A short story entered into the Show Don't Tell Contest - November 2019
It Could Happen To Anyone
Thursday, November 27, 2007
Ruby’s eyes narrowed into a malevolent squint: demanding, compelling, frigging commanding the inert object in her hand to respond. “You can’t do this to me!” she railed; “I need you!” Her index finger pummeled the screen’s belly, to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.
Arms akimbo, chin to chest, she stared numbly at the recalcitrant Garmin. “Doomed,” she whispered, then looked at the small, tented calendar on her desk. A green neon asterisk obliterated a quarter of the November 28, 2007 square inside which she had written: ‘9:00 am-Willoughby Interview.’
“Why did you have to die today?” she whined, and glared at the Garmin.
Her eyes widened, “Maybe I can do it without the Garmin,” a confident air took over while she keyed in Willoughby and Associates, LLC’s address on the computer’s keyboard. Ruby blinked, then felt her heart pound.
“35 miles,” before hundreds of characters, that included abstract N, E, S, W symbols, highway numbers and sundry other pieces of information, which her panicked mind failed to understand, filled the monitor’s screen. The computer whirred, then the screen blinked on refresh.
Her wide-eyed stare closed in pained recognition. “Oh god,” she whimpered cradling her forehead. “I can’t go through that again.”
Memories of wrong turns that transformed into terrifying escapades flooded her mind. She recalled strangers waving with confused smiles while her car looped past them. And, the significant amount of money lost in mere hours while she circled through O’Hare Airport’s parking tollgates while searching for the elusive exit to the expressway.
But the worst had to be the freezing panic that grew within her brain over the course of frenzied hours. When caught within some dyslectic odyssey, gleaned from a fractured space-time continuum, she was forced to drive over the same suburban streets in a never-ending circuitous route; designed by something akin to the mysterious being known as “Q”! An evil, spiteful prankster residing deep within Star Trek - Next Generation’s nether regions, who laughed with maniacal overtones while he denied entry into the route’s only exit.
There could be no other rational explanation for these horrifying episodes that persecuted her.
If only it weren’t the Willoughby Interview, she thought, then defiantly declared; “I’ve worked hard for this! I deserve it!”
Ruby recalled the excitement and its attendant butterflies, when the headhunter called this week, and set-up her appointment with Willoughby, the region’s largest accounting firm. And, the sheer pleasure that filled her being when she shared the good news with her parents tonight at Thanksgiving dinner. They were so happy for her.
But the most gratifying, and by far the most rewarding news came during today’s lunch with her mentors. They, and others in-the-know, confirmed that nothing less than a partnership offer was on the table.
“A partnership!” she yelled at the Garmin’s carcass, before pushing it hard across the Oak desk until it bounced back from the wall.
“Damn.” Ruby stood and walked into the kitchen. Her mind awash with a flurry of thoughts revolving around a solution. She picked-up the lovingly prepared to-go plate of tasty Thanksgiving treats; opened the frig, deposited the plate, and removed a beer.
“The problem: I need a new Garmin before 7:30 am tomorrow.” She sat at the desk; and took another sip of beer. “The mall sells Gamins.”
On her computer, she searched for Century Park Shopping Mall, Brighten Hills, Wisconsin.’ Its website listed Black Friday Hours: All stores will open at Midnight.
"It’s 7:30 pm. If I go to sleep now, get up at midnight, I can leave by 12:30 am, get to the Mall by 1:30 am, and be home by 3:30. Yes! It can work.”
Alarm time set, Ruby ran her bare feet in a quick race against the cool sheets then snuggled into the down mattress and drifted off to sleep.
Ruby stared confused at the boxy red numbers: 2:17 am. “No! I remember setting the alarm.” She turned the clock and checked. “Damn.” The time had been changed, but alarm was still set to off.
Propelled out of bed Ruby was ready by 3:30 am. “I can still make it.” She voiced her timetable while she ran from her bedroom to her desk. “The Mall by 4:30 am, Garmin by 5:30, home by 6:30, leave for the interview by 8:00. Yes, it can work.”
While the car warmed, Ruby spent the next moments reviewing the series of turns from home to the mall. It would only take one delinquent turn to destroy this vital mission.
Ruby entered the Mall’s parking lot, at 4:15 am. Streams of headlights sparkled in the falling snow. She followed blinking red taillights across acres of asphalt.
Snow crunched under the tires.
She walked toward the broad wall of glass doors marking the Mall entrance, and watched the milling horde. Even at this time of the morning, the crowd around the entrance was huge.
Countless people stood along the curb next to boxes, waiting to be picked-up; while others crisscrossed through entrance doors. Some joined a flood of customers in the pedestrian walks, while others disappeared within the Mall. Traffic lanes close to the entrance were snarled, while flocks of consumers conveyed colorful containers, filled with their spoils from successful shopping forays, back to their cars.
She hated crowds and nothing she saw made Ruby feel comfortable. Mob rule, and all that psychology stuff. A throng had run amok in Chicago, she didn't need to see it again.
To change the subject, she forced herself to think of something else, and tried to remember her way to the Garmin store, but failed.
“What was it called? Travel? … No .... Traveler? … Maybe … Traver info?” Shaking her head, “It’s Travel something.” And searched the broad octagonal shaped lobby for a directory. The large mall clock read: 4:25 am. ‘I’m ahead of schedule.’
Her gaze moved down and across the tall, gray and yellow directory until she found Travelogue. “3rd floor SE.
“Southeast? Where the heck is southeast!?”
A young man, not much older than Ruby, stopped and stared. Emboldened by fear, Ruby asked, “Do you know where southeast is?”
The man laughed, said something to his female partner, and then continued deeper into the Mall.
Ruby glared with evil intent while whispering, “I hope they’re sold out of whatever you want!”
With false confidence, she strode toward the crowded escalator and jumped into the November 28, 2007 Black Friday shopping madness. Scrunched beside two teens and behind a family of three, Ruby rode escalators from the first floor to the third. Her immediate wish list included, “A directory with pictures, please”.
She stood to the side of the centered escalator to avoid people hoisting cartons to their shoulders, and others laden with bulging bags of both plastic and paper varieties, then moved to the floor’s directory.
Travelogue was supposed to be down the aisle that started with Cooking Things; then to the left of River Books.
Ruby stared at the empty storefront with the red “For Rent’ sign. The dust-etched shadows above the door spelled ‘Travelogue’.
“Aw, no,” she sighed. “Who else could sell Garmins?” She wondered as she walked back to the 3rd floor lobby.
At the directory, Ruby found two possibilities: Gardner’s department store on the 4th level, and a big box store on the 2nd. The time was 4:41. “If I can buy the Garmin by 5:30, I’m golden.”
Gardner’s was a well-respected, albeit expensive, regional store where she bought her clothes. She exited the escalator and stood at Gardner’s in-store directory. The Electronics Department seemed to occupy a broad section somewhere to the left of where she was now, and back along the far wall of the store.
With a warm smile, she approached a kind and willing soul dressed in Garner’s distinctive blue-striped uniform. After asking for directions, she listened carefully, nodded sincerely, and even repeated notable words back; then thanked the person for their help, and promptly forgot all but two key words of the directions. She never knew why or how this happened, but it always did! Adrift and directionless, she began looking for another helper in blue stripes - out of sight of the last one, of course.
She repeated the full sequence, scalloping her way across the floor, until she reached her destination.
Ten minutes later, she walked around a large, oval glass counter that stood in a quiet section of the Electronics Department. Near the register, she stopped. Her heart raced. “Thank you,” she whispered to any and all of the benevolent gods that may have been listening, while she stared at the boxed version of her coveted Garmin.
Ruby looked for blue stripes and noticed a crowd of them across a broad aisle from where she stood, in the computer area. Uniformed employees mingled among throngs of customers while thick lines of restless patrons cued behind three ringing registers. “Sales, I bet,” she said, and she recalled the Store’s famed ‘blue light specials.’
In her section, however, there was just one employee, her name tag read, Linda.
Ruby was on one side of the register, and a woman looking at cameras was on the other. Would you mind sharing the clerk?
While she walked past the register, and along the counter toward the woman, her heels clicked against the wooden floor. Under the guise of looking inside the glass case, Ruby watched the woman.
Her features were hawkish. A strongly angled nose, thin lips, a high forehead and a narrow chin. She had an average frame and her hair was much too black to be natural.
She seemed engrossed in her examination of two models of cameras. Picking-up one, turning it over, before putting it down and taking the other. Ruby’s final observation: her hands appeared much older than her face – surgery?
The clerk brought another camera, and took one back. “Is there anything else you need?” … “No?” … “Alright, I’ll be back,” the clerk said, and left with the camera. The woman ignored all of the clerk’s efforts, which Ruby thought was rude.
“Is it a gift?” Ruby asked. The customer snapped her head toward Ruby, deep brown eyes seemed to glare into Ruby’s soul.
“Are you asking me?”
Ruby identified a subtle French accent mixed with a haughty, ‘do you know who you’re talking to’ tone in her voice.
Undeterred, she continued, “They’re both nice choices. Are you buying a gift?’
The customer’s gaze hardened, before she turned; her gnarly hands gathered cameras before she walked parallel to the counter.
“Seriously?” Ruby chuckled, then turned and walked toward the clerk.
“I know you’re helping someone else, but I’m ready to buy a Garmin, if you could help me.”
“Miss!” The customer yelled across the counter “I have a question.”
The clerk watched Ruby remove the blue, premium Gardner’s credit card from her purse. “All you need to do is ring it up.”
“Which one did you want?” Linda asked with a smile.
Ruby walked a short distance and pointed. “That one.”
“I’m still waiting!” The customer seethed. Ruby smiled and watched Linda pick-up the Garmin.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, ma’am,” the clerk spoke into the glass case, which muffled some of her words.
“Is this the one?” The clerk asked Ruby with a smile.
“Yes, thank you.”
Ruby slid the blue credit card behind her thumb letting it rest against the wall of her left fist. It stood upright, like a flag for all to see, as Ruby made a victory lap back to the register.
“Thank you for your help, Linda,” Even to Ruby’s ears she spoke a touch too loud, and her smile was a touch too warm, as she gave Linda her credit card.
Moments later, she took the small shopping bag. Ruby watched the clerk return to the impatient woman.
As the woman scowled at Linda, Ruby walked behind her, leaned to the right and said, “That’s how it’s done. Happy holidays.”
In Gardner’s lobby, Ruby put the receipt and her credit card into her purse, then zipped her down coat over it. A security measure learned in Chicago. She put the small shopping bag with her prized purchase into the crook of her left arm, and snuggled it against her chest.
She looked at the clock, before she stepped on to the 4th floor escalator to travel down to the first floor: 5:32 am. “Still on time.”
On the 3rd floor, after stepping on the escalator, a sudden jolt on her left, pushed her into the side of the escalator. “Oh, no!” Finger’s splayed, hands jutted forward and pushed hard against the broad shoulders of the man in front of her. His massive head turned; hazel eyes glared at Ruby. “Watch it.” There was menace in his growl.
“I’m so sorry,” Ruby said, as she gripped the hand rest for leverage and balance. “I don’t know how that happened.”
“Excuse me.” An elderly man on her left said, as he adjusted his cane, “I’m afraid I still have problems keeping my balance. Are you alright, my dear?”
Still settling, Ruby increased her grip on the hand rest, then moved the little shopping bag to her right hand. “Yes, I’m fine; are you?”
“Yes, just getting used to the crowded escalators. Do you have more shopping to do tonight?”
“No, I’m done; and you?”
“Yes, still lots to do.”
When the escalator reached the 2nd floor transition, Ruby moved her left hand toward the man’s elbow to help him. In only a moment, he stepped past her and exited the escalator with a step so spry it belied his age, then maneuvered through the crowd like a pro, and disappeared down an aisle of stores.
Taken aback, she stared at the old man’s quick progress. When he disappeared, she forgot about him. All she wanted to do was get home, have some coffee, set up the Garmin, and relax before getting ready for her interview.
On the decent to the first floor, she looked ahead but didn’t recognize this section of the lobby. The wall of doors that identified the Mall’s entrance weren’t visible. That made her nervous.
A familiar sense of dread began to creep into her mind. It always happened when she thought she was lost.
Centered behind groups of families, she followed them down the aisle toward the next two shops. A comforting scent of warm leather wafted from the open door of a men’s shoe store as she passed it; while raucous, pungent aromas rioted in their escape from an upcoming shop five feet ahead. The odors from various lotions, soaps and bath salts melded into an armed assault on her nose.
Rubbing the smells away, she slowed her pace, the old man’s cane stood propped against the wall between the two shops. She was deciding whether to stop and look for the old man, or ignore the cane, when someone suddenly stepped on the back of her shoe.
In an instant, before she could bend to replace her shoe, hands shoved and pushed her hard against the wall and through it. She heard the rude woman’s French accent say, “No, no my dear, this is how it’s done.”
She felt a wall; heard a door, but didn’t see it.
Raised voices blended together in the tumult. Something about ice?
It took only seconds. Her stomach froze in fear.
A cacophony of men’s voices - yelling, ordering, demanding immediate action; terrified her.
She was on the floor! Hands held her down. A foot stood centered on her back.
Arms splayed to the side; metal slapped a raised wrist. Someone yanked her arms back and cuffed them.
Her feet left the ground; shoulders jolted, burning with pain. The world spun.
A hand dove into her left coat pocket. “Here it is!”
Ruby struggled to focus on the thing dangling in front of her eyes: a diamond and emerald bracelet. It glittered as it swung in the subdued light of the featureless corridor.
“I’ve never seen that! Where did it come from?” Ruby challenged.
“Shut up.” An officer roared into her face then picked up the small shopping bag holding the Garmin.
“Wait, I just bought that, it’s my Garmin! What’s going on?
An officer pushed her forward; another began the Miranda warning.
A gust of cold, damp air rushed inside her coat as she saw a mud splashed police van waiting at the end of the corridor. From behind, she heard the rude woman chuckle and say in French, “Bonnes Vacances.”
“What’s happening? I just bought a Garmin. The receipt’s in my purse.”
Ruby heard a woman’s laughter.
“Who are you? Why are you doing…” the police van’s door slammed shut.