Monday, September 10, 2001
I was staring through the window of Dad’s van when I saw the shopping cart, stranded like a lost dog at the corner of Sunbury Street and Lower Falls Road. The green plastic trim and the white Food Giant logo identified it as one of ours. Maybe a customer had wheeled it, illegally, to a house around the corner, unloaded it, and then wheeled it back to that spot in an effort to say, I didn’t really steal this. I was just borrowing it. You can have it back now.
Whatever. It wouldn’t be there for long. Bobby Smalls would pass this way in ten minutes. He would spot the cart and then comment bitterly about the person who had left it there, since he’d have to retrieve it as his first job of the day.
Dad turned right and our van bumped across the dark expanse of blacktop in front of the supermarket. The Food Giant sign was still in its low-wattage setting, glowing like a rectangular night light for the town of Blackwater. Dad is the general manager of this Food Giant, and he spends most of his waking life there. Although it was still an hour before opening and the lot was empty, he backed our Dodge Caravan into an outer space--a requirement for all employees. He asked, “Do you want me to leave it running, Tom?”
“No. I’ll just open a window.”
“Okay. I’ll leave the keys in case you change your mind. I’ll be about fifteen minutes, provided the system is up.”
I yawned, “Okay,” and lowered the electric window before he could turn the key.
Plan A was that Dad would drive me to school, which meant I would get there way early, before anybody, which meant that no one would see me being dropped off by a parent. This was infinitely better than plan B.
In plan B, Mom would drop me off later, in front of everybody, which meant that I might as well be wearing a yellow patrol boy vest and carrying a Pokemon lunch box.
But first we’d had to stop at the Food Giant because the Centralized Reporting System had been down the night before, so Dad hadn’t been able to input all his sales figures, reorders, et cetera, and send them to the corporate office. In theory, he would input those figures now, and we would be gone before the opening shift arrived at 6:45.
I watched him walk across the large, rolling parking lot. The Food Giant was built, like much of Blackwater, on the uneven landscape of Pennsylvania coal country. If a shopping cart got away from you in this lot, it could roll for fifty yards, building up to a speed of twenty miles per hour before it crashed into a parked vehicle. That could do some serious damage, as any cart retriever would tell you.
Dad disabled the alarm, unlocked the automatic doors, and slipped inside. I opened my PSAT prep book, hoping to get in a few minutes of study time.
But that was not to be.
First, I looked up and saw Bobby’s mother drop him off, fifteen minutes early, as usual. He was wearing his green Food Giant slicker in case of rain. (Bobby was always prepared. The Boy Scouts just said it; Bobby lived it.) After listening impatiently to some final words from his mother, he pushed away from the Explorer and started walking back toward Sunbury Street and that abandoned cart. Mrs. Smalls drove on to her job at the Good Samaritan Hospital.
Then, just as I had returned to my book, a louder engine sound disturbed me.
A black tow truck, driving too fast, bounced across the parking lot and took a hard left at the ATM. Its high-mounted headlights flashed right into my eyes. Then the driver killed the lights and backed up to the front of the store.
A man in a hooded sweatshirt and a black ski mask jumped out on the passenger side. He reached into the back of the truck and rolled out a metal hook so large that I could see it clearly from two hundred feet away. He wedged the hook into a slot in the ATM and gave the driver a hand signal. The truck lurched forward, creating a god-awful sound.
I was now sitting bolt upright and staring at them. They were trying to rip the ATM out of the wall and make off with it--steal the whole thing and crack it open later for the cash inside.
Suddenly, to my right, I saw a figure approaching. It was Bobby Smalls. He came running back clumsily in his green rain slicker, without the cart. He started waving his arms and shouting at the robbers.
I thought, Oh no, Bobby. Not now! Keep away from them! I slid over into the driver’s seat and grabbed the steering wheel, trying to think what to do. I started pounding on the horn, making as big a racket as I could.
The driver, dressed in the same type of dark disguise, stepped out of the truck. He was holding a strange object. It took me a few seconds to realize what it was--a compound bow. He then produced a feathered arrow, nocked it, and aimed it right at Bobby’s short, advancing body.
The beeping horn got Dad’s attention. He appeared behind the glass in the entranceway, looking bewildered. He pulled the door open and stepped outside, holding out one hand toward Bobby like a traffic cop trying to get him to halt.
The bowman changed his aim from Bobby to Dad and then back again. Was he going to shoot one of them? Or shoot one, reload, and get the other? Or was he just trying to scare them?
I couldn’t take the chance. I cranked the car key and hit the gas pedal. The old van roared like an angry lion. I yanked at the gearshift, still revving the engine, and dropped it into drive. The van took off with a squeal of spinning tires and rocketed across the parking lot.
The bow-and-arrow guy turned toward me and froze like a deer caught in the headlights. Then he aimed the bow right at me. I thought, Can an arrow pierce the windshield? He must have asked himself that same question and decided it could not. He lowered his weapon, tossed it into the cab, and climbed back into the driver’s seat.
I continued to accelerate toward the truck, closing the gap quickly, like I was going to ram it. (Honestly, I had no idea what I was going to do.) By now, the other man had unhooked the cable and had scrambled inside the cab, too.
The truck lurched forward and drove right at me, like in a deadly game of chicken. I hit the brakes and steered to the right, throwing the van into a wild skid, stopping just feet away from the frozen-in-place figure of Bobby Smalls.
The tow truck continued across the parking lot and shot across Route 16, accelerating away into the darkness.
I turned off the van’s engine, threw open the door, and hopped out.
Suddenly everything was quiet.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Plague Year by Edward Bloor. Copyright © 2011 by Edward Bloor. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.