Manuel hated his foraging trips.
The actual breaking into stores carried excitement, but he encountered rotting corpses, snarling dogs, and once, a black bear.
He drove down the wide Inkster Boulevard on the northern outskirts of Winnipeg having raided the outermost stores earlier, avoiding the dangers of the city centre. The Chevy truck held all the essential burglary tools and a shotgun.
He drew into the parking lot of a Mac’s Superstore where a dozen parked vehicles gathered dust, guano, and moss. He didn’t clean his own: mud was the in colour. He shouldered two backpacks and carried the shotgun.
The automatic sliding doors had been forced, but he preferred a delivery entrance, make one if necessary, and keep the front for emergencies. He leant against the doorway holding his nose and with eyes smarting. It could be bodies, freezer food, worse. He could find another store, but he shouldn’t let his offended olfactory sense interfere.
Trying to breathe through a forced smile to counteract a gag reflex, he ventured to the edge of steps leading down into the store. Skylights and the doors let in sufficient sunlight to illuminate the stacks near the front entrance. Flies flitted around in the crepuscular light beams. He could make out the avoidance zones: butchery, fruit, and the bakery. He should have added alcohol to the prohibited list, but man cannot live on baked beans alone.
He listened. A bird flapped a blind near a high window. He headed down to find tinned food.
“Aargh, what...?” Water. He sloshed over to the canned meat. Empty. Cursing, he splashed around to grocery. Good, there were cans–extra hot curry. He shuddered but put them in a backpack along with a jar of pickled eggs.
Behind him, a man’s voice said, “What the hell are you doing in our store?”
Manuel fingered his shotgun while saying, “No harm intended. It looks like—”
“Leave your weapon alone and turn round.”
“—you’ve already taken most…” Manuel fell silent when he saw three silhouettes in the front doorway. Was this his last and most ignominious hour? Up to his ankles in filthy water, his nose so pinched it wouldn’t be able to open for days, and a miserable failure at snaffling more than a drunk’s supper. He couldn’t see if they had a weapon. Hey, they wouldn’t see him clearly either. The speaker had bluffed. Maybe a cheery greeting would stave off violence.
“My name is Manuel.”
The man in the middle spoke with a Southern accent. “This is our store.”
“’Course it is. Hey, I only have four cans and a jar.”
“Don’t matter none. You shouldn’t be in here.”
“Nah,” said the friend on his right.
They would have suffered the ARIA as he had, endured the headaches and amnesia. He’d bluff them.
“I have stuff you might want.”
“Can I come up?”
Manuel worried about his weapon. Was he their prisoner, or, if unarmed, were they his?
They grinned crooked teeth at Manuel. His shotgun remained slung around his back, but they should be able to tell he had one from the ammunition belt. He could see now that they were in their middle thirties. Maybe they’d escaped ARIA by being on a prairie farm. He stifled a laugh at their dungarees and hillbilly shirts.
“Where is it?” said the tallest one, who spoke and thought for the others.
Manuel offered them the jar of pickled eggs.
“Foul, no, they should be fi—ah, you said fowl, hens. Right, how about these?”
The cans of curried vegetables didn’t broaden their grins.
“You caught me too early.” He laughed, but they stopped grinning.
“You eat it.”
Manuel couldn’t tell if that was a command or a thanks-
“We got grub if you want.”
Ah, they saw him as a fellow victim. “Okay. Is it far?”
“Not in your pickup it ain’t.”
And he thought the camouflage was clever. “All right, but I’m driving. My name is Manuel, what’s yours?” He’d been directed towards the centre of Winnipeg.
“Chilton.” He held his right hand across to Manuel, who risked a quick shake, grabbed the wheel again to correct the vehicle after a tyre met a wayward trashcan.
“Hi, Chilton, good name. Have any of your group worked with the Zadokians?”
“The aliens are from the planet Zadok. Did you work in the domes?” It was like climbing a down escalator.
“Those two idjits did. Had a calling. I woke up to an empty house. They came back at night crying.”
“What do you do for leisure these days, Chilton?”
“Ha ha, very funny. Oh, you’re not joking.”