The Alphabet Challenge: “G” Story No. 1 of 3 — “Gauntlet”

This is the seventh round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these submissions, it’s the letter “G”.

Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.

In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “G” as submitted by its author.

Gauntlet

Copyright 2020 — E. J. D’Alise

(2,460 words – approx. reading time: about 9 minutes based on 265 WPM)

“Gloves?”

“Check.”

“Masks?”

Shelley checked the fit of Doug’s mask, and then Doug checked the fit of Shelley’s mask.

“Check.”
“Check.”

“Reclaiming bag and disposal bags?”

“In the car; check and check.”

Doug made sure his credit card and Sam’s Club card were both in the zip-lock bag and slid the bag into the breast pocket of his t-shirt.  Another visual check of the preparations and then gave the “Go” sign: elbow bent, palm facing forward, Doug held his open hand for a few seconds before closing the fist, signaling they were moving out.

Exiting the house onto the garage, they waited until they were inside the car before opening the garage door.

Easing the car out, Doug stopped in the drive and pressed the garage remote, watching the door come down and close before activating the house alarm.

“Let’s do this,” Doug said as he looked at Shelley.

She nodded, but no smile graced her lips beneath the mask.

Rolling along near-empty streets, they approached the local Sam’s Club. Their hearts sank a bit as they turned into the parking lot. It contained more cars than they would have preferred.

“We should have come earlier,” Doug said.

“We did that last week,” Shelly replied, “and so did everyone else.”

Doug made a mental note to call the store and see if they could post online the current occupancy of the store, or at least show a video of the parking lot.

Driving slow, they surveyed the lot for a suitable parking spot, one away from other cars, but sufficiently close to a cart corral to minimize excessive travel and the chance of passing too close to other people.

Doug finally made a choice and had was ready to turn off the car when another car came to a stop one parking spot over. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot!  They had their choice of hundreds of other spaces, and they parked within twelve feet of Doug and Shelly.

They watched as the driver got out and walked off. Doug and Shelley glared at the inconsiderate turd. Not that the turd would have noticed even if he had been looking since the masks and sunglasses hid Doug’s and Shelley’s glares and near-snarls.

There was nothing to it; they looked around and moved the car to their second choice for a parking spot. Not as optimal, but good enough.

Walking toward the entrance, Doug pulled out his phone and logged into the Sam’s Club app that would allow him to scan and pay for their purchases without interacting with checkout personnel or the self-checkout station. After turning on the GPS and agreeing to share their location, he slipped the phone in the pocket of his jacket, ready for deployment once inside.

“Gloves,” Doug said, and both he and Shelley pulled out one of the three pairs of neoprene gloves they each carried and slipped them on. Shelley also retrieved the sandwich bag containing a couple of sanitizing wipes for emergencies. Hopefully, they wouldn’t have to use them.

As they approached the entrance, they were pleased to see the familiar face of the older lady who usually checked membership cards. She also wore a mask, and it looked loose-fitting, but she looked healthy, so that was a good sign. If the old lady was still healthy, the place should be fairly safe.

The lady punched in the number of people entering the store after Doug showed her the plastic-wrapped membership card.

Inside, they grabbed one of the carts already wiped down by the employee stationed by the row of carts.

“Toilet paper first,” Shelley said.

They made their way through the electronics section, switching to another aisle to avoid a couple looking at a large TV set.  They almost made it through that aisle when some guy turned into it.

. . . and he wasn’t wearing a mask . . .

For the nth time, Doug wished both that he hadn’t dallied in getting his license to carry, and that it were legal to drop those kinds of people; irresponsible people without regard for others.

Doug and Shelley both held their breath and turned their heads away from the oncoming idiot and only exhaled when well past him.

Ahead, they saw a hopeful sign . . . a shopper reaching into a bay and retrieving a pack of toilet paper. Yes!

Their pace quickened, but their elation wavered as they approached. While not being able to see the entire bay, what they could see was empty.

Sure enough, as they cleared the Kleenex bay and gazed upon the full emptiness of the toilet paper bay, they realized the horrible truth; they had witnessed another shopper grab the last pack of toilet paper. Sam’s wouldn’t replenish the bay until the next day.

Their despair almost erupted in mutual accusations of “should” and “could” haves, and various reasons why one or the other was responsible for missing the chance of scoring some toilet paper.

Their marriage was saved by a lady walking by with a package of Clorox wipes.

“Where did you find those?” Shelley asked.

Doug almost answered because he remembered where they were but the lady was quicker and directed Shelley to the aisle . . . while maintaining a proper distance, of course.

“I’ll go grab some,” Shelley said, “you pick out some Kleenex.”

Doug turned to the task . . . Member’s Mark or actual Kleenex? . . . hmm.

Being an engineer with a computer in his hand, Doug was tempted to bring up a spreadsheet and calculate the cost differential per sheet versus the number of plies and thickness, but he realized he lacked the crucial thickness measurement. He could maybe estimate it by comparing the weight of the packages, but then he would have to estimate the weight differential of the individual boxes, and they weren’t the same size.

Momentarily at a loss from his inability to bring a decision matrix process to bear, his eyes drifted to one bay over, and his jaw dropped even as his heart soared.

Could it be? Was it a mirage?

Nope!

Toilet paper! Boxes and boxes of toilet paper, each box holding 45 rolls, for a total of 9,600 sheets. Ninety-six-hundred sheets; each!

Wait . . . why were these here, untouched?

Leaving the cart, Doug went in search of Shelley. Perhaps she could help him make sense of this unexpected find.

Turning into the Clorox wipes aisle, he reached the bay with the wipes, and his heart again sank. Lots and lots of empty boxes, no wipes, and no Shelley. Surely, these constant cycles of elation and disappointment weren’t healthy, Doug thought.

And then he saw it; peeking from under some empty cartons, the bright colors of Clorox wipes containers. There was still one box with a few packages of wipes in it. After waiting for another shopper to clear a path to the bay, Doug secured a precious package . . . just as Shelley turned the corner with a package of wipes already in hand.

Reluctantly, Doug looked at the sign proclaiming in bold letters:

 “LIMIT: 1 TO A CUSTOMER”

. . . and put his package back for another shopper to find.

“Hey, hon,” Doug said as Shelley approached, “come look at the …”

But he didn’t finish because he saw something else; another treasure.

There, next to an empty bay, a bay usually filled with boxes of Clorox bottles, a pallet with other gallon jugs, and even from ten feet away, Doug could plainly make out the word “DISINFECTANT”.

Doug pointed at it, and Shelley looked and asked, “What?”

Doug reached down and lifted the treasure as if holding up the Stanley Cup.

“Does it kill 99.99% of the viruses?” Shelley asked.

Doug’s heart skipped a beat which, at his age, wasn’t a good thing. Carefully reading the label, he saw 99.99% effectiveness against germs, but nothing about viruses. Doug read the ingredients . . . octy-something-chloride, dyocty-something-ammonium-something . . . arrgh! He just wanted bleach! Plus, all it listed was the effectiveness against bacteria and mold.

. . . and then, he saw it; virucide when at a different concentration. YES!

Plus, it was a concentrate; one gallon made sixty-four gallons once mixed with water.

Still joyous and hardly able to control his excitement, he escorted Shelley to stand next to the cart.

“Look,” he said.

“Look at what?” Shelley replied.

With his usual expression of insufferable smugness — thankfully hidden by the mask and sunglasses — Doug pointed to the stack of boxes.

“I think it’s toilet paper,” he said, “or, at least, that’s what’s written on the box.”

Shelley’s eye lit up, and she might have been smiling behind the mask.

“Yes! It’s commercial toilet paper! It’s only two-ply, but it’s quilted,” she said. “Let’s get a box.”

“Yes,” Doug said, “and if we follow the advice of some celebrities, one box will give us 4,800 ass-wipes, or 2,400 each!”

“That’ll last you at least two weeks!” Shelley replied.

In a good mood, Doug let the comment slide as he loaded a box on the cart. Besides, he doubted it would last him more than ten days, less if they tapped into the emergency cans of baked beans.

After grabbing some Member’s Mark tissues, and as they were leaving the area, two ladies walked up to the empty toilet paper bay and appeared dismayed. Doug, ever the helpful type, pointed to the boxes of 45 rolls each and enjoyed the quick look of confusion on the ladies’ faces as they processed the fact toilet paper also came in boxes and not just in a plastic bag.

“Is it any good?” they asked. “Is it rough?”

Doug held back offering any of the three sarcastic responses that came to mind, and just turned to leave. As he did so, one lady pried open the side of one box to feel the texture of the toilet paper.

“It’s pretty rough,” she said.

Doug didn’t bother telling them each roll was individually wrapped, and they weren’t feeling the actual paper. There is only so much a single human could do in the war against stupidity, and Doug wanted to save his ammunition for worthier moments.

Next up, the frozen section followed by fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and then canned goods.

The path to the frozen food aisle resembled a slalom run as Doug weaved their cart and themselves around potential pestilence-carrying individuals who were meandering aimlessly or blocking efficient travel through the area.

Cottage cheese, check. Tomatoes, check. Salad, check. Two pork roasts, feta cheese, cream cheese, all acquired while charting a path of least encounters, and then off to the dry goods aisles.

Doug and Shelley were halfway down an aisle when, ahead of them, a couple turned the corner. A couple with a kid in tow.

Who the hell brings a walking Petri dish to a public place during a pandemic!?!

Casually, Doug and Shelley turned to retrace their steps away from a possible viral ambush.

Noo! Another family, this one with a teen in tow, was heading their way from the other side. They were trapped!

“Avoidance protocol Alpha,” Doug said in a low voice.

“Damn it!” Shelley said, also in a low voice, “How is it we encounter all the idiots? They’re not even wearing masks!”

“Stay calm,” Doug said. “We’ll hug the side. Stay behind me and hold your breath until we’re past them.”

It was a good plan, but the teen started veering toward them while intent on looking at his phone.

Dough and Shelley stopped. Doug considered using the cart as a battering ram and breaking through the blockade when the female parent spoke.

“Johnny, stop bothering the nice old people and let them pass.”

“Aww, Mom!” Johnny replied, but he moved over and let Doug and Shelly hurriedly get past.

Doug glanced at the phone as he passed the teen; the phone was off. The little shit had been purposefully blocking them in. Why, if it weren’t for the pandemic, Doug would have given him a good old-person-to-young-twit-talking-to, but it just wasn’t worth the risk.

The stress of the experience soured both Doug’s and Shelley’s moods, and they wanted nothing more than to get out of there. They’d scored toilet paper and wipes, and a few other goods, and could call it a successful trip.

Doug finished scanning the items in the cart, paid, and waited for the Data Matrix Scan code to show up on the phone’s screen. The lady at the exit would scan it from a distance, and they would be out.

After a minor stressful time at the bottleneck that was the exit, they were walking outside with — thankfully — no one between them and their car.

Doug stripped one glove off and balled it up while inside out. He used his clean hand to operate the key fob and open the door, discarding the glove into the waiting trash bag. After opening the rear hatch, he grabbed another glove and put it on so he could handle the merchandise.

After loading everything in the car, Shelly took the cart to the corral, and both stripped off their gloves and balled them up inside out before getting in the car. Once in the car, they carefully removed the masks, making sure not to touch the front, and to only handle them by the straps. There was a tense moment as one strap slipped, and Shelley’s mask almost dropped on the console, but Doug stopped it from contaminating the console, and both masks went into the other bag. Once home, they would be sterilized.

Breathing a sigh of relief, they used the hand sanitizer dispenser. They would have liked to conserve it, but it’s why it was in the car.

They drove home and made small talk about their haul. A pretty good excursion, but they weren’t home free yet.

Once in the garage, they executed SOP-Beta 2; items not immediately needed went to the decontamination-by-time area. There they would sit for a week to ensure the virus was no more.

Perishable goods were brought inside and immediately wiped down, let dry, and stored in either the fridge or the freezer.

Once that was done, they wiped the counter, doorknobs, and any handles they touched, and they changed out of their shopping clothes in the laundry room, leaving them with the pile to be washed and sanitized.

Back in the kitchen, they surveyed the area and then looked at each other and hugged. They had survived the shopping gauntlet . . . until next time.

The End

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.

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