Inclement Weather, Large Animals, and Other Strange Happenings Outside a Costco in New Jersey
“I think they’re watching us. I think they’re judging us. I think you could type away on that fucking cell phone all night, kid, and it won’t make one lick of difference by morning. There’s nobody the can help us. There’s nobody that can save us. This is God’s doing. You should know that, a good Catholic kid like you, God gets his due. God always gets his due.“
-Jake from the Seafood department.
My friend Marcus tried to leave the store today. A ten foot tall bear trotted out of the woods and ate him alive. He left behind a wife and family of five.
I don’t know if anyone will be able to read this story. I don’t know if anybody’s listening, anymore, because I don’t know if there’s anybody still alive outside this store. I pray that’s not the case. There are a few pessimists here that seem to insist otherwise. But I pray that they’re wrong. I don’t even know where to begin. Emily in Seasonal told me to ‘start from the top’. I know she was being sarcastic at the time, but still, I think her advice helped.
So here we go.
From the top.
Saturday, January 12th, 2019.
Nobody knows how to rock an impending blizzard quite like the good people of the New Jersey shore.
Panic pumps its way into our small beach towns quicker than taurine in a teenager. The chain reaction of anxiety is truly a spectacle in and of itself. Armchair weathermen pop up in your Facebook feed. Locals spread gossip at their favorite hotspots. Predictions of an inch of precipitation quickly morph into promises of two and three feet plus. The gas stations run out of gas. The coffee stores run out of coffee. The convenience stores run out of cigarettes.
You get the idea… it’s chaos.
And there is no better place for that anxiety to manifest than the grocery store.
Hundreds of people piled into the town Costco that morning, and I unfortunately counted myself as one of them. The storm was due to arrive within the hour, but, well… I never prepared for these things. My apartment still needed food, and water, and most of the essentials. After days of lazy debate, and flicking back and forth between the Weather Channel and Netflix, I finally settled on the fact that the delivery guy might not be able to make it to my house that night.
The first flakes of snow drifted through the sky as I pulled into the Costco parking lot. A line of grouchy locals were formed outside the large metal pull down doors. Everybody acted unpleasant. Some folks rushed their empty shopping carts to the door to get there first. Others cut off cars in the lot, honked, and gave them the finger. True Jersey spirit. But you couldn’t blame them. The arrival of the white stuff only increased the urge to get home before the storm.
I flashed my membership ID card at the gate, and after a five minute wait, turned the corner into the store. A massive warehouse of empty shelves opened up before my eyes.
It was beautifully uncoordinated chaos.
Store employees waited by the doors and shouted to the bickering customers;
“Welcome to Costco. Make it quick folks. We’re closing in a half hour.”
Lines began at the registers and dipped back towards the back of the warehouse. Sample booths were out of samples. The food court was out of food. The clothing department didn’t even have jackets. Families chattered to each other nervously and skittered through the remaining goods like ants over a rotting carcass.
At that moment, I finally began to grasp the seriousness of this storm.
I caught a plain dressed guy sifting through expiration dates in the bread aisle. He seemed normal enough, so when we crossed paths by the quesadilla wraps, I asked how much snow we were expected to get.
He stared at me incredulously.
“Didn’t you catch the news this morning? They’ve been watching this damn thing all night. We only came here because my son is Diabetic,” he paused, caught his breath, and examined my blank reaction.
I said nothing.
“Seriously? They’re saying it’s going to be Biblical, man, worse than they’ve ever seen around here. Something about a convergence of three cold fronts, the Perfect Storm, you know what they say… it’s going to be bad,”
A woman called out from over by the cherries.
“Marcus, we gotta go, somebody said there’s already three inches on the ground.”
People around us started to get a little nervous. A couple muttered –
“Is that true?”
“Three inches? I heard half a foot.”
I cut them off.
“Look, I just walked in the store, it can’t be that bad. Nothing but flurries right now.”
As if to contradict me directly, a meek male voice cackled over the loudspeaker.
“Folks… folks, it seems this storm is approaching quicker than we thought. There is approximately… a half foot of snow on the ground at the moment. The temperature has dropped to 14 degrees in the last hour. It is time for everyone to start making their way home.”
And all fragments of suburban nicety and decorum evaporated in seconds.
A stampede began somewhere near the registers. People pushed their carts to the exits without even paying. The workers tried to hold them off. But dozens of families slipped through the cracks and sprinted out into white wilderness behind them. Their voices called out to each other like the panicked victims of a horrible catastrophe. Children cried. Mothers screamed for their husbands to get the car. All of them did this without any proper understanding of what was actually going on.
They just… panicked. I still couldn’t see much outside. There were just so many people. I laughed as the whirlwind of nervous bodies gathered around me.
“Unbelievable. I was just out there five minutes ago…”
I shouted the sentiment to Marcus and his family, but the stampede was upon us too soon. He grabbed one of his children and moved his family towards the back.
“Get the girls!” he shouted to his wife. “Let these animals leave!”
And so we did.
People poured through the store and out the doors in droves. They knocked over plastic envelopes and cardboard boxes on the way. But nobody cared. They just ran.
Finally, after about fifteen minutes of struggle, hundreds of people exited the store into the white wilderness. At that point, I could finally see behind them.
There was a foot of snow on the ground.
I quickly made my way through the aisles to grab a couple of essentials. I rushed my cart up to the counter as the last few employees attempted to mop up the mess of the stampede. I asked who I could pay for my stuff. But a friendly looking girl with a ponytail and snow covered jacket quickly shook her head.
“Just go. Go. If you can’t get out… we’ll still be here.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Seriously,” she mumbled. “Go look outside.”
I nodded and rerouted towards the exit. I looked for a security guard who might stop me and ask for a receipt. But there was nobody there. The entrance that appeared to be pushing capacity limits only a half hour ago was empty.
And the gate was closed.
“Shit… hello? Hello? I need to get out of here!”
I pushed my cart to the end of a long hallway and finally found a door propped towards the end. Wind blew it so aggressively I thought it might fall of the hinges. I sprinted through the exit, but my cart got caught on something outside. I flipped over the cart in a dramatic tumble that left me face first in the snow.
That fucking hurt.
A chorus of voices called out through the storm from somewhere in the parking lot.
“Get the in the car! Get in the car!” somebody screamed.
“What the hell is that?” said someone else.
“GET IN THE CAR,” shouted the first voice.
A flash of boxed yellow opened up in between the unyielding sheets of drifting white. An older man ran towards the passenger door of the enveloped Ford and launched himself inside.
“Go, go, go, it’s coming.”
I got up and scanned my surroundings while trying to cover my eyes. My feet sunk into the snow that went well past my ankles and halfway up my legs.
The Ford skittered through the parking lot at a high speed. Their panic made my heart skip a beat and I couldn’t help but wonder why. It was only snow.
I got my answer a moment later.
The family car drifted its way past a row of trees on its way out of the parking lot. They skittered and nearly flipped a few times, and yet, it looked like they might make it. But just as they stopped to yield and turn right, something leaped from the tops of the trees and onto their car.
It looked a lot like a lion.
The teeth were the only thing that distinguished it’s appearance. Even with the shitty visibility, I could see… the beast’s incisors stretched well past its chin.
The animal slapped a massive paw against the windshield. Nothing happened. So it slapped at it few more times.When it broke, I could hear the family scream again.
It was all over in a matter of minutes.
The animal took the mother first.
The woman screamed for her husband to help her. But a massive claw cut through her neck and the next sentence began indecipherable. The father launched himself through the glass to try and fight it back. But he soon met a similar fate.
The creature took the children next.
I tried not to watch their tiny little snow coats covered in blood. I tried to think about saving them. But they were hundreds of feet away now. The snow stacked up to two feet, at least, and by the time I would have gotten there… they would have already been dead.
And so I closed the door like a coward. Their screams drifted over the sounds of the storm, but I locked both the handle and the deadlock. I pushed a row of carts in front of the door.
Then I walked back into the store.
January 12th, 11:35 AM.
“We heard screaming.“
“I heard screaming.“
“Was there an accident?“
“Is everyone okay?“
“My husband went out there. Did you see him? Did you see him?“
“Well don’t just stand there, asshole, we all heard a crash! People’s lives are on the line! Say something!“
The word vomit combination of questions, comments, and accusations came in like an avalanche the moment I rounded the door into the store.
Sixteen different people stared from various corners of the massive warehouse. They looked like the war torn survivors of some modern materialistic hell. One of them held a box of packaged peanuts like a weapon. Another was still trying to mop up the collapsed twenty four pack of Mountain Dews spraying down the main aisle.
None of them looked at all prepared for what I had to say next.
I could not possibly answer them all at once. I couldn’t even explain it to them if I tried. So, wordlessly, I gestured over my shoulder for the mob to follow as I turned around and headed back towards the door.
I pointed to endless white backdrop behind the massive metal door.
“Don’t go out there.“
Somebody laughed from the back. A few people muttered to each other. A particularly aggressive woman, whom I later learned to be Marian, pushed by me and tried to unlock the metal gate.
“No. You don’t know what’s out there. I’m not explaining it properly. Please.“
She looked at me with wild eagle eyes. Marian had a voice like a whip. She looked like the type to use her words like a weapon and make absolutely no apologies for it. She snapped her response back at me like I was another hapless victim at her assured Fortune 500.
“What? What is out there? Some snow, and my husband, who could be hurt. Get out of my way, idiot. Every minute matters in an accident.“
“Ma’am, please, believe me. You don’t understand. You cannot go outside right now. Wait for the authorities.“
“GET OUT OF MY WAY!“
I did everything I could to block the exit while the rest of the crowd looked on in stunned silence. Some of them believed me. Some of them told her to stop.
But none of them knew to block the other door.
I glanced at it for only a moment. But Marian followed my gaze. She must have noticed the row of grocery carts awkwardly blocking the only window of white light in the dark warehouse. I tried to stop her. I tried to catch her. The rest of the group did nothing but yell. Some said to let her go. Some said to hold her.
In the end, Marian moved the carts, and she went outside.
A group of people crowded followed her to the door and waited outside the small glass pane. One woman, a friend named Liz, tried to join Marian outside. But a few men blocked her way. I recognized one of them as Marcus, and thanked God momentarily that one sane person was still alive.
“NO! Block her! We barely got this door closed the first time.“
“God, she can’t even walk out there.“
“What do you reckon? Three feet, four?“
“I can’t even see anything. She’s out of my line of sight.“
“Marian! Are you okay?“
The group fought at the door for a little while. For a disturbing moment, it looked like Liz might win out. I couldn’t allow that to happen again. The friendly woman from the cash register, Tiffany, stood by my side and watched it all unfold. Sensing that I could no longer control the situation, I whispered to her –
“They don’t know what’s out there. No one can go out there.“
Tiffany judged me with a pair of trusting blue eyes. I tried to appear honest. I tried to appear normal. She didn’t know me. She could have assumed I was crazy. Most sane people would. Even still, at that moment, Tiffany put on her best outside voice and screamed at the top of her lungs.
The massive tone did not support her tiny frame, and she shook when she did it, but her endeavor probably saved a few lives.
“EVERYONE. ENOUGH. LISTEN.“
The entire group quieted down. The struggle at the door ceased. Marcus wordlessly pushed the lock back into place. Liz lifted her massive hands off his coat and backed off. Tiffany pointed without another word. Everyone in the entire store turned their attention to…
I caught my breath.
“Everyone. Stop. Please listen. Just… listen.“
As if in perfect response, an odd trilling sound escalated in volume outside. It was quiet at first. Barely audible above the wind. It sounded like a bird, maybe, or several birds; calling out to a mate in Spring. I know that sounds absurd in this setting. It certainly fucking felt that way.
Soon the trilling grew more excited, and anxious. It’s volume grew to an almost unignorable tone. I tried to shout to the survivors. But nobody could hear me.
And then something started to scratch.
The grating of bone against metal screeched like fingernails against a blackboard. People screamed and cried as they doubled over in pain and held their ears. Liz and Marcus collided into each other and fell to the ground. One simple sound turned the whole room to chaos.
Then, out of nowhere, a small hole popped in through the metal gate. For a moment, I was able to see the claws outside.
But only for a moment.
“Get away from the door,” I shouted. “EVERYONE, GET AWAY FROM THE DOOR!“
The fifteen remaining survivors suddenly stampeded in my direction. Turns out… they did not need much more motivation than that.
I turned on my heel and led the group back towards the registers as the chattering grew to an unbearable level. Screams sprinkled into the background. A large object careened against the metal gate and shook it violently as we sprinted past. People shouted to each other over the din as they ran for the safety of the store.
“They can’t get in.”
“God, I hope they can’t get in.”
“What the fuck IS that? What is it?“
“Get inside. Hide. Hide.“
A horrible ripping sound echoed in through the hole in the door.
Like the sensation of flesh being torn away from skin.
Something was feeding.
I was sure of it.
Tiffany fell down by the bread aisle and nearly passed out. Marcus and an older gentleman named Kyle dropped to their knees to help her. I passed by them and tried to get the remaining folks to slow down.
“Block the aisle! I shouted. “Quickly, block the aisle!”
Jake from Seafood quickly fell in line to help. We grabbed some bicycles and Ramen boxes to block off the entrances to our aisle. It was all we had close by. Nobody had seen the animals get inside, but still… I think it made us feel safer to be enclosed.
In the end, fifteen remaining survivors sat in the barricaded bread aisle; dumbfounded and defeated.
The chirping died down after a little while.
And then the questions began.
“Do you think Marian died out there?”
“Maybe she made it to the car.”
“I saw something big. In the window. Definitely something big.”
“I saw something too.”
“What was that sound, then? A snow drift? Something stuck against the wall?”
“Yes, John, a snow drift lifted itself up and slammed itself against the door. It must have made those fucking bird noises while it was at it.”
“A bird? You think? What kind of bird on the Jersey Shore…”
“What did you see?”
“Yes, you, wide eyes; what the fuck did you see out there?”
They all looked at me again.
The fucking messenger.
They looked like birds themselves; hungrily seeking out answers that they so desperately did not want to believe to be true. Their beady eyes focused on me like a fresh piece of meat to place their blame. I had to play along. I had to keep them away from the worst of the terror for as long as possible. I owed them that one final gift of ignorance.
Or so I thought.
“I don’t know what’s out there. I still don’t believe it myself. But IT has killed two people already. So there is only one thing we can do. Board the doors. Board every single entrance and block it with some boxes or shopping carts or whatever we can find. Make weapons. Find defensive positions. Nobody goes outside.”
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3 years ago
Inclement Weather, Large Animals, and Other Strange Happenings Outside a Costco in New Jersey. Part III.
“I saw something swimming next to me in the water. I don’t care if you believe me. I saw its eyes.“
-Tiffany from Front-End.
The snow fell for hours.
We couldn’t see the storm, anymore. The entrances and exits to Costco were blocked for safety reasons. But we could certainly hear it. The wind and weight of the white stuff sent creaks and groans throughout the metal beam in the warehouse. Each unhappy grunt from the building’s support sent a nervous rattle through our merry band of fifteen remaining survivors. Costco had been good to us. But if the heat cut, or the ceiling came down, we would soon be on our own.
A woman named Ellen held a bawling child and a judgmental gaze towards anyone who dared eye contact. After hours of silence, she broke the silence the void with a voice that sounded two seconds close to giving in altogether.
“Has anyone contacted the authorities?“
A few people grumbled their responses. The store manager, Kevin, spoke up the loudest.
“We tried an hour ago. No dice. Radio are down. Phones are down. I think we all know why. We can’t even see outside anymore. We’re lucky to have power.“
Ellen considered this for a moment.
“Okay. I think we’re all in agreement that we should not try to go outside,” Ellen moved to hush her sniffling toddler. “But we need to try and contact someone. A woman is dead, and if what that boy says about the accident is true…“
“It’s true,” I interjected angrily.
“…Then we should exhaust all our possibilities to let someone know what happened here.“
An elderly gentleman stood up from the floor and spoke in a confidently quaking tone.
“We could try the roof.“
Kevin moved to interject him while a few others shouted their agreement.
“Mitchell, come on, nobody is going outside. It’s too dangerous.“
He coughed a laugh.
“Boy, that roof is one hundred feet off the ground. Nothing would climb up there for no reason. Plus it’s probably snow covered.“
“Why go up there at all?” Liz asked. “We’re safe here.“
“Could see if police are on the roads,” Ellen offered. “Could see if the neighborhood behind us still has power… We’ll get a better view of things up there.“
“I also don’t like the way that ceiling is creaking,” Kevin mused. “If we could shovel some snow off… it would lessen the chance of it caving.”
“It’s going to be dark soon,” Tiffany murmured.
The group grew quiet. We all knew what that meant.
I stood up.
“Better do it now. I’ll go. Anyone coming with me?”
Not a soul volunteered. The dripping of water against the hull of our store reflected an embarrassing and awkward silence. I can’t help but think of it as shameful in retrospect. Naturally, Marcus’ family protested when he stood up.
“Daddy, no, please!”
But the bright, kind man of only thirty-five said nothing. He just dusted off his jeans and followed me on down the back hallway. I admired him for that.
And I still do. Even after everything.
We had to walk for a while before we found the staircase to the roof. Mitchell lead the way while Kevin and the rest stayed behind in the safety of our aisle fort. We took a few wrong turns here and there. At one point, poor old Mitch was sure he found it, but ‘it’ ended up being the bathroom. After a seemingly endless search, finally, we landed six feet in front of the freezing cold exit to the roof.
Mitchell snapped his fingers and turned to us like two new rookie employees.
“We keep a heater by the outside door. It’s a fire safety thing, or something. Kevin got dinged for it years ago with the town inspector. Been paranoid about it ever since. Anway, I thought, that heat should lessen the snow and ice enough to let you guys out.”
Marcus nodded, approached the door, and pushed with all of his might.
“It’s a pull, son,” he coughed and stepped back. “Good luck out there. I mean it.”
I laughed and pulled open the door.
A river of cold water entered the building.
“Shit, it must be melting!” I shouted while climbing over the ice blocks that led outside. “That heater still works.“
Marcus soon joined me. In an instant, we were over the frost covering the door entrance and into the freedom of open space on the roof. The dipping sun looked beautiful against a pristine blanket of white. I tried to run forward but my feet sank in the still deep snow.
I tripped and fell on my face. Just like Marian.
“We should be able to flag anyone down from here,” Marcus shouted. “We can even get some of this shit off the roof.”
He brandished a shovel over his head like a victory torch.
“We’re not out of the woods yet. Can’t even see our cars still,” I pointed to the parking lot and the location of the accident. “**Those people crashed over there,*”
I pointed again to where the highway should be.
“* And look, nobody on the roads, just like I thought.**”
Marcus nodded as an audible thud erupted behind our backs.
My new friend turned and sprinted towards the door.
“Mitchell, you motherfucker.” Marcus screamed. “I knew that dude was shady. Mitchell, open the fucking door. Open the FUCKING door.”
“Mitchell, what the fuck dude, there’s four feet of fucking snow out here. Let us in.”
“Is he really gonna…” I started.
“Yeah, he’s gonna. That dude is racist as shit. I saw him looking at me and muttering under his breath. I saw him look at my wife. He probably locked the door and ran off to go creep.”
He tried to catch his breath. Then, Marcus did something he would never live to regret.
He went to toss the shovel off the roof. Call it a release of pent of frustration, or a childish tantrum, or just a righteously pissed off guy frustrated with his newfound lack of options. Regardless, he caught himself before he did it. He had the maturity to realize it was stupid.
But when he went to throw, Marcus slipped on the slick ice, and lost his footing. The snow on the ground was still stacked up so high that it covered the safety railings.
He went over the edge quicker than you would think.
I ran over and screamed bloody murder. I expected to find my friend dead when I looked over the ledge. Instead I saw the dumbass sitting on his butt looking back up at me.
“One hundred feet my ass.”
I laughed. It was so stupid and soul-crushing… you had to just laugh.
“*How we gonna get you back up?” I shouted back down. “Can you make it to the entrance?”
“I can try. But they’re not going to let me in,” he replied.
“We’ll make them.”
I tried to find a safer way to jump down and meet him. I knew the risks in that decision. I knew what was out there. But I was damned if I was going to let my only friend become just another victim. I was damned if I was going to watch another person die.
Marcus called back up to me.
“Do you hear that? In the woods…”
I did hear it.
Trees and branches gave way somewhere in the forest to our right. I could see over them, from my position, but I did not want to believe what I saw. I did not have the courage to even shout a warning to Marcus. I knew he didn’t stand a chance. But when he looked up at me and called out… I think he understood.
So did the bear.
It never really slowed down after breaking through the treeline. Marcus tried to run away. Natural instinct says to run when a large animal approaches. Some people even say to run when faced with a brown bear. They usually only want to defend their territory.
But this was no ordinary brown bear.
On its hind legs, the creature stood at least five to six feet tall. I could tell because it looked taller than Marcus, even from a distance. Both my friend and the bear struggled through the tall snow. For a sickeningly sweet moment, it looked like he might get away. But just as Marcus reached the snow covered front door, he fell to his feet.
The rest is history.
I watched as the bear ripped limbs and pounds of flesh from Marcus’ still shaking frame. He screamed for a while. He begged for his wife, or his babies, and then his mom, and his dad. All of the pride and courage that encapsulated his entire presence disappeared before my eyes. I watched it all while my addled mind tried to wrap itself around another poor person dying.
“There’s nothing I can do,” I muttered. “The bear will kill me too.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” I shouted. “The bear will kill me too.”
He could not hear me, of course, because his ears were being digested in the belly of the beast.
I was the coward. I knew it then. I know it now.
It was dark. So dark that it became difficult for my eyes to stay fixed to the rotting corpse of my friend.
But there was nothing else to watch.
The bear left and came back to pick at his remains. I could hear other animals approaching through the trees. Scavengers, likely, with hellish and demonic attributes all to their own. The bear roared them off in a sound so deafening it must have made the walls of Costco shake. Then it returned to causally ingesting the leg muscles of a good man.
It was cold.
So cold that the hopes of melting snow quickly evaporated into the set sun. An ominous awareness of death encompassed the parking lot and the lonely rooftop around me. The streetlights still stayed on, amazingly, and that part I could not figure out. Either Costco kept up an impeccable maintenance schedule or the power lines must be winter proofed exponentially.
The door was still locked.
I tried it a thousand times before the cold covered my hand so quickly that it actually hurt for my fingers to fight with the metal. And so I sat, frostbitten, freezing, and welcoming a quiet death that looked so much more peaceful than the horror that took place a few stories down below.
I could hear my heart slow down.
I could feel saliva freezing on my chin.
I could smell… nothing, now. Not for hours.
It would not be much longer, now.
First my extremities would go.
Then my heart.
The cold would encompass me and freeze my body in the lifelong beauty of a scared kid of twenty-five who didn’t want to die. And I was alright with that. At least, alright with the logic of it. It was certainly better than the thought of that fucking animal eating me alive.
But just as the hallows of my mind started to turn out the last few lights, and moments before the last few firing neurons said goodnight, a white window of hope appeared somewhere to my right. Footsteps crunched steadily over snow stacked several feet high.
A stranger appeared in front of my eyes. I do not know how or why. I suppose frostbite can do that to a guy.
He looked no older than forty five. He wore a short sleeve office shirt, clean jeans, with perfectly parted blonde hair, and a blue tie. He spoke with a southern drawl and a deep seeded boredom for the peril surrounding us in the night.
“Good evening. Get up. We don’t have time.”
“There is no God. There is no Devil. Not here. There’s me… and then there’s Him.“
Six thirty-five, P.M.
I couldn’t move.
The cold covered me in its entirety. My feet sat encapsulated in frozen blocks of ice and sheets of fresh snow. My eyes struggled to stay open as the lashes froze together in uncomfortable closeness. My hands slumped at the end of my arm like meaningless lumps while I debated my ability to use them at all. But still, my brain screamed in defiance, I needed to get up.
I knew I needed to get up.
Because everything about the stranger in front of me appeared fake.
I can’t explain it any other way. It was an instinctual reaction, beyond the obvious reasons. Every fiber in my being felt like he did not belong; on the roof of a Costco in the middle of a biblical storm, or even on this planet, for that matter. I felt ill in his presence. I wanted to hate him. I wanted to punch him. I wanted to vomit on him. I felt like one of those cows in a pen that can sense the other cow is sick. I wanted to get away from him more than anything in the world.
But I just couldn’t do it.
The man stared casually at the carnage fifty feet below. His beady little eyes darted excitedly towards between the bear, blood, and various pieces of tissue and limbs discarded along the way. That body used to be Marcus, my mind reflected lazily. That bloody corpse has a family inside.
When he spoke, the stranger chose his words carefully, and used them patiently. There was no rush to his tone. Like the way a teacher giving students instructions.
“You know bears can climb, boy? Even the big ones.”
I tried a laugh. The sound that came through sounded somewhere between a snort and a gasp as a fresh breeze of cold air stung my cheeks. The air felt colder as time moved on. I did not expect that to be the case.
“Do you understand me? If the animal is hungry enough, or angry enough, it will climb. You are not safe here. Can you confirm that you understand?“
The stranger approached me and pulled a flashlight from his pocket.
“**Dipshit… I know… I know that. We are locked out.*” I spit out through frostbitten lips. “Are you… are the police coming?”
“The police in this town are dead.” he replied quickly, simply, and without hesitation. “I believe everyone inside this town is dead. Save for you and your friends, minus one, I am all that is left.”
The bear grunted roared happily from down below our position. Could it see us? I knew nothing about bears, especially creatures this large, to suggest otherwise.
“What is your name?”
“What is it?”
“What, like… like Pontius Pilot?”
“Precisely. A Roman name. A good name.”
He smiled again. I hated that smile. It made my stomach turn.
He considered that for a moment.
“Pontius brought Order. I am Order.”
My back shifted uncomfortably against the slanted roof paneling. The feeling in my fingers began to drift away. My toes felt like they could be flicked off like tiny little detachable fruits. Time slipped away in quickening seconds while this shithead wasted it talking about Angels and Demons. I wanted to run. I wanted to get up and jump off into the bear pit, if it got me away from him, but my feet felt rooted to the ground.
“Well, Pontius, could you bring some order to the locked door?”
Pontius walked past me. He pulled a crowbar of some sort from a knapsack on his back. Then, with one swift motion, he brought it against the small glass pane.
The glass shattered easily in return.
I offered a hoarse cheer as he quickly returned to lift me up by the arms and into the entrance to the store. The warmth of fresh heat immediately washed over me. I could cry it felt so good.
“How are you not cold?” I asked, but my question was ignored. Pontius rushed over and shut the door just as warm water began to pelt my back. “Hey, man, who turned off the showers. I need that shit.”
Pontius snorted. The sound seemed just as foreign to him as it did to me five minutes before.
“The rain has come. It is not safe to go outside any longer.”
I haven’t moved.
Why haven’t I moved?
The objects around me came into focus as my tired eyes opened and adjusted to their warm colors. Small room. Heater in the corner. Electricity humming warmly behind my back. A light bulb drifting in and out of luminescence. And a hole poked through the space where the roof door window used to be.
Water in the corner.
A rush of liquid drifted in via a small crack in the bottom of the door frame, and through the hole that Pontius punched earlier. My still cold toes greeted the return of feeling as a river of warm water passed over then. My ears opened up to an endless dripping, leaking, and sapping that filled the building. Reality soon weighed in.
I got up and stared through what used to be the window. A fork of lightning snatched its way across the sky, and seconds later, rolling thunder dipped in and out volume menacingly. I could not see the snow, anymore, at least not all of it. An ocean of water covered the roof. Torrents fell from up above in unending sideways sheets. Gallons rushed effortlessly over the edge to mercilessly smack the pavement fifty feet below. The bear roared somewhere in the edges of the night.
The storm had changed. I could not have slept that long.
Instincts took over.
I knew my small room next to the roof could soon become a vacuum for the water. So I turned on my heel and sprinted. I found the hall that led me there. I found the turn to the familiar employee break room that we passed before. Then I opened a door, and suddenly, I was standing over the store again.
An ocean of consumer goods sat before me.
Soda cans and boxes of toilet paper drifted easily through the waves. The river had a current to it. Bikes and larger objects like couches were no match for the tide. They drifted with the other junk lazily through the aisles. I tried to measure the water below me in my mind. Three feet? Four? There must be a leak down there. Suddenly, I remembered the hole in the metal pull down door. Quietly, I began to accept the fact that my friends could have drowned.
“Matt!” a voice screamed to my right. “Get in here.”
A foreign shape pulled me by my collar and dragged me. I couldn’t see anything, anymore. Water poured in from over and behind me so feverishly that it became hard to stand or see at all. But the hint of a Jersey accent gave way to my trust. She sounded like home.
We entered a room.
A door slammed.
I pushed the matted hair out of my eyes to find fourteen survivors; wet, scared, and shaking to their bones.
Tiffany grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Listen to me. I don’t care if you believe me. But I saw something in the water. Outside… before we knew we had to climb. It was swimming beside me. I saw its eyes.”
“We’re not alone in this building. Not anymore. Something came inside.”
“All you need to do is walk into the light.“
Picture yourself in a room no larger than the average kitchen.
There are some lockers to the left. Plain white cabinets are catty cornered to the right. A shelf holds a container of coffee K-Cups, a black board lists a vacation schedule, and employee street clothes decorate the wet floor like some lost remnants of high school. The ceiling is a drop. It’s the type that hides all kinds of secrets just a few inches above the plaster. It’s leaking, now. Water covers the floor at about four inches deep, and that number is climbing fast.
A bulb flickers over your head.
It’s the only remaining source of light in the night.
Now, jam that room with more than a dozen sweating strangers, and pump them full of the anxiety of an impending unnatural disaster.
I had to say something to them.
The remaining survivors in the room stared at me like bloodthirsty hyenas. The questions they shouted sounded a lot like that too. I had been here before, only hours before, it was so easy to forget. It felt like a millennia.
“What happened to Marcus?” a familiar voice shouted from by the lockers.
“What happened to Mitchell?” someone else called back.
I couldn’t move my mouth to make the words his poor widow needed to hear. Instead, I just shook my head.
Marcus’ wife screamed so loud that I thought the glass might break.
It was enough to make the other people in the cramped room shudder and shift uncomfortably. Some actually tried to move away from her, like me with the mad cow, but there was just nowhere to go. That horrible, heart shattering, gob-smacking scream reached down into my insides. I quickly tried to explain myself in a heap of word vomit and broken sentences as water pounded the quickly growing puddles around us.
“Mitchell, he… he locked the door. He locked us out.” I sputtered as fast as possible. “Marcus, he… fell over the edge.“
The room fell silent save for the poor woman’s tears.
I tried to make her pain swift. Like taking off a band-aid, I told myself. Right?
“He’s dead. I’m sorry.“
A second chilling scream filled the room. Marcus’ children wrapped their arms around their sobbing mother’s legs and buried their heads in the folds of her dress. Thirteen disappointed faces stared back at me. I stared back, defiant, trying to defend myself against any further inquiries. Then I started to break down.
Tiffany appeared at my side again. She was drenched from head to toe, with a tie somehow managing to hold her long hair out of her eyes.
She looked beautiful, then.
“Where do we go?” she asked.
I shook my head again.
The children managed to fall asleep.
A few of us propped up an old table and laid them on it side by side. We wrapped our remaining dry jackets around them. The kids took to snoring soon after. They looked like five little pigs in a blanket by the end. I made the joke aloud… but nobody laughed.
There was more than a foot of water in the room, now. It wasn’t be safe for anybody to lie down on the floor. But Kevin did it anyway, and we didn’t stop him.
The rest of the adults also tried to close their eyes, in whatever way they could. A majority of them huddled in the corner together for warmth and leverage. Tiffany and I agreed to take the first watch. With the way the water was rising… none of us expected that to last long. We would need to have a plan. But everyone had been running around a fucking Costco for hours, fighting for their lives. They needed some rest.
When it seemed quiet enough that most folks were not listening, Tiffany sidled up beside me.
“What did you see?” she whispered.
“You tell me, and I’ll tell you.”
Jake, Ellen and Liz soon soon caught wind of our conversation and quietly shuffled over. The rest of the group stayed quiet. Nobody wanted to wake up the widow.
“The snow turned to rain a couple hours ago,” Tiffany murmured. “Kevin suggested we get to higher ground anyway. Plus, we wanted to find you guys. Two minutes later, the store got hit by a fuckin tsunami. It’s got to be a few feet deep down there now. I had to swim out. We got to the stairs just in time… all thirteen of us survived, thanks to Kevin.”
Liz and Ellen nodded enthusiastically while eyeing the exhausted middle-aged man lying just above the water.
“We think he’s okay,” Jake offered. “Just needs some sleep. We started on the morning shift together.”
I nodded. But something about the story didn’t fit.
“You said… thirteen?”
Jake hesitated this time.
“Yeah… we counted once we got in here, just to be sure. Why?”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit.
“We had sixteen before Marian went outside, including me. Then you lost her, me, Mitchell, and Marcus. Twelve. You should have had twelve.”
They all stared ahead stupidly.
“Do you see what I’m saying?” I whispered in a panic. “Where the fuck did you get another person?”
We all turned our attention to the pile of human bodies huddled together in the corner.
A few of them breathed steadily under the cover of garbage bags, spare clothes, and paper bags. Somebody snored by the lockers. The children stirred on the table beside them. But, underneath it all, a small sound stuck out.
The next few things happened quite suddenly.
Kevin slipped under the water. Jeff rushed over to help him. Marcus’ widow was the first one sleeping to open her eyes. She looked shocked at first. Like a proper lady who just sat on a piece of gum. When she screamed, again, I think most people just thought she was still upset about her husband. Nobody reacted in time.
Nobody noticed the red tint to the river forming around Kevin.
Nobody noticed the slight disturbances in the water.
Nobody noticed one of the children missing from the table.
But I did.
Just before it happened, the pieces of our situation started to slide into formation. I could feel a presence in the room with us. I could smell its rot. I could hear the horrible gnashing and biting growing louder. I could almost hear the tearing of flesh.
And when an avalanche of fresh water poured in through the air vents, I could see the creatures coming inside.
I wanted to save Kevin. I wanted to save everyone. I wanted to save myself, too. But I didn’t have time.
”Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which perceived him: and all kindreds of the Earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”
Ten o’clock, P.M.
Cue the hysteria.
Thick ribbons of dark red blood melded in with flood water. A dozen or more survivors struggled to stay afloat inside the cramped locker room. Some of them tried to swim away from the carnage, away from the creatures, but they didn’t get far. Kevin never made it back to the surface. The children never even had a chance to scream. The widow fought with three foot long leeches attached to her vocal chords, and I had to act. I had to act. I had to act.
I remembered that the pockmarked scaffolding outside our room provided some relief from the flood. If I opened the door, I thought, maybe we could evacuate the existing water in our room.
“We need to open the door!” I shouted breathlessly over my shoulder to anyone who would listen. “Somebody help me!”
But only Tiffany and Jake could follow. The three of us struggled with the jammed handle for a moment. The water made it almost impossible to open. Just as something slimy brushed against my leg, we pushed it free, and my plan worked in a beautifully chaotic fashion.
An avalanche of briny water, broken bodies, and enormous leeches flew out into the open scaffolding. I wrapped my hand onto the railing. I just had to hold on. I just had to hold on.
My fellow survivors did not die quietly.
Most of them slipped over the edge screaming. Some of them bumped me in the side on their way down. I know, for instance, that Ellen was still alive before the fall. Her panicked brown eyes reached out to me hopefully just before she lost her grip. I tried to reach my hand out to help. But I had to survive. I had to survive.
She dropped unceremoniously into the ocean of boxes below the scaffolding and landed with a sickening splash at the intersection of aisle six. She didn’t splash. She didn’t resurface. But another thick ribbon of blood confirmed my suspicion.
I did not see the children die. I thank God for that, and that alone, because Jake did.
Jake swore he still heard the children crying; well into the night.
One forty-five, A.M.
Three survivors sat on the scaffolding above Costco. We looked and felt like a trio of water logged rats. We were the hopeless remnants of a catastrophe.
The building appeared to be quiet.
There were still the usual sounds. Rainwater dripped in through the roof. The walls creaked uneasily. The power struggled for a little while longer, but the lights gave way sometime around midnight. It was dark, then, and then we could hear everything. Even the things we did not want to hear.
“What now?” Tiffany asked in between frightened sobs. “What in the frozen fucking Hell are we supposed to do now?”
I shrugged despondently and pulled my cell phone from the pocket. The slick black screen seemed foreign, like a remnant of some age where things still made sense. I clicked the home button. Amazingly, it worked.
“I’m going to write this down…” I started.
“You know what I think?” Jake interrupted. “I think they’re watching us. I think they’re judging us. I think you could type away on that cell phone all fucking night, kid, and it won’t make one lick of difference by morning. This is God’s doing.”
He spit lazily into the ocean below us. Then he tilted his head in the direction of the cross on my neck. I didn’t even realize I still had it on.
“You should know that, a good Catholic kid like you, God gets his due. God always gets his due.”
It was the first thing I typed.
“What do you mean by ‘they’?” Tiffany asked. She was crying, now, openly. Her sobs filled the void. “Why would God want to hurt us? Why would anyone want to hurt us? I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t want to die in there. I don’t want to die tonight. I’m a good person. I’m a good person. I’M A GOOD PERSON.”
Convulsions overtook her tiny little body as she shook in place. I wrapped my arms around around her shoulders and pulled her close. Her cries started to die down.
“Honestly, man. The way we treat this planet? We toss our shit in the rivers and our rivers in the shitters and then we wonder why islands are drowning. It’s past time God hits the reset button,” Jake laughed at his own stupid joke. “Past fucking time. But he still needs us, right? There’s no fucking GAME without player one and player two, right? You can’t continue!”
He slammed the scaffolding in anger.
“*Stop it, man, she’s had enough,” I snapped angrily.
“Just walk into the light,” Tiffany whispered low, so low, only I could hear. “Just walk into the light.”
I wanted to ask her what she meant. I wanted to ask what she knew about the light. But the scaffolding started to shake again. The three of us sat up violently and gripped the railing.
Somebody was walking.
“No, no, no,” I muttered as footsteps started to reverberate somewhere on the other end. “Please, God, no.”
We couldn’t see a thing. The entire warehouse remained without light. The scaffolding continued to shake for a few moments. Jake got to his feet and stood in front of us protectively.
The footsteps stopped. They paused a few yards into the black abyss ahead.
“Who’s there?” Jake asked. “Mitchell, if that’s you, you’re not fucking welcome here man. We know what you did. You’re an animal. Get the fuck away from us.”
“Mitchell, I’m serious, I’m… we’re armed.”
Jake turned back to me and shrugged. I started to say something back. But just as suddenly as they arrived, the footsteps turned into a sprint.
The scaffolding shook so severely that I had to hold Tiffany just to keep her from falling over the edge. Everything happened so suddenly. In seconds, the steps reached Jake. I wanted to get up to help him. But doing so would have assuredly sent Tiffany into the water. I could not see the shape in front of him. I could not see anything of the struggle that ensued.
But I could see the axe slip into his head.
Jake turned around to face us. I’ll never forget the dumbfounded expression on his face. Several inches of sharpened metal stuck out from a gaping wound right in his forehead. But the poor guy still managed to make his facial features appear surprised.
I mumbled something to him. I think I told him it would be okay. I didn’t know what the fuck to say. A moment later, the shape behind Jake pushed his body, and it slipped on the wet floor. He flipped over the four foot high railings and fell to his death in the warehouse below.
Mitchell appeared in front of our eyes.
And he laughed.
In spite of everything. In spite of the outright murder of my friends, in spite of the horrible depravity of the things he did, in spite of this absurd fucking storm that he could have caused…
That sick motherfucker laughed.
Anger bubbled inside of me like a virus. It was something about the tone of that laugh. The absolute lack of empathy set me on fire. Tiffany whispered something in my ear, but I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I could see the scaffolding start to slip and dip dangerously. But it didn’t register quite right. The only emotion that consumed me in that moment seemed to be my fury.
I launched myself at Mitchell like a lion.
In seconds, my hands were around his stubble stained neck, and my knees were up against his chest.
I slammed his head into the pockmarked floor over, and over, again.
Blood seeped out of his mouth like a leaky faucet. But the man just continued to laugh.
I punched him in the face. He was old. He withered easily to my blows. I broke his teeth, and then his nose, and I hit him until both of my own fists were bleeding.
But Mitchell just kept laughing.
“Good boy,” he croaked through a cracking voice box. “Good boy. You have become chaos.”
I delivered one more satisfying uppercut to Mitchell’s cheek bone and tossed him over the edge of the walkway like discarded trash. He landed with a very satisfying smack.
And then the scaffolding started to slip.
I heard Tiffany scream, one last time, right before she fell. I saw her hand find purchase on the railing while her body drifted like a rag-doll, twenty fight higher than the tallest aisle sign. That one moment of hope reinvigorated me. I rushed over to her, dove down, and reached out to grab the falling blonde; just like I had seen in all my favorite action scenes.
But our hands didn’t clasp perfectly. I didn’t pull her up into safety and save her life. Tiffany fell, from fifty feet above the ground, and landed on top of the aisle marker in Dairy.
She died instantly.
Alone in the darkness, the monsters will surely find me. And then they will see. I will make them see.
I wrote that down shortly before the sun rose on January 13th. I thought it might be my sign-off. The flood water receded slowly over the hours. I couldn’t see it from my spot on the remaining scaffolding, but I could hear it. The sensation seemed similar to someone pulling the plug at the bottom of a massive tub.
I wondered what horrors await once the water went away.
What could be left? Extreme heat? Desert like conditions and dried up milk cartons?
I knew I wanted to die. I welcomed the idea more than any other possibility. My feet dangled over the edge like a child on a swing set. I knew it could end with a jump. I just wanted to write it all down, first. I only wanted someone to see.
Quite suddenly, a voice cracked over the louder speaker. The man spoke with a patient Southern drawl. He paid no mind to my impending fate. He spoke as if there were an audience of one hundred shoppers listening.
“Thank you for coming to Costco. This has been a test of your Emergency Readiness. The simulation between Chaos and Order has now ended. The candidate has been recognized and recorded. We kindly ask all remaining customers to proceed into the light.”
I don’t know what happened next. I’ll never know, because I never wrote it down. Sometimes I remember being pushed. Sometimes I remember the fall. Sometimes I think it’s just imagined. Sometimes I don’t remember anything at all.
What I do know, is that I opened my eyes to a packed Costco, shortly before closing time.
Bright white light drifted in from the overhead fluorescence. The warm sounds of chattering voices and nervous laughter filled the warehouse. A man appeared in front of my eyes. He held a crying child with one hand and a package of cherries in the other.
“Seriously? They’re saying it’s going to be Biblical, man.”
I sprinted towards the door. I can’t explain my reaction, then, because I didn’t know what just happened. My memory of the past twenty four hours had been erased entirely. Even still, it was as though as fiber in my being told me to run. It was an instinctual response. Get to the door. Get to the car. Get home. Open your phone.
I sprinted towards the check-out line with groceries stuffed into my hands. I caught the familiar brunette with a ponytail at the checkout line. I thought I recognized the elderly man sweeping the floor, and the rude business woman yapping on her phone, but that was a faint feeling. I took heed of the store manager telling me to slow it down. I only wanted to make it into the light.
But just before I walked out the doors into the white wilderness and packed parking lot in front of me, a man grabbed my arm.
He looked no older than forty-five. He wore a short-sleeved office shirt, which seemed strange in this weather, with perfect blonde hair parted down the middle. He held a stack of envelopes, and he eagerly stuffed one of them into my hand. When he spoke, it was with a slow, southern drawl, and a timid tone I just couldn’t place at the time.
“Congratulations, Sir. Hath made us Kings and priests,“
“Revelations, right? Congratulations on what?“
He smiled back.
“Stay safe. This next storm could be the last. The Good Lord may hit reset. But He will always need Player 1 and Player 2 to continue.”
I thanked the crazy guy, took his paper, and drove home.
There I found twenty new notes and voice messages on my phone.
February 5th, 2019.
This weekend’s forecast calls for snow.