Leaving my car at the burger joint, I decided to walk over to the store. When the a customer approached the front door, I slipped in behind him and perched just inside on an old overstuffed armchair, faux leather.
Let the story begin.
The first sign that something wasn’t right was when Elizabeth saw him at the register waving the cashier away. She was still outside and knew he was focusing on the customers in the store, and who might see him, and hadn’t thought it through. That’s odd, she thought.
Instead of going inside, she went back to the car and eased into the driver’s seat. She knew that he would never notice her unless she moved around.
She saw the cashier, looking scared, and very stressed, motion to the other employees and nod towards the the back rom. There were at least 6 of them on the floor and they all moved together being very careful to avoid looking at the cash wrap and the open register in front of the regional manager, Jerry.
Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. How could you do this to me?
Her heart was pounding in her chest and she felt her left arm going numb. 37 years. Thirty seven bloody years, all undone by one man. She’d ignored all the signs, she’d heard all the rationalizations and poorly fabricated lies and because she was so close to retirement, she’d learned to turn off or override her bullshit meter until this minute. Now it was over. The end.
I was standing just inside the door, invisible to both of them. I’d spent the last year developing a meditative state that was easy to slip in and out of, but muted my features enough to let me hang out in the background without attracting notice, and actually rendering part of my body invisible. Jerry was calmly pulling out both drawers and replacing the larger bills with ones he was pulling from his briefcase. Probably counterfeit, awfully careless, amazingly bold. He wasn’t even breaking a sweat I thought, no sign of anything out of the ordinary.
I scooted around in the chair to saw that Elizabeth was opening the driver’s door, and starting to step out.As I watched, she collapsed, her neck caught on the seat belt, the weight of her body suspended in midair. The impact of her door hitting the SUV in the next spot set off the car alarm. Oh shit, what can I do I thought. I’m still in the trance and will remain invisible for another 10 minutes, can I even dial 911?.
Jerry looked up from the register when the alarm first went off, startled by the sound but ignoring it once it was identified. When it continued to make that irritating repetitive piercing tune and none of the customers on the floor looked up or seemed to care, he glanced outside again and recognized her car. Now he was nervous. Elizabeth was here, but where?
I was now standing up, just inside the door trying to figure out what to-do. I was the one who had sent the fake text message that brought her out here.. She never suspected it wasn’t from Jerry, she just didn’t think that way. I had guessed this was the time of day he raided the register, when the polling systems were scanning, and the loss prevention team was pulling images from all the stores, leaving a dark gap in the security system that Jerry himself, had been involved in designing.
Now, it looked like the shock of what she saw might have killed her, by forcing her to face a reality I wasn’t sure of, until a few moments ago. A new customer approached the front door from the lot and I slipped outside walking over to her car, nailing my thigh on a cement filled pipe meant to keep the cars from running into the building. Guess invisible doesn’t mean walking through things I thought. Not like in the movies.
I looked around the door and saw that she was slowly turning blue, her breathing shallow and labored. It was a quiet time of day in retail, and the lot was mostly empty.
I saw a black and white pull in the front driveway, parking across the lot against the building next door. A female cop got out, in full uniform and looked our way, then headed in the door.
Hey, how much time have I got? I thought. It’s getting close.. I got to the corner and looked in both directions. Typical that there would be a million cars whizzing by in either direction so I had to wait for a signal or I’d get hit, probably several times before my body was visible again. I think I have time to get back to the burger joint and go directly to the ladies room.
I made it. Entering the room, I saw that both stalls were empty, and I grabbed the handle on the nearest one pulled it open and slipped inside. I felt a slight tingling as my body reformed and once it seemed to fade, I stepped out, looked in the mirror, and saw that part of my skull was missing. Jesus, what now I thought. I went into the main part of the place, made a run for the car, trying not to look at anyone on my way through the crowd. As I paused for a moment searching for the door, a young boy around 3, in his mother’s arms, saw me and started screaming. Everyone, including the staff turned in his direction, allowing me to exit without anyone noticing me. I jumped into the car, turned on the ignition, and headed towards the drive through lane. I was 3rd in line, and had just placed an order for 10 burgers- all done “my way” as directed on the long computer generated list created by my co-workers. Ordering alone had taken 5 minutes at the speaker, causing cars behind me to honk and edge closer: the reflection of faces glaring from the cars in my rear view mirror. I felt really foolish and began to sweat. How humiliating, I can’t believe this is happening to me, now. I was already anticipating abuse from the manager, who had lost his patience with whiney customers at least a half hour ago. One down, one more to go and I’d have to confess.
In preparation for the pick up, I reached over and stuck my hand in the open top of my handbag, grabbing my wallet, and in that process snagging a fingernail on the coin zipper, that ripped it partway off. Shit, I said involuntarily biting my tongue and causing my eyes to water. I forgot to go to the bank. This is all I need.
Hold on. If I move slowly, really slowly towards the cashier window, with plenty of space in front of me, once that guy moves, I bet I can floor it, and shoot past the cashier. I should be able to make the right and be on the street long before the guard runs out the side door. Do I dare? I’ll never be able to go back again and I love their burgers. And what in the world am I going to do about the people at work- glancing up every time the door opens, is she back yet? I wonder if missing part of my head will reappear by then. Reaching up I laid my hand on the area that looked like it was missing, and felt my head intact. This is so bizarre.
Do they even have a guard? What do they do with all the burgers people leave behind. Do the employees take them home to their families, or do they make them throw the food in the trash so no one thinks they are stealing inventory.
Now what? The driver in the car ahead of me is getting out of the passenger seat, wedging himself diagonally, squeezing through the tiny space between the door and the window. Wait a second, he’s wearing a ski mask and, holy shit that looks like a gun. He’s coming this way. Jesus, he left the car running, I can see the exhaust coughing out white toxic clouds. Did that idiot put the parking brake on at least?, I can see it now, that creep’s ratty old car rolling back and crunching my bumper. A grand at least to make it look decent.
I’m trapped, now stuck in line along with four others- sitting ducks for this creative criminal, and out of all the people in the whole wide world, he has selected us to be his focus group, his test case.
Will she cooperate or will he blow her away? I could almost feel peoples thoughts, sensing the tension in the air rising as the others realized what was going on. I watched him moving closer.
“Give me your wallet” he said and I reached over, picking it up off the seat. “Take it, take it”, avoiding eye contact, “take it, easy, here” .In an instant he is going, already moving on to the next car. I see his lips move “G I V E me your W A L L E T!”
If I was going to rob people this way I would have scripted my ask. “ GIVE ME YOUR MONEY!” Ask for what you want, god damn it. I wouldn’t really care about the wallet, I’d just want the cash. The wallet is a fingerprint trap, and I’m not stupid enough to use people’s debit cards to buy, say, a lavish lunch at Souplantation.
Talk about humiliating. Imagine ending up on the news for pulling a runner over hamburgers- then deciding to rob the hungry people waiting in line. Jesus, what guts!
I’m still sitting in the same place. I realize, with a little sigh of relief, that my money problem has been solved by this sleazy robber, who I’m going to call Jerome. I’m so sorry, I”ll say to the cashier as I pull up, I just got robbed, and can’t pay you for the burgers right now but I’ll come back later, I promise. I picture the look of disgust on their faces. Hey lady, this happens at least once a day at this joint. If you don’t pay me they take it out of my paycheck. Yeah, I already know it’s against the law, but I gotta feed my family. At least give me something I can pawn to make up for the money they’ll deduct.
Just as I finish that thought, I see a person crawling out of the cashier window and jumping behind the wheel of the robbers’ car. He too is wearing a ski mask. He puts the car into gear and screams around the corner of the building out of my line of sight.
I’m afraid to move. Where’s the guy with the gun. I hear a door slam and glance behind me to see him jumping into the car, and speeding off. I still can’t move, but now people behind me, trapped in this line, start honking and yelling out their windows. “Move your ass lady, hey let’s get moving, what’s wrong with you.”
I hear sirens in the distance, growing closer. I see them now, five black & whites turning into the strip mall and screecthing to a halt, but not here, on the other side of the lot. The guy behind me looks really nervous. I can tell he is breathing unnaturally and sweating even from here. He’s fidgety, looking around him, searching for an escape route, and realizing there isn’t one, at least not one he can use and stay in the car at the same time.
Why aren’t they over here, I think, as I watch four more cop cars arrive. There are uniforms all over the place, swarming into all of the businesses on the north side of the mall, not even looking our way. They’ve got the entrance blocked off and there are two cops talking to everyone trying to leave. And why aren’t they across the street where Elizabeth’s dead body is probably still hanging from the seatbelt, people not even seeing her, as they focus on the doorway ahead in the heat of the afternoon.
I put my foot on the gas pedal, and ease up to the cashiers window. A young girl with a name tag “Hi, my name is Maria, smiles and says that’ll be $22.50 and holds out her hand. Her eye makeup is smeared all over her face, rivers of dry tears leaving jagged gaps in her perfectly applied foundation. The neatly pressed uniform she came to work in is ripped and patches of dirt discolor the arms and shoulders, continuing down her arm on the left side. Her eyes almost glow they are shining so brightly, and her smile appears to be fixed on the missing part of my head. Nothing surprises me today, I can hear her thinking. Nothing.
I open my mouth and even I can’t hear myself speak. She leans out of the window, bending down towards the window, straining to hear my response. I can’t talk. I’ve lost my voice along with a part of my visibility. I am now completely and utterly lost. I’m never at a loss like this, I think. I can always figure something out. Always.
She is saying something to me, but I can’t understand her, I can’t hear her. I can still move though, and I glance in the overhead mirror to see the cars behind me, one by one, backing out, one of those old guys, volunteer police who used to belong to Rotary, acting as a traffic cop to make sure no one gets hurt, or rather no cars get hurt, and directing them over to the center parking lanes where a police triage maneuver is set up. I wonder if they call it triage like an ER, or if there is a special name for it in the law enforcement trade.
The sound of a siren interrupts my chain of thought and I looked over towards the store. The ambulance took the right into the lot without slowing down, almost hitting a guy in a walker , hearing aid turned off, who was just entering the driveway.