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Part Three: Riding Out The Day’s Events

We pull up to the front of the Wal-Mart shortly before 2am. It’s a huge building, the size of a flat sprawling mall. We work our way along the side and eventually come to the entrance. There are maybe twenty cars huddled around the empty handicapped parking spots. A huge Wal-Mart truck is skulking off in the distance. Beyond that is a brightly lit area with gas pumps. You can get gas at Wal-Mart? But we already filled up at the freeway exit.

Trevor parks and all but tumbles out of the car. He shuffles ahead, turning around to make sure I’m coming. “Come on,” he says, as if they’ll sell out if we don’t get there quickly.

We pass between a chain gang of swing sets shackled to each other and banks of glowing Coke machines. Here there stands a round old woman, looking down at her shoes. She’s got a coat on over her blue Wal-Mart jacket. With no one around, dwarfed inside the huge maw of this Wal-Mart Supercenter, she looks like she’s been left behind to stand guard. She watches us obliquely, ready to greet us if we make eye contact. We slow down in case there’s going to be some kind of special protocol to come into Wal-Mart so late. But she doesn’t make any move towards us.

And now we’ve plunged into someplace the size of an airplane hangar, overflowing with fluorescent glare and the color of a million kinds of stuff. It’s stuff everywhere. So much stuff. More stuff than ten million people would ever need. There are two customers coming through a self-service checkout line, and two employees farther down talking quietly to each other. The place seems otherwise empty. So much space, so much stuff, and just us six people. It’s what the end of the world would look like. Except maybe with zombies.

“Dude,” Trevor points upwards. I look up and don’t see anything. “No, listen,” he says. It’s that Led Zeppelin song about a purple um-ber-ella. And they’re playing it at Wal-Mart at 2am for muzak. “I bet it’s for Rock Band,” Trevor says.

We plunge through wide aisles, wide because they’re empty, sticking to the main thoroughfares, past men’s clothing, past boy’s clothing, past housewares. Trevor is on point. “No, fuck, this way. I bet if we’d been here earlier, there’d be signs and a line or something.”

Back past housewares, right at boy’s clothing…oops, bras and mysterious lacey stuff, us trying not to leer at the panties and pictures of women in underwear…past shoes of various types, to automotive, past bath mats and shower curtains, past some strange peninsula of sporting goods where camping gear and ice chests are bordered by sofa pillows and rice steamers. “Over here,” Trevor calls back to me from a few rows ahead, like Legolas finding orc tracks. “Electronics.”

We round a Garth Brooks endcap half-full of CDs, and we pass rows of DVDs of increasing cost: 2 for $10, then 2 for $15, then $9.44, then $13.72, all calculated to shunt you into the full-priced new releases. Now we’re surrounded by a cacophony of TV sets playing the Wal-Mart Network, half of them oddly synced two seconds behind the rest.

Games. Ah, games.

The Wii display with Mario Galaxy takes the prominent position. Behind it a mounted DS juts from a glass case. Behind that is the 360 kiosk with Guitar Hero III. There’s no Playstation 3. Oh, wait, there it is farther back. There’s a center island with two cash registers and piles of empty cardboard boxes on a battered steel dolly that was left out only because it’s so late. There’s no one here.

We stand at the cash register and look around. No one comes running up to help us. This is indeed what the end of the world would be like. You’d go into Wal-Mart and be unable to find anyone else. No customers, no employees, just you and all that stuff. Everyone knows that’s the best part of the apocalypse.

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“Well, I’ll go find someone. Wait here.” I step out into the main aisle and look both ways. Empty all over.

“Hello!” I call out over the sound of the Wal-Mart Network’s Blu-ray demo. Six aisles down, a fat lady moseys out behind a shopping cart full of groceries and new clothes. We both quickly look away, wondering what kind of freak comes to Wal-Mart this late. What kind of freak gets groceries and clothes at this hour? What kind of freak stands around in the aisles yelling at no one at this hour? What kind of freak risks eye contact this late at night?

“May I help you?”

Someone wearing a Chet nametag has materialized from the Rock CD section. He’s a tiny little homunculus of indeterminate age.

“Oh, hi. Yeah, I’m here to pick up Rock Band.”

“Ah, Rock Band. We had a bit of a crowd before.”

“I called about it. Earlier.”

“Very well. Let me go see about that.”

As he briskly walks away, I call after him, “The 360 version.” Lest he thinks I’m some loser with a PS3. Chet hurries into Rock, and veers to one side somewhere before Soundtracks, presumably towards some secret door into the inner workings of Wal-Mart. He comes back with a giant box in his arms.

“Here you go,” he says from behind the black and blue box. “The registers here are shut down, so you’ll have to pay up front. Have a nice day.”

Trevor is playing Welcome to the Jungle on Guitar Hero III.

“Dude,” I say.

“You got it!” He practically drops the Xplorer onto the floor and rushes to take the box. It’s as if he’s embracing it. “Look how awesome. Way better than the Steel Battalion box. Sweet! I was looking through all these cardboard boxes, and they were for Rock Band. I thought maybe they were out. You have no idea how bummed I was. Look, there’s one here for the PS3.” He nudges it with his foot. “I was totally going to get it if they didn’t have any more.”

We wrestle the box through a self-checkout lane while an employee discreetly watches us from behind some sort of control station. She could probably shut down the entire Wal-Mart if she needed to. She’s in charge. Under her watchful eye, Trevor pays just under $200 for a single game. It’s come to this. On the way out, the lady greeter reveals herself not to be a greeter at all, but a checker of receipts.

“Should we get donuts?” Trevor asks, pulling out of the Wal-Mart lot, its empty grandeur forgotten in favor of the black and blue box in the back seat. He cuts his eyes at it as he backs up.

“I don’t know.”

“And coffee?”

“Okay.”

By the time we get back to my house, my stomach is heavy with a half dozen donuts and I’m jittery from bad coffee and loud music. I need to finish Crysis so I can put a paragraph in my already-written review about whatever happens at the end, for credibility’s sake. But if Trevor comes in and starts playing Rock Band…

Plus, I can’t believe it’s nearly 3am. Fucking Trevor and his lame Honda and his last minute need to get a new game and his indefatigable enthusiasm and me tagging along like I always do when I should be doing something else, ideally freeing up time to do other things, things I know I wouldn’t have done anyway. I can feel my mood darkening.

“You know what, just drop me off.”

“But what about Rock Band?”

“We can play it tomorrow at Shoot Club. I’ve got shit I still have to do because you ran out of gas. If you come in and set up Rock Band, I’m going to stay up all night and get fuck all done. So, just drop me off.”

“I won’t let you play it. I’ll just set it up and leave.”

“Just drop me off.” It’s petty of me, but I’m pissed, and for whatever reason, maybe I won’t let him play with his new toy.

“Okay,” he says, giving up too soon. I expected I was going to give in and he’d come set it up anyway, but whatever. What a pushover. Fine. He can take it home and look at the box until tomorrow. It won’t kill him.

“See you tomorrow,” he says as I get out. “Sorry about the gas thing.” I wave without turning around. The car is still there as I’m closing my front door behind me.

I finish Crysis, having to replay the fucking boss battle nearly ten goddamn times. As it’s getting light outside, I go to sleep, depressed and anxious. It must be the coffee.

To be continued…

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Tom Chick has been writing about videogames for fifteen years. His work appears in Games for Windows Magazine, Yahoo, Gamespy, Sci-Fi, and Variety. He lives in Los Angeles. Shoot Club appears in this space every Thursday.

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