Overpopulation can be a terrible burden for the living. Crowded living conditions usually mean trouble. Higher crime rates. Increased agitation. Such a difficult situation can often lead to violence.
Maybe even murder.
Vernon checked his watch. Half past six o’clock on a Thursday evening. If only it were Friday. Friday at this time he would be home. And he would see no people all weekend. This was the way he preferred it. His job as manager of the department store only spelled interactions with people. People and people and more people. Rude people and stupid people and people with little to no hygiene. Disgusting people. People who should never leave home but for some reason these were always the ones who did leave their homes. Their presence was not a good idea for sharing. Yet in they came. Day in and miserable day out. Vernon needed a break. This line was not helping.
For dinner he planned on spaghetti, but at the last minute he realized he had no pasta. So he dashed in quickly to the little dump on the corner to acquire his missing ingredient. In less than a minute he grabbed his pasta and headed for the check out. But then it hit him.
The place had one cashier on duty but two registers as always. And the line was dreadful. Vernon did a head count. Fourteen other souls waited to hand their money over to the cashier for their purchases. Tall people and short people and thin people and frail people and plump people and old people and sick people and ugh. Just people. Vernon took three deep breaths as he contemplated the job before him. He dealt with people all day at his job but the store paid him for that. Much easier to stand them when financial compensation was provided. But now here he stood facing the cold reality that he would endure the presence of these beings while giving his money away. Just for one measly package of pasta. A little over a dollar. He wiped his sweaty palms on his khaki pants and headed to the back of the line.
Standing fifteen feet from the register, he looked to the right. Nothing new there. He looked to his left. Nope. Same old shelves of goods he saw every time he came in this place. For the past two weeks he had managed to get what he needed at the store he worked at for a discount, but every now and then his memory failed him and he had to grab something small quickly on his way home since he lived just shy of forty miles from his workplace. He would move closer but then he would be in the congested city. He could not stand to even consider that. Philadelphia had a lot to offer in the way of entertainment which Vernon enjoyed earlier in life, but not anymore.
The divorce changed that.
The divorce changed many things.
Now he called Chester, Pennsylvania home. Much smaller and much quieter. Yet this damn store always appeared full. No matter where he went, the two legged scrambled brain mammals stood in his way. Standing in line. Taking up space. To just get away from them all. Become some hermit like that Unabomber. Of course he wouldn’t send any bombs to anybody. He just wanted to be away from people. Vernon had no ill intentions toward them. He told himself time and again he would get through this line. He would make his purchases and head on home as always. Simple in and out with the item he needed. Today it was pasta and tonight he would have a nice quiet dinner.
He checked the line ahead.
Thirteen more to go.
And thirteen individual customers.
Vernon switched the pasta package from his right hand to his left. He wiped the sweaty right palm on his pants. Then he returned the package to his right hand and wiped the left hand on his pants. Peering up ahead, he could see the cashier studying a coupon. Studying it as if she had never seen that type of coupon before. Vernon wiped the first bead of sweat from his forehead. He told himself again that he was going to get through this. No big deal. Just a few minutes of torture before he could retire to his home and enjoy his spaghetti. Maybe he could talk to his kids on the phone. But not the ex-wife. Just the kids. Sometimes she would let them answer when he called. He hoped tonight would be one of those times. He missed them terribly. He didn’t remember having trouble standing in lines before the divorce. He just needed to hear their little voices.
Looking ahead, Vernon saw the cashier finally checking the woman out. She finally figured out the coupon. Now down to twelve. Surprisingly this one went quickly. A small timid man who probably felt the same as himself. Just get what you need and get the hell out. Then came number eleven.
“Long line. Huh?”
Vernon nearly jumped. The man had appeared behind him out of nowhere like some ghost. He always paid attention to his surroundings but somehow this man shuffling up behind him did not alert him in any way. He turned back to the man.
“Boy, people. Huh? Just can’t get away from them.”
Vernon nodded. He then took into account what the man actually said. He turned to get a better look at this man who suddenly became more interesting.
“You sure can’t.”
The man stood the same height as Vernon around six feet. His black hair was trimmed short almost to the scalp and his skin was eggshell white. He wore a plain black T-shirt, camouflage Army style pants and muddy cowboy boots.
“I’ve lived in Philly my whole life but I had to move out here. Couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Ah, listen. Me, too. I work in North Philly but people are everywhere up there. Just can’t handle it.”
Vernon looked ahead. He did a head count. Down to ten now.
“I’d like to have me a cabin way out somewhere. Just retire and stay there. Smoke a pipe or some shit. You know?”
“I’m with you there, man.”
“I mean people are people. But you know. Doesn’t mean we all got to be a people person.”
“I deal with them all day.”
Only three ahead.
“My job’s not so bad. I’m a recruiter, but sometimes they get to me. Anybody can be worn down.”
Vernon went through the check-out, nodded to the man and headed outside. He walked to his black Explorer, opened the door and tossed the pasta on the seat. As he climbed inside he noticed the man in the camouflage pants climbing into a red jeep parked a few spaces down. The man waved to him as if they were old friends. Vernon smiled and nodded to him as he drove toward home and his spaghetti dinner.
Vernon belched so loud he thought he ruptured something internally. Leaning back in his chair he patted his belly. The spaghetti hit the spot just right tonight. He checked his watch. Half past eight. The children would be in bed soon. He turned the volume down on his TV and dialed his ex-wife’s number on his cell phone. Seven rings later, the voicemail took over. He felt a pang of disappointment sweep through him as he laid the phone down. He yawned into his hand and closed his eyes.
He thought about the masses out there waiting to get at him again tomorrow. They would roll in with their problems and worries and headaches and throw them all at his feet. He didn’t sleep too much anymore, but felt like maybe he could shut it all out over the weekend. He cannot be sure whether or not he was sleeping when he heard the front door kicked in.
At the clatter he rose up from his chair but he was too late.
“Give me all the money in the house and don’t fuck around.”
Vernon couldn’t believe it. The man from the store. A black mask covered his face and he no longer wore the camouflage pants or the cowboy boots but it had to be him! The voice was too similar and the height and build were the same.
Oddly enough the thief did not raise his voice. Very even tones. Generally Vernon knew these types raised their voices to scare the intended victims. Only this guy was like a snake hissing at him.
Vernon complied. He made his way with his hands raised to his wallet on the coffee table. He extracted the cash and handed it over. Two hundred dollars and then some. The thief took it from him. In that one instant, he thought maybe he could grab hold of the thief’s wrist and wrestle the shotgun away from him, but a shotgun doesn’t wound. It kills. So he handed the money over and took two steps back.
“I have some spare change in my car.”
The thief pointed his shotgun toward the TV.
“Pick it up and bring it outside.”
“I will kill you.”
Vernon looked the thief in the eye.
He meant it.
Vernon un-plugged the TV and heaved it up in his arms. He made his way through the house and down to the thief’s car. It was a jeep, but not red. Did the guy have it painted? No. There wasn’t enough time for that. The thief opened the back hatch and Vernon slid it inside. The thief ushered him back and closed the hatch. He turned to see a car moving down the street.
Vernon could not be sure how it even happened. One swift right handed punch to the thief’s jaw took him down. Out. The thief lay on the driveway while Vernon now held his own shotgun pointed downward at him. Vernon nudged the thief’s foot, but he wasn’t moving. Vernon headed inside to call the police.
At eleven o’clock it was all over. Vernon had called the police and had explained everything. The local sheriff did not require him to go down to headquarters. He said the evidence was very conclusive and the thief was a two-time loser. Vernon nodded to the man and felt a great feeling wash over him. Lots of people would be walking the streets but this guy no longer would be. Having seen the man without his mask he did not believe it was the man from the store but it did look a lot like him.
When he returned inside, he found a missed call from his ex-wife. He called her back and as usual she was a pain in the ass, but once he explained how he’d just been nearly robbed she changed gears. She even got the kids out of bed to say goodnight to their father. He told them both he missed them and to be nice to their mother. They sent him kissy sounds over the phone and hung up.
Just as he climbed into bed, his cell phone rang again. He did not recognize the number.
“Well done, man.”
“What? Who is this?”
“Your new friend you made. He’s my brother.”
Vernon leaned up in bed.
“You’re the man from the store.”
“You see, you took care of my problem. With him in the can I don’t have to keep him up anymore. I can leave this city for good.”
“You sent him here?”
“I knew you were capable.”
“Wait a minute. What if he-
“Don’t worry. You won’t have to be around people for a long time, my friend.”
The murder of Vernon’s district manager sent chills through him. He was questioned but loving his new job, he never mentioned the man from the store.
Anthony David Mitchell is a crime fiction writer who lives in Jackson, TN. He has three published short stories and currently has a novel manuscript in the works for publication.