by Drewry Scott
She came clattering toward him with her cart. He noticed the hair first, wild and thin, a bluish white. Her waxy gray skin like plastic visible underneath. She looked lost. Her mouth was set into an O shape of moaning or sleep, and as he got closer her eyes seemed intelligent and concerned. She came down the lane in the parking lot, looking around, scanning the cars.
Almost positive she was going to talk to him, Doug made the first move. “Ma’am? Is everything alright?”
She looked up at him, to him standing there. “I swear I’d lose my…” The coat she wore was open and it was cold. “I’d lose my… I can’t find my car. I swear it was…” Her voice was small and blown away, although there wasn’t much of a breeze. It was lost in the lot along with her.
“Your car?” His voice sounded funny too. “That’s happened to me before. I swear they make these lots so big these days.”
“I must have gotten turned around.” She looked toward the store. “I think I came in this way.”
Doug asked what the car looked like. “It’s a—ah…” Her bags were barely full, three of them. A carton of orange juice in one. A prescription in another? Yogurt. Fake sweetener. “It’s a Mercedes. White.”
Of course it’s a Mercedes, he thought. Then wondered why he thought that. “Well, I’m sure it’s close by. Let’s take a look around.”
That was when he had his first flash of it, warm and sobering, which he would at once recognize intimately. He would end up chasing it for years to come, attempting to reconcile the shadows and reflections, what its angles were and the feeling of its texture as it sat silent like a lump within him.
“Let’s step a little to the side, alright?” he said, looking behind her. A truck went by. “…Get out of the road here…” Almost shameful, what he was doing. It’s alright to sort of steer into this, he thought. Right? While he’s at it, he could at least enjoy it. She seemed so helpless. She gets his help and he gets this, it’s fair.
He squinted and scanned the horizon: a vista of cars in innumerable shapes and sizes resting in the shade of the looming and bustling store. Aware of the sound, the white noise of cars and people and shopping carts. He didn’t see hers.
“Can I see your… Does your key have a—” He pressed his thumb into the side of his index finger a few times. “A—uh panic button?”
“Well, I don’t know. Let’s see here.” She pulled the key out, a key with an attached electronic fob. She placed it in his hand and Doug immediately felt wrong holding it. Did this look ok? he wondered. He was a young man after all, inherently guilty as all young men are…
The fob did have a panic button, small and red on the side of it, PANIC in raised letters. He lifted the keys and fob in the air and pressed it. He wasn’t hiding them, she had given them to him, it looked fine.
The button felt flimsy and less satisfying than it should. No sound. No honking.
“We should hear it.” Looking around again.
She was quiet. She’d stopped looking even. It was entirely in his hands now. This was good. He was good. He hadn’t even thought twice about stopping to help, that was a fact. Even if he never found the car, he’d at least have this: the feeling of trying to do something good. No thought, just action. What other testament do you need to assess someone’s moral fortitude or the fiber of their character besides an instantaneous, knee-jerk compulsion to do good when called upon, to help those less fortunate (was she less fortunate? She was old. And you help old ladies, right?)? That would be all you would need to hear—that without hesitation, Doug stopped to help an old woman, freezing in the parking lot.
He decided at that moment to never, ever tell anyone about this.
Turning back to her, he said, “I’m gonna just go down the lane a bit, ok?” and started forward without waiting for her response.
In the past when he’d helped people—and not all that rarely when he thought about it— when he’d really gone out of his way and taken that extra step, gone the extra mile, afterward when he’d tell the story of his good deed, Doug noticed that his feelings around the event would end up changed irreparably. The memory would seem to lose some of its more important qualities. Its luster, the tone or texture of it within him was changed forever, was cheapened. The pureness, the pure feeling of helping was replaced by the story, the story and the way he told it and his audience’s reaction to it.
Of course it goes without saying that Doug never initially set out to help people just for the story, for the benefit of conversation or to make himself appear a certain way—maybe selfless or altruistic, or better than other people—but through the act of recalling the event he’d feel overcome with the notion that that’s why he’d done it in the first place, the good deed. And no matter how he framed the story or preceded it (“Anyone would have done the same thing” or “I was just in the right place at the right time”) it caused him to feel scummy, cheap, and caused any good feeling around the act of helping to be erased for good…
But not this time, he thought. He’d keep this one pure.
He turned back, concerned with leaving her too far behind, and saw a man next to her. He heard the man’s voice emerge from the noise of the lot: “Everything alright, ma’am?” He was young, like himself, maybe a few years older. White, perhaps a little more muscular. He wore an un-logoed gray cap.
He walked back and before she could answer the man Doug butted in, showing the keys in his hand to the guy in the hat. “She’s fine,” he said. “She’s misplaced her car.”
The man’s eyes snapped to him, eyebrows angled in concern, then turned back to her. “Yeah, I saw you walking out there, looking lost. I thought I’d offer my help.”
Her voice still small. “I don’t know where in the world I—”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” the guy in the hat interrupted. “All these cars! They design the lots to be so confusing these days!”
Who was this guy? Doug wondered. Didn’t he see she was already getting help? What could he do that I’m not already doing? He raised the keys again. “I—uh, tried pressing the panic button, but I—”
“Panic?” The guy had his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Surely there’s no reason to panic. Isn’t that right, ma’am? We’ll get you out of here in no time, trust me.”
“That’s just what it’s called,” Doug mumbled. “Well, I guess if you’ve got a better idea…”
“Well, first off—” The guy in the hat reached down. “Let’s get this coat buttoned up, shall we? Don’t want you catching something out here.”
The woman laughed. Doug’s jaw dropped. This guy was sick. What was he doing touching this poor woman? Now Doug was extra glad he’d stopped. If only to protect her from whatever this creep’s sinister game was.
The guy finished buttoning, and then brushed off her shoulders lightly. Unbelievable. Then, “May I see the keys?” He was holding his hand out.
Doug’s grip reflexively tightened on them. “I’ve tried the button. I don’t know what else you would be able to—”
“Is it just yourself out shopping today, ma’am?” She answered that it was. His hand was back on her shoulder. Maybe he was trying to rob her. Or worse. This was gross. Doug had to get away from the two of them, find her car himself and finally get her on her way.
“I’m going—I’m gonna go look a little further down,” Doug said, maybe with a little more audible annoyance than intended.
“We’ll join you,” the hat guy answered, ushering along the woman with her clattering cart.
They followed a few feet behind as Doug muttered to himself and stabbed at the button a few more times, aiming it to the left and right, behind the back, trying to look competent, in control, undisturbed by the weirdo in the hat. He could hear the guy back there, talking to her like a child or a puppy. He heard them both laugh at something. He wondered what at.
Evening was falling and Doug was chilled by the sudden fear that he wouldn’t find the car. Maybe he should just let this guy help instead. He stopped walking abruptly. “You know what—” he held the key out to the man in the hat. “Here you go. Maybe you’d like to try.”
“No, actually it looks like you’ve got it.” He had his arm all the way around the woman’s back now, hugging her from the side. Is this some weird thing I’m not aware of? Doug thought. Trolling parking lots for old ladies? Admittedly his own dating life had been in a slump lately, but—
“I’m not having any luck with it.” He tried to smile. “Was thinking maybe if you wanted to try the next lane over? Take the key and try it over there?”
“Nah it’s all you, bud.”
Bud. He thought of slicing the guy’s throat. Gouging the key deep in an artery. Turning it like an engine. Maybe he would be saving this woman’s life; something about the guy seemed predatory. Doug turned abruptly and walked toward the next lane, leaving them behind. He could hear them continuing their conversation as he left.
He peered between cars to see lanes further down, stood on his tippy toes to see over SUVs. A pair of dogs cached in a hatchback erupted into a snarling frenzy and made him jump, but he played it cool. In the lane a large truck was coming too fast and stopped quickly before hitting him. The man inside frowned at him, watched as he crossed.
Doug muttered curses to himself. He wished for awful things to happen to the guy in the hat, wished the guy didn’t exist, wasn’t on this Earth to ruin this thing Doug had going. He switched to trying the lock and unlock buttons. He was two lanes over from where he had left them and considered going back.
Maybe he would tell someone about this after all. It was too strange not to: this weird guy and his whole predatory thing on this poor old woman. It would be good to get perspective. He considered briefly whether he was wrong, if he had misread the situation. It was important to him that he consider alternate angles, that he practice empathy.
No one was above reproach, including himself.
But wrong or right this guy was seriously putting a damper on him trying to help, of doing something pure and good, and now had even ruined the whole idea of keeping it to himself, because he’d definitely have to tell someone about this—the guy’s creepy arm around her shoulder and putting his hands on her to button her coat—which really was a shame because he thought the idea of helping her and keeping it secret was suddenly very important. Doug didn’t believe in God, but he believed in this, or tried to anyway, that humans were inherently good and that the other stuff—the telling and bragging—did nothing but get in the way and corrupt what was once pure. And it wasn’t so far off from religion in fact, what Doug was trying to do, of what a God-fearing person strives to do. But of course they broadcast their good deeds throughout the world, because how else would you know they were being done? And here Doug was in this lonely parking lot, and actually he’d been pretty lonely lately too and really would have had an excuse to ignore this old woman and go on about his business, because actually he had his own various troubles to contend with. We all do but he did too, that was for sure…
He pressed the button but still heard no honking.
This was crazy, he thought. He couldn’t let the guy in the hat win. He had to do something. He was here first. Doug pivoted on his heels and stomped back in their direction. Their eyes snapped expectantly to him as he came up, Doug picturing himself as a freight train with mysterious and dangerous cargo, more steam than track in front of him. He looked the man straight in the eyes and acted on the first impulse he had: reaching down and grabbing the woman’s orange juice from her cart, popping the cap off and raising it to his lips. Huge gulps of juice came painfully roaring down his throat.
“Oh!” the woman yelped. “You must have been thirsty out—out there looking for the… well, help yourself.”
His throat burned badly between swallows, but Doug didn’t stop. His esophagus stung and the frigid juice made his back molars ache maddeningly. Through watering eyes he glanced down to see the guy in the hat looking horrified. Doug had drained the carton halfway or more before he stopped, then proceeded to gasp ragged lungfuls of air through the mucus and pulp clogging his passages. His stomach leapt and he gagged, but forced himself to swallow hard, again and again.
“Thank you,” Doug croaked, feeling tingling waves of nausea all over his body.
The guy in the hat was looking toward the woman, waiting for more of a response from her. Not getting any he sneered and said, “Yeah, well, didn’t find it, did you? Tough luck.”
Doug capped the orange juice and cleared his throat. He looked at the woman straight on and spoke, his voice robust with reassurance. “Nope. No luck that-a-way, ma’am. But I’ve got a good feeling about the other way. Over there.” He pointed rigidly. Turning to the guy in the hat, Doug jutted his chin slightly forward. “I think we’ve got this, yeah? I’ll find the car. Let’s not embarrass the lady, right? You can be on your way.”
The man looked between the two of them, gauging his response. The old woman wouldn’t meet either of their eyes, and pretended to fiddle with something in her purse. The man in the hat had lost.
“O—oh… okay. Well. Good luck to you, ma’am…” His voice receded as he retreated back in the direction of the store and out of sight, the strange pervert. Where would he go? He envisioned the man turning around the corner of the store and breaking down in tears. The thought sent a cascade of blood to Doug’s lower body that he chose to not think about.
He turned. “Now then—” pointing right at her, inches from her face. “You stay there, you old lady. I’m gonna find your car.” She belonged to him now, he thought. She was his for life, if he wanted. She couldn’t do anything about it.
He was gonna find that car.
Doug felt strong and strangely sexy. He started in the other direction, squeezing between side mirrors and emerging into the next lane. An old sedan screeched to a halt, and he passed in front not looking at the driver but giving a resolute thumbs-up while cries of anger could be heard from within. His eyes swept the lot, him thinking that this is what his eyes were built for.
He spun the keys on his finger like a gunslinger and whistled shallowly, then with a flourish he swung them up and caught them in his palm. His poised finger stabbed into the panic button…
And he heard something.
Very faint over the din of cart wheels on pavement and the nearby boulevard traffic, a distinct honk honk honk of a car alarm. A slight breeze had picked up, carrying the sound, but even still Doug figured it to be coming from two lanes over, in the far corner of the parking lot. He considered going back for the old woman but decided not to. He couldn’t bear the thought of being wrong, dragging her all that way for nothing. The thought of losing her for good to all manner of strange and hatted men with their sick desires—he didn’t know what he would do in that case.
The next lane was free of traffic, but he only narrowly avoided a driver’s side door flying open between two cars, then performed a twirling maneuver to bypass a woman and little girl holding hands on their way toward the store.
Then he was there. The last lane. His eyes went down the row and caught a glint of white fender, then the symbol. There it was—the white Mercedes. He stood in front of it and hit the door lock button on the fob. Sure enough, the parking lights flashed and he heard its locks click. This was it. He gazed back across the parking lot, a tingling within him mounting that urged him to sprint back to the woman immediately, shouting toward the heavens. That was when he heard a voice:
“You’ve found them!”
The voice belonged to an old woman. A different woman. Was it?
She came clattering up with her cart, a big smile across her face. It was definitely a different woman. Maybe.
“I dropped them inside,” she said. “I thought so anyway. I’ve had people in there looking everywhere… but you’ve found them!”
“What?” Doug stared.
Same blue cotton candy hair, buttoned up gray coat.
“My keys! You’ve found them!”
He looked at the keys and at the vehicle, then her cart: a few bags of things, no trace of the carton of orange juice.
“Good thinking!” she said. “Meeting me at the car. Very smart of you. I would have been in big trouble if I’d lost them for good. I hear those key things are pretty expensive…” Doug saw she was holding her hand out.
He stared back at where he’d come, trying to see past the cars to find the other old woman. “Um. I don’t think these are yours.”
“Nonsense! This is my car! They were saying maybe I put the keys on the belt, the checkout belt, and perhaps someone grabbed them by mistake, which happens they said, but oh well, no harm done.” Her wrinkled hand was still out.
He gave up. He dropped the keys into her palm. “Now.” She hit one of the buttons and the doors clunked unlocked. “Allow me to give you a ride to your own car.” She started putting her groceries in the back, and after she finished she got in. Doug opened the passenger door.
“Did you have orange juice?” he asked. “A carton of it?”
Looking a bit puzzled, she replied, “Yes? Yes, I did. But a young man drank most of it. He was trying to help me earlier. I think he got confused and thought it was his. My husband’s just going to have to wait till tomorrow for more. Hop in, please!”
After some overly careful reversing, they drove down and around the lot, passing by lanes Doug had crossed through earlier. A crucifix dangled from the woman’s rearview mirror. Passing the lane where he’d first met the old woman, he looked out and saw sitting there in the lot was the cart—her cart—in the same place. Bags of items were still inside, blowing slightly in the evening breeze, but no woman. He couldn’t see if there was an orange juice carton.
“Thank you,” Doug muttered. “For the ride.”
“Well, of course,” she replied happily. “One good turn gets another, you know.”
He stared out the window. The sun was setting finally. It smelled nice inside, a kind of perfume. Doug indicated a car at random and got out, stood, waited for her to get far enough away.
Drewry Scott is a resident of the Pacific Northwest and graduate of Evergreen State College. He passes the time with a grumpy, 16-year-old cat. He is also the author of a darkly comedic horror novel, Sunny, for which he is currently seeking representation or publication. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org