Lux in Tenebris : Part 1

“First time I’m late to a meeting in my entire goddamn life,” Connor Gregson muttered as he checked the time on the face of the Rolex Submariner watch on his wrist, “and of course it had to be today.”

Connor leaned over to look in the driver’s rear view mirror, raising his chin as he adjusted his tie for the fifth time since they had come to a halt half an hour ago.

“You can’t just get off the highway? Take the emergency lane, I’ll pay you extra.”, he begged the driver of his black car taxi.

“Sorry sir, I can’t do that. Besides, with the size of the wreck up ahead, there’s more than likely going to be an ambulance blocking that lane further up anyway.”, the driver apologized.

Fuck, this can’t be happening, thought Connor.

His hand dug back into his coat pocket, pulling his phone out.

Still no signal.

I can’t believe this shit.

Connor could barely breathe.

The mixture of exhaust in the air, black smoke pouring out of the overturned frame of the truck to his left, his shirt feeling two sizes too small, soaked in sweat.

Oh god, I’m an idiot, I forgot to loosen my tie, he thought to himself as he ran down the side of the highway.

Even his mental voice sounded out of breath.

Connor slowed to a stop, leaned over to place his suitcase on the asphalt, and loosened his tie. He undid a few of the top buttons on his shirt as well, just in case.

Taking off his suit coat, he looked over at the accident scene beside him.

Looks like there’s at least one casualty, he thought as he noticed the sheet covering a body on the ground. It was a small body.

The firefighters were still using the Jaws of Life to rip apart the passenger door of the car that had been flipped into the median. The policemen divided themselves between guiding traffic through the one shoulder of the road that hadn’t been affected by the wreck, and helping the firefighters hold the car steady as the one firefighter stood on top of the frame.

One of the police officers looked over at Connor as he stood with his arms braced against the car, shoving his sunglasses back up on his nose with his forearm.

“Hey man, move along, you can’t be out here. This is a dangerous area right now.”

Connor picked up his suitcase and threw his coat over his arm, waving at the officer. “Yeah buddy, I’m moving along!”

Connor continued running down the side of the highway, seeing the exit to the access road coming up. He took his phone out of his pocket with his free hand, noticing that there was still no signal. The phone still showed the correct time.

He still had fifteen minutes to get to the office.

Bursting through the doorway of the gas station at the foot of the hill, just off the road, Connor scanned the store quickly, turning his head as if it were on a swivel, searching.

“Phone! Where’s your phone?”, he shouted at the unseen station attendant.

From a back room, he heard a whisper of a curse, and the quiet giggle of a young woman. The sound of boxes falling over camouflaged further curses from the young man who stumbled out of the back room into the hallway leading out to the store, fumbling to button his work shirt back up.

“It’s outside, man, out the door to the left, right next to the dumpster”, the young man answered, flipping his long hair out of his eyes. “It’s out of order though,” he added as Connor turned to walk outside. “Some jerkoff ripped the phone thing off by the cable.”

Fuck!”, rasped Connor. He looked down at the kid’s name tag.

“Alright Timothy, you got a phone in that office I can use real quick? I’ll pay you.”, Connor asked.

“Uh, yeah man, but, like… customers aren’t allowed to use that phone, dude.”

“Come on kid, I’ll pay you twenty bucks right now if you let me use it real quick.”

“No way dude, there’s rules and shit, you know? I can’t be letting every dude that–”

“Timothy,” Connor said, taking a deep breath as he struggled to remain calm, “I’m telling you right now, if you don’t let me use that goddamn phone right now, I’m going to tell your boss,” he said as he looked behind Timothy to the back wall showing a framed photo of an elderly woman in the same red and black colored work shirt the boy wore, taking note of the name on the tiny plaque, “I’m going to tell Bridget that you’re banging random chicks in the storage closet. So are you going to let me use your fucking phone, or not?” Connor said, as he placed his suitcase on the counter, slowly draping his coat over the suitcase.

“Shannon, I need you to do me a favor and stall the board members for about twenty minutes, okay?”

Connor sat in the old office chair in the back room of the gas station, the landline telephone feeling sticky and covered in dirt and scotch tape. He could swear it smelled like a mixture of gasoline and rotten food, but the overflowing trash can beneath the desk obviously had never been emptied, so there was no telling where the smell was originating from.

“There was a wreck on the goddamn highway and I’m calling you from– yeah, yeah I know they’re important, okay? I know how serious this meeting is. I’m calling you from a gas station right now, and I’m going to try to get there via taxi or something– no, my phone doesn’t have any signal, I don’t know what the fuck is going on.”

The light in the office turned off, and Connor raised his arm and waved it in the air, trying to activate the motion sensor that must have sat unattended too long.

“Look, Shannon, just stall them if you can and I’ll be there as quick as I can, okay? Send that cute girl from Accounting in there with some water or something if you have to, alright?”

The office sounded quiet on the other line, the commotion from the other employees milling about on Shannon’s end coming to a quick quiet.

“Hello? Shannon. Shannon, can you hear me?”

Connor pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it, wiggled the cord connecting it to the phone, and tried again.

“Shannon, are you there?”

Connor found the sudden silence more worrisome than a dial tone.

“Kid! Hey, Timothy! Your phone in here is dead or something, and your fucking light won’t turn back on. I can’t see shit.”

Connor stepped out of the office, stumbling over boxes in the hallway as he tried to navigate his way using the single ray of daylight peeking through the front door of the store down into the hallway.

“Hey, kid! Where the fuck are you?”, he yelled.

As he made his way into the store area of the building, he looked around at the freezer and the drink refrigerators. Looking back at the counter, he noticed out of the front window that Timothy and a girl were sharing a cigarette as they sat on the stack of pallets that were piled in front of one of the store windows.

Must be that girl I heard earlier in the back room with him, he thought.

Connor made his way over to the drink coolers, opened the door, and bent down to grab one of the larger bottles of water from the bottom. The cooler looked much more dirty and grimy without a working light inside.

Looks like all the lights in here are off, actually, Connor slowly noticed.

Connor twisted the cap off the drink, and took a long swallow, feeling the coolness of the water pour through his body. Letting loose a small sigh, he put the cap back on, and raised the cold bottle to his forehead, relishing it’s cold and wet refreshment against the sweat on his face. He leaned down and grabbed another of the bottles from the cooler.

As Connor walked back to the counter, Timothy noticed him walking around inside. He handed the remainder of his cigarette to his female companion, and turned to head inside.

“Hey, sir, you get everything taken care of?”, he asked.

“Almost. Your phone seems to have died, and the light in the office isn’t turning back on – the motion sensor is probably busted. Look, can I borrow your cell phone? I need to get a taxi, I need to get downtown in the next fifteen minutes.”

“Uh, what do you mean?”, the boy asked.

Now that he was inside and speaking to him, Connor noticed the scent of pot on the boy’s breath.

Great, now I’m going to have to explain how a taxi works to this punk kid, he thought.

“Kid, I just need a taxi to get me–“, he started.

“Naw man, I mean… we don’t have a motion sensor in there. That thing works with, like, a switch thing.”

“Oh, great. Well, let me borrow your cell phone, and then you can go change the light bulb, okay?”

“Oh, uh, yeah man, that’s fine, I guess,” Timothy responded, slowly taking the phone out of his pocket and handing it to Connor. “Uh, you got, like, light bulbs with you and stuff?”

Connor ignored Timothy’s question as he tried to unlock the phone’s black screen.

“Hey, kid, how do you unlock this thing? Does it need your fingerprint or something?”

Timothy took his phone from Connor’s outstretched hand. “Naw man, it’s just… hmm. That’s weird, it’s been on the charger since Carleen got here, it shouldn’t be dead already.”

Connor sighed and grabbed his suitcase and coat from the counter, and walked outside.

“Hey, miss, are you Carleen?”, he asked the girl with the braided hair just outside the door.

“Yeah, who the hell are you?”, Carleen snapped back.

“Look, I just need to borrow a phone, and Tim’s is dead. Would that be alright with you?”, Connor asked, hoping the look on his face was more pitiful looking than he thought it was.

“Yeah, I guess. But you run off, Tim’s got a gun behind the counter, so don’t be a dick, aight?” Carleen said.

“Good deal. I’ll be right here.” Connor answered as the young girl took her phone out from her back pocket.

“What the fuck, mine’s dead too?”, Carleen asked herself as she tried to unlock her phone, pressing the power button down as she tried to turn it back on.

“Hold on, let me go put it on the charger real quick…” she said, as she turned to go inside. Just then, Timothy pushed the door open, almost jumping outside.

“Dude, my phone is broken, man. My charger doesn’t work on it, and none of the chargers on the rack work either…”, Timothy exclaimed.

As Timothy and Carleen began bickering back and forth about who’s fault it was that their phones were broken, Connor suddenly realized how quiet it was outside.

Looking around, he noticed the air conditioner unit on the roof was no longer making the squeaking noise it was when he had arrived, nor was the ice machine that sat to the edge of the building making the high-pitched whine it had been.

But what stood out most to Connor was the fact that he could hear voices coming from the access road behind him, and the highway that loomed up above him.

To be able to hear voices from almost five stories up, all the traffic in town must have stopped at the same time, he thought.

There wasn’t any honking, or music playing. No constant roar of engines passing by, or even the squealing of brakes that needed changing.

To Connor, the thing that stood out the most was not even being able to hear the clicking of the street lights on the corner, their glass faces dark.

Connor began walking with a brisk pace over to the street, heading to the car stalled at the crosswalk, it being the first in the line of cars. Getting the driver’s attention with his hand circling in the air, trying to get them to roll down their window, they unclicked their seatbelt and opened the driver’s door.

Just as Connor was about to beg for a ride downtown, the rotund woman stood with her arm holding her door out, the other arm laying on the roof of the car.

“Hey honey, would you mind helping me push my car out of the way, maybe into that gas station over there? It just died on me all of a sudden, and I don’t know a darn thing about cars.”, the woman asked.

“Oh, uh… no, no I’m sorry, I think, I think all the cars out here are broken down right now,” Connor stuttered as he looked around at all the cars that seemed to be frozen in the streets, “It seems everyone on the road is at a standstill right now.”

As the lady turned to knock on the passenger window of the car beside hers, Connor turned to walk back to the gas station, taking another drink from his water bottle as he looked behind him, up and down the street.

What the hell is going on today?, he wondered.

There was a large man at the gas station, a burly man with a brown hunter’s vest and a red plaid shirt, his sleeves rolled up on his forearms. His dirty jeans looked as if he had been climbing around in a mechanic’s shop all day, his boots dusty but in good shape.

“C’mon kid, what do you mean your machine isn’t working? I just need five bucks of gas on pump three, what the hell’s the matter?”, the big man asked with a surprisingly gentle voice.

Timothy looked up at the big man sheepishly, almost nervous to say his piece again to the intimidating man.

Connor stood just in the doorway of the store, looked at the red gasoline canister in the large man’s hand, and back at the kid. The kid was repeating to the man about how nothing seemed to be working around here, that he couldn’t even call his manager to come fix it. Connor looked out the window, noticing the many people standing around in between the cars, talking to one another, asking what could have happened.

Connor reached up and placed his hand on the man’s large arm, saying quietly, “Sir, I don’t think your vehicle is out of gas. Look around, all the other cars… there’s no way they could all be out of gas at the same time, right?”

The big man turned to look Connor in the eye, looked down at his hand on his arm, and then back out at the window.

“Well I’ll be damned, I didn’t even realize everybody was stopped. I thought my truck had died and I was the one holding everybody up…”, the man said quietly, more to himself than to Connor, as he continued looking out of the window.

“What in hell do you think coulda done that?”, he asked in a southern drawl.

Connor, Timothy, Carleen and the big man – he had introduced himself to the rest as Hobby – all stood by the front counter, talking amongst themselves as to what could have happened.

Connor had given up on trying to flag a taxi down, seeing as there must have been a good half dozen yellow cabs within a block’s radius, all stopped and stalled. Getting downtown on foot would take the better part of a day and a half, maybe more if the whole town had been affected by this mass vehicular breakdown.

Carleen sat with her legs crossed, her back up against the store window, as she listened to the men talk about their theories.

Timothy continued to simply stare at the flame of his lighter, holding a cigarette – a real cigarette this time, Connor noted – between his fingers and flying it through the flame in slow motion.

Connor and Hobby continued their discussion.

“Yep, I was just heading downtown to go pick up my son.”, Hobby explained. “It’s my weekend to have him, and we were gonna go hunting for his first time. I been taking him down to his grandad’s land to sight in the rifle I got him for his birthday last June, and we were gonna go down this time and pack up a few deer, since the buck-to-doe ratio is all screwed up this time of year, y’know?”, Hobby said, taking a moment to spit some of his chaw juice out.

“But there I was, getting off the 10 and trying to get down here to get some gas, and while sitting there with that light turned red, my damn truck died.” Hobby said as he scratched his bearded chin. “Come to think of it, though, I don’t quite remember any of them lights working or not in the first place…”

Connor rolled up the sleeves of his pale blue oxford shirt until they met his elbows, and took another swig of water from the second bottle he had taken from the cooler. The sun was starting to lower, and it was finally cooling off a bit.

“So, Connor, right? You say there ain’t a damn phone around here that works, is that so?”, Hobby asked.

Connor replied, “Yeah, it seems the office phone and the kids’ phones are all dead. My phone wasn’t getting a signal for a bit, and when I looked again, it had died too. I think the power may have gone out in this building too. I don’t know if there’s a backup generator or anything out here–”

“There ain’t.”, piped up Timothy, not looking away from the cigarette in his fingers, the whole thing nearly black from the flame of the lighter.

“Yeah, so, I don’t know what we’re gonna do in the meantime. I figure someone’ll have to come by and…”, Connor let his sentence drift, as his eyes drifted back to the line of cars.

There were a lot of people still sitting in or on their vehicles, some standing by them, others sitting on the ground with their backs to the vehicles.

There must be a couple hundred people out here, Connor thought. And they’re going to need food and water soon.

Connor turned back to the gas station, turning his head to look up and down the street.

“Hey, Timothy. Hey kid, do you know if there’s any other gas stations, or convenience stores in this neighborhood?”, he asked.

Timothy let go of the fuel trigger on his lighter, and looked up at Connor with a confused expression.

“Other gas stations?”

“Yeah kid, are there any other stores like this around here?”, Connor asked, beginning to lose his patience.

“Uh, no, I don’t think so, not any that, like, I can remember. Why?” Timothy slowly asked.

Connor looked back at the line of cars and the masses of people, noticing a few walking down the access road from the bridge of the highway, and a few others walking over to the gas station from the street, about fifty yards out.

“Hey guys, let’s get inside real quick, okay?”, Connor suggested.

“Timothy, listen to me, kid,” Connor said.

“There’s a few hundred people out there right now all sitting in their cars and they’ve been there for a while. There doesn’t seem to be anybody coming this way for the foreseeable future to do anything about this mess, and for all we know, maybe the whole city is at a standstill like this.”, Connor added, looking out the window at the people walking around the cars. He found himself focusing more on the few that were headed towards the gas station.

“Those people are probably all very hot, and they’re going to be thirsty, and obviously some are gonna need to use the bathroom. Once everyone out there sees a few of them walking this way, seeing as this is the only gas station around, the rest of them are going to follow, and things have the potential to get messy very quickly if we don’t stay on top of this, okay?”

Carleen was walking up and down the aisles of the store, looking through the various bags of chips and snacks, finally settling on a bag of cheese-powdered fries. She made her way to the counter, and flashed the bag at Timothy as he nodded his head at her and winked.

“Timothy, listen to me, man. Those people probably don’t all have cash on them, so you’ll probably want to make a big sign that says you’re only taking cash right now, alright? And, uh, Hobby, if you wouldn’t mind hanging out with the kid behind the counter? You might be useful in keeping people on the level if they come in here with an attitude.”

“That’s no problem, mister. I’ve got a bit of door-man experience from the bar back home, it’ll probably be the same thing as that. Are you planning on rationing out water and stuff for those people?”, Hobby asked.

Connor nodded as he replied. “Yeah, there’s nowhere near enough food or drink in here for all the people out there, and without a GPS or anything, it’s going to be a pain in the ass figuring out where the next nearest store is. So let’s just try to help these people out and keep everyone calm the best we can.”

Connor looked over at Timothy, who seemed to actually be paying attention to what was being said. Timothy made eye contact with Connor, and upon catching his eye, he picked up off the counter a sign he had worked on.

POWER OUT – CASH ONLY was written on the cardboard sign.

“Good job kid, now go ahead and put that on the front door. Hobby, would you mind helping me move the drinks from the cooler racks over to the ice chest outside? Might as well use that ice to keep things cool before it all melts.”

Hobby nodded and walked to the back of the store, grabbing an ice chest off the shelf. As he began to move drinks from the cooler racks to the ice chest, the front door opened, just as Timothy was walking back to the counter.

A man popped his head inside, holding the door open with one arm.

“Hey guys – any of ya’ll have a phone I can borrow for a moment?”

As the day went on, dozens of people had made their way to the gas station, most of them looking for a phone to use, or to buy some water and light snacks. Everyone used the bathroom while there.

While most had actually left shortly after learning that the phone was out of order, a handful had stayed behind. There was a group of people standing in a circle to the side of the building, some smoking cigarettes, others talking about what they were doing when everyone’s vehicles suddenly ceased to work.

Some of the children were sitting on the curb of the small sidewalk in front of the store, occasionally walking over to the ice chest and placing their cheeks on the metal doors, enjoying the cool surface against their warm skin.

Connor came back outside with a makeshift tray – one of the flatter drawers from the office desk in the back room – with a few plastic cups of water he had filled from the water fountain inside. He had been surprised to find it still working, but chose not to bother jinxing himself with wondering why it hadn’t been affected by the power outage just yet.

As he walked among the group of people, handing out water to those who seemed on the verge of passing out from the heat, he listened to their conversation.

One young man in a camouflaged military uniform was talking to the group at the moment.

“…and I’m just thinking, it could’ve been what you said – you said your name was Nick, right sir? – it could’ve been what Nick said earlier, an EMP blast.”

Another member of the group spoke up, a lady with a baseball cap on.

“But we didn’t hear no blast at all, everything was normal except for being stuck in traffic – I sure as heck didn’t see no explosion or nothing.”, she said.

The young man in the uniform turned to her.

“Well ma’am, that’s just it – an EMP blast is an electromagnetic pulse blast, it’s not quite the same as a missile blowing up. It’s more like an electronic bomb that, when it goes off, instead of blowing up buildings and roads, it short-circuits electrical items. That might be why nobody’s phones are working, and why all the power seems to be out.”

The ballcap woman spoke up again.

“But what about my car? It runs on gasoline, don’t it?”

The soldier responded, “Well, yes ma’am, but most cars for the last fifty years or so have all got computers inside them. The computer in a car is like the brain, it controls how the vehicle handles fuel, changes gears, even just letting the car turn on. If that computer is fried, which I’m pretty sure all of these are, then the car is just a big paperweight, ma’am.”

The lady furrowed her brow and turned away, taking a sip of water from the plastic cup in her hand.

“Hell, I don’t even know if my insurance covers electromagnetic PMPs…”, she mumbled as she walked away.

Connor watched her walk away, and turned back to the young soldier.

“Hey son, you sound like you have an idea of what’s going on out here, yeah?”

The soldier turned to face Connor, taking off his hat to wipe his forehead.

“Well, no sir, I’m not sure exactly what could’ve caused all this,” he said, placing his hat back on as he turned to face the highway, “but whatever it is, it had to have been something pretty damn big to hit this whole city.”

“Have you received word from the city?”, Connor asked with hope in his voice.

“Who, me? Oh, no sir, I just… I mean, listen for a second, will you? You can’t hear anything from downtown, you see? I mean, hell, I haven’t even seen any birds flying by since earlier this morning – and even commercial airliners, I don’t even remember the last time I saw one today.”, the soldier said.

Connor looked at a few grackles sitting on a fence post, squawking to each other.

Birds. He means jets. He’s probably Air Force, stationed at the base on the south side of town, Connor realized.

Looking at the young soldier’s stripe pattern on his sleeve, and reading his name patch, Connor asked the soldier another question.

“Tech Sergeant Mosco, is it? Were you sent here for any reason, or…”

“Oh, no sir. I was actually caught in traffic right down there, too.” Mosco answered, nodding his head down towards the access road. “I was just coming back from seeing my girl down in Wimberley while on leave, we’re having a baby next month…” his voice drifted off, a smile on his face.

“Anyway, I saw these people walking up to this station, and I decided to join them since my phone and car were both dead, and it seems like we’ve all got a bigger problem on our hands now than any of us realized.”, Mosco continued, the smile gone from his face.

Connor picked up the conversation, asking “Well, Sergeant Mosco–”

“It’s alright sir, you can call me Brady.”

“Alright, Brady, nice to meet you, son. I’m Connor Gregson.”, he said, as he shook the young man’s hand. “I was just talking to the kid that works in this store, his name is Timothy. Now, he seems like a good kid, but I’ve been thinking…” Connor lowered his voice, looking around at the group of people around them, all focusing on their own conversations.

“Actually, come here for a moment, if you don’t mind…”, Connor whispered. The two men walked closer to the outside wall of the store, Mosco looking at Connor with a raised eyebrow.

“What’s on your mind, sir?”

“Call me Connor, that sir shit will get old pretty quick.”, Connor said with a chuckle.

“Sorry sir, just…”

Connor looked over at the young man in the military uniform.

“Ah, yeah. Military, almost forgot for a second.”, Connor said with a wink.

Connor continued, “So I’m looking at all these people on the highway and the streets, and I’m starting to wonder what they’re going to do if, I don’t know, help, or the police, or whatever, don’t show up soon… We’re over here at the only gas station for who knows how far, and there’s not a damn place around here within walking distance that likely has a working phone.”

Brady added, “And my radio isn’t working either. So it isn’t just the cars and cell towers, but it really does seem to be all electronics. Which means that more than likely, even the police stations and the base on the other side of town are affected just as badly.”

Connor nodded. “Exactly. And once everyone starts to realize that there isn’t any way to contact anyone for help, or for anything, there’s going to be a wave of panic that’ll start to wash over everyone.”

Brady placed one hand on his waist, taking his hat off with the other and wiping his brow on his sleeve as he looked out at the lines of vehicles, squinting against the sunlight as he watched the bobbing heads of people walking back and forth between the vehicles.

“Yes sir, I think you might be right. I really don’t know what’ll happen once someone out there decides they want to try and control the situation to their advantage. You ever seen Mad Max?”

The two men laughed a bit, though it came to a quick close as they realized that the fictional Hollywood chaos may not be too far from reality.

Connor took another look at his watch, hesitant to say how much time was left before the sun were to set.

“Brady, I think we’re gonna need to get ourselves sorted for this thing before night falls. Once these people realize how dark this area can get without a streetlight on every corner, they’re bound to show a little bit of panic.”

“I agree.” Brady said. “Um, sir?”

“What’s up?”, Connor asked as he stopped to turn around.

“How is your watch still working?”

Connor brought his bent arm up, showing the Tech Sergeant his watch.

“It’s a Rolex, son. They’ve never used batteries in their watches.”

Brady looked at the watch with wide eyes.

“Wow… dang, sir, I’ve never seen a real Rolex before.”

Connor chuckled. “Don’t be too impressed, Brady. Even with this damn thing, I was still late to my meeting today.”, he said with a wink.

A long line of people had formed in front of the gas station, leading in through the front doors. A large crowd of others waiting to get in line huddled around the gas pumps.

The full moon provided enough light to see decently in the dark night, though a small group of people had broken down one of the pallets from in front of the store window, and created a small campfire a safe distance away from the gas pumps.

Those huddled around the fire sat discussing their ideas and concerns about the sudden event earlier that day, while others in the group under the raised roof of the gas pump area had settled on playing rock-paper-scissors to determine who joined the line next.

Connor stood inside the store with arms crossed, looking out the front window at the group of people, occasionally leaning over to peek over at the campfire spot.

Timothy had surprised him by making an executive decision to stop charging everyone for the food and drinks. He had told Connor that his boss, Bridget, was a good woman and would have been okay with the decision, considering how many people – especially children – had been affected.

In the later hours of the evening, people had come from out of the surrounding neighborhoods to see if they could find more information on what had occurred that day. Many stopped by the station to purchase goods, but as most were without cash, they ended up going back home. A few had decided to stick around, feeling they would be safer in a group.

A fight had broken out just as the sun was setting. An elderly man attempted to take a gallon of water from a woman pushing a stroller with a baby only a few months old in it. Timothy had initially suggested storing all the gallon jugs in back, and had brought it out when he saw she had a baby.

A few others standing in line had stood up for the woman, telling the man to relax and not be so selfish, there was a baby involved. When the old man kicked at the stroller holding the child, the men arguing with him snapped and began attacking him.

Hobby had stepped in, towering over everyone, and seemingly plucked the men off of the old man like pulling apples from a tree branch.

“Sir, we’re going to need to ask you to leave. We don’t have room for people that aren’t gonna be civilized out here.”, he had said.

The old man grumbled, kicking at the dirt as he walked away toward the highway, rubbing his shoulder from where he’d landed after being tackled to the ground.

Connor looked over at Hobby now, seeing him sitting on the sidewalk in front of the store, laughing as he joked and played with the children running around him.

The guy is the epitome of a gentle giant, Connor thought to himself, remembering how intimidating Hobby had appeared when he was asking Timothy for gas earlier that day.

Connor turned to look at the few people still in line within the store, everyone dimly lit by the candles that had been taken off the shelf and dusted off for their new purpose in life. The drawing of the Virgin Mary on the outside of the glass jar housing the candle lit beside Connor caught his eye.

Good to see these Jesus candles getting some use in dark times, Connor thought, chuckling at his own pun.

Over at the counter, Timothy was handing out single bottles of water and soda out to the people one at a time, along with a bag of chips or a candy bar. Carleen had stepped up as well, bringing boxes from the back room to refill those beside Timothy as he pulled the makeshift rations to hand out.

The other half of the front door swung in gently, as Hobby walked into the store, taking a look around before he walked over to Connor.

“The kid’s doing a pretty dang good job, the way he’s organizing all this for everyone.”, Hobby whispered to Connor.

Connor nodded, “Yeah, surprising to see how much a kid can grow when you put him in charge of something, sometimes. Even his little girlfriend is doing a good job. I don’t even think she works here,” he added with a quiet chuckle.

“Hey, you never know, maybe he’s just doing all that so he can make a good impression on the gal.”, Hobby responded with a wink.

“You got any kids, Connor?”

Connor uncrossed his arms, reaching up to scratch the stubble on his cheek.

“I do. A daughter. She’s… god, I think she’s probably twenty… four, now? I haven’t seen her in a long time. Her mother passed away after our divorce a few years ago, and she moved into a house with a few of her friends, last I heard. That was… damn, that was last year already.”, Connor said quietly. He looked up at Hobby, who had a sad smile on his face.

“I mean, it’s not like we don’t talk, we do… I called her this past Christmas, but she sent me a text saying kids don’t talk on the phone anymore, texts are easier.”, Connor chuckled. “Sometimes I wonder what it would’ve been like if I hadn’t–”

Connor was interrupted by the shattering of the window in front of him, the sound of the gunshots echoing in the night air, drowned out by the screams of the people in line.


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