Gabby managed to squeeze her vehicle into one of the few empty slots in a colony of rubber and metal. Her phone chimed, and she picked it up to read the text from Julia.
Julia: Can you grab a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon?
Gabby: It’s already on the list.
Julia: Aren’t you sweet?
Gabby: Anything for my dry, Mrs. Wine-o!
Julia: Mrs. Wine-o needs Mrs. Cheesy home. FYI I made chicken just how you love it, overcooked. You’re welcome :)
Gabby crossed the scorching black asphalt, her hand gliding over her face to mask the infectious effect Julia had on her. Tossing her black curls over her shoulder, she entered the lively supermarket with its bright white sign that proudly displayed "OAK MART." Instead of opting for a spacious cart, she secured a red basket around her forearm as a reminder. Gabby’s senses were teased by the brimming containers of ripe fruits, the fresh bakery, and the sizzling delicatessen. Walking down the pristine white tiled floors, she revered the wide array of eye-catching products. She carefully perused each aisle, swiftly grabbing items along the way. Finally, she arrived at the alcoholic beverage section, only to realize that there was very little space left in her basket for what she had come for.
"I see we both have the same idea of how to spend our Friday night, " chuckled the wizened man with weathered skin on the sides of his caramel-colored eyes. He playfully pushed his overfilled cart over to her. He sported tan slacks that could most likely maintain their form without any support.
"It sure seems that way, Henry! I think Julia lets me think it’s my idea. That’s why I'm always stuck doing the shopping. " She picked up the smooth, green bottle and tried to shove it into the clutter of her spoils.
Henry laughed, saying, "Come to think of it, I think Deb does the same to me. Then again, I used that same strategy to get Deb to marry me! Years later, she’s still stuck with me."
"Henry, you’re making the rosé blush and putting the dessert wines to shame. How is Deb?" The question came tumbling out of Gabby's lips, and she immediately cut herself off while she fidgeted with the wine in her hand.
"Deb is doing better! She is so much better that she insisted on celebrating her recovery tonight! If you and your fiancé have the time anytime soon, please stop by, and say hello! It would make her day to see you two again." Henry’s jubilations made the soft spot Gabby had for the man melt.
"We would love that! You’ve made my night with that amazing news, and I’m sure Julia will feel the same." Gabby glanced down at her phone to see another notification from her fiancé, "Henry, I hate to cut this short, but I have to get going. Julia attempted to make dinner tonight and is waiting for her wine so she can bear to eat it. I’ll see you at work tomorrow." Gabby let out a dramatic sigh, prompting Henry to laugh. He then patted her on the shoulder and wished her well. Gabby proceeded to carry her heavy basket to the registers located up front.
As she waited, Gabby examined the colorful magazines in the kiosks beside the registers. There were celebrity gossip magazines, magazines with the word disease in red block letters, cooking magazines, and seasonal magazines. She decided to brush up on her Hollywood lore, flipping through its pages and indulging herself in a little scandal.
"These things are always overblown." At the front of the register, a burly man engaged in conversation with the cashier, Hanna, who had bright red hair pulled back into a bun. Hanna smacked on her gum and scrutinized the man with a smile dripping in disgust. Gabby immediately recognized the familiar aversion on Hanna's face, as she had seen it countless times while teaching her fourth-period science class. Swerving herself away, Gabby abandoned the booklet she was holding and moved to another checkout lane. After her groceries were bagged, Gabby headed towards her sedan. As she packed away her food, she pulled out her phone to make sure she didn't miss any last-minute requests.
Julia: All this breast and I can’t get a text back.
Julia had sent a picture of the charred chicken breast neatly plated. Afflicted by Julia’s antics, Gabby hurried home.
The store parking lot was a monolayer of urgent pedestrians and tightly packed cars under a sky suffocated by gray clouds. Gabby looked for any vacancies. There were none. She gritted her teeth and circled back to the main road to find another parking spot. All the while, her phone was bombarded with messages from the school, her family, and Julia. It then began to blare with an emergency alert. The raucous uproar shattered her focus. Gabby slammed on her brakes to avoid running into a group of pedestrians that darted in front of her car. Enraged, Gabby blared her horn as she glared furiously at them. Their eyes did not deviate from their paths.
Scanning the streets, Gabby noticed other people were parking on the grass next to the lot. She whirled her wheel to turn onto the grassy knoll nearly sending the front half of her sedan into the ditch. Trembling, she closed the car door with a forceful swing, reached into her pocket, and donned her face mask as she walked to the convenience store. Store clerks shouted at pedestrians not to run into the store causing Gabby’s calves to tighten and ache with each step she took as she forced herself to obey the command.
The entrance was jam-packed with a crowd, resembling a confluence of people almost bursting through the sliding doors. Store staff made unsuccessful attempts to control the number of customers. Gabby frantically looked around for a shopping cart, but only found an empty space where they were usually kept. Spotting a maroon basket with a broken handle in the corner of the canopy area, Gabby quickly grabbed it and squeezed her way through the back of the crowd. As she made her way upstream, Gabby took out her phone to check the messages from Julia and others.
School Board MMS: School is closed until further notice. We will use this group chat to keep everyone up to date.
"One of Us, One of Us": Mom: Hope you kiddos and the grandkids are ok. Dad says hi.
Teddy: just picked up the kids from school. Scored a couple weeks off work.
Melissa: Everyone has the next "couple" weeks off, Ted. We’re OK, mom.
Julia: Please be careful. I give you permission to skip the wine aisle this time. I have to stay late at work. The nursing staff is short…
Managing to break through, Gabby entered a space that was a cavern of empty shelves. That was all she could see—shelves, more shelves, and the spaces between the shelves. Without a second thought, she surged through each aisle, grabbed what she could without a second glance, and nearly ran into a pair of khaki pants. Henry’s cart rattled with cans rolling inside it.
"Gabby! Would you look at this?! I’m so glad I didn’t bring Deb into this mess of nothing. At least you managed to find some good things, my stuff... well.” Henry scratched the back of his head with furrowed brows as they both looked down at his findings. He had six cans, a box of dry noodles, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Gabby inspected the bundle of items cradled in her arms. She dug her teeth into her lower lip underneath her mask.
"I have an idea, Henry. Take some of my good stuff," she began.
"No, I won’t do that, Gabby." Henry held up his hands in front of him, shaking his head.
"And I’ll trade you for that really good bottle of Sauvignon. Julia would kill me if I didn’t make this deal." Gabby presented her basket to him, and as Henry traded with her, his crow's feet deepened. They walked together to the end of a line that wrapped around each vacant aisle, filled with tightly packed people. After almost an hour of waiting, Gabby finally reached the checkout register in front of Hanna's. Her face was flushed, and her crimson bun was unraveling. Hanna glanced over to Gabby, who tried to give the student a smile and a small wave, but Gabby’s mask covered her effort, and her hand that had held a load up for an hour would not obey her. Hanna’s gaze snapped away.
Gabby trudged through a wasteland to get back to her car. Plastic bags, carts, various boxes, and debris were all strewn on the perimeter of the store and her vehicle. She flung her items into the back of her trunk, opened her front door, sat in her front seat, inhaled deeply, and exhaled. Her exhalation nearly sent everything she crammed inside into a nosedive. She grasped her steering wheel with a white-knuckle grip and sped back home.
After clearing through the checkpoints, Gabby found herself facing a barricade in front of the grocery store surrounded by canvas pavilions and a cold fog. Soldiers in M50 gas masks instructed her with hand signals, and Gabby turned off her car and left the keys on the dash as she stepped out.
A gas mask was tossed over to her, which she struggled to pull over her matted hair. She followed the paper instructions to seal the mask and was then guided to a tent, where she was handed a hazmat suit in a vacuum-sealed bag with gloves. Pulling it over her sweater and sweatpants, she headed to the line of homogenous dressed customers inside. They all held up their arms as they were sanitized for a third time by a mist from front to back. Once everyone was sanitized, the batch of people was then escorted into a temper tent, where small carts were organized. Each person displayed a number with their fingers. Gabby raised the number two, and a cart with a sign with the number two was thrust into her hands, and the group was directed into the store.
A woman’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers in the tent. "We once again apologize for the inconvenience of you folks needing to drive out here and rest assured we will be able to make home deliveries again soon. Please follow the arrows on the floor to guide you through the store. No running, but please be as quick as possible. Thank you for your cooperation."
The sliding doors opened into a sterile alabaster box that was draped in plastic all around. Gabby made a beeline to the medicine aisle, ignoring the first two aisles. It was blocked off by guards, who dropped a box into her cart marked by the number "two". Before Gabby could react, her cart was grabbed by staff in the next aisle. She rushed after it, nearly bumping another customer. She identified the muffled voice next to her.
Spinning around, Gabby locked eyes with a familiar gaze, the honey-colored eyes studying her. She felt a strong desire to hug Henry and nearly acted on it, but kept her arms pinned at her side. They both waved at each other instead. Gabby’s observance descended to his cart. She swallowed down the lump in her throat. The weight off her chest ascended. His boxes and buggy were marked with the number two.
"Gabby? How have you been?" Henry restated.
"People, please move along! Other civilians need to come through, so don’t hold up the line!" An official scolded them. Gabby nodded stiffly at Henry, her hands fumbling with her cart as she went through the remaining aisles. Her face never left the floor.
Gabby parked in one of the many empty slots on a worn, black surface under the bright sun enclosed by its azure membrane. Stepping out of her car, she glanced down at her phone to check the group chat from her family.
"One of Us, One of Us": Teddy: Everyone ready? Dad, still up for it?
Dad: I'm good to go! Ready for tonight!
Melissa: Omw. Can someone grab cheese?
Gabby: On it!
The sign hanging above the grocery store entrance flickered sporadically, its only functioning letters being "O" and "K", with "K" intermittently flashing. Gabby adjusted her face mask as she approached the sliding doors that opened at a snail’s pace. The glass echoed her apparition that had hollow under eyes lined by puffy redness with limp black coils at the top of her head. With a deep breath, she entered the store, her surroundings obscured by hazy shadows. Due to the ongoing rolling blackouts, the store relied on its backup generator, casting a dim glow over the space. A few shelves were in the middle of a barren warehouse
"Welcome in, Ms. Sampson!" Hanna’s hair dye had faded to a tawny brown. Her face was expressionless, but her sight was a warm welcome to Gabby. Gabby received a sanitized gray basket from Hanna and thanked her before trailing further in. As she advanced through each corridor, she diligently inspected every item before placing it into her basket. Upon reaching the wine aisle around the next corner, Gabby paused, shifting her stance while pursing her lips. Her gaze roamed the surroundings, eventually landing on a few sleek, emerald flasks resting on the shelf. She gingerly lifted one of the dense flasks up, tracing her thumb along its delicate surface.
"So, we both had the same idea for a Friday night." Henry’s air lit up the room. His jeans were slightly crinkled. Gabby abruptly put the alcohol down.
"Yeah, I guess we do. I’m going to drive up to see my family tonight. What are you and Deb up to?" Gabby's voice hung heavy in the air, lacking any inflection. Without saying a word, Henry enveloped her in his arms. Her grip loosened, causing the basket to drop to the floor with a thud. She clung to him, surrendering to the weight she carried. Henry let go of their embrace but still kept his hands on her shoulders.
"Deb and I are doing the same old thing. I did want to discuss something about school; I hope you don’t mind me bringing up work, do you?" Gabby eagerly nodded her head and combed her fingers through her hair to smooth out her spirals. Gathering her things, she started walking down the aisle when Henry halted her.
"Hey, aren’t you forgetting something?" He gestured to the bottle. Gabby hesitated. With care, Henry picked up the Cabernet Sauvignon and tenderly placed its sleek glass in her hands, which now felt weightless. Gabby gave it a firm squeeze before placing it in her gray basket.