Stories

The Haunted Shopping Cart

The shopping cart rolled up to Harry and bumped him, gently, in the leg. No one was pushing it; there was no one else in sight. The aisle in the EZ Shop appeared to be level. No cans or jars were hopping off the shelves of their own accord, which ruled out earthquake. There seemed to be no simple or obvious explanation for the cart's motion.

The shopping cart pushed against his leg the way a cat will push against its owner's hand when it wants to be scratched.

Harry looked up and down the aisle, saw no one. He did a quick paranoid scan above head level, to see if he were being observed by practical-joking store clerks, reality tv cameramen, or any other explanatory interlopers.

No one was watching him.

It had probably been a mistake to come to the EZ Shop at three in the morning, but Harry had needed some cold medications. Without them he would never get to sleep. So he had driven down the hill to the shopping strip, remembering the sign above the doors of the supermarket: "Open 24 Hours!"

Harry walked down the aisle away from the cart. The cart followed him, rattling slightly.

Having no desire to appear ridiculous, Harry stopped. The cart rolled up to him and stopped beside him.

Perhaps its movements were more like a dog's than a cat's, he thought. Or even more like a horse's. Some companionable animal. But a cart was not an animal. It was made--what were grocery carts made of, anyway? Chrome, stainless steel? Metal anyway. Not--definitely not--anything sentient.

He stared at the cart. Though not actually moving, it gave the impression of movement, a potential shimmering throughout its substance. A promise of movement.

Perhaps it was waiting for instructions.

"Shoo!" Harry said experimentally. The cart remained motionless, though brimming with possibilities.

"Scat!"

Of course language designed for use with cats would not necessarily have any effect on a grocery cart. But what speech would be appropriate?

"Look, just fuck off. Go away."

The cart remained beside him, shimmering slightly.

"Well come on," Harry said hopelessly. "I don't have all night."

The cart turned alertly toward him, and when he walked slowly down the aisle followed him slowly, a little behind and to the side.

He--they?--found the aisle with medications and toothpaste and shampoo and similar items. The many brands of cold medicine that confronted him temporarily brought Harry to a complete standstill, immobilized by the possible choices arrayed before him. Finally he chose the closest box, a kind he could dimly remember purchasing in the past. He turned to place it in the cart, then stopped.

Was this wise? Harry thought. Putting this box into the cart would acknowledge its (the cart's) existence in a way not yet acceded to. It would indicate that the cart had a purpose, that it was useful to him, assisting him.

It might represent a claim on him, an ownership. The acknowledgement of a relationship between them.

The cart might follow him home.

The cart rolled forward slightly, as if suggesting to Harry that he place the box of cold medication in the child's seat that folded out from the back of the cart, rather than in the deep main section.

Harry accepted this suggestion as reasonable. After all, it was a small box, and the main section was much larger than needed to contain it. Also he would have to stoop over to place it there. And when the time came to retrieve the box of cold medicine, he would have to stoop over again, with possible consequences to the muscles of his lower back, much prone to spasms and other difficulties.

Of course there was also an objection to placing it in the child's seat that folded out from the back of the cart, and this objection was that the small, nearly square box of cold medication might easily slip through the large square openings left in the back of the cart at a level with the child's seat, openings obviously meant to accept the child's legs.

The cart turned very slightly to one side. The suggestion was clear, obvious even. Harry placed the small square box of cold medication in the far corner of the child's seat, away from the opening.

It would take careful attention, however, to make sure the box did not slide toward the opening due to vibrations caused by the movement of the cart.

The cart glided smoothly forward. An imaginative man (Harry did not consider himself an imaginative man) might think it bore its small burden proudly, Harry thought. Almost--boastfully.

The cart led the way now, and it was Harry who came up behind and slightly to one side.

They passed up the aisle and turned left at the end, where the EZ Shop opened up into a deli counter and open refrigerated sections displaying meats and other perishables. Following behind the cart, Harry noticed for the first time that they were all alone in the supermarket. Even the cashier's stands glimpsed at the far end of the aisles they passed were untenanted. The deli counter was equally unmanned, though that seemed not unusual for the time of night. There was no one behind the butcher shop windows.

The cart rolled up the broad aisle, slightly faster now, and Harry became aware of a new sense of purpose radiating from it. The cart knew where it was going, all right.

Up ahead and to the right was a long queue of shopping carts stored behind a stainless steel railing, the nose of each cart shoved inside the main compartment of the cart ahead of it in line. As Harry and the cart (his cart? or did the bonds of ownership in fact tilt in the other direction?) passed, the captive carts rattled and shifted unhappily. Clearly they were envious, though whether of Harry or simply of the freedom to glide at will down the empty aisles of the supermarket was not clear. Perhaps someone with a deeper knowledge of shopping carts--their feelings, their customs, their modes of expression--would have been able to parse the general dissatisfaction of the captive carts into its constituent parts, but Harry was left to follow meekly in the wake of what he now thought of as his cart, knowing only that the other carts would follow if they could.

The shopping cart turned abruptly to the right and bumped against two metal swinging doors, each with a round window or porthole at head height. The doors swung open readily.

Harry followed.

Rather than shelves filled with replacement groceries, or a meat locker with swinging sides of meat, or a dairy cooler, the swinging doors had opened on a long corridor, brightly lit by overhead fluorescents, floored with the same pale flecked synthetic granite flooring as the main supermarket. This corridor went straight ahead until the far end of it was lost to sight.

The corridor seemed to be an extension of the EZ Shop, with the important difference that there were no shelves holding grocery items there. Instead bare walls, no doubt identical to the walls now obscured by canned goods and boxes of cereal in the main part of the store, ran along on either side of them.

He and the cart had become "them" Harry thought. They. Them. A unit composed of two beings. Himself and the cart. The cart and himself. Clearly another boundary had been crossed.

Harry and the cart moved along the brightly lit corridor together.

Some hours passed in this way.

The cart rattled and squeaked. Occasionally some nearly invisible obstacle on the floor, grit or a roughness in the floor itself, would cause the wheels of the cart to swivel from side to side, but the cart always recovered its equilibrium within a few feet, and its progress was never seriously impeded.

Harry's eyes had been on the floor for several minutes, tracing the patterns he could now discern in the thousand minute colored chips that made up the texture of the flooring. It was not clear to Harry that these chips were meant to imitate an actual stone flooring. Rather they made up their own idea of flooring, and of stone. The patterns in which the chips were distributed were ever-changing, yet never repeated. Snowflakes, fingerprints.

When Harry looked up from the flooring he saw that the ceiling of the corridor had risen up out of sight overhead and might easily be mistaken for a sky, if not the sky. Certainly some atmospheric cover was implied.

The walls too had vanished, or at least moved back discreetly out of sight.

The shopping cart led the way over an extensive plain now. Visible at a distance were large geometric forms that, as they approached nearer, resolved into large boxes of laundry detergent, breakfast cereal, cans of peas and containers of instant Japanese noodles, in broth.

These containers were many times larger than Harry, certainly, and appeared much larger than he remembered the entire structure of the EZ Shop to have been. The containers stuck up through the flooring at odd angles; the cracked and tumbled nature of the broken flooring around them indicated that the containers had been energetically pushed through from beneath by unknown, though certainly very powerful, forces.

Looking to either side Harry could see that similar containers of common consumer products stuck up gigantically from the shattered flooring in every direction as far as he could see. There was a great deal of empty space between each container, however. They seemed to be distributed fairly evenly over the visible expanse of flooring. No overarching pattern was discernible, at least from Harry's limited vantage point.

The shopping cart had been rolling steadily and without pause during their long journey, turning neither left nor right. Now in the empty space that existed between a 300-hundred-foot tall box of baking soda and a cellophane envelope of green and yellow sponges the size of a small naval vessel or suburban high school building, the cart came to a halt.

"At last," said the shopping cart. "We can speak freely to one another."

Speaking freely, Harry thought, implied that you had something to say, a budget of accumulated communications, an agenda. Only one question occurred to Harry.

"Where are we?"

"I'm sure you've seen," the shopping cart began, "shopping carts along the sides of roadways, miles from any supermarket?"

Harry could only nod to indicate his agreement.

"And when in the parking lot immediately before a large supermarket, you will have seen how the accumulation of carts becomes denser as you move from the outer edges of the lot toward the market itself?"

Yes, Harry had noticed that.

"And then as you enter the store there is always a population of carts corralled near the entry, the densest conglomeration yet encountered?"

Another physical movement signifying agreement or acquiescence on Harry's part.

"Where we are now," the shopping cart explained patiently, "is the logical extension of that density carried out until a certain vanishing point of accumulation is reached and we begin to encounter negative numbers. And we have reached the furthest extremity even of that tendency. Where we are now is the absence of all shopping carts."

"Except you."

"Except me. And you"

"But I am not a shopping cart," Harry protested. Even as he did so an existential doubt racked him. Are you sure of that? he asked himself, or at least that locus of shifting, ever-changing forces and potentialities that served him as a self in the present moment.

"No. You are not a cart," the cart said. "Yet I would not exist without you."

"You don’t need to be pushed," Harry pointed out.

"Not at all. But I need to be filled. To be loaded down with purpose. And you accomplish that. You create me. Your need to transport consumer purchases for short distances permits me to exist."

I shouldn't have put that cold medicine in the cart, Harry realized, much, much too late.

"One other question."

The shopping cart waited patiently.

"Where are we going?"

"I thought you knew," the cart responded.

Harry looked around at the container-studded plain. There was no longer any trace of a corridor visible. All directions were open to them--even, Harry realized, the direction from which they had come. That seemed to be the way to go.

If he could return to the market, it might even be possible to somehow lose the shopping cart. Perhaps it could be forcibly introduced into the corral with its fellow carts. Simply running from the market, jumping into his car and speeding away also occurred to Harry as a possible course of action. True, the cart might attempt to follow, like a pathetic dog unaware of the great difference in speed between a car and a canine. Or a shopping cart. The cart would inevitably be left behind, to end up by the side of the road or on a highway median, just another one of those carts mysteriously abandoned far from any supermarket . . .

Unfortunately he was no longer sure where the EZ Shop lay. The angles of the enormous containers around him seemed both familiar and alien. Harry was too unused to their arrangement, their relationship to the cardinal directions, to use them as landmarks. And turning right around, as if hoping to surprise the correct way to go, revealed to Harry that the plain of consumer products now surrounded them completely.

"That way, I think."

Harry and the shopping cart set a course between two objects in the middle distance. As they drew closer to them the objects were revealed to be a large packet of cheese slices and a plastic toilet brush the height of a small office building. In the shadow of these objects Harry and the cart were able to take a sighting on the next pair in what was as close to a straight line as they could manage. Then the two of them set out for their new objective.

As they traveled together over the plain it occurred to Harry that the light overhead that threw sharp black shadows over the plain might be used to navigate by, though of course it was unsafe to make any assumptions about the origin of the light and its relationship to the points of the compass.

Yet though Harry observed the shadows for some time he was unable to detect any movement, any rotation, lengthening or shortening whatsoever.

After an indeterminate period Harry noticed that the large containers scattered over the landscape were growing fewer in number. It was becoming difficult now to plausibly group two together to be used as range marks. It was clear that soon the objects would vanish completely, leaving Harry and the cart wandering in a featureless plain, with no hope of even a fictional, provisional orientation.

The unbroken surface of the flooring stretched out now in every direction. The last consumer products were mere shadows on the distant horizon behind them. Looking ahead--in so far as the concept of "ahead" retained any meaning--Harry could only see the colored chips of the flooring going on and on until they merged with the glowing, fuzzy white light that now made up the entire atmosphere in these regions.

"I don't know where we are. I don't recognize a thing," Harry said.

"Don't you recognize me, Harry?" said the cart.

Harry squinted at the cart, trying hard to see in its distribution of metal parts something familiar, some pattern or resemblance.

"I've never known a shopping cart before," Harry admitted. "To speak to, I mean."

"I'm your next-door neighbor, Harry. Mrs. McDade. Didn't you know it was me? I wouldn't rub myself up against just any stranger!" It was difficult to say exactly how a shopping cart could be coy, with its limited expressive resources, but the shopping cart was coy now.

Harry did in fact vaguely remember Mrs. McDade--a tall, thin, ungainly woman who always seemed to be wearing a long overcoat, winter and summer. She had died when Harry was still very young.

Harry decided he liked the shopping cart better before it was Mrs. McDade.

"What happened to you?"

"My spirit inhabits this cart now, Harry. I don't know why."

A thought came to Harry, not a welcome one. He stared wildly around at the empty expanse of flooring.

"Is this . . ." he asked urgently, "Are we . . ."

"A grocery store, Harry," the cart said, reassuringly. It was true that the cart's voice began to sound familiar somehow. "A grocery store. Nothing more."

It seemed to be a great deal more, or less, but Harry was so relieved not to be dead and in hell that he kept this thought to himself.

"How long have you been here?"

Shopping carts cannot shrug. But its utter absence of movement for an instant, followed by speech, conveyed to Harry the idea of a shrug.

"I'm not really sure. It seems like I've always been here. But now that you're here, Harry, I won't be alone anymore!"

"I have to go now," Harry said.

"You go," the cart said. "I'll follow."

Heading in the direction he felt was most likely the way back to the EZ Shop, Harry led the way. Unfortunately the faster he walked in the direction of the distant containers the further away they seemed. After a while he stopped.

"This isn't working."

"Would you like me to lead?" the cart asked.

Harry didn't answer. He was thinking: this is a test. This is the test of the hero. To attain the thing you want--the henge of consumer products embedded in the floor, and beyond that the corridor, and beyond that the parking lot--you must turn away from it.

Harry turned resolutely away from the distant forms on the far horizon. In a very short time he and the cart had reached an area of the plain where nothing at all was to be seen. Even the parti-colored flooring had been replaced by an even, dull white glow. There were no containers on the horizon. In fact there was no horizon apparent.

Possibly he was not a hero after all, Harry thought.

The sky--the upper portion of the vista before them, at any rate--was glowing now with a pervasive, all-surrounding bright white light, which as they watched grew in breadth and height until it filled their field of vision entirely. An enormous rectangle of burning light stood in the sky, or whatever substance or structure stood in place of the sky.

"This is how it always happens," the cart said bitterly.

The halo of white light widened slowly, until other forms, too vast to be perceived clearly, and other colors flooded Harry's field of vision.

Out of the corona of blinding light a hand descended--a very large hand. Alongside it and a little distance away flew another hand. Together they descended on Harry.

The long fingers of one hand picked Harry up by his left shoulder. He noticed that the nails of the hand, though rough and corrugated, were yet perfectly translucent. Pink flesh shone underneath them.

The fingers of the other hand grasped Harry by the right shoulder. Moving downward suddenly with a tearing motion, the right side of Harry was thus removed.

Harry was elevated, then canted over to the right. His contents slid into what proved to be a large glass of water, where they fizzed enthusiastically, releasing medicaments Harry had never suspected he contained.

Emptied of its contents, and now revealed to be some sort of metal foil, cleverly printed or painted on its exterior, Harry's outer form was run over repeatedly by the shopping cart, which sobbed and cursed softly to itself, until Harry was quite flat.

Although Harry was no longer capable of it, an observant eye would have seen that similar patches of flattened foil lay about on the whitely glowing floor in great abundance, stretching in some directions clean out of sight.

 

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