Loot and Boot
After barely an hour, it was turning out to be an agonising shift. SupaMart was always a ghost town on Sundays and the radio played cheesy power ballads just loud enough to keep me from blocking them out. The aircon was still broken, so my uniform clung to me in all the wrong places. My bra and singlet were saturated with sweat and it was starting to show on my shirt. I was restocking the shelves in the toiletry aisle: liquid soaps, toothbrushes, toothpastes, moisturisers, dental floss, shampoos, and conditioners. Luxury items, according to the Doomsdayers, though Woodrow preferred calling them the leave-behinds. He once told me people would make for the canned goods, then the condoms and the pill, as if this were all a joke, this nightmare.
Woodrow and some of the others were outside smoking and drinking. They didn't see the point in working hard anymore, and I didn’t blame them. Every night, week after week, they returned to the same lengthy discussion, predicting how and when shit would hit the fan again. Each of them had their theories about nuclear weaponry, citizen uprisings and mass invasions – even Ethan, who was never the type to speculate. For me, their discussions were all too much like Cluedo. Even if it was Colonel Mustard in the living room with the lead pipe, guessing right was beside the point. From what I’d read and, according to Woodrow, drone attacks were statistically most likely.
My hands were raw from tearing into cardboard boxes, so I took a break. I sucked at a thin cut along the tip of my index finger and checked my phone, scrolling through newsfeeds out of pure curiosity. There were more pictures and articles about drones, so I promptly put my phone away. More than anything, I hated that Woodrow was right. Still, it was safer at work, being inside and completing assigned tasks. Having an illusion of purpose kept me from thinking about it all.
I went outside to find the air no cooler. They were at it again, boasting their dreadful predictions by the half-empty parking lot. Clarissa was ahead of us, bickering on her phone with her boyfriend.
‘All the buildings will be like pancakes this time next week,’ said Woodrow. ‘The Sanctuary, NetWorth, 1Energy, the watchtowers. All the hotels too.’
I manoeuvred between Woodrow and Kalo, who offered me a lighter and a cigarette from a red paper carton. I declined with a nod and a smile.
‘Want to place a bet? I say it all starts before the weekend,’ said Kalo.
Woodrow swigged on a bottle in a brown paper bag and glanced at me. His wrinkled shirt was unbuttoned halfway down, the sleeves rolled up high.
‘What do you think, Yu?’
‘I'd prefer tonight. Bring it on,’ I said, breathing in the stale smoke.
‘Here's to tonight, then,’ said Ethan.
He shook his long mousy hair and downed a gulp from his drink.
‘Won’t be long now,’ Woodrow said.
‘That’s what you said last time,’ I said.
The four of us shared a chuckle. Kalo opened a faded gold tin, took out a joint, and lit it. I looked out at the city. There was a low hum in the air and everything shone in an amber haze. Neons and Xtra-Brightlights illuminated the derelict streets. I asked Woodrow about his plans to steer the conversation in a new direction.
‘What? After the city's in ruins, you mean?’ He gave me a cheeky grin only because the others were there.
‘Yes, after. If there is an after.’
‘I'm going on a drug binge until I die,’ Woodrow said. ‘Only the good stuff: Rapture, Joy 2.0, and you're all free to join me.’
Our manager, I thought.
‘Wish I could,’ I said.
‘Me too,’ Ethan said.
‘Nothing's stopping either of you.’
Woodrow’s tone turned serious and he straightened up. It wouldn’t be long before he’d go into full lecture mode, reminding us of our ultimate freedom by flaunting how he lived only for himself. According to him, I was too tethered to family to be rational, too sensitive to survive on my own.
‘You'll probably be blown to pieces anyway. Surprised it didn’t happen last time,’ said Kalo.
He blew an effortless round of smoke rings, which rose and clung to the balmy air around us.
‘Or the time before that,’ I said.
‘So, are you implying that I should do it while I still have time?’ said Woodrow through his sniggering.
Ethan stepped forward with his eyes squinted, trying to make out something in the distance. I caught on quick and saw in the parking lot a band of figures enclosing us. Shadows, dressed all in black. My whole body tensed. I tried to act natural but couldn’t speak. The Shadows passed none-the-wiser Clarissa who concentrated on the ground as she carried on blaring. I breathed in as the debilitating onset of panic started and hoped we looked like loiterers despite our matching periwinkle shirts and slacks. The Shadows shot past us and burst into SupaMart. Woodrow shrugged. Kalo finished the joint off like it was nothing. I was overcome with a wave of gratitude for their presence, taking solace in having company for most of my journey home whether I wanted it or not.
‘It was bound to happen,’ Woodrow whispered.
A clamour of raised voices came from inside. We watched through the front window as the Shadows filled bags and sacks until they were bursting with packets, boxes, bottles and cans. It seemed ordinary customers were catching on, filling their trolleys and darting away with them, as if time was gaining on them all. Shadows charged out of the store as others went in, carrying batteries, garden tools and medicines by the armful.
‘Shouldn't we do something?’ said Ethan.
‘If you have to ask, then I think the answer's no. Let them at it,’ said Woodrow.
‘We should all take advantage of this situation,’ said Kalo.
‘A loot and boot,’ I said, feeling proud of myself.
Woodrow smirked. ‘I think we can safely say our work here is done. It’s time to cash in.’
I followed them inside, dodging the influx of looters. Rosemary and Justine were still on the tills, caught up in shock. Justine had her phone pressed to her ear, but her lips weren’t moving. The robbers had taken to the canned goods, as Woodrow predicted. Lentils, beans, peas, and tomatoes disappeared out of the store. Hundreds of dollars’ worth, months' supplies of food.
We slipped to the back office and grabbed our bags from our lockers. Adrenaline was coursing through me. My heart was thudding. With their bags on, Ethan and Woodrow broke into a dash, disappearing down the hardware aisle. It was utter chaos. I jogged to the remains of the non-perishables, opened my backpack wide, and filled it with tuna, salmon, sardines, chickpeas and three cans of leftover yellow lentils. A glimmer of gold on the floor caught my eye. A tiny heart-shaped locket, its tangled chain coiled up around it.
‘Yu!’ Woodrow was standing at the aisle's end, his bag full with tools and batteries. ‘We have to hurry. Claude's on his way!’
I scooped the locket into my bag, stood, and heaved my backpack on my back. It was bulky, but manageable. I held the straps around my chest and marched behind Woodrow to the confectionary and chips. I swiped packets and shoved them into my bag and under my clothes until I looked puffy and bloated.
‘Good idea,’ he said, piling chocolates into his pockets.
Our final stop was the toiletry aisle, where my loading trolley was left abandoned. Woodrow emptied a large cardboard box of toothpastes onto the floor and filled it with soaps, sunscreen, razors and condoms. I rolled my eyes and followed suit and filled a box with sunblock and razors, plus some tampons, pads and eco-friendly soaps and shampoos. (Green products were expensive, after all).
Through the sliding glass door, I saw Ethan and Kalo waiting outside, turning their heads skittishly. More looters piled inside, scrambling around Woodrow and I to whatever they could find. Like two statues, Rosemary and Justine remained at the counters, tethered in place.
‘Come on,’ I called to them. ‘This isn't some kind of drill.’
‘This is the big one, girls. The grand finale,’ Woodrow said.
I cringed. They weren't my friends, but they weren't strangers. Rosemary scowled at me as she always did. She was too by-the-books, but Justine was twitching with nervous energy, scratching her freckled arms. I could tell she was pondering an escape, eyes wide.
‘Well, are you getting out of here?’ I asked.
Both of them remained in their fixed positions, saying nothing. Woodrow moved for the door, but I raised my eyebrows at Justine as robbers brushed past me.
‘We tried,’ Woodrow called out. ‘Bet you Claude got into their heads.’
I joined him, Kalo and Ethan outside. My finger was bleeding again, so I licked the blood leaking from it. More Shadows and looters bolted along the path toward the door, jamming trolleys into each other and shouting.
‘We lost Clarissa,’ Kalo said. ‘She was just here.’
I scoped the car park, between all the vans and cars and behind the rusted dumpsters. Cars hooned in and out, their engines rumbling so loud my gut lurched and burned.
‘Think she went home?’ I asked.
Kalo lifted his dark green hood over his dreads. I could tell he was anxious to leave because he wasn’t looking any of us in the eye.
‘I'm sure she's fine, wherever she is,’ he said.
‘It's not like her to just disappear mid-shift,’ I said.
‘Aren't we about to do the same?’ said Woodrow. ‘It’s every man for himself, now.’
‘She must’ve gone home,’ Ethan said. ‘Don’t worry, Yu.’
Ethan, so absorbed in the looting, hadn’t even heard me. We followed the path across the car park until the cardboard box Woodrow was holding dropped from his chest to his waist. His face turned white as paper.
‘Shit. It’s Claude,’ he said.
Claude's sleek red car, low to the ground, zipped into the car park and idled some metres from us. The driver door hurled open wide and Claude emerged wearing his leather trench coat and boots. He yanked off his square sunglasses and made toward us in an infuriated march, shouting rounds of expletives. I couldn’t blame him. He was being robbed blind and life was crumbling. Following Woodrow’s lead, I ran beside Kalo along into the confining shade of a nearby alleyway. Claude’s wrathful expression was imprinted in my mind, a beast from some horror story.
‘Get back here now, you thieves! I'll make you all pay for everything.’
Woodrow cackled as we dashed deeper into the darkness like a herd of antelope from a lion, pushing our limbs to full stretch. I increased my pace until I matched Woodrow stride for stride and gave a wry smile, watching a cigarette fall from his lips onto the pavement. Woodrow grinned at me, ruddy and puffing. Stopping was the last thing I wanted to do, but we did. I felt weightless, empty somehow once we were still. The cigarette carton made its way around. I saw Woodrow staring through the tarry billows of smoke when it came into my hands. Up ahead, tram tracks ran through six scummy lanes of asphalt, giving way to a sprawling spread of washed-out buildings and blinking white lights. Skyscrapers with tinted windows and tapered points loomed behind the silhouettes of cranes. The smoke’s biting reek nagged at me, but I kept a firm grasp on the carton. I tried imagining what it would look all like in a week and came up with nothing.