Dawes looked at his watch. 11:50. He cracked his neck and sighed. The fluorescent lights were on and the store was empty, cavernous as a forgotten museum. Garish signs bearing exclamatory percentiles loomed over the aisles. 45% Off! 75% Off! His rubber boots squeaked against the tile floor. Somehow the store, devoid of shoppers, seemed pensive and deceptive, as if it were waiting to ambush. He wondered what his footsteps would sound like once the doors were open, once hundreds of other shoes like his own were scrapping the shining tiles.
He looked at his watch again. 11:51.
“You hear about that guy in Jacksonville?” George said. He was wearing sneakers instead of the standard-issue black boots.
“Yeah, it was on the radio.”
“Store just wanted to open a few minutes early, wanted to give everyone more time to shop. Guess they were all amped up outside — had been for a while. The surprise opening only made it worse.”
“Between that and the prices in here, kind of makes me wish I was on the other side of the gate. Know what I mean?”
Dawes knew but said nothing. The security guard in Jacksonville had lifted the gate himself and had announced that the store was opening a few minutes early — ahead of the typical midnight Black Friday opening — to the anxious crowd outside and was drowned moments later by a groping flood of limbs and purses.
“This job doesn’t pay well enough. Not for shit like that.”
“I think the pay is fine,” Dawes said.
George grunted. “That’s the thing about you, Dawes — seems like you think most things are just fine.” He rolled a thumb over his holstered pepper spray.
“But, hey, that happened in Jacksonville,” Dawes said. “Something like that couldn’t happen here.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” George said, a thin smirk flitting across his lips.
11:53. Seven hours and seven minutes until he could leave.
When he started as a security guard six weeks ago, Dawes was only certain that each shift lasted eight hours; his other responsibilities were unclear. From what he had gathered, he should call the police rather than directly interfere in a conflict — whether it was a fight between two truculent mothers over the new Elmo doll or a teenage shoplifter just looking for a thrill. If he got involved, even in the most innocuous of circumstances, a legal fiasco could erupt. He was told that the pepper spray at his hip was to be seen rather than used.
“Almost time,” George said.
“Okay. Where are the other guys?”
“Gathered by the door. You know it’s only four of us tonight, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I knew that,” Dawes said, hoping but failing to mask the incredulity in his voice.
“Bosses probably didn’t want to schedule too many guys out. You know, a few guards get tramped to death, then they’ve got more people to hire. Not to mention severance for widows and a dump truck’s worth of paperwork to fill out.”
Dawes nodded his head. He knew George was trying to screw with him, to get in his head; there were plenty of guys at boot camp who had done the same thing, late at night: goading him to quit, calling him a coward.
“Yeah,” George went on, grinning. “I’m betting that’s what it is. Of course, you and I don’t have wives or children, so that’s probably why we’re opening the gate. James and Lanza are lousy with kids. Lucky bastards.”
11: 56. The two men turned towards the main entrance of the store. A thin hum of voices radiated through the doorway, over which hung a banner with bloated, red letters: STOREWIDE SALE: EVERYTHING 30% OFF.
Once, after a deceptively relaxing walk to the beach outside their camp, his sergeant ordered Dawes’ squad to lift a half-ton log over their heads. It looked like a clipped utility pole, washed onto the beach from some unknown place. They stood in a line next to it. A stout, affable Texan named Jake was beside him. He bent and sunk his hands under the log; the sand and the grain of the wood roughed his palms. Dawes had been able to raise the log with the rest of the men, but eventually his end began to sag. He felt like he was being pulled into the sand. Why was he the only one sinking? What about everyone else? When he finally collapsed, he was surprised to see his unburied legs, veins bulging. He had never considered his own legs were failing him. The pain set in moments later, like a thousand fork prongs jabbing through his skin. Jake stared at him, sweat pouring over his red face, his expression between disgust and pity.
Teenage cashiers occupied every register, their movements fidgety and impatient. The other guards waited by the gate.
“Hey man, I’m just messing with you,” George said. He had seen Dawes’s face. “Everything’s going to go fine. All we have to do is make sure no one shoplifts anything and no one gives the cashiers any guff. Anything else, you radio the cops. Comprendo?”
“Yeah. I got it.”
The gate was checkered with metal and mesh, allowing Dawes to peek out at the crowd. He could see heads and shoulders, too many to count, carved out of the darkness by moonlight. Distinct voices from the cacophony found him like raindrops in the eye, one word on the tongues of men and women alike: Midnight.
George bent and grasped his end of the gate. Dawes did the same. They began to lift in the same moment. Dawes’s end came up more slowly than George’s, but it was light and rose nonetheless.
Kevin Roller is a writer in Gloucester, Massachusetts.