It was Wednesday before Matthew stopped nervously scanning roads for any signs of out-of-control drivers. Several days of mundane and slow-moving urban traffic had worn the edge off of his adrenaline, and things were finally getting back to normal. He felt like he was cheating, somehow, that a near-death experience should have a more lasting effect on his psyche.
Then again, it’s not like I want to be afraid of sidewalks.
It was Wednesday, and that meant Matthew’s Bible study group was meeting tonight at the church. Matthew found he was looking forward to it even more than usual, but that made sense—even after three years in the city, Matthew didn’t have too many people he counted as friends, and with Pat gone he was missing social contact.
It was Wednesday, and today that meant an afternoon shift greeting customers and folding clothes—mostly the latter. It had been almost a year since Matthew’s last accounting job, and while Pat’s contracting work was enough to live on it wasn’t stable. Still, Matthew supposed, this was hardly the worst part-time job, though he really should be doing more to find something long-term again—
The lights flickered and Matthew looked up to see Ken drop a pile of clothes on the table. “You can’t just hide in here all day, y’know,” his coworker admonished him.
“I–I wasn’t!” Matthew protested, feeling his face warm. “I was just—” charging my phone, he cut off.
Ken grinned. “Save it for the boss, man. It’s Wednesday.”
“It may be Wednesday, but you still got all this?” Matthew gestured to the pile of clothes and consciously grinned back.
Ken’s own grin turned into a smirk. “Guess you better get started.”
Both of them started at the ding of the customer service bell. Ken tipped an imaginary hat and ducked back out the open door to the fitting room desk. “Did you find everything you need?” Matthew heard him say.
Matthew looked down at the pile of clothes, shook his head, and started folding under the flickering light. When he had started here, he had been dismayed to find that his hand-eye coordination had actually been rather poor—nearly everything came out crooked and in need of a re-fold for a good week or two. Now he hardly needed his eyes, folding on autopilot and sorting into piles based on the layout of the men’s department floor.
He was nearly through the pile when the lights went out altogether. There was a whirring noise—probably the ventilation system shutting down—and suddenly the only light was the glow of Matthew’s phone, sitting on the counter and complaining about not charging. Matthew sucked in his breath, grabbed the phone, and poked his head out the doorway.
It wasn’t just the back room. The whole lower floor of the store had gone dark. Several customers already had their phones out in flashlight mode; Matthew thumbed his light on as well. A part of his brain was pleased to note that the phone had charged back to 85% before the blackout.
Sweeping his eyes across the crowd, he caught Ken uncertainly taking several pairs of pants back from a customer. None of the shoppers seemed to know what to do next.
“Attention, everyone!” Rather than from the quiescent PA system, the call came from a short woman striding briskly through the crowd—their supervisor, Sharon. “We deeply apologize for this inconvenience. For your safety we need to ask everyone to leave the store at this time.” She took a breath. “An electrical crew will be here soon, but until we know the cause of the issue we have to assume it’s serious. Thank you for your cooperation.”
“Can I just get this one—” someone started.
Sharon cut him off. “I’m sorry, sir, but without our registers I’m afraid we can’t perform any transactions. Please leave any unpurchased items with the staff members on your way out.” Matthew couldn’t see Ken’s face from here, but he could imagine his younger coworker rolling his eyes.
There was some grumbling, but for the most part the customers seemed to accept what had happened, slowly making their way upstairs to the ground floor. Matthew and Ken stood at either side of the staircase with pasted smiles on their faces as they repeatedly thanked and apologized to the exiting customers, accepting the occasional button-down shirt or pair of pants. It was only Wednesday, after all.
As the last customer headed up the staircase, Sharon strode up, having completed a final sweep of the floor. “All right, let’s go.” She brushed her hair back from her face and started forward.
Matthew and Ken fell in behind her as they began to climb the stairs. “Any idea what happened?” Matthew asked.
“Not really,” Sharon said with a sigh. “Someone said they saw some kid hanging around out back—maybe she or one of her friends thought it’d be funny to pull the master switch.” Matthew caught up with her on the stairs in time to see a grimace. “It’d be nice if it were something that simple. The electricians’ll have everything back up after five minutes if that’s the case.”
The three of them reached the top of the staircase and turned towards the door, joining the last few employees from floors 2 and 3. “Other stores still seem to have their lights on,” Matthew observed, squinting against the natural light coming through the big glass windows at the front of the store.
Sharon sighed, and Ken threw Matthew a quick grin as they stepped outside. “Lends credence to the prankster theory,” he observed.
Their supervisor stepped to one side to talk to Alex, the senior manager on duty for the whole store. The other two joined their coworkers across the sidewalk, most of whom were already sitting on benches or leaning against the planters outside the store. Matthew looked around uncomfortably. He had never had much of a chance to get to know the employees who worked in the Women’s department, most of whom were themselves women. Matthew guessed they were a good deal younger than him as well—high school or early college students working their summer jobs. At least Ken was a grad student.
Ken caught Matthew looking his way and grinned once again. “Hey, Matthew, think they’ll just give us the rest of the shift off?”
Matthew scoffed good-naturedly, as he knew Ken would want him to. “With two hours left to go? Not a chance.” A thought struck him and he grinned back. “Besides, I left my charger in there.”
“Man, how do you run your phone down by 3PM?” Ken asked. Matthew guessed the other man was just trying to fill time, but right now they had nothing better to do than wait.
He shrugged. “I listen to music when I fold sometimes. One earphone only, of course,” he added hastily, shooting a look in Sharon’s direction. Listening to music wasn’t against any rules, but ignoring a customer would of course get you in trouble.
“And that runs your battery down all the way?” one of the women asked jokingly. “How old is your phone?”
“Hey, you’re not down in the dungeons like we are, Stace,” Ken replied, turning towards her with a raised eyebrow. “Think we get reception down there?”
Matthew smiled. “Nah, she’s right. I must’ve forgotten to plug it in last night. Good thing the charger was in my bag.” He held out a hand. “Not sure if we’ve met. I’m Matthew.”
The young woman took it with a firm shake. “Stacy, and I’m not so sure about that. The charger was only in the bag because you forgot to use it, right?”
“A regular detective!” laughed Ken, his eyes gleaming. He turned back to Matthew. “Stace here is actually my buddy’s little sister. We’ve known each other for years.” He stepped over to put an arm around her. Stacy rolled her eyes and Matthew felt himself relax a little.
They continued chatting for a few minutes, the strange power outage temporarily forgotten, before the lights inside the store suddenly came back on. Everyone, managers and employees, looked over to see if anything had changed. After a few moments, one of the electricians came down the stairs, but continued down to the basement level.
Then, no movement at all for what felt like well over a minute. A few people murmured to each other, but for the most part everyone just waited anticipatorily to hear what went wrong. Finally the two electricians were seen coming back up the stairs.
Immediately the employees pressed forward, eager to hear what had happened. The electricians stopped just inside the store. “First of all,” the shorter one said, “there should be no lasting damage from the power cut. It looks like a simple blown fuse, nothing more—and nothing to worry about there. We replaced the fuse and everything looks fine.” She paused and glanced at her partner, who gave her a look that clearly meant “you say it”. Matthew squinted.
“However, it looks like the wiring for the lighting in the back room downstairs was faulty. When the power came back on, the wire burnt through. It had probably been carrying well more than the rated voltage for some time at least.” She paused again and looked pointedly at Alex. “Since there was no inspection and nothing actually happened until now, the store probably won’t be held liable, but we’ll still need to file a report with the city. Meanwhile, that back room should be closed off until it can be rewired properly. The good news is it does just seem to be that room that has problems, but I, uh, we still have to recommend a full inspection.”
“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Matthew heard Ken mutter behind him, but he wasn’t really listening. That was the “back room” he had been standing in when the power went out, using that very wiring to charge his phone. What if the power hadn’t gone out? he couldn’t help but think.
“Okay, everyone, excitement’s over,” called Alex. “Let’s open up again.” He looked over at Ken and Matthew. “You two are on Men’s today, right? Grab your stuff out of that room before Sharon closes it up. You can stick it in the first floor employee closet, there’s room.”
Matthew’s coworkers began filtering back inside as Alex thanked the electricians. Ken poked him in the back. “Come on, Matthew, let’s get back down there.”
Automatically Matthew started walking, glancing around the store. It looked a bit empty without any customers, but otherwise it was as normal and innocuous as always. All the lights shown steadily overhead without a trace of flickering.
Despite himself, Matthew shivered.
Whew again! I kept not taking the time to write this section out, and then it ended up longer than expected—more than twice as long as any of the previous sections. Part of this was needing Matthew to have coworkers, and then those coworkers insisting on having reasonable dialogue and personalities (or at least sketches of personalities). The nerve, right?
(I think this is both a weakness and a strength of mine: my side characters can be reasonably developed when need be, but they also cause the story to meander.)
This section is a bit over 1700 words, which means it’s actually longer than the per-day requirement for NaNoWriMo. However, I wrote this section in three sessions on three separate days, so I’m really going to have to step up the pace next month.
As I said before, Part 5 is already written, or mostly written. I have somewhat of a plan for Part 6, but whether I get that written up or not, I’ll post Part 5 next week for sure. After that, “Determination” will be on hiatus during November; NaNoWriMo is quite enough writing for one month.