Veronica hadn’t meant anything at the start. She’d been sitting in her car in the Acme parking lot. The greenhouse effect had been in full effect, and even with the windows cranked down, the air was stifling. She’d turned the key several times and gotten that sharp uh…uh…uh and nothing else. Last year she’d decided against renewing Triple A, so that option was not available. Besides, even if they came and started the car, where was she going to take it? Maybe the battery was low and just needed a charge, but the electric had been wonky lately. The back windows wouldn’t open; the radio sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. She couldn’t begin to pay for a real repair.
She was sitting there, sweating, her meager groceries roasting in the seat next to her, not thinking about her daughter, or her granddaughter, when her attention was caught by the couple in the car across the aisle from her. Earlier, her shopping trip had started out well, all things considered (and right now she was stalwartly refusing to consider all things), as she’d found a pull-through parking spot. So she wouldn’t have to back out. The lot was crazy, plus she’d always had very little spatial awareness, and the back of the car had the dents to prove it.
She had a perfect view of the couple loading their groceries in the SUV across the lane, just to the left. Their shopping cart was full, a mass of those small supermarket plastic bags that slouch and spill and never hold more than four objects. The man from the couple would pick up a bag, peer into the back of the vehicle, consider the matter, then finally find a spot for it in the half-full trunk, rearranging other objects in the net bins that separated the space—luggage and other gear as well as the groceries. Veronica watched in fascination. The woman of the couple stood beside the cart, gesturing. It was obvious that she just wanted him to throw everything in, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Eventually the woman got into the passenger seat, transmitting an air of aggrievement. Veronica kept watching. The man remained as slowly deliberate as before. Carefully, delicately, he’d pick up a small, half-empty bag, consider it, then place it in the back, sometimes rearranging the already loaded bags. At one point, he pulled out a beach umbrella and rested it against the bumper. Minutes later, a package of bacon, its clear pink rectangle gleaming in the sun, slipped out of a bag. The man picked it up from the tarmac, gingerly examined it, brushed it off, then placed it back in the bag, and the bag into the trunk.
Veronica could barely stand it after the first minutes. All those bags, there must be twenty or more; all that plastic. All that contemplation. She could cry just watching the slow trudge of groceries. The re-arranging. The bags sliding around the cart and the trunk. The mess and the tension and the man’s stubborn indecision. Before she could see how it ended, she opened her car door, straightened her sore, stiff knees, and almost ran back through the heat to the Acme.
And that was how she ended up where she is now, in a lawn chair, halfway up Frozen.
At first, it had been just a blind need to move, a sadness and a panic that overwhelmed her, propelling her back into the cool of the Acme, to forget groceries sliding in a heap, and the heat, and mess and disorder and contention. And Chloe, lost in some sort of mess she has not been able to comprehend, much less prevent.
Near the door, there was a display of everything a tourist could need but forgot to pack—sunscreen, beach umbrellas, barbeque tools, brightly colored net bags of pails and shovels and other beach toys, lawn chairs. Hardly thinking, Veronica picked up a chair that had been left leaning on a stack of charcoal sacks, and, using it as a crutch, she limped away from the main flow of shoppers to the nearest aisle, where she opened the chair, and collapsed into it.
“How are you today?” Julie asks for the hundredth or so time, eyeing, yet again, a cart filled to the brim in the express lane. Management forbids her from pointing this out, but nothing stops the next people in line from doing so, whom she knows will give her an earful when they finally get up to her. Her express station has no belt to pile all these groceries, and the customer, an impeccably round, not-quite-young man—former athlete now replacing muscle with a tight, inflated look—just stands there, not moving to help in any way. Finally, Julie finishes the order and waves him off with a not at all sincere-sounding “have a nice day!”
The next customer, a sunburned young woman with a small, less-sunburned daughter, nothing but a package of hot dog rolls in the woman’s hand, greets Julie with a taut smile but, mercifully, does not voice her obvious aggravation. Instead, she swats at the little girl’s hands, which have reached for a package of marshmallows from the nearby display. Then she reverses, sighs, and hands the marshmallows to Julie, who has already rung up the order and now needs to ring this separately. Julie looks up and to the side, not at the woman but over her shoulder, seeking some zen serenity that will get her through the rest of her shift, and her eye catches the sight of an older woman with short, tightly curled white hair, in baggy green elastic-waist shorts, a rumpled, mustard-colored t-shirt with the name of a nearby shore town across the front, and pink flip flops, parked halfway up the aisle nearest to her station—Frozen, specifically the section of pre-cut, seasoned vegetables in plastic bags—in a lawn chair, just sitting, her hands folded quietly in front of her, her eyes not seeming to really look anywhere.
She watches Wade, the Front End manager, go over to her. Wade has been ogling Julie all summer, not in a reportable way, just enough to make her glad she’s leaving for college next week, and not sorry she’s given no notice. No way is she coming back to Acme next summer; she’ll get something on the Boardwalk instead, or maybe she’ll get enough financial aid to go study abroad. It all feels possible right now.
She looks at the woman again, and something about her seems familiar.
Veronica has told herself not to think about Robin today, and certainly not to think about Chloe. When the first store employee comes over, some sandy-haired guy with no eyebrows and a nameplate that says “Wade” pinned to the pocket of his short-sleeved, buttoned down shirt, that’s what she’s doing. Not thinking about Robin or Chloe.
The man leans down close to her. He speaks very slowly.
“Ma’am, is everything all right? Do you need help?” His first attempt to get rid of her, she can see, will be masked in concern.
“No,” she says, “and no.” No, everything is not all right. And no, no one here can help her. She shuts her eyes.
“Ma’am.” It’s a sentence on its own this time. “Ma’am. You can’t stay here. Tell me who I can call.” No more questions now. Just statements.
She opens her eyes. “I’m fine, thank you.” She’s become adept at lying. Lying to herself when she refused to see the signs of Robin’s descent into addiction. Lying to Chloe that she could stay with Grandma forever, everything would be okay, your mom’s sick but she can make herself better. That Chloe would forgive her for letting her mom come back and get her. That Chloe would forgive her for not letting her mom come back and get her. That she herself had any say in the matter at all.
Mostly, lying to herself that Chloe would want to stay with her forever, that when Robin showed up at Veronica’s door yesterday morning, her hair its natural carrot-red now, not black or maroon or shaved, with the boyfriend who is also the addiction counselor who has tutored Robin on her rights as a parent, that Chloe would cling to her leg like she always does with strangers and refuse to leave Veronica’s house. But no, she’d looked up from her bowl of Cheerios, sitting at the tiny linoleum kitchen table in Veronica’s tiny modular home, caught sight of her mother, and flung herself into her arms, latching on to her fiercely while Robin looked over her head at Veronica.
“Mom. I’m good now. Like I told you when I called, I can take care of her. You can’t keep her from me.” She gestured to the man standing quietly next to her. “This is Aidan. He’s helped me stay better.”
And that was it. This man Aidan had sat with her on the thin lip of porch at the front of the mobile home, while Robin packed Chloe’s things. She’d made a big deal of not saying she’d already told her mother that she was coming and to have the stuff packed. She did bring up how cruel she thought it was that Veronica had not told Chloe her mother was coming to get her that morning.
“You know, Mom, you’ve always been that way. Just pretending everything’s fine when it’s not. My group told me that that’s part of my problem. Not that I don’t take responsibility. Because I do. But it’s all related—I’m just saying.”
Chloe’s clothes were soon packed in the pink duffle bag Veronica gave her last Christmas, when they talked about Chloe maybe being able to overnight visit her mother in the future. Chloe had seemed unconcerned at the time; the idea of seeing her mother again had engendered little reaction in her, as if that was some kind of dream idea. She had settled so easily into life with her grandmother. Her new home was in the same rural town as the apartment she’d lived in with her mother, so she didn’t even need to switch pre-schools. So it was natural that Veronica might think that her granddaughter would rebel at going back to her mom’s—scene of a lot of chaos and uncertainty—but instead, this.
“Mom. You should be happy for me. I know I’ve really kicked it this time. Once Chloe’s settled in with me and Aidan, you can come visit her.” She looked around the tiny home, like it had shrunk since she’d grown up there. Aidan the counselor had kept his counsel, hefting the pink suitcase and a garbage bag full of Chloe’s toys and stuffed animals over his shoulder. Like any of it weighed anything at all.
Veronica opens her eyes. The Wade guy is gone. She wonders if they’re going to call the police. She just wants to sit here. It’s so cool in Frozen. The air in her place has been on the fritz all summer. No wonder Chloe was happy to leave. Then she stops herself. No thinking about Chloe. That’s the deal. Sit here by these freezer doors, their windows fogged from condensation.
The next time she opens her eyes, there is a young woman sitting next to her, in another unfolded beach chair. The woman’s name tag says “Julie.” She doesn’t look like Higher Management, which is whom Veronica has been expecting after Wade left, that or the police. Or social workers. This Julie could be a social worker, but she’s never met one who wore a name tag. And with Robin and all, she’s met enough. She also notices that the sky has darkened outside the store windows, beyond the checkout lanes. Has it gotten that much later—had she fallen asleep?
The young woman nods toward the windows. “Storm coming. Maybe it will break this heat wave.” She talks like she and Veronica have already met and are in the middle of a conversation that Veronica has no memory of.
Then she says, “Hi, I’m Julie,” and Veronica feels a little better. She didn’t miss as much as she was afraid she had.
“I know. Your tag says so.” There’s a faint flash outside the window, but no accompanying thunder that they can hear inside.
“It’s like heat lightning,” Julie says. Then she adds, “I just quit my job.” As if the two things are somehow related. “I mean,” she says, reverting back to the first statement, “you know, like how heat lightning has no sound?”
Veronica decides this Julie makes less sense than she does, and relaxes. She looks at her more closely. “Do I know you?”
Julie nods. “It took me a minute. I was watching Wade the asshole harassing you, and it came to me. You’re Robin’s mother. She used to babysit me. Before—sorry, never mind. But, a long time ago.”
So this Julie knows about Robin. It’s a small town for such a spread out place, the locals bound together in the desolate winter when the tourists are gone. Everyone recognizes everyone else. For years, people got that expression when they encountered Veronica. Now with the drugs gone epidemic, she doesn’t stand out. Everyone has someone in trouble these days.
She looks at Julie closer. Yes, she vaguely recognizes the girl; her family moved into the community when Robin was in middle school. She remembers because some people had gotten attitude about a family of them moving in. Truthfully, she’d been a little nervous about Robin going over there, but Robin had been adamant that they were nice to her and she needed the money. And Veronica had come around, realized that Julie’s father was the neighbor quicker to offer help with repairs on the trailer, seeing her struggle after Howie took off. But then the family moved away, bought an actual house, she recalled.
Julie is talking again. “So, yeah, I quit just now. On account of seeing Wade be such a jerk, and I’m leaving next week for school anyways.”
There is another flash outside, and then the lights of the store go out. The freezer next to Veronica goes dark, too, and stops humming. Julie tells her that the store generators should be coming on to fuel the freezers and the emergency lights, but nothing happens.
“I don’t know why, but this reminds me of the time you let Robin take me to that circus. You know, the fancy one with no animals but like, lots of magical effects and lots of acrobats? My mom won the tickets in a school raffle, but she couldn’t get off from work, so she hired Robin to take me.”
Veronica vaguely remembers. Robin had taken Julie on a bus up to Atlantic City. She was nervous about it—Robin was only fourteen and this girl, she couldn’t have been more than six. It was a small but fancy circus that had set up a tent in a casino parking lot. The tickets must have been worth a ton. Julie’s mom had smiled that way she had, and told her they’d be fine. And they were; Robin had come home looking like she’d visited another planet. She never said much about it to Veronica, though. Julie starts telling her a story.
“So there was this clown doing silly things with the audience. Like taking people’s hats, making them change places with other people, stuff like that. He wasn’t like the usual clowns in normal circuses, sort of French and sad-faced, like a mime. So he steals the popcorn from this person in another row, and comes over to us and presents it to Robin. He takes off his hat and bows as he holds it out, like it’s a present or treasure or something.”
Veronica is having trouble following; it’s not a story Robin has ever told her.
“So here’s the thing,” Julie continues. “Robin says thanks, but then she doesn’t know what to do. ‘Cause she doesn’t want to offend the clown, he’s standing there smiling, but there’s this family, in that other row, looking all like—hey, that’s ours! And I’m like, Robin, can I have some popcorn?”
Julie notices, in the dim light by the front doors, that a policeman has walked in. Maybe he’s here about the crowds and the dark, or maybe to get Veronica. She can’t tell.
“So all of a sudden, it gets so dark, you couldn’t see anything. Like, even your hand in front of your face. And there were these clusters of floating lights, like Christmas lights but not connected to anything—it was magic. They moved right up the aisle next to us. Robin said she couldn’t figure out how they made it work—they looked like a flock of giant lightning bugs, just glowing and glowing.”
She pauses as the lightning outside hits, the thunder this time loud enough to startle everyone in the store. Veronica is watching her intently.
“So when the lights came back on, Robin looks down, and she’s not holding the popcorn anymore. She’s holding a bouquet of flowers. And the clown is gone.”
Veronica nods. What is she meant to make of this? She’s finding it hard to make anything make sense. Her mind, swirling, latches onto something the young woman had said earlier, about heat lightning. How it has no sound. Veronica grew up on the shore. Her father was a fisherman. She knows about lightning.
“You know, Julie, you were wrong about heat lightning. It does have a sound. It’s not something different than ordinary lightning, like everyone thinks. You just don’t hear it because it’s so far away.”
She sees the store manager, true to his name, wading through the crowds toward where she sits.
“Nope. It’s still packing the same power. It’s just that someone else is getting hit.”
Then she folds her hands again, and waits.
Leslie Doyle lives in New Jersey and teaches at Montclair State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Front Porch, Gigantic Sequins, MARY (winner of their Editor’s Fiction Prize), Electric Literature, Fiction Southeast (finalist for the Hell’s Belle’s Prize for Short Fiction), The Forge, The Fourth River, Rougarou, and elsewhere.