by J. T. Townley
The next thing I know, I’m moving up in line again. First, police carted off a pair of drunken troublemakers, and now paramedics haul away a woman whose face has turned blue. Everyone behind me, anonymous silhouettes of layered flannel and wool hats, moves up, too.
“What luck!” a woman says, practically tucking herself into my back pocket. Her coffee breath is rank. “The holiday spirit must be with us, don’t you think?”
“Sure,” I say. “Maybe.”
“We’re among the Chosen Twenty.” She’s wearing a Christmas sweater, navy blue with red bows and a giant green wreath. “Of course, it is.”
“You mean the smartphone thing?”
“Isn’t that why we’re all out here?”
“Aren’t you afraid those people”—I point to the throngs of discount shoppers sipping whiskey-spiked coffee behind us—“will stampede as soon as the doors open? It’s happened before. A Wally’s employee was trampled to death last year at this very location, just for opening the doors. It was all over the news.”
A dark cloud passes over her face, as if she’s never considered the prospect.
“Anyway,” I say, “that’s not really why I’m braving the dark and cold and great unwashed.”
“I’m here for the love of my twin girls.” She clearly has no idea what I’m talking about, so I explain the only way I think she’ll understand: “I’m here for Yulie Unicorn.”
It’s cold enough out here so we’ll probably all have frostbite before the doors ever open, but at least it’s not snowing. There’s no precipitation of any kind—sleet or freezing rain, flurries or wintry mix—which, this time of year, is almost a miracle. By now, we usually have two feet of snow on the ground.
People begin singing impromptu Christmas carols, but I try to mind my own business. It helps that I have my iPhone—I always have my iPhone!—and I can follow the numbers. I’m a financial analyst, and I love what I do. I’m good at it, too. Great at it, actually, which is how we can afford to live in a three-story home in a gated community in West Dale, one of the City’s wealthiest suburbs. It’s the reason Jon, my husband, can be a stay-at-home dad for the twins, who we’re sending to the best schools. All my talent and drive and dedication is why we can comfortably employ Maria, an au pair girl (I think she’s from Italy, though it could be Spain), to help Jon raise the twins, especially since he spends so many of his waking hours playing tennis at the club.
It’s all I can do not to think about what happened earlier today, which was technically yesterday. I got caught at the office, first on the phone with a client, then going over some new data, then writing up my findings. It’s not as if I didn’t call. More than once, in fact, as one delay turned into another. Jon, of course, was less patient each time, though he swallowed his expletives, since my parents weren’t ten feet away, parked on the couch watching football. “Have you completely lost your mind?” he said, and I could tell he was sincerely worried about my mental health. Jon’s caring that way. “Don’t you realize it’s Thanksgiving Day?”
When I made it home, the house was quiet: no TV blaring, no little girls screaming, no parents squabbling. Almost all the lights were out, too, though the dimmer in the kitchen was switched to low. On the counter I found a plate of leftovers and a note from Jon: This is all that’s left. I sent the rest with your parents. How’s it feel to miss three in a row? It sounded a little bitter, but I’m sure he was just tired.
I went upstairs, where I expected to find him in bed watching sports highlights, but the bedroom was empty. Giggles bubbled down the hall from the twins’ room. Jon was probably in there, playing with the girls; I opened the door without knocking. “Hi, babies,” I said. They each have a bed, but they’d decided to share tonight, probably so they could reach the pie they brought up with them. Their cherubic faces were smeared with chocolate and whipped cream. “Did you have fun today?” I asked. The twins squealed in response, then scooped up some more pie with their little hands and launched it at me. They’re such good sharers! “Have you seen Daddy?” I asked.
They squealed again, then Larissa (or Melissa?) said, “He’s watching Days of Thunder with Maria!” Jon’s generosity knows no bounds. He’s watched that same movie with her several times a week almost since she arrived. And at such high volume, too!
Then Melissa (or Larissa?) said, “Mommy, will Santa bring us Yulie?”
“Who’s that, honey?”
“Well,” I said, unsure if Jon had started the shopping, “did you write it in your Santa Claus letter?”
“Only at Wally’s!” they shrieked in unison.
It sounded like a commercial. I left them to their pie-eating.
The logical thing to do was to ask Jon. I peeked down the basement stairs, but it was all dark, except for the TV’s cold, blue flicker. The volume was on full-blast, too, and it sounded like they were getting to a good part, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.
Trouble was, as the twins mentioned, Yulie was only available at Wally’s, a store I categorically refused to patronize. There wasn’t one in our area, owing largely to their target market, so I’d have to drive forty-five minutes to the closest location. A little online searching told me Yulie knock-offs were available, but the quality was low and the prices exorbitant. Not that, at $47.99, the original was exactly reasonable. But there was an excellent two-for-one sale on for Black Friday.
I put on my heavy coat. I was going to Wally’s.
It’s cold and getting colder, and I’m not sure how much more of this I can take. Yet more and more people keep arriving, as if this were the only Wally’s in the entire state. Sladetown is so far south of the City that it’s no longer Southside, the cracked sidewalks and ramshackle homes giving way to jacked-up pickup trucks and lawns littered with rusty car parts. The people out here wear more camouflage, and have fewer teeth, than any I can remember seeing. Drunken shouting fills the air. Gunshots ring out over the flat expanse of striped asphalt, yet no one seems to mind or even notice. A young guy with a handlebar mustache grins from the bed of a pickup, cradling a beer and a hunting rifle.
They’re all having a great time, except when they’re fighting. But—who knows?—maybe they enjoy that, too. None of them seems to realize it’s well below freezing out here, what with their chummy smiles and fingerless gloves. For my part, I can’t remember the last time I was so cold. My coat and hat and full-finger gloves are so much nothing against the icy wind. My feet are aching blocks of ice, too, since I’m still in Prada heels.
“Excuse me?” I say. I don’t know the Christmas sweater woman’s name. She’s enjoying a jovial discussion with a twenty-year-old woman and her six kids. “Ma’am?”
I shuffle a step back to give us some space. She follows me, her face a silent question.
“Hi,” I say. “My name’s Chrissy Cole. We spoke earlier?”
“Nice to meet you. Listen, you’re pretty excited about the smartphone giveaway, right?”
“Oh, yes. It’s just what my son’s been asking for.”
“Then I bet two of them would be twice as good, don’t you think?”
“Well, I suppose so?”
“As I mentioned, I’m here tonight, this morning, for a pair of Yulie Unicorns. They’re for my twin daughters, Larissa and Melissa. Now I need to go back to the Lexus for a little while to warm up. I want you to know I’m happy to offer you my smartphone.”
“That’s very generous of you, Mrs. Cole, but—”
“Do you think you could pick up a couple of unicorns for me? I don’t know the layout, and I’m sure you—”
“I’d like to, Mrs. Cole, but I’ll be at the other end of the store. In Electronics? See, my husband has his heart set on a new flat-screen TV, and Wally’s is offering an amazing deal on them today. By the time I made it to Toys, the Yulie Unicorns would probably all be gone.”
The young woman with the six children, who’s been listening, uninvited, to our conversation, is nodding like a trailer park bobblehead. Her daughters, too, are eavesdropping—maybe it’s a family trait?—and their eyes light up with wet, glimmering expectation. Jon always says I need to learn to use my “inside voice,” even when I’m outside, but that’s only because he’s an unemployed moocher who doesn’t understand what it takes to talk over everyone to win an argument.
I can see this is going nowhere, so I change tactics.
“Well, thanks for considering it, Madge. I appreciate your candid acknowledgment of the challenges we face here this morning. But I’m still willing to offer you my free smartphone, if you’ll hold my place in line.”
“Again, Mrs. Cole, it’s the Christmas Season, and I’d be glad to help—”
“But no one likes a cutter.”
“Cutter, cutter, peanut butter!” sing three of the trailer park lady’s kids.
“And that’s exactly what you’d be”—Madge waves a hand, gesturing without pointing—“in their eyes. I’m for Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward Everybody, Mrs. Cole. Your cutting would likely cause a huge riot.”
“Plus,” says the trailer park lady, “it ain’t but one free smartphone per customer for the first twenty.” She grins; she’s missing several front teeth. “That don’t include kids under eighteen.”
Madge smiles in agreement, then presses a switch at the hem of her sweater. Lights on the wreath twinkle and flash.
The atmosphere’s frenzied now that the doors open in less than an hour. Which means the impromptu caroling is frequently punctuated by angry, profanity-rich insults. Shoving matches break out. Some would-be shoppers use their thermoses, along with the bad coffee they contain, as weapons.
I try to keep a low profile.
There’s a surge of energy just before five o’clock, with lots of hooting and hollering and firing of hunting rifles. Surely, they can’t bring their firearms inside? People behind me push and shove, too, so that soon the only choice is to give in, domino-like, to the crush of bodies. That or step out of line and forfeit any chance I might have at a pair of Yulie Unicorns. What kind of choice is that?
I stand my ground.
Now the doors are open, and we crash into the store. We’re like those rioters you see on the TV news, running amok and taking whatever we want on the Pay-Never Plan. Although, as I mentioned, I never patronize Wally’s, I can’t imagine what I witness here this morning is typical.
The numbers alone are staggering; we must be breaking some kind of fire code. I haven’t been in a crowd like this since the Rush concert I attended during my rebellious phase in high school. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating.
I wonder how the Wally’s staff will determine who wins the smartphones?
By the time I’m free of the swarming masses, I’m already well into the store—in the front corner, I think. The place is all polished industrial linoleum and fluorescent glare. I look up: Kitchens. For some reason, the air is hazy, and I can’t see anything that looks like the Toys department from here.
As best I can, I squeeze and push around the perimeter toward the back of the store. It’s the only way I’ll ever locate Toys, since I can’t find a map and it’s not as if I can actually ask an employee for help. The place is severely understaffed. There aren’t even enough Wally’s people to process customers’ frenzied purchases or answer their angry questions—“How could you run out of All-in-One goddamn Printers in ten minutes?”—much less deal with the bursts of unexpected violence.
Just past School/Office, a woman in a tube top and a grubby white winter coat has it out with a Wally’s employee at the Jewelry counter: heated words, flailing arms, slaps and punches. I duck behind a watch-band display for a moment, then keep moving.
I make it to the back corner of the store. Still haven’t seen the sign for Toys. A brawl breaks out in Electronics among a bearded giant in an orange hunting jacket, a wiry woman with peroxide hair, and a woman in a Christmas sweater. Is she the same one who was standing behind me outside? I can’t tell because of all the hair and spit and tangled appendages as they wriggle and squirm on the high-gloss linoleum. Then a woman in low-rise skinny jeans and a scarlet thong attacks the knot of them with a shopping cart, ramming them again and again. Before anyone can stop her, she takes the giant box they were fighting over for herself.
In Furniture, I slip down a side aisle and take a breather in a corduroy recliner.
As I creep past Home Décor, two women are sprawled out on the floor. A sixty-something sporting a hot-pink jogging suit smothers a younger woman in acid-washed denim with a Hypoallergenic Luxury Down Pillow. It’s still in the bag. Without thinking, I land a sharp kick to the grandma’s solar plexus, which sends her reeling. I lose one of my Prada heels in the process. The younger woman—the one I’ve just saved from certain asphyxiation—quickly palms it, then lunges at me. I pull off my left shoe and smack her in the temple with the business end, then scurry away.
Then I see it: the sign for Toys. Careful not to get a runner in my hose or step in any of the debris from broken dishes and light bulbs—after all, I’m now shoeless—I scamper that direction. I’m so close! I feel the adrenaline snapping through me like electricity. Larissa and Melissa are going to love these unicorns, and they’re going to know how much I love them. It’s going to be the best Christmas ever—even if it’s possible I’ll be away on another business trip to the Caymans.
The Toys department is all but empty. It looks like a series of massive tornadoes recently blasted through. Dismembered appendages of Spank-Me-Baby dolls litter the floor, along with stray dice, plastic gold doubloons, some random iridescent tassels, and lots of glitter. But it doesn’t take long to locate the Yulie Unicorn section. It’s decimated. Not only are the shelves empty, the display has been completely demolished. A huge cardboard Yulie Unicorn is decapitated, crushed, and lying in the aisle.
What am I going to tell the twins?
Dejected, I wander through the other Toy aisles, wondering if there’s anything on the shelves—or, more likely, the floor—that Melissa and Larissa might like. It’s a ridiculous idea; there’s almost nothing left anyway. But then I see them: two men, both thick of neck and shoulder, one sporting a wife-beater and aviator sunglasses, the other dressed in a military cap and combat boots.
They’re playing tug of war with a Yulie Unicorn.
I slip into Baby, peering between onesies as they yank at the doll with meaty hands. Maybe they’ll get fed up and go after each other? They’ll drop Yulie and forget about her entirely? At which point I’ll tiptoe over and take the unicorn for myself. Of course, I’ll only have one of them, but one’s better than none. The twins will understand.
Except nothing happens the way it’s supposed to. The two knuckle-draggers go after each other with fists and belts, but they refuse to relinquish the unicorn. Until, that is, a woman of a certain age, her silver hair glowing in the fluorescent glare, traipses by, her teenage grandson in tow. Oddly, he carries a fire extinguisher. Granny grabs the nozzle, takes aim, and sprays the two men right in the face. Then she picks up Yulie, her grandson ditches the spent fire extinguisher, and they disappear into the filthy throngs.
I find myself idling in the Toddlers department, pawing shirts and studying tiny little shoes, marveling at the idea that the twins were ever so small. I’m glad Jon, or someone, took lots of photos: I almost can’t remember what they looked like! It strikes me that I haven’t been a very good mother. But isn’t that why they have Jon? And Maria? Still, I want them to love me just as much—no, more!—than anyone else. And Yulie Unicorn was going to help make that possible. It was a first step, to be quickly followed by artificial starfish from my Caymans trip and photos of their favorite Disney characters from my annual conference in Orlando. Without Yulie, though, what do I have?
Although I haven’t seen a Wally’s employee for a while, I bump into one as I move from Toddlers to Active Wear. My head’s down, and I’ve just begun to cry, so I smack right into him.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter.
When the man, who’s really just an eighteen-year-old kid, doesn’t respond, I look up. He stares back at me, nonplussed. His eyes are buggy, his skin pallid and pocked. And his uniform smock is stained with—blood? So is his hair. Which seems about right, considering what I’ve witnessed this morning.
“Are you busy? Could you help me?”
Still nothing. He seems catatonic. Could he be injured? Or maybe he’s a deaf-mute? That might explain why he can’t get a job somewhere better.
“You’re an employee here, right?”
“Hang on a minute.” He sets down the purple Spandex running tights he’s been organizing and takes two or three steps my direction. “You can see me?”
The fluorescents overhead flicker and pop.
“Well,” I say, “they haven’t put out all the lights yet.”
“Unbelievable!” His eyes brighten. “You’re the first one. Since it happened, I mean.”
“Don’t feel bad. Management here probably treats everyone like they’re invisible. I bet customers do, too.”
“No, I mean—”
“Look, I’d like to get out of this hellhole ASAP.” I absently stroke the turquoise sheen of a winter running jacket. “I’m here for Yulie Unicorn.”
“That’s a hot item.”
“So I’ve noticed,” I say. “You wouldn’t happen to know if there are more of them, would you? In the back somewhere, maybe?”
Shots erupt across the aisle at the gun counter in Sporting Goods. Not ten feet away, a man wearing a Santa cap tests the tension of a compound bow—or maybe he’s aiming at someone? The Wally’s boy grinds his teeth, eyes darting left and right.
“I’m not supposed to let you back there,” he says. “It’s against the rules.”
“I can appreciate that.” I scan for his nametag, but he’s not wearing one. “What was your name again?”
“Jonathon Licci,” he says.
“My husband’s name is Jon,” I say. “I’m Chrissy Cole.”
We shake. I expect his palm to be sweaty, but it’s bone dry.
“Maybe you’ve heard of me?” he asks.
“It’s possible.” Do all boys his age suffer delusions of grandeur? Sure glad I have girls. “Now how about that storeroom? Maybe we should go before there’s a run on the Calm-Flex yoga pants?”
Just then, a mother-daughter duo blusters into Active Wear. They stop and stare at us.
“Who’s that woman talking to, Mama?”
“Must be one of them whack-jobs we heard about.”
“You really think so?”
“Keep away from her, Charlotte. That lady’s completely off her nut.”
They flee toward Intimate Apparel.
“What was that all about?” I ask.
“You won’t tell anyone if I help you?”
“It’s just between the two of us,” I say. “Mum’s the word.”
“Okay, Mrs. Cole. Follow me.”
It takes some searching, but we eventually locate the Yulie Unicorn stash. I can’t believe my luck. There are a dozen or so of them packed in boxes and stacked neatly on gray metal shelves. I don’t wait for an invitation: I pull two down and begin clawing at the cardboard.
“Just a minute, Mrs. Cole. I’m not sure you want to do that.”
“But it’ll make them easier to carry.”
“Maybe,” he says, scanning adjacent shelves. Then he hands me his pocket knife. “This might help.” He wanders down the row, craning his neck as he searches for something. He’s already around the corner when he says, “You don’t want to advertise, right? You won’t even make it past Cleaning Supplies like that.”
I cut away the tape and pull the pair of Yulie Unicorns out. I’m thrilled to have them, and I try to imagine how happy the twins will be when they open their gifts on Christmas morning. But all I can think is: $47.99 each? Seriously?
Jonathon wanders back, gazing absently my direction. I return his pocket knife; he hands me a camouflage backpack. “For the unicorns,” he says. Couldn’t he have chosen another color? He reaches over and rips the tags off, then frisbees them into the shadows. “Bag’s on me. Just don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Thanks for your help, Jonathon. I appreciate it.”
I stuff the Yulies into the backpack. I’m about to sling it onto my shoulder when he says:
“Could you do me a favor, Mrs. Cole?”
“What is it?”
He hands me an envelope folded in half. It’s crinkled and creased and discolored from handling. Before I can ask, he says, “My final paycheck. Could you get it to my mother for me? She’s having a hard time, and she could use the money.”
“I don’t understand. Why don’t you just—?”
All at once, I realize that the blood isn’t from breaking up another fight over discount chinos in Menswear. Jonathon knows I know, too, because he says:
“Recognize me now?”
“But that’s not possible.”
“A year to the day,” he says. “Those sick bastards knocked me down before I could get the key out of the lock. Some of them heard me yelling, then screaming, as they stampeded into the store, but did anyone try to help? There wasn’t time for that. Too many deals! And in less than five minutes, that was that.”
For a moment, neither of us says a word. On the other side of the wall, Black Friday swells and rages.
“So will you do it, Mrs. Cole?”
Payroll checks are usually only good for ninety days, so it’s unlikely Stern & Frauning, Wally’s parent company, will even honor it.
“No problem,” I say.
“She’s at the address on the check. I still live, used to live, at home.”
I give him a sympathetic smile. He nods. We share a moment.
Then I say, “How am I going to get out of here?”
“It won’t be easy,” Jonathon says. “Your best bet is to take a left, walk till you get to the corner, then turn right. Keep to the outside aisle. That’ll take you past Sporting Goods, Automotive, Bath, and Healthcare/Beauty to the front of the store. And I’d avoid the Express Lane. It’s always the slowest.”
“Thanks again,” I say.
Then, heart rate soaring, I step back into the chaos.
I tiptoe through Home Décor and Toys again. At the corner, I turn right, but I don’t make it very far, as there’s a brawl at the gun counter, and the perimeter aisle is cut off. So I slink down a row of fishing tackle and camping equipment, hoping to avoid getting caught in anyone’s crossfire. On a shelf next to camouflage face paint, there’s an untouched supply of what’s labeled “ursine retardant,” which I suspect must be bear spray. I’m not even sure we have bears in this state, but it seems like it might come in handy as I make my escape, so I grab a couple of cans.
I zigzag from Sporting Goods to Intimate Apparel to Automotive. Every few aisles, customers attack each other over merchandise, using whatever they have at hand, including baseball bats and control-top pantyhose and windshield wiper blades. This mob has no common enemy—other than high prices. In order to cash in on the discounts they think they deserve, they’ve turned on each other.
But I’m not waiting for them to turn on me. From where I crouch in the shampoo aisle in Healthcare/Beauty, proactive seems to be the way to go. I ready my bear spray. And after I drop a kid aiming at me with a crossbow, using it gets easier. In fact, once I temporarily blind a few more shoppers, it almost feels natural.
You wouldn’t think so, but it’s actually kind of fun, too.
Jonathon was right: the Express Lane is backed up. Then again, so are all the other lanes. For some reason, though, once shoppers line up to pay for the loot they’ve secured by any means necessary, most of them calm down. Some even sing along to the holiday music—right now, it’s “Holly, Jolly Christmas”—I hadn’t noticed was playing. Up near the registers, people actually seem to be taking the music to heart.
Only I’m not feeling it. This line’s going nowhere fast. And I’m at the back of it, with more than twenty people in front of me, which means I may never get out of here—not with my unicorns, anyway. Just because the Yulies are safely out of sight doesn’t mean someone won’t jump me for the camo backpack. Wally’s customers are crazy about that leafy green pattern! But the fact is, most shoppers wouldn’t need a reason to tear me limb from limb; they’d do it just for sport. I could be in someone’s crosshairs right this very moment.
“Excuse me,” I say. “I’m in a real hurry. Would you mind if I—?”
“Hell no, lady,” says the forty-something man in front of me. He’s a wall of flesh. “You’ll wait your turn like everybody else.”
“Where’s your holiday spirit?” They all hear me, I’m sure of it. But no one steps aside as I try to push past. No one even acknowledges I’m here. I can’t wait, though. It’s simply too dangerous.
That’s when I holler, “Alright, people. Enough is enough!”
And I open up with my bear spray at point-blank range.
It’s wildly effective, too, as shoppers scream and clutch their eyes. Some fall into the aisle, writhing. I simply nudge the others aside.
When I make it to the register, I unzip my backpack to expose the tags on the unicorns. The checkout girl’s eyes are saucers. She chews on the stud in her tongue; it’s obvious she could use a hit of whatever she smokes.
“You can’t do that, ma’am. That’s against regulations.” She switches her lane light to flashing. “You’ll have to go to the end of the line.”
Which makes no sense because there isn’t one.
“Would you please ring me up? Two Yulie Unicorns, on the two-for-one discount.”
Her lip curls. “What about the backpack?”
“It was a gift. It’s mine.”
The girl aims her gun at the tag dangling from a unicorn’s horn. She reads her register screen, pounds a few buttons, then tries again. “Where did you get these? I can’t sell them to you. They haven’t been inventoried yet.” Then, over the intercom, she yells, “Manager on three! Manager on three!”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I say. Then an idea comes to me. I point the spray nozzles of both cans at her and say, “Open the register.”
“Just do it and cut the backtalk.” When the machine spits out the tray, I say, “Happy holidays!” Then I soak her in ursine retardant, grab the till, and head for the door.
The money will come in handy as soon as I hit the parking lot, ensuring I make it to the Lexus alive, with my Yulie Unicorns in tow. After all, two cans of bear spray only go so far. “Merry Christmas!” I’ll say, tossing wads of tens and twenties, maybe even fifties and hundreds. “Happy New Year!”
The lot’s full, and shoppers mob the entrance, but no one seems at all interested in me or my unicorns. Maybe the camo backpack helps me fit in? You’d think they’d maul me just for the tray of cash I’m carrying, but no one pays me the least mind. I find the Lexus with no trouble, its shiny wheels glinting in the winter sun. A click of the button, and I sink into the ergonomic leather, turn the ignition, blast the heater.
Emergency sirens Doppler my direction.
As I turn onto the frontage road, two fire trucks, followed closely by an ambulance and a swarm of police cars, scream through the underpass. I glance at the camo backpack stuffed with Yulies, then at the full till of money. And I think about the paycheck Jonathon asked me to pass along to his mother. “Whatever’s in the till,” I say, feeling the Christmas spirit pulsing through me, “I’ll match it—no, I’ll double it!” I consider what a difference the financial boost will make to Mrs. Licci—especially knowing it’s from her son. And I imagine the twins’ expressions when they open their presents, the way they’ll squeal and scream and run around in mad little circles. The way they’ll smother me with kisses and love me with every ounce of their little hearts.
I think about it all, and I know I’ve accomplished something important here today.