Tracy “Gorilla” Gantz was the reason that they did it, her bright shining eyes beneath her bulbous mounds of cheek-flesh holding bravely onto mature dignity when Kevin and Bobby Durtz bumped into her at lunch. “Oops!” yelled Kevin Durtz, the younger brother, his blonde bowl-haircut swinging like curtains as he righted himself. “I must have gotten pulled into your gravitational weight!” Everybody laughed, because that’s what Middle School kids do, and Bobby pantomimed getting away from her with difficulty, shouting, “I’m getting pulled in! I’m getting pulled in!” before he left with their group of friends.
Cal Henderson watched from a corner table, his blank expression never changing, thinking that the sangfroid of her above-it-all dignity was at the same time powerful and weak: an informed maturity born out of necessity, and preempting the simple carefree confidence of those who never have to worry as they go about their lunch that they’ll be singled out at any moment for ridicule and exclusion. Cal admired that sad maturity, Tracy “Gorilla” Gantz’s deep and still eyes perhaps about to feel like crying but of course never getting too close to that edge, at the same time as he felt sorry for it.
“We’re going to do something,” Cal Henderson told his friends, eating another biscuit with nothing on it and washing it down with a sip of always-slightly-cardboard-flavored milk from his mini-carton. “Something for Tracy ‘Gorilla’ Gantz.”
The others watched Cal, and how his expression never changed, and knew that he meant business. Cal Henderson was skinny and plain in a pleasantly bland way and expertly good at never attracting attention from people outside his circle of friends, but those in the know knew the boy could get things done.
“Something like what?” asked Damien, a short and stocky student accustomed to being made fun of himself.
“I don’t know,” said Cal. “Someone find out what she likes. Joanne?”
“Why are you asking me?” asked Joanne, a spoonful of tomato-sauced spaghetti still hanging slightly out of her mouth. Joanne who everyone assumes is a tomboy, because she hangs with Cal and his friends, but actually is not; actually, she is a complex and multi-facted, mostly traditionally feminine young girl.
“Because you’re a girl,” said the tall and Eastern European-looking Peter, who was probably about as smart as Cal but much less skilled at avoiding attention, and much less motivated to do so. He doused his own biscuits with spoonfuls and spoonfuls of white gravy sloppily. “You can ask her in the locker room. When you compare your boobs.”
“I don’t compare my boobs with her,” Joanne rebuked him.
“You can ask her while you compare your boobs with someone else then. It doesn’t matter.”
“Cal,” said Joanne. “Hit him.”
Cal hit Peter with one hand while eating another un-topped plain biscuit with his free one, but then asked Joanne nicely if she could find out something they could do to make Tracy “Gorilla” Gantz happy and she agreed. At the end of the day, as they lugged their heavy textbooks unevenly in backpacks that slung over only one shoulder, she told them she had heard from Sally Mae Sitwright the pretty pom-pom brunette with braces that Tracy “Gorilla” Gantz was enamored of a certain prohibitively expensive item for people of their age, except for a particular piece of news with which Sally Mae Sitwright was intimately acquainted: that in one week, for one day only, that item would become considerably more reasonable in price, as part of the promotional event at Big Box Mart known traditionally as Black Friday.
Sally May was intimately acquainted with the workings of Black Friday for a reason, which was this: for the past 26 years, the members of the Sitwright Family had been embroiled in a bitter Black Friday rivalry against their next-door neighbors, the Carboneros, whose matron Mama Carbonero was surpassed in brutal Black Friday ruthlessness and agility only by her daughter, “Black” Frida Carbonero. Which means that 13 years ago, when Sally May was born, her clan had already been devoting themselves to this important battle for 13 years, and it was going nowhere.
Sally May herself was afflicted with the idea that it was low-class and embarrassed her, this thing her family did. She remembered toting along when she was little, one hand in her brother Fred’s, the other firmly in her mouth, as the doors at Big Box Mart opened before the sun even came up and suddenly – violently – being carried forth like a cartoon child propelled by a spaceship she was gripping the fin of, held horizontal by the speed of motion. Inside, the line that had snaked out the door for what looked like miles became an unavoidable crush of pounding bodies and shopping carts: the unsavory sweaty mass of overly-motivated, remorseless crowd all hungering for a steep discount percentage.
Even then she felt a vague sense of unease, probably tinged with guilt, for the reason so many people were racing, pushing, pounding through a hostile crusade: a reason that didn’t really matter all that much, and for that matter was kind of greedy and undignified. It was like the embarrassed confusion she felt watching her dad and uncles shout violently, earnestly, and argue over football games on TV, intensely serious and to be given wide near-frightening berth over something she could tell was just a game, with a ball, and points scored. It was like that, only with a sense of selfishness thrown in.
And yet, it was even worse, somehow, to watch the Carboneros so openly mock and tread on her mother and her brother and even her, on the Black Friday outings. (Her father stayed home to sleep off the beer and mumbled them well on their way out). These days she wore a hoodie, a black one with a pink album cover on it, to hide as much as possible but even so the Carboneros glared at her outside of Box Mart, their two families always amongst the first at the very front of the line in the dead of night before the sale. It had started 13 years before she was born, when some item of mythic proportion was in high demand and her own mom had nabbed the last one from right under Mama Carbonero, both then much younger women, after Mama Carbonero tripped on one lone Chuck Taylor that had been lost in the massive crowd’s Black Friday struggle-at-large and left flopped sideways on the floor.
It was not for sale, the Chuck Taylor. It was someone’s shoe, that they had walked in with, but left without.
Now on the night of Thanksgiving, Sally sat at the table, sipping a big mug of coffee with lots of sugar and cream, her hoodie up, head long-sufferingly in her elbow, the lights all off, waiting. A self-identifying quiet 8th-grader, she’d never think to argue for the right to be left behind, and no one seemed to notice her reluctant attitude. “Nothing yet,” reported Fred from his position at the window, where he had one single flap of the blinds lifted with one finger, gazing at the Carbonero driveway. Sally’s mom was zipping up the pockets where she kept snacks in her Oakley hiking backpack, almost ready to head out. They wouldn’t get left behind by their nemeses this time. Fred slipped the weekly special ad into the waterproof pocket of his North Face. Wearied eyes half-closed, Sally sat and sipped.
“Ho!” called the returning figure, a small bundle of black with hand raised in greeting.
Cal nodded subtly at his scout, returning from the front – of the line. It was almost opening time, and they had secured a place about halfway down the snaking crowd, as planned. Cal had outfitted his team in matching Under Armour, using the money they had pooled for the operation minus the cost of the prize: the much-sought-after gift for Tracy “Gorilla” Gantz. They were a noticeably uniform group in blacks and grays except for Joanne whose running leggings and headband were salmon-pink because she was not really a tomboy, remember.
For a week Cal had run them in training, like an officer, across the residential sidewalks of their streets, gathering them all up for the workout after dinner time. If they didn’t show up at their front doors to meet the others he would call and call until they did, though it was only Peter, mostly, who dawdled: Damien was surprisingly eager to go, despite his out-of-shape huffing, and Joanne was the quickest of all, because she was in Cross Country. In the November cold their pubertal troupe’s breath made a little cloud of visible breath as Cal urged them – from advice by Joanne – that they run in the snow and not where there was none, because there was where slippery ice hid, and that they stamp down vertically with their feet as much as possible so as not to slip.
“Clomp!” Cal would direct, lagging behind to jog alongside Peter, who kept trying to make long strides and kind of skate across the pieces of ice with a flourish. “CLOMPING, son of a mother: Can you do it?!”
On their final run together after Thanksgiving Dinner earlier in the day, the smells of cooking and feasting filled the quiet darkness of the empty asphalt echoing their steps, waves of fried turkey wafting out from collective household power into the streets. Then they had waited at home until Cal’s family SUV had come to pick them up in the night. They were driven by Cal’s sister in high school Josephine, who was amusedly tolerant of his ways. Now she stood nearby, focused on texting, occasionally shifting from one leg to the other in her slim gray peacoat.
“They’re handing out wristbands for certain items,” Damien reported, back with them in line. “But not for what we want. They’re about to open the doors now.”
And then just like that, there was a massive surge forward and a lot of sideways yelling and noise and the crowd was on the move, one of those unstoppable mob movements that frightens just the edge of you, where you wonder if you fell whether anything would be able to stop the mass of people anymore than anything would be able to stop a tidal wave on a city street or a falling building. And smushed up against coats and hairy arms, Cal was carried forth into Big Box Mart like a guppy alongside his friend guppies, poured from a fisherman’s bucket onto the deck.
“Damien!” Cal yelled once they were on the premises in the flow, facing the long, long line of cashier stations. “Navigate!”
Damien, who wanted to be an engineer and had the best spatial visualization skills of the group had been in charge of memorizing the Box Mart layout for their local store and plotting a path towards the goal, with contingency plans for eventualities like those extend-able barriers they used at, like, banks if they wanted to direct pedestrian traffic in a certain way, or really fat families. “The way South looks clear,” he reported. “Make for the rear-wall section, Aisles 18-22.”
“Joanne, scout,” Cal ordered. “Keep about a half-aisle ahead but maintain visual contact. If any obstacles are in our way, raise your fist. If you see any signs that our item is somewhere besides where we expect it, stand still and extend both arms.”
“Power-Up for barriers, Grunge Jesus for new direction, Cal, I know.” And the pink leggings were gone.
“Peter, take point, you’re taller. We’ll move South at a steady trot; I’m right behind you. Damien, stay near the cashiers for navigation and emergencies. We’ll communicate by Bluetooth.”
Damien, following Cal’s suit, put his cell-phone ear piece in, then slung off his backpack, knelt, and unpacked the hobby-model electronic quad-copter he’d gotten for his birthday. “Go ahead, Cal. Updates to follow. Deploying drone.”
Cal followed Peter’s back into the thick of it. “Into the Waste Land. Aim for the Grail!”
The plastic boomerang hit Sally in the forehead, and she knew that it would leave a welt.
“Ow!” she shrieked, and kind of fell back. She’d just been looking at her phone, not bothering anyone when it had hit her, caught off guard.
When Sally looked over, there she was: Black Frida. She was beautiful, in that evil kind of way, taller and more developed thanks to the few years of age she held over Sally. She was laughing, without remorse, without conscience, from the toys and sporting goods aisle, and turned to follow Mama Carbonero into Electronics. Sally looked around but Mom and Fred were nowhere to be found, must have left her behind on their way to treasures. With a sudden helpless anger at her entire situation, Sally scrunched up her shoulders, shouted, and grabbed a basketball off the shelf. Rearing back, she flung it as hard as she could at Frida, who was walking away pushing her shopping cart one aisle down.
The basketball slammed into the head of a tall, big-eared boy who suddenly appeared trotting down the aisle, and he flew down sideways, as if dead. Behind him, another boy skidded to a stop with a shocked expression on his face, both arms flapping out to slow him down. From somewhere ahead, a girl’s voice screamed bloody murder. “We’re under attack!” it then yelled.
“Oh my god!” shouted Sally, her hands moving to her mouth in horror as she ran over to the downed boy. “Is he dead?!”
“Do you want him to be?!” shouted the standing boy, somewhat fearfully, who she now noticed was wearing all-black workout gear just like the one she had hit with the basketball. Pushing through a group of people back towards them was a girl in a blonde ponytail and pink headband, also wearing workout gear.
“It was an accident!” Sally said quickly.
The girl was there now, and it was Joanne, from gym class, helping the tall boy up. He was moaning and rubbing the side of his head. “I’m okay,” he was saying.
“You people are crazy!” Joanne told Sally, holding up the tall boy on her shoulder. “Wait, Sally? You’re the one who told me about this sale, remember – we’re here for Tracy Gantz’s present. You said you thought it was really sweet and now you attack us like this?”
“It’s okay,” the tall boy said, regaining his bearings. “We trained for this.”
The boy she hadn’t hit was staring at her, his expression now inscrutable. “It’s just sporting goods,” he was saying to her, with an air like a reasonable man explaining to a child. “I’m sure there are enough basketballs for everyone. You didn’t have to get violent; it’s not that serious.”
“I said it was an accident,” Sally spun on him, feeling defensive. The last thing she cared about, of all things, was Black Friday – that was, I mean, of all things. And his tone of voice made her mad for some reason too, as he watched her all condescending like he was some kind of parent. They were the same age she was.
“Then I get to throw a basketball at you,” Joanne was saying.
“What? No,” Sally said.
The condescending boy put his hands on his hips and said, superiorly, “It is the fair thing.”
“Listen, Little Prince,” she prepared to tell him off.
“Oh, are you a de Saint-Exupery fan?” he asked, apparently making a joke he thought was just for himself.
“Everyone is a de Saint-Exupery fan,” Sally said. “Some people just don’t know it yet.”
And then the little irises in the boy’s little boy-eyes got way bigger because the pupils got so, so small, and then he sneezed.
“I feel blessed,” he said, as if from far away.
She stared at the boy quizzically, intrigued, and then out of the corner of her eye she noticed Fred coming down the aisle, glancing around, as if looking for her, but – his hands were full, carrying boxes on boxes, and he must be looking for her only to help them carry even more. Somewhere, her mother must be racing around, the shopping cart already full, outmaneuvering the all-important Carboneros. She realized she wanted no part of it. Instead, she turned back to the boy with a game expression, and he sneezed again.
“Walk with me,” she said to the strange, workout-dressed people.
“Are you good to walk?” Cal asked Peter.
“I’m good,” he straightened up. “Just sprained my ankle a bit, when I fell. What’s Damien say?”
Cal realized he’d dropped his Bluetooth when he skidded to a stop so sharply. There it was, on the floor next to his shoe, and he put it back. “Damien?”
“Cal! Where were you?”
“Asteroid B-612,” Cal said.
“Nothing. What’s the update?”
“I’m looking through the drone’s eyes here, and there’s a problem. It looks like they’re out of the item we have come for. At least, they are in the aisle. I asked at the service desk up here and they say they might have some more in the store room they are gonna bring out. But there’s a group of people already gathering who want it. Your only chance is to make a break for it now.”
“We’ve got to run for the back,” Cal told the others.
“I can’t run,” Peter said. “Leave me. Go on without me. Complete our mission.”
“We won’t leave you behind,” Cal told him.
“It’s okay, Cal,” Joanne told him. “I’ll stay with him. We’ll limp to meet up with Damien. You go ahead alone.”
“Okay,” Cal said. “If I can get a cart, maybe I can push through the crowd.”
“I know where there’s a cart,” the pretty girl with the braces said.
“You want to help?” Cal asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “And I want to get away from here before my brother finds me. Cal, huh? Joanne told me what you want to do. I’m Sally.”
Cal shook her hand. She smiled at him and he sneezed.
“Follow me,” she told him and they raced down the aisle.
“Hurry, Cal!” came Damien’s voice in his ear. “You’ve got three minutes to cross the store! Maybe two!”
He was sprinting, watching Sally run just a step ahead of him, and she said, “Hold my hand!”
“Okay!” he agreed instantly, taking her right hand in his left. Ahead, just a second’s distance, was an older girl with a plastic boomerang balanced on top of all her goods in her cart, who now turned with a look of horror, and Cal realized they were going to deliberately clothesline her. He had never seen her before, and as far as he knew she was an innocent bystander, but he really didn’t want to let go of Sally’s hand, so he decided, bygones.
The girl hit the ground hard, and then Sally dropped the plastic boomerang on her head, yelling, “Karma, Frida!”
“Less than two minutes, Cal!” said Damien’s voice.
And they took off running, pushing, each holding one side of the cart, careening down towards the back end of the store, both yelling, “Coming through! Coming through!” All down Big Box Mart, groups of shoppers parted, frightened children leapt back, little old ladies shouted, as the cart barreled like a freight train.
After the grocery section the aisles narrowed, with sides made up of shelves instead of coolers and refrigerators so there was only room for barely the cart’s width, and not two people pushing side-by-side. “Don’t stop!” Sally yelled, exhilarated, and let go of the cart. Cal grabbed onto the cart handle with both hands instinctively and Sally jumped up onto the side of it just as they reached the narrower aisles, swung herself up and on top of the boxes in the cart face down, holding onto the front like a sledder. They pushed on, Cal now steering the cart with her in it, and she yelled, “Wheeee.”
Cal rounded the final turn towards the stock-room, jumping up onto the riders and letting the back of the shopping cart swing out like a race car, swinging Sally about. “One minute, Cal!” said his ear-piece.
Ahead, impossibly, stood their 8th-grade Algebra II teacher, Mr. Thompson (they were in different periods), in his beard and glasses, looking at car mats and steering wheel covers. Sighting them and their dangerously fast trajectory, he leapt into the middle of the aisle and held up his hand. “Stop!” he yelled, threatening them with the same angry bellow he cried out almost every day in class: “YOU! WILL! NOT! PASS!”
“Thirty seconds, Cal! They’re bringing them out!” said Damien’s voice. There was no way Cal could stop and still make it. But he could not kill his Algebra teacher. Honor would not allow it. Cal brought his feet back onto the floor and prepared to stop.
“Mr. Thompson!” yelled a girl’s voice. “I haven’t seen you in three years!”
With a sprinting rush, a giant plush Phinneas ran into the aisle, from Phinneas & Ferb, a Phinneas bigger than any man, its monstrous plush form barreling down from the right like a marathon racer, and behind it, carrying it: Cal’s sister Josephine, a look of completely innocent affection for an old teacher on her face. Mr. Thompson turned and froze in terror as Phinneas toppled him and pushed him out of the way and into a surprised sitting position just in time – Cal and Sally’s cart flew by. Cal turned to look and Josephine winked at him before fading into the distance.
“I see you incoming, Cal!” Damien said. “Ten seconds! You’re gonna make it!”
The final stretch was on a downwards incline and the cart picked up dizzying speed as Cal stepped up on the riders again and leaned forward, just above Sally’s ecstatically whooping form. The stock-room doors grew bigger and bigger as they approached them, like the closed hangar doors of a space shuttle just before it takes off, the velocity pushing back their hair. In the final aisle, two groups of people whose body language said they were about to tangle had to leap away and fall back as the flying cart separated them, and Cal realized it was Sally’s family and the family of the girl they had clotheslined, now staring in amazement and wonder at the ship that had gone through them. Above, a quadcopter drone became visible and dipped over them, saluting, like an angel dipping its wings to sing them across.
Before them, speed drowning out all noise and image, the stock-room doors opened just in time, a group of employees holding them open, as if just for Cal and Sally, about to come flying in, the sparse halogen lights of the darker inside’s high industrial ceiling twinkling like a vivid night sky.
“Where are we going?” Sally yelled, eyes closed on the cart, grinning without worry.
“Everywhere and nowhere, Sally May,” Cal yelled over the din of their own traveling existence, leaning forward with all of his young life’s sudden jubilation. “Everywhere and nowhere. But we will get there fast.” They careened, their world a covered canal of a million impatiently burning stars over a million generations, his hand firmly on her ass.
[Special thanks to: Gabor Pohl, for one of the lines within this story. I won’t reveal which one, and thus preserve both of our sense of mystery.]