Dawn skated out from her apartment on the icy wood boards 1 frosty but sunny morn, toward the yawning sparkle o’ yellow light reflecting off the mailbox’s metal.
I was wondering when you’d finally get here, said a voice, flapping out the metal mouth o’ the mailbox, 1 o’ its screw eyes eying Dawn.
Then it opened its bottom lip to the bottom. Dawn reached in & pulled out a bushel o’ envelopes.
Thank you, Mailican, Dawn said brightly.
Then the Mailican began flapping its titanium white wings & flew off into the cobalt, shrinking into black lines.
¡Heck yeah! ¡I actually got it!, Dawn exclaimed in a burst o’ frigid fog as she burst back in through the door.
While Autumn kept her eyes on her laptop, Edgar leaned his head out o’ the kitchen & said,
Dawn raised a typewritten letter in 1 hand while the other dangled a ripped-open envelope.
’Twas that contest I entered. ¿Remember how I kept eating Sugar Colors boxes after boxes? Well, I finally remembered to send in all those tops, & ’twas ’nough to get on that spreeing shop contest. You guys gotta come.
We get free stuff for this, ¿right?, Autumn said without turning her head from her laptop.
Uh huh. Anything we can grab.
They probably rig it so that we can’t grab mo’ than you paid for that cardboard cereal.
Nah. We’re going to grab all o’ their loot ’cause you’re gonna come & use your snatching & scratching skills.
Ytorm panted & wiped sweat from his forehead, the edges o’ his shirt dangling round the waist o’ his bare chest. However, he maintained his tight grip on his cart: 1 o’ the earliest o’ iron rules his sensei had taught him — it must’ve been a’least a decade ago — was to ne’er leave a cart unattended, or else risk it rolling ’way by itself, or being robbed by other contestants.
He stared down @ his stopwatch, ignoring the rainbow colors o’ zooming traffic blurring gainst the foggy air.
It’s better, I guess; ¿but why so li’l progress?
I am beginning to get rusty. No way round it, just as he said. ¿Why should I be an exception?
Ytorm turned his cart round & pushed his cart back down the hill, his eyes pinching into themselves, seeing nothing but his cart, the cars, & the space ’tween them.
The solid cold slowly melted to a familiar warmth filled with the scent o’ bread as they walked through the sliding doors. Somehow, focused through the few windows & translucent doors, the yellow sunlight seemed brighter inside than outside.
What wasn’t familiar was the emptiness o’ the checkout counters ’long the front, save the also-unfamiliar multicolored balloons tied to their corners — & the crowds o’ people standing round the middle path ’tween the checkout counters & the aisles. ’Bove them, stretching wall to wall, was a huge flapping banner that said in bold blue letters, “¡FredMart’s 72nd Annual Spreeing Shop!”
¡& here come our challengers now!, exclaimed a gray-haired man in a gray suit.
¿Is it me, or does he look familiar?, thought Autumn.
Good morn, Madames & Sir, I’m Fred Hendersen, the CEO o’ FredMart.
Autumn put effort into not letting her brows & lids rise.
But maybe he doesn’t recognize us… He was asleep the whole time, ¿wasn’t he?
¿But wouldn’t ol’ Chamsby have revealed our real identities?
Hendersen reached a hand out & Dawn met it.
& I’m sure you’ve already heard o’ “Spreeing Shop” consecutive champion, Ytorm Sølvverk, Hendersen said as he pointed an arm toward a tall, muscle-bound man in gray sweat pants & long, combed-back blond hair with a gray sweat shirt tied round his waist.
Dawn almost shoved her arm into him.
It’s a pleasure to meet such a celebrity, Sir Sølvverk.
Ytorm slowly gave her his own hand, which felt both soft & firm, like a clump o’ dough.
Please, call me Ytorm, Madame Summers.
Ytorm shook his head, causing his pulled-back hair to swing back & forth.
No, the author just doesn’t want to go through the trouble o’ adding so many ø’s.
All right. Now that we’ve introduced ourselves, ¿could you 2 go to the eastern & western corners respectively?
Hendersen pointed 1st toward Dawn & co. & then toward Ytorm. Dawn saw Ytorm turn & walk down the aisles, the last o’ which held the back end o’ a cart. As Dawn turned back to see the other end, she heard Autumn say,
I think he means we should go to the other end. Just as jam, Dawn saw a cart standing partway outside the last aisle o’ that end, too.
They walked o’er to it, & then Dawn stopped to pull off her jacket & wrap it round her waist. Autumn paused for a second before copying.
You saw that Ytorm had his shirt wrapped like this, too, ¿right?, said Dawn.
I didn’t doubt the logic o’ your idea.
Autumn helped Edgar up his side o’ the cart, & then climbed inside herself. There she clutched the bars as tightly as she could with fingers still frost-poisoned by the outside air while she tried to get all the fidgeting out o’ her anxious nerves. She kept returning to the fact that they’d no opportunity to practice, — as if stores would just let them race carts through them on off-contest days — kept returning to the infinite # o’ possible problems that couldn’t be predicted through isolated, arm-chair imagining.
Meanwhile, Dawn, with far less stress in her chest, steeled herself gainst the cart, gripping its metal handle like a controller, with 1 heel planted forward & the other arch stretched ’hind her.
On the count o’ 3…, announced Hendersen.
3… 2… 1… ¡Go!
Like an engine spinning to life, Dawn’s legs revved forward. Autumn & Edgar, on each side o’ the cart, hung onto their walls with 1 arm while the other grabbed items as quickly as possible.
Autumn’s crow eyes repeatedly scanned the stacks o’ goods that kept shifting before her, every millisecond ’tween grabs estimating what items were the most expensive — from jars o’ Kvasir-brand jam & bottles o’ Mimir-brand mineral water. She felt it worked her brain muscles like ne’er before; she was so used to seeking the least expensive wares that keeping her attention on the opposite was a constant wear, like trying to write with the other hand or speak in a 2nd language.
& then she had to watch for others tricks that popped up. As she saw them near the deli section @ the end o’ the aisle she called out for Edgar to join her side. They then both worked e’en mo’ feverishly than before to snatch up as much o’ the extra-expensive fresh-cut meat as they could.
Dawn laughed, which came out half-choked from her exertion.
That’ll all rot before we finish it.
We’ll worry ’bout what to do with it later, Autumn said through panting.
Keep your focus on what needs it most — Shit.
She saw Ytorm ’head o’ them, already turning onto the 1st checkpoint.
I don’t mean to be a 1st-seat driver, ¿but is it possible for you to go a li’l faster?, said Autumn.
Don’t push too hard, said Autumn.
Maybe he’ll o’erexert himself & slow down near the end.
Considering he’s a world-class champion, I doubt that, said Dawn. She laughed.
I wouldn’t put much hope in us winning.
No, but I still have my desires set on it — go carefully down the steps. We don’t want to tumble & spill anything or sprain your legs.
They turned @ the center & tumbled down the stairs & pushed past the flappy doors — the 1st checkpoint into the 2nd course o’ their marathon.
The main store looked like a straight line compared to the winding mazes that made up the iron-gray caves o’ the warehouse section. Gone, too, was the sheltering warmth, o’erthrown by the musky chill that broke through the unguarded warehouse walls.
But as they’d foreseen, their frantic action beat back the cold ’nough that it didn’t bother them @ all. In fact, they were sweating storms. But though they knew these clouds could ne’er catch up now, they were sure that the second they stopped to rest, icy lightning would strike through their spinal cords, rattling chills all throughout their nerves.
They had no time to think ’bout this, though: there were many mo’ shelves to reach & raid — with such speed that Dawn thought her legs’d fall off, & Autumn & Edgar thought so o’ their arms. & unlike the simple ’boveground, now shelves’d sometimes be befallen with toxic green spiders that Autumn & Edgar had to avoid grabbing, & the concrete floor sometimes held dark puddles that Dawn had to dodge.
We’re fucked, said Autumn.
We’re doing e’en worst than before — & Ytorm’s doing better.
There was no chance o’ us winning, anyway, Dawn said with her voice strained by tiredness.
¿Now who’s the pessimist?, said Autumn.
It’s not pessimist if you don’t care whether you win or not, said Dawn.
Shit, Autumn muttered as she dropped a box o’ LEGO pirates.
I’m sure you truly wanted to play with those.
We could’ve sold those, muttered Autumn.
Our cart’s already getting full, anyway, said Dawn.
Without turning from her work, Autumn replied,
¿Did you see how full Ytorm’s was?
Maybe he’ll drop some, evening the score, said Dawn.
Not likely that a world champion would do that, said Autumn.
¿Now who’s the pessimist?, said Dawn.
We already knew that, though.
Then Autumn added,
The thing is, I’m not sure if I should be annoyed or glad that this section is going on so long.
Indeed, Autumn had been counting every turn they’d taken since they entered, to compare its length to the previous section, but stopped when she saw it go up into the 20s. That was almost a half-hour ago. Each new turn Autumn expected to see a door stick out, but was met with yet ’nother set o’ shelves.
¿Are you insinuating that you may actually possibly may be having fun?, said Dawn with a tongue stuck out the side o’ her mouth.
No: I’m insinuating that I fear how much worse the next section’ll be. Anyway, I take back the uncertainty, since I know this section going on longer would only procrastinate the inevitable.
Despite her ribbing, Dawn had to admit she was getting tired o’ these tombs, too. It went beyond her shivering nostrils & stiff, burning ankles & wrists; everything here was dull, dim, repetitive, like a desaturated cave. E’en all o’ the goods they grabbed looked sapped o’ their color under the blinking bulbs ’bove, as if they emitted antilight; & e’en if they were sometimes colorful, most o’ them were just cans o’ beans or corn, with the most fascinating feature being a dent here or there.
Augh. It has to end eventually, Dawn said with a flushed face aimed downward, her shins feeling stiff & ready to lock & collapse.
No it doesn’t, said Autumn, sweat dribbling down her brows despite the low temperature.
Maybe in real reality that’s the case, but in this reality, shit can go on fore’er for real.
Dawn responded with a moan.
But after a few dozen mo’ minutes, they saw a wide dusty door @ the end o’ a dead end.
Fine time, Dawn said in a gasp.
Don’t become too excited, said Autumn:
that just means we’re off to an e’en harder section.
’Gain, Dawn responded with a moan.
Past the door did true look huger than the warehouse, but far less cramped. While the warehouse was squeezed into a billion tight aisles, the frosty mountain o’ section 3 appeared to be just 1 white aisle spreading out in every direction toward the hazy sunset horizon, holding nothing but a few stray firs & smoke that smelled like wood.
Just after pushing the cart past the door, Dawn paused, pressing her face to the handlebar while hoarse breaths rattled through her throat.
¿D’you think it’d be all right if we stopped for a second?, she asked, her voice muffled from coming through her tightened teeth & lips.
¿Aren’t you mo’ ’fraid o’ frostbite than exhaustion?, Autumn said as she harshly rubbed her fingers together.
But the way Autumn’s hollowed-out eyes charged forth & back round the empty winter landscape revealed her true fear: Ytorm was nowhere to be seen.
Sorry…, Dawn said ’tween pants.
I swear I’ll start going ’gain in just a few seconds… & I should be recuperated ’nough to make up the time loss in speed.
¿You want to switch places?, asked Autumn.
Dawn shook her head vigorously.
I don’t have the practice… & I’m such a sweatypalms…
Autumn gripped the edge o’ the cart, the pain o’ the hard metal’s pressure meshing with the stiff, hot aches wrought by the cold. Her eyes began to burn with itches under the smoke. & true, she did feel the hot-air-thick & icicle-sharp claws o’ exhaustion wrap round her lungs, making them wheeze, & worse, a throbbing so harsh in her arms that they felt as if they were shrinking, losing layers o’ bone, & would shatter after 1 mo’ use too many. But these pokes were mere distractions, which she was rather glad to have now — anything to calm the stress static that so-oft snaked all through her.
It doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter…
Nothing matters: what a wonderful way to keep me on my feet.
But she still heard the voice thrown way back @ the bottom: This’d go better if I were ’lone: I’d have full power o’er everything, ’stead o’ latching myself to the wills of others.
But by this time, Dawn was already saying,
’K, I’m ready. Sorry, & had already started pushing them up the mountain.
Can’t bitch ’bout others slowing me when I slow myself with — ¡No time for thinking! ¡Go!
But there didn’t seem to be hardly any shelves for meters, so all Autumn could do was cling closely to the rattling cart & stew in her lukewarm bath o’ uneasiness.
Don’t worry, said Dawn:
if we lose, I’ll take the full blame.
Autumn ignored her, but did feel her chest seize & eyes widen so much that the formerly dormant icy crust round their edges shifted. She rose & began climbing o’er the side.
But ’stead o’ storming ’way, Autumn stood ’side Dawn; & as she grabbed the right side o’ the handle, she said,
Move o’er. I’ll help make up time.
¿You need me to help?, asked Edgar.
Autumn shook her head.
We have ’nough speed. Be ready for shelves, just in case.
Autumn pumped the cart onward as fast as her legs were able — so fast that she could hear poor Dawn’s forced breaths as she tried keeping up. Autumn could see why: she had hoped that this job switch would give her arms a li’l rest & uncramp her legs; ’stead she felt the pain in both worsen so that now she wasn’t sure which would fall 1st.
But she kept pressing: she had to outrun the less-stomachful bane o’ that static snake.
On the way they found 1 thing o’ note ’mong the common boughs & stones: they had noticed something that looked different far ’way &, ’pon reaching it, found a box buried in the snow like an ol’ beach treasure chest.
Autumn lifted it, causing most o’ its snow to plop back to the ground, & stared @ its colorful cover: a shiny, black, plastic bowl holding within its 4 sectors a slices o’ finely-grained chicken patties, a sea o’ mashed potatoes swirled together with white & yellow, ’nother sea o’ corn, & pudding. @ the top, in bold yellow letters, it said, “GRUMBLESTOMACH”, & below that it said in smaller white letters, “Chicken Fried Chicken Meal”.
Autumn peered closely into it, shaking her head in jerks as if she couldn’t believe it. She tossed it back into the snow.
They said “chicken” twice, she said.
Wait, we should keep that, said Dawn as she followed the TV dinner.
They said “chicken” twice.
O, you ne’er know when someone might miss it the 1st time, Dawn said as she set the TV dinner in the unfillable cart.
Maybe it’d be better if they missed it all then, said Autumn.
Dawn lightly jabbed Autumn’s shoulder after she’d returned to her spot on the cart handle.
They came on.
After what must’ve been a’least 4 kilometers, Autumn’s fear o’ either Dawn or herself breaking a bone forced her to stop. Both sat back in the snow, the freezing air blocked off by the heat shield they’d built up from their minutes o’ running. Dawn barely held herself up by a wobbling arm. She was breathing so hard that Autumn feared she might retch.
Whatever gain I’ve made was likely traded for a greater loss: she looks so weary now that I’m sure it’ll take hours o’ rest ’fore she’s back in strength.
Autumn gazed @ the landscape, just as empty white as e’er.
¿Where’s the end to this hellhole? ¿Why aren’t there any shelves?
By that time the shadows o’er the snow had grown so much that they covered everything, including the sky. In mere minutes Autumn & Dawn felt their heat shield fade, letting the chill ambush them. As Autumn cooly watched Dawn wrap her arms round herself & shiver, she thought to say that they’d be much warmer if they started moving, but couldn’t bring herself to.
We’ll have to start moving eventually, anyway: we’ll need rest sometime, & would freeze to death if we tried sleeping out here.
Dawn must’ve gotten the same idea, for Autumn soon saw her stand & shake the numbness out o’ her legs.
Well, I guess we’d better get going.
Autumn nodded & rose, & continued helping Dawn push their cart. Her eyes winced mo’ under the blue shade that surrounded them all than under the sunset; but this didn’t keep her from seeing the orange light flickering from far ’way.
¡O! ¿D’you see that light way o’er there?, said Dawn.
Yeah…, Autumn said with a held-back frown.
Let’s hope it’s a way outta here.
Ha ha: bad word choice, thought Autumn.
But when they did reach it, they found what they hadn’t expected: they saw a campfire still stirring ’mong a pile o’ twigs & stones, & in the shadow o’ its light they saw Ytorm lying wrapped in a patchy sleeping bag, eyes closed & his body mostly still.
Horrorcore Hare slacks off, Autumn thought bitterly.
Dawn started to look like someone who’d just swallowed a rusty nail.
¿D’you think we’ll have to be here for multiple days?
If so then we’ll have to set up a fire just like him here, said Autumn, still gazing @ the fire.
’Cept we don’t have a sleeping bag, so we’ll probably freeze to death.
This mere thought seemed to make Dawn tighten her hold on herself.
But then Dawn said,
Maybe there’s a blanket somewhere in all the stuff we grabbed.
I don’t remember grabbing anything that looked like a blanket, said Autumn. She turned to Edgar. He shrugged.
Autumn looked back @ Ytorm.
’Less we can swipe this guy’s sleeping bag. Hard to do without waking him up, though, I bet.
I guess we’d have a better chance just staying up as long as we can & keep moving, said Dawn. But her frown told them all how this prospect tasted.
Maybe we can wait till morning & it’ll be less cold.
Autumn didn’t respond. She was now neither looking @ Dawn, nor Edgar, nor Ytorm, nor the fire, but into invisible air.
Then her eyes shot open.
I hope that’s not an idea for how to steal Ytorm’s sleeping bag.
No… I know a way we can get rest & keep moving @ the same tim — shit. Let’s move. Autumn began walking ’way, throttling a hand toward the others while her eyes locked on Ytorm.
Dawn & Edgar followed her with stupefied faces.
She leaned toward them & whispered,
You ne’er know if someone’s pretending to sleep.
¿What’s your idea, asked Dawn.
We take turns.
¿Pushing the cart?
Yeah, while the others sleep. Maybe 2 could push the cart & just 1 sleeps.
¿Can we draw straws to decide who sleeps 1st?, asked Dawn.
You sleep 1st, said Autumn.
You’ve been pushing the longest.
Yeah, but you’ve been doing 2 jobs.
@ 2 different times.
I could push while you 2 sleep, since I haven’t been doing much for the past hour or so, said Edgar.
Autumn shook her head.
It’d be mo’ efficient to have 2 people pushing @ a time. We are still in a race.
I guess I could bury myself under some o’ the stuff we grabbed & use that as a blanket. Dawn tilted her head @ Autumn.
¿You sure you’re not tired? You’re not going to strain yourself keeping going only to break something, ¿are you?
Not on accident, said Autumn.
Nothing valuable a’least.
Augh. Dawn pointed @ Edgar.
Then she climbed up into the cart & burrowed herself into the cans o’ green beans & mixed fruit & the boxes o’ cake mix. It took but a minute or 2 o’ Autumn & Edgar pushing the cart for Dawn to be rocked to sleep.
Autumn was so enraptured by just the will to press forward that the tap o’ a hand on her shoulder knocked her like a rough slap o’ ice-shard water. Then she saw ’twas just Dawn.
You can go to sleep now.
Autumn looked up @ her with sagging rings under her eyes, blacker than iron rock.
¿You sure you’re rested ’nough?, asked Autumn.
It’s been a’least 8 hours. Sorry I o’erslept.
Autumn looked round her @ the lukewarm blue cast, glowing cyan @ the horizon.
Edgar should sleep, she said.
But Edgar shook his head.
You can both sleep, said Dawn.
You look dreadful.
Sleep can’t fix that.
Augh. C’mon. Dawn climbed out, making Autumn stop.
I won’t be able to sleep till we’re done, anyway, Autumn said as she pressed her right foot gainst the bottom bar o’ the cart.
Now let’s hurry before Ytorm catches. He’s certainly up by now.
Knowing you, we must already have a’least a 25-kilometer head start, said Dawn.
He’s faster. He’ll make up those kilometers, snapped Autumn. The rings round her eyes appeared to become e’en darker.
Calm down; it’s just a game, said Dawn.
If ’twas just a game, I wouldn’t be playing.
Autumn looked ’way from them, cringed, & exhaled her own smoke as if having tasted something bitter.
Without turning back to them or raising her eyelids ’bove a millimeter, she said in a low mumble,
Listen, I won’t be able to sleep, no matter what — don’t ask me why; I don’t know anything ’bout how I work. I just know that if I don’t constantly prod myself through moving this thing… I’ll frantically scrabble for alternatives…
Dawn blinked for a few seconds, & then said,
¿You want me to give you some sleep serum?
Now Autumn’s eyes opened & aimed @ Dawn. To Dawn she looked like a skinny dachshund-pug before a human hand holding a steak.
Yes, Autumn said in a strained whisper.
Erm, OK, Dawn said in almost a question as she began digging through 1 o’ her many jacket pockets.
As she poured a cap full o’ the serum, she saw that Autumn didn’t stare, but, quite opposite, glanced ’way. But when Dawn handed the dose to Autumn, though Autumn was 1st jerked as if waken from an awake dream, Autumn afterward took the serum with a quiet,
Thanks, & downed it in 1 chug.
After that she climbed up into the cart without a word & lay in a curl, breathing heavily. As Dawn & Edgar began pushing the cart, they watched Autumn with unease; but her face had already melted into calmness.
After a few minutes, Dawn turned her head round the blank canvas o’ the valley they were in.
Awful quiet, huh.
Autumn woke to find Edgar curled up next to her; & as warm as his breaths were gainst her neck, the 1st thought she had was, Damn it, Dawn. Then she noticed that the floor ’neath her was still & stood straight up. Her heart dug itself farther down her throat when she saw Dawn sitting back gainst the cart, eyes closed & head & chest bobbing up & down in a steady rhythm.
She leaned forward & whispered loudly,
Dawn twitched & opened her eyes with a mumbled moan. She turned back with thick lids.
O, sorry, she said in a muffled voice as she finished a yawn.
Just resting a minute or 2. No longer than that, I swear.
This didn’t soothe Autumn’s bulging eyes. But rather than say anything mo’, she looked round her. They were still surrounded in mounds o’ snow, now stamped all o’er with eye-searingly bright off-yellow patches left by the half-’wake sun o’er the gray-blue shadows.
¿Still no sight o’ Ytorm, Autumn asked without looking ’way.
¿How’d the sky look when you last looked? Please be honest.
I swear it looked just like it does now. ’Twas truly only a few minutes — I didn’t e’en truly fall asleep, so much as doze a li’l.
Autumn nodded. She did wake far too easily.
I’m sorry. I’m always unhappy. Let’s just get out o’ this hell hole. Then Autumn began climbing out.
She expected Dawn to bother her ’bout what she said, which would be nought but a bother, but Dawn kept to nodding silently & continued pushing ’long with Autumn. However, this quiet began to worry Autumn almost as much till a few minutes later Dawn tossed out,
Wish I could have breakfast; I’m starving.
Autumn, too, felt her stomach seem to suck into itself; but that was a dry drop o’ the o’erall wave o’ mud always sagging her to a trudge.
Wish I could just die.
I should be going faster.
¿Why bother? ¿Who cares if we win? ¿Will it change anything? We’ll probably just win a T-shirt. ¿& why bother Dawn with my inanities?
You’re only guaranteeing our failure now.
But the prodding voice worked to make her speed up just ’nough to avoid her fears o’ the ache o’ losing. She kept looking ’hind her, but still only found emptiness.
He can’t be that far back. Winning couldn’t be this easy.
1 mo’ kilometer or so, though, she had something else with which to distract her mind: a hill that rose much higher than all the others, & so much steeper that its sides were stony walls with only its etchings still filled with snow. E’en mo’ breathstealing was the door in the middle o’ the wall.
Holy fuck, Dawn said in a mighty exhale.
’Bout fucking time.
It’ll only be worse, said Autumn.
Dawn laughed nervously.
Don’t say that.
¿Think we should wake Edgar? There might be a pickup in things we have to grab. I may need to hop back into the cart.
Yeah. He probably wouldn’t want to miss it, anyway.
So Autumn reached into the cart & nudged Edgar ’wake &, ’pon catching Edgar up, helped Dawn push the cart through the door.
But both stepped on their natural brake heels when they saw what was past it: an all-stretching black void cut open only by a line o’ flimsy ceiling lamps hanging from a rocky ceiling & a thin strand o’ rusty & dusty rails that grew out as far as they could see.
Autumn stared @ the track for a minute or so before she said,
Get in the cart, Dawn.
¿Huh? ¿Don’t you think you’d be better @ grabbing stuff?
Autumn shook her head.
You’ll see. Just get — Shit.
All 3 turned back to the sound o’ rattling metal to see a blurry dark shape rise from the horizon.
Shit. No time: get in. Autumn was shoving Dawn toward the cart.
If you say so…
The frame that Dawn left the ground, Autumn began ramming the cart forward, & then, ’pon feeling the cart begin to become faster than she was running, hopping into the cart herself. This didn’t slow the cart down a millimeter per hour; in fact, her added weight pressing down on it pushed it further.
But when she looked back, she saw Ytorm — now as clear as possible — closing in.
¿How? We should weight mo’ — ¡Shit! ¡He has far mo’ stuff than we have! @ this rate we have ’bout a minute ’fore he passes.
Shit. Think… ¿How can we go faster?
¿Who says there’s a way @ all? ¿Who says we’re not doomed beyond control?
But then Autumn’s mouth curled into a smile.
¿Who says we’re the ones who need to change velocity?
Autumn began digging through their goods @ mole speed. ’Twas as Autumn dug through the produce items buried far under the electronics that Dawn smacked her forehead & said,
¿Why didn’t I think o’ that? & to think I went that long practically starving…
Autumn managed to yank a banana from a bunch they’d grabbed way back in the 1 sector, ripped it open, & handed Dawn the naked fruit.
¿Wha — ¡No! Dawn began laughing.
You can’t fucking do that.
But by that time Autumn had already chucked the peel ’hind her onto the railing. To her surprise, Ytorm didn’t gape in shock, but merely smiled wryly — the 1st time she saw an emotion so powerful from him. She was already glancing @ their pile o’ goods for something mo’ potent while the other eye watched him whip out a rake still in its plastic wrap & swat the banana right off the railing & into the abyss.
Autumn vacillated ’tween Ytorm & the pile & began to sweat, despite the still-chilly air. Fuck. Just do it.
Help me, please, she said as she began hefting a microwave from just below a pile o’ Marxmas ornaments.
With Dawn & Edgar’s help she managed to lift the microwave o’er the height o’ the cart walls, still keeping it & their weights forward to keep the cart moving per Autumn’s directions, & threw it in 1 motion o’er the side to slam gainst the rail. This time, though Ytorm didn’t raise his always-thick eyelids, he was frowning & rubbing his chin.
Without turning ’way from him, Autumn said,
We should drop a few mo’ things, just to be safe.
We’ll need it… This feels too easy…
She watched as Ytorm jumped out o’ his cart just as it slammed the microwave, shooting him forward. Autumn expected him to fly right past them, but saw him land in a steady crouch meters ’hind them. As Ytorm’s cart smacked the microwave, it spilled boxes like a volcano eruption & tipped o’er its side, into the abyss.
Ytorm gave no attention to it. He was too busy dashing forward with full strides.
Autumn jerked backward. Jesus. He’ll be able to catch up, too.
They continued to toss what Autumn called “medium-sized items”, — Better save the best for the end — but Ytorm hopped & sidelined past them with hardly a delay.
Now Autumn’s eyes were flaring. Her hands gripped the edge o’ their cart as if she hoped to squeeze speed into it.
If he e’en catches up, he could wreck our cart, & our chances o’ winning.
OK, now let’s drop the biggest items. Fuck it, Autumn said quickly.
They put all their strength into hefting the 50-centimeter CRT television o’er the edge. It hit the rails so hard that the rails dipped under its weight.
Ytorm stopped in a scratch before it, but took half a minute to climb o’er it & resume his run. Autumn could see, however, that he was tossing way buckets worth o’ sweat beads & that his chest was pumping in & out deeply & rapidly.
He’s a world champion; there’s no way he’ll kill himself trying to beat shabby us. He’s probably holding back.
Actually, a world champion not wanting to lose to shabby us is the perfect reason to kill oneself.
But as Autumn watched Ytorm continue to gain on them, she thought flippantly, Either him or me. Then she turned forward ’gain, only to see the long line o’ rail & the darkness continue fore’ever as always.
¡Still no sign o’ ending?, she exclaimed, her pitch rising.
Seems not. Dawn laughed.
We may need to jump out & start running; from the looks o’ it, it’s faster.
Autumn turned back to Ytorm & felt her nerves spark her mo’ & mo’ rapidly.
Autumn lowered her voice.
I have an idea. It’s risky; but I see no alternative. All signs show that he’ll catch up with us before the end, & that he has better mobility to harm our cart & push past us while we’re stuck on our legs — & there’s no chance we have o’ outrunning him.
¿What’s the plan?
We jump out & dump the whole cart’s carry in front o’ him.
You don’t think he’ll be seriously injured by this, ¿do you?
¿Have you seen him? He’s too powerful to be hurt by that.
Autumn knew this argument was weak & knew that if there truly were a hell, she’d deserve to fry there; but need to win was crushing her lungs mo’ harshly than the thickest carbon dioxide.
¿You all ready on the count o’ 3?, asked Autumn.
Dawn & Edgar gripped the front & said together,
1… 2…… ¡3!
They hopped out, turned, & shoved the cart o’er, all in sync. All o’ the cart’s goods tumbled out in 1 mountain like an avalanche.
Then Autumn started charging forward, the empty cart still in-hand.
¡We have no time to watch! ¡Run! Dawn & Edgar followed.
Despite what she’d just said, Autumn couldn’t keep her head from turning back every few minutes. However, e’en as Dawn & Edgar built distance from the new debris, she didn’t see Ytorm emerge.
Shit. Maybe I did injure him.
I don’t know why I’m doing all this. I’m a psychopath. @ this point, they’ll surely disqualify us — if not jail us. Surely we’ve broken the rules. ¿What am I thinking?
¿What other choice did we have?
But Autumn’s stomach collapsed into itself @ that thought.
No risk, no reward. This is no different from a heist — in practice & in ethics.
In the silence, save for the sounds o’ their shoes on steel, left ’hind, Autumn mired in these thoughts till she saw a box o’ white light yawn in front o’ them.
Autumn still wasn’t sure what all the variables were. She shook as if having just ’woken. Suddenly, everything felt much warmer. Her eyes prickling with burning pain gazed @ the checkered tape lying by her feet, as if wondering who’d put it there, or how anything in the world she could see round her had gotten to the way ’twas now.
Hendersen was babbling ’bout something. Though ’twas difficult, she tried to pay attention to what that something was. She had to know her prize.
’Twas in this moment that Ytorm emerged from the caverns. He stopped a meter from where the tape had been, bent o’er panting & sweating, but without any bruises standing out. He seemed as steady as he’d e’er been.
He stepped forward & reached a hand out, which caused Autumn to shrink back @ 1st.
I’d like to congratulate you 3. That was very good, he said, as slowly & steadily as he always spoke.
Not many think o’ using what they’ve collected to help them. You should consider going individual & trying the true leagues. You’d do well.
Dawn laughed as she glanced @ Autumn, still standing back stiffly. Dawn stepped forward & shook Ytorm’s hand with energy.
We’ll think ’bout that, said Dawn.
Thanks for not being sore ’bout us kinda cheating.
Speak for yourself, thought Autumn. We won purely ’cause o’ such cheating — as well as us using our numerical advantage. ’Lone we’d fall like stones.
Ytorm shook his head.
All’s fair in Spreeing Shops. Hope to see you ’gain in competition.
& with that, Ytorm turned to the side & went out the door.
Let’s hope that hope isn’t fed, thought Autumn.
Hendersen put his hand on Autumn & Dawn’s shoulders, which caused Autumn to fidget mo’ than she’d e’er done this whole day.
It’s not too late for him to get his revenge…
You guys must be excited ’bout your victory.
Dawn & Edgar nodded. Autumn didn’t move.
Not yet. Let the tribalism continue & we’ll maximize our chances o’ getting our reward.
…& in addition to the fame o’ being a Spreeing Shop Contestant Champion, you may keep all o’ the products you kept in your cart…
Autumn’s eyes & heart jumped @ this.
Hendersen laughed as he patted her shoulder ’gain.
No joke: all o’ it. He looked up.
O… He chuckled.
That’s terrible luck. He released Autumn’s shoulder & stepped back.
Well, you should still feel good ’bout your incredible victory. I’m sure with your can-go attitude, you could easily win that & mo’ an infinite # o’ times.
Dawn & Edgar frowned & looked @ Autumn. But Autumn’s frown twisted & shrunk, & then gradually grew into a smile. This smile only amplified Dawn & Edgar’s frowns.
Then Autumn began tittering. She tittered @ the perfect way she undid herself — ¡the vital variable she’d ne’er e’en seen! She tittered @ the way Hendersen stood back in fear. She tittered @ the way everyone else treated this as if it should be treated as a celebration, while she felt the poison inside her spread ’gain, as it always did — ne’er cleaned by their cheer; solely spread.
Dawn & Edgar were silent as they all ate @ La Persistencia del Taco. Good. They couldn’t hide their glances @ her every so oft.
Autumn didn’t eat. She didn’t need to eat anymo’. She didn’t need to sleep anymo’. ¡She was such a champ!