A Different Man

“Are you ready?” The Security Guard asked.

“Are you?” The Old Man replied with a lifted brow.

The Guard nodded.

“I’m gonna be hauling ass out there,” The Old Man stated. “You make sure you get everyone out the door as soon as I pull up. I’ll honk the horn. I don’t wanna be out there with God-knows-what with my thumb up my ass.”

“Hey! Language.” The Lady smacked The Old Man in the shoulder, then pointed to the Young Girl cowering in the corner.

“Will you guys keep it down?” the Businessman whispered, damn near louder than they were talking. “They’ll hear you.”

They stopped talking and turned to the door behind The Old Man; breathing loudly, shifting constantly, sweating profusely. The Businessman had long removed his blazer and tie and sported stains under each pit.

The Old Man returned to the door as The Guard kept watch through the peephole in the backdoor. He could see outside to the mall’s side parking lot. It was still clear as day, same as it was an hour ago. That was when his colleague tried to check on the surroundings and was snatched from the doorway in seconds.

By what—who? They didn’t know.

Two hours before that, the mall was hit by a wave of disaster. There were screams, gunshots, cries for help. Some of them had witnessed people attacking each other. The Guard who’d been snatched from the doorway, had claimed he saw three sets of identical twins clawing each other’s faces off.

The Old Man hadn’t seen much of anything, only heard from others. The Businessman was being chased by wild teenagers he said. The Lady saved The Young Girl from a corner booth she was hiding behind, screaming frantically that someone stole her mother’s face. She couldn’t leave her there. The six escaped to this storage room, led by the guards.

When The Old Man then grabbed the door. “Wait,” The Businessman stepped up. “Maybe I should go, y’know.”

If this were a laughing moment, everyone would’ve joined in, even The Young Girl as she showed a slight smirk on her scared little face.

In the two hours they’d been locked up, The Businessman had grown into the most unlikeable one of the crew. The Old Man would’ve loved to see him go in his place, just to see him go; The Business-douche would undoubtedly be a pest on the road in the future.

The Old Man was their best chance for survival. He had the right mindset, the right experience, the right truck. “Blue truck. Remember that,” he said. “Blue.”

The Guard nodded.

Before he left, The Old Man turned back to The Guard—everyone really. “Uhh, where’s the exit again? This place is like a maze.” He was embarrassed to ask.

The Businessman scoffed.

“Hey. I’m an ex-cop, not a goddamned architect,” The Old Man said. “I know people, not places.”

“Okay, okay.” The Guard stepped up. “So, down this hall, you’re gonna take a right, and then you’re gonna keep on the main path. It’s going to seem like you’re going in a circle, but you’re not, just stay on the path until you see a store with yellow tape all over it. That’s the restaurant that got broken into last week, the exit is directly across from that. Can’t miss it.”

“Yeah, it should say exit above the doors,” The Businessman added.

The Old Man wanted to punch him right there, but he’d save that for the road. “Blue truck. Be ready,” he said before he left. The door locked behind him.

His gun was in the truck, he didn’t even think about it til now. He gave himself a good kick for that as he crept up the hallway that seemed longer than he remembered.

The lights above him flickered, almost to the rhythm of his pace. When he stopped, the lights stayed on, when he moved, they flickered. That’s crazy. The shopping mall had a skylight that stretched all over the main path, so he was at least grateful for that. As he reached it, he half-expected to see bodies and blood everywhere. But there was nothing. Just an empty mall, in ruins. Quiet. Too quiet. So quiet that it was loud. He had to pay attention to his breathing noises as to not attract anyone. Or anything.

Okay, turn right. Look for yellow tape. He followed The Guard’s instructions, keeping to one side of the wide walkway, crouched low, his eyes on every direction. He’d been shot at a few times, been in and out of burning buildings, The Old Man had been through life-changing tragedies, but nothing scared him more than now. This moment. The end of the world. He couldn’t help but think it. People killing each other? Phones not working? No one anywhere? He thought of that guard being snatched from the storage room. What in the world could’ve done that?

“Stay focused,” he said out loud, and he smacked his hand over his mouth immediately after. Shit. He stopped walking.

Then, somewhere behind him, a can tumbled across the tile floor, and the noise bounced off the wall. He didn’t know if it was still tumbling or just echoes. But before he could move on, he saw someone kicking the can, another person next to that one, and another. They were shadows, though. Three of them. Shadows in the light.

No time to investigate how or what or who, he took off running. For a fifty-year-old with a growing gut, he moved well. Perhaps it was the adrenaline. Or maybe it was the three shadows keeping up with him. Every time he would turn to look behind him, they would be there, kicking the can, walking that same pace.

Where the fuck is the store?

He was running for a while, felt like a mile, felt like circles. But he kept passing stores he didn’t see before. So, that was the first good sign. The next good sign—“Yellow tape!” His eyes lit up and he was so excited that he started to go inside the store. He went as far as to tearing the tape off, frantically, trying to get in, until he saw the exit sign above the doors across the way. “Shit.”

He dropped the tape as the can-kickers crept closer, and he bolted for the glass-window double doors. He could see his blue truck parked in the front. A relieving grin started to form on his face as he pushed his way through the doors, damn near breaking them. Then, a single blink of his eyes turned the outside to inside. He was back in the storage room.

Huh?

The Young Girl jumped from the wall. “What happened?”

The Old Man stood dazed, confused, looking at the four people he had just left. He turned back, but it was the storage room door. He stammered, then staggered, turning ‘round and ‘round.

“You okay? You’re all sweaty. You find my mommy out there?” The Young Girl asked again.

“Jesus Christ girl, would you hush for two seconds, will ya?” The Guard said to her, then walked over to The Old Man. “You were gone for like ten seconds, guy. What? You chicken out or something?”

Uhm. The Old Man scratched his head and tried to talk but he couldn’t. He slammed his back against the door and slithered down to his butt, looking at everyone. The Young Girl high on sugar seemed like, The quiet Lady cowering in the corner, but he especially paid attention to The Guard and The Businessman.

“I told you I should’ve went,” The Guard said, dressed like a businessman.

“Hey, hey, hey,” The Businessman screamed from the backdoor, he was dressed like a security guard. “The Truck! The Truck!”

“Why are you guys in different clothes?” he asked. They couldn’t hear him, he was out of breath, but more out of his mind. Then he had a strange thought, a memory of what the other Guard said, he saw people attacking each other that looked like them. The Young Girl said someone stole her mommy’s face.

“The truck?” The Guard ran to look through the hole, then he pushed away from the backdoor. “Red Truck. Just like he said.”

Red. No, no. Blue. It’s a Blue Truck. The Old Man lost his voice.

“Wait. How is the red truck out there and he’s in here?” The Businessman asked.

“Because that’s not him, he’s one of them.” The Guard ran to the Businessman, grabbed the gun out of his holster and pointed it at The Old Man. “I told you these things are posing as us, making us kill each other. We can’t trust anyone outside this room.”

“Wait! Wait!” The Old Man found his voice. But the honking horn outside meant something much more than an explanation. It meant freedom for these four survivors. So, The Guard shot the different Old Man.

-copyright M. Sydnor Jr. 2019

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