The rest suddenly looked afraid. He’d been an implicit member of the group, but that now seemed in question. Mark postured menacingly, but Andrew remained calm, seemingly oblivious to the danger he was in.
“If necessary I will build a prison from one of the shelving towers and confine you in it. I’d rather not as there’s already very few of us and a lot of work that needs to be done in order to breach the concrete. But further offenses will not be tolerated.” Mark sneered. “Who made you king shit? I didn’t vote for you.” Sarah pointed out that neither had any of them voted for Mark.
He scanned their faces, seeing only irritation and fear. “I see how it is. Fuck all of you. I knew this would happen.” He then set about piling his belongings into one of the trucks, and drove it off for some other part of the store.
Fran called out after him, but Hugh urged her to give up. “Let the boy huff and puff. He’ll come back to the group when he gets lonesome, you’ll see. I was like that when I was his age, had to come around on my own every time.”
Only he didn’t. Not the next day, nor the day after. Another week went by before the smoke plume became impossible to ignore. It stood to reason he would start a fire, as the microwave was much closer to the group than it was to him. But the smell of smoke was soon everywhere, and periodically sprinklers would go off in unexpected parts of the store.
“Somebody’s got to go talk to him.” Sarah was first to call ‘not it’, followed by Melissa and Jeffrey. “Leave it to me” Hugh boasted, heaving himself to his feet. Andrew wouldn’t allow it. Nor was he initially receptive when Fran volunteered. But, some reasoned pleading changed his mind. “You don’t understand him. He walks by faith like I do. I can reach him.”
Even so, Andrew followed at a distance. On the way, a mild stench wafted into his nose with no apparent source. It came as a shock when, as he cautiously approached Mark’s encampment, he heard not one but many voices. The stench was much stronger here. Andrew perched at the very edge of a shelving tower, peering around it just long enough to steal a glance at the new group.
Four women, three men. All circled around Mark, eagerly listening to him speak. “They’ll be here any minute, wait and see. Don’t believe their lies. They cast me out simply for spreading the gospel! Had it in for me from the start.” One of the women, wearing a sequinned purple hijab, briefly spoke up.
“I have known what it is to be singled out for my faith. But I also don’t believe a whole group can be bad. Perhaps there is one among them who turns them against you? We could surely reconcile if we were to sit down and talk it out. I volunteer to-” Mark cut her off, waving dismissively.
“Khayrah, you’re as confused as ever. About a great many things. It’s as I said, they will not listen. You’re right that there’s one prick in particular who’s to blame for all of this. Keep an eye out, he’s the one in black pants and a white button down shirt.
I think if we took him out, the rest would become cooperative.” A man with black hair wearing blue mechanic’s jumpsuit objected. “Buddy, I just got here. I’m not about to kill anybody, much less someone I don’t know.”
“Find out I’m telling the truth the hard way if you have to Ernesto. When they come for us in our sleep, it’ll be too late to reverse yourself. All this time cooped up in this God forsaken place has warped their minds. There’s no reasoning with them, we have to strike before they do.” The others rubbed their chins contemplatively.
“Mark, what happened to you?” Fran approached, worry written on her face. Mark stiffened up, then scanned for anybody else. “You were such a good boy. Strong in faith, maybe a little paranoid but-” Mark gestured for the circle to part so he could approach her. “Spread your arms out”. She complied, and he proceeded to frisk her. “Oh for gosh sakes kiddo, I came unarmed!”
Once satisfied of that, he searched the nearest shelving towers. Andrew slid back, wedging himself between pallets of cereal boxes in a bid to escape notice. It worked. “So they sent you by your lonesome. As expected from cowards. What do you want? Here to spy on me, in preparation for your assault?”
Fran stared, then began chuckling. “Do you listen to yourself? There was a misunderstanding, that’s all. I’m just here to smooth it over! Come back and talk with us, I’ll make a pizza. Pizza solves everything.”
“I’ll come back if you exile Andrew. That’s the only way. You have to, there’s no way you’ll keep shit running without me.” Fran stopped short of pointing out they’d been just fine while he was gone, instead pulling the cross pendant from within her blouse so he could see it.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. When Peter asked how many times he was to forgive a brother who wronged him, do you know what Jesus said? Not just seven times, but seventy seven!”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Be not unequally yoked with a nonbeliever. Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their actions are evil, not one of them does good.”
Behind him, Khayrah nodded approvingly. Fran let out an exasperated sigh. “So what’s your plan? Draw a line down the middle of the store? Stop being ridiculous and come rejoin the group.”
His eyes narrowed. “No. Your group will join ours. Once some judicious removals have been made. You won’t be hurt, you’re one of the good ones Fran. He’s just confused you. Before all this, I spent all my time trying to escape a doomed society. Doomed by degenerates like Andrew. Now there’s a clean slate, room to build something new. If it’s going to turn out any better, people like that cannot have any place in it.”
With that, he sent her away. Once she was out of sight, Andrew joined her and the two compared notes. “I don’t see why you boys can’t get along.” Andrew insisted he’d never had any problem with Mark until the day he left and was as baffled by all of this as Fran.
“It looks like we may have to start thinking about how to defend ourselves though.” It troubled both of them, but there was no escaping it given what they’d just heard. “If we could just get to the others while he’s not there…”
Andrew’s ears perked up. “Maybe even bring the whole group. I don’t think he’d attack us in front of them. And I don’t think he’s convinced them to fight us just yet.” Once back to the shelters, the rest were informed. “Figures that a cishet white boy would do this” Melissa grumbled.
When Jeffrey pointed out she was also white and straight, she looked at him like he’d run over her dog. “Just so you know shitlord, I’m 1/32 Native American, demisexual, and a horse otherkin.” Jeffrey asked if perhaps she really meant hippo and received a kick in the shins for his trouble.
“Settle down. We can’t be at each others’ throats at a time like this. Mark’s been working on those people for who knows how long. Give it another week and they might be ready to come after us. There’s a window of time in which to act that’s fast running out.” Hugh suggested taking the axes from various “in case of fire” glass cases around the store.
“Are we really willing to take axes to people we don’t know? I’d rather not consider anything so drastic.” But it seemed like a necessary precaution, so Andrew sent Sarah and Jeffrey to collect axes, using sledgehammers to break the glass. While they did that, Andrew pleaded with Melissa to help him build discreet lookouts into the top level of the shelving towers.
“I’ll do it if you check your privilege.” Andrew scratched his head and asked for clarification. Melissa seemed appalled that he didn’t already understand the concept. “It’s not my job to educate you.” Andrew concede that but asked how he was meant to comply if he didn’t know how to do it. So, grudgingly, she explained it to him.
“…So what you’re saying is that parents strive to give their children a better life than they had? And that when this happens generation after generation, achievement gaps develop between different populations. What’s unjust about that? And do you really propose that parents neglect their kids somewhat so they won’t have privileges others lack?” Melissa informed him once more that even asking such a question was problematic behavior, that he should simply ‘listen and believe’.
Stay Tuned for Part 5!