,” it replied.
I dropped to my knees and crawled over the cracked linoleum to the first bot. The specks in the flooring were so beautiful, flicking along like a whole school of small fish. I dove towards them. I was a majestic kestrel. They tasted of dust and bubblebath.
“I’ve got him, Kat. You run!” I wrapped myself around his rollers like a doughnut and hugged it with my whole body.
She followed me over to where I lay, bent down, and pulled the dart out of my ass. “This is your plan? To hug this whoop-whoop to death?”
“It’s foolproof,” I said. So tired. There were spots in front of my eyes, like beautiful drifting snow. They made me sleepier.
“I don’t think that was a flu shot,” Kat said. That was the last thing I heard before everything went black….
Turn to page 98 to dream about spawning herring
Turn to page 164 to have Kat feed Wilson the antidote
Turn to page 31 to change the space-time continuum and turn right at the entrance instead of left