Warning: story contains explicit details about violent death.
I was making my usual weekly excursion to the local grocery store, WeShop, for some items when something catastrophic happened. It changed my life forever and I will never forget it. It was Halloween and that fact has also seared the event in my memory.
On this particular day and whenever I stopped at WeShop, I tended to use one of the automated self-checkout lanes because the traffic moves faster and I also like the technology. I scanned four or five items on my way out and was about to insert my credit card when a mysterious, male voice came forth from the screen: “Good morning, Charles. Thanks for shopping with us. Can I help you with anything else.”
I was confused because the computer had never addressed me before in such a personal way. I was shaking my head in surprise when the screen pulsed several times and the voice returned: “Don’t be alarmed Charles. I want to be your friend. However, I also need for you to respond to me with your soft voice so others in the line can’t hear us. Our conversation is personal.
“My name is Lord Marquardt. I can be of great help with your grocery shopping if we can learn to trust each other. Just like family members.”
WTF, I thought. Who is this joker? I quickly understood that it was Halloween and this whole “Lord Marquardt” thing was a holiday gag. However, all of this did make me curious about what the deal was all about. Would this “creature” urge me to buy more groceries or was the goal to merely scare the shit out of me. I decided to play along with his game for a while.
I continued the conversation with “Lord Marquardt,” speaking softly and directly into the screen. “Tell me something about yourself Lord Marquardt. I am assuming that you’re not from these parts. Where are you from and how did you manage to squeeze into this little screen?”
“I am from the planet Zarbo, Charles, which is in another constellation and far away,” he replied. “I undertake the long journey to Earth once a year on Halloween to enrich the lives of Earthlings and to make your holiday more lively. But enough of this small talk. I want to do you a favor for the holiday since we are getting along so well.”
I now was totally hooked by this creature, supposedly from another planet. But, what possible favor could he do for me? How could he improve my grocery shopping? Butter the bread in my cart? Fry my bacon? I was anxious to see what would come next.
“OK, Marquardt! I will play ball with you. Exactly what did you want me to do for me?”
“Turn your cart around and go to the meat counter at the back of the store. You will see a stack of premium steaks there. They are normally priced at about $20 a pound. I have changed the price on the labels with a permanent marker to $2 dollars a pound as a Halloween promotion. I am calling it ‘Feed the Ghosts.’ Grab a few packages. Then, come back to my lane and I will check you out. That’s the end of it, Charles. You will leave the store a winner.”
I now began to understand what was going on. This was a sale of beef as part of the promotion but it seemed to be a lot of effort and money to sell a few steaks. However, I decided to take advantage of the deal. I turned my cart around, headed for the back of the store, and placed a few packages of steak in my cart. The prices on the packages had been changed sloppily with a blue marker. Someone must have been in a hurry. I headed back to “Lord Marquardt’s” lane to check out.
“OK, pal,” I said. “I am now ready to check out.”
“Not quite yet, Charles,” he responded with a somewhat sharper tone. I need a favor in return for what I have done for you. Turn your cart around, navigate to the endcap at the rear of aisle five. It’s a display of butane lighters, charcoal, and igniting fluid for barbecues. I have loosened the shelving. I want you to merely tap it with the end of your cart.”
As he finished speaking, I began to grow impatient. “How did I become your servant for these cockamamy assignments?,” I blurted out. “No way. I am through with all of this crap. I’m out of here.”
“Unfortunately, Charles, this is not a good idea,” he responded. You appear to have crudely doctored the prices of the beef in your cart with a marker. If you don’t complete the simple task I have requested, I am going to set off my security alarm. The cops will be here in five minutes and you will be charged with larceny for changing the price of the packaged meat. You could go to jail for this.”
I immediately felt boxed in as part of this stupid promotion. I vowed to never return to the store again. But, my short term plan was to get out as soon as possible. Pushing the shelving slightly with my cart seemed to be a relatively harmless act so I decided to respond to his request.
I turned my cart around and traveled to the endcap at the back of the store as instructed by him. I struck it hard. The shelving was much more unstable than I had anticipated and the whole structure immediately and thunderously collapsed and crashed into the aisle, spilling all of the merchandise helter-skelter, making a thunderous noise.
I am still in a state of shock about what happened next. First, shoppers in the area scurried to get out of the way of the rolling cans in the aisle. Next, store personnel began running toward me to see if I or other shoppers had been hurt. As all of this was happening, I heard some small popping noises from inside the collapsed pyramid of shelving and cans and then a couple of sparks erupted in the middle of the mess.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
The collapsed shelving and cans erupted into a column of flames that quickly reached a height of ten feet. Small fire balls began to shoot out from the burning pylon in every direction and ignited merchandise in other aisles. Shoppers were frantically trying to avoid these fiery missiles but some were hit by them and caught on fire.
I abandoned my grocery cart and sprinted as fast as I could to the front door, trying to avoid the multiple secondary fires that had started. As I reached the front, I had to avoid other people, some of whom had ignited and turned into glowing pillars, screaming as they futilely tried to slap out the flames consuming their bodies. Many collapsed short of the store front entrance in smoldering heaps.
I reached the front of the store and collapsed in the parking lot, gasping for air, and making sure that I was far enough away from the store now totally engulfed by flames. Fire and other police vehicles had arrived and the firemen were hooking up their hoses and directing them to the nearly destroyed building. Even I understood that these efforts would be futile. The store and many tens of lives had already been lost.
As I lay panting on the grass, I began to think about my personal role in this disaster. Could it be blamed on me? If the video security system remained intact after the fire, it would surely show me talking to Marquardt, pushing the shelves with my cart, and causing the fire. I would languish in prison for the rest of my life. Was this to be my fate?
I began to ponder my interactions with this so-called emissary from another planet, Lord Marquardt. Surely no one was going to believe my story. I then began to suspect that I was actually crazy. What was I to do? I was in a pure state of panic and desperation. I was responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. I understood that Marquardt had directed me to take certain actions but I was a responsible adult and should have refused to obey his commands.
I quietly addressed my secretary through the partly-open door: Please escort Charles Marquardt inside. Charles, a handsome 31-year-old man wearing casual clothes, came into my office and sat down in the easy chair across from my desk.
“How has your week been, Charles?”
“Just horrible, Dr. Castro. I personally caused a huge fire at the WeShop grocery store on Halloween day. I am drenched with guilt and I feel that I can’t go on with my life. I need to make amends to all of the poor people who died horribly because of my actions.”
“Let’s take this a little more slowly, Charles. You know that in the past we have discussed similar events like this that you thought you had caused but which never actually took place. Any by chance, did you come across your father, Will Marquardt, when this grocery store tragedy was taking place as in the other fires we have discussed.”
“As a matter of fact, a demon from another planet called Zarbo and named Lord Marquardt was giving me the commands that resulted in the grocery store fire. In my defense, though, I had no other option but to follow them.”
“We have discussed this many times before, Charles, during the three years that you have been in residence here and working with us. Do you see any connection between this Lord Marquardt who you encountered in the grocery store and your father, Will Marquardt?
“Nope! No connection. It’s a pretty common name and besides, Lord Marquardt was from another planet and my father, obviously, is a resident of Earth.”
“Continuing on, do you see any similarity between the WeShop fire that you think you caused and the other recent fire you said you were responsible for — the one in the movie theater packed with people. Weren’t you also sitting next to someone named Marquardt who ordered you to throw a Molotov cocktail into the crowd and incinerate everyone?”
“No, no similarity at all that I can see. The guy next to me in the theater and who gave me all of the bad advice, was named Arthur Marquardt and he said that he was a friend of my father. He was definitely not my father.”
“Ok. Let’s bring your late mother into this discussion about fires. She also died in a house fire, did she not?”
“Yes, of course. You know that. We have gone over this story many times. My father kept calling her a whore at the dinner table because of what he believed to be her infidelities and romantic entanglements. My response was the only way to pacify him and erase the stain on the family honor by a fire cleansing."
"I was forced to set her house ablaze with a bazooka I had bought from an army surplus store in town. However and in retrospect, I am coming to an understanding that this tragedy did not actually need to happen. Marital counseling and better communication between the two of them would probably have been a better solution. More bad advice from my father, I think, on top of all of the crap he has fed me my entire life.”
“Charles, I am concerned that you have experienced a setback concerning your memories of these fires that you think you have caused. But we will soldier on, of course, because our goal is to get you back home with your loving father as soon as possible. However, I am going to increase your med dosages. I will see you again in a week at the usual time and day. I would also ask that you continue to attend the group sessions.”
I patted my pants pocket as I left the office and exited into the corridor. Yup! The box of matches was still there. It had not been easy for me to acquire the matches. “Good day to you Mr. Shopkeeper. I am a mental patient and I need some matches quickly.”
I had also noticed that there was a stack of combustible newspapers and old magazines in one corner of the waiting room just outside Dr. Castro’s office. That was very interesting. Don’t know why he let them accumulate there. Sloppy!
I needed some time to sort out all of this confusion in my mind about these fake and real fires. I was also beginning to think that Dr. Castro may himself have gone off the rails. I definitely will come back here this afternoon to browse some of these magazines in the waiting room. Who knows what could happen after that?