Chapter Two: Crisis before the crisis
Jeff Saunderson drove his Honda Prelude to work slowly so as to avoid attention from the military vehicles tasked with keeping order in one small town in one big nation that seemed to be losing its grip on normalcy, as nuclear conflict over a small plot of land in the Middle East seemed destined to consume the world in an atomic fireball. His workplace was only several blocks away and he usually liked to walk for the exercise. But with the world situation as tentative as it was lately, he figured it was safer to drive. Some looting and assaults had already taken place, proving the police presence was there for a reason.
He parked in the designated employee area and entered Armstrong's Pharmacy. The pharmacist-owner, Allan Armstrong, greeted him in the dispensary with his usual somber look of late. Allan was very much into world politics but a rather pessimistic personality, and he didn't hold out much hope for a solution to the world situation. Jeff was more positive. He believed the emergency secret talks with the world leaders would prove something out soon.
"Do you mind if I go home early?" Jeff asked. "I want to be home with Valerie and the kids for the special worldwide telecast at four o'clock"
"That's fine, Jeff," Allan said. "I'm closing the store early anyway. I want to be home too. I think everyone in the world is going to be glued to the tube so there's no use having the store open."
"It's not the end of the world as we know it. I believe something will work out."
Allan grimaced as he left the dispensary and mumbled, "I hope you're right."
It was just a few minutes past nine and no customers were in the store yet, so Jeff slipped away to the staff room to grab a coffee. He poured himself a steaming hot cup and tasted it, nice and strong, just the way he liked it. He returned to the dispensary and was greeted by several customers with prescriptions for the latest trend, anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants. He filled the prescriptions, counseled the patients, and plodded along the rest of the day, doing his best to do his job and not think too much about all the madness in the world of late. The pace was brisk, a bit busier than normal, which was good and helped the hours pass more quickly. The sooner his shift ended the better, as he was anxious to get home and watch the special broadcast.
Allan relieved him for a quick lunch, and when Jeff returned to the dispensary, it was a little past one o'clock. Clarence Althouse came up to the counter, a longtime and very good customer.
"I need another month's supply of everything," Clarence said.
"Sure," Jeff said and pulled up Mr. Althouse's file on his computer.
"And this too." Clarence placed a new prescription on the counter. Jeff went and picked it up and read the name Zyprexa 5mg and the Latin abbreviations for 30 tabs and to take 1 tablet daily. "I've been a little strange lately and the doctor said this would help."
Jeff nodded with understanding and tried to appear soothing. "Many people have been having problems coping lately." However, beneath his professional demeanor, Jeff couldn't help but be a bit shocked. Zyprexa was an anti-psychotic and Clarence had always seemed the most level headed person he had ever met. The brain was a mysterious organ to be sure, and the stress of late was definitely producing strange fallout among people, but Clarence was the last person he would have picked to lose touch with reality.
Clarence fidgeted with his hands in his pockets and started to say something but then stopped. Jeff had known Clarence for years and had counseled him on many personal issues. He could tell Clarence wanted to say something else.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Jeff asked. "Anything else you'd like to talk about? I'm not very busy right now and we can go around the corner to the semi-private counseling area?"
"Thanks, yes, I'd like that."
Jeff went around the corner to the half-enclosed counseling counter. Clarence met him on the other side and came up close to his face and whispered in low tones. "I was admitted to the hospital a few days ago. The doctor said I had a psychotic episode with hallucinations but I still can't believe it was all in my head."
Jeff nodded his head. "It's a stressful world situation right now, a lot of uncertainty. You have nothing to feel ashamed about--"
"You don't understand! I don't think I was hallucinating. I know what I'm about to say sounds goofy but--" Clarence shook his head, obviously reluctant to say more. Jeff prodded him a bit and finally Clarence let it out. "I was abducted by aliens... at least I think I was. I mean I have a memory of it, but the doctor says I can't trust my perceptions."
Jeff thought he was prepared for anything Clarence might say, but still found himself momentarily taken off guard. He hadn't expected that. "Please, tell me more," he said in a soothing professional manner.
"Not like in the movies. You know, the short grey beings with big eyes. These guys were like tall skinny versions of humans, with bald heads, and made out of something like pure light. I tried to touch one and my hand went right through it. They took me aboard their spacecraft and started zapping me with electrodes. The pain was excruciating but I couldn't move or scream. One of them said, 'This one is going to kill you,' but before he could zap me, another alien started fighting with him. I don't remember much after that but what I do remember is so vivid in my mind..."
"Psychotic episodes always seem very real but they're not." Jeff paused and waited for Clarence to counter with something else, but Clarence just stared at him. His face slowly took on a contorted expression and he snarled. Jeff sensed an aura come over Clarence that he couldn't explain, something eerie and foreboding that instilled an instinctive fear in Jeff.
Clarence's face twitched and he snarled again, like he was fighting himself, and Jeff feared Clarence might be having another psychotic episode right in front of him. "If aliens unveil and say there is no God, do not believe it," Clarence said in a raspy voice.
"Sacrifices must be made to prevent the unveiling. Prepare to die human."
The attack came suddenly, from the left and right, Jeff only having a blurred impression of Clarence's arms but feeling repeated blows across his face. Jeff instinctively threw his hands up and blocked Clarence's arms. He pushed Clarence back and ran into the dispensary to grab the phone so he could activate the emergency pager system.
From his new vantage point sprawled on the floor, Clarence snarled as he rose, eyes fixed on Jeff. Then he leapt bodily into the air, covered the few feet between them in seconds, grabbed Jeff's collar with one arm and struggled for the phone receiver with the other.
Jeff kicked Clarence in the gut and knocked him to the floor again, granting him the precious seconds he needed to dial the store pager number and screamed into the telephone receiver. "Help! Code Red! Pharmacist being attacked!"
Clarence was back up on his feet but Jeff slipped past him and out the side dispensary door. Jeff's heart was pounding as he rounded the corner and made for the staff room, where he was sure several male staff members would be able to help him subdue Clarence. But Clarence was too fast, quickly came behind Jeff and grabbed him by the neck before he even made it past the cough and cold section. They tumbled together into the shelves, knocking bottles and boxes over themselves as they wrestled to the floor. Plastic bottles of cough syrups broke open as they rolled over and over, each roll staining the floor and their clothes with colorful mixtures of purple and blue.
Clarence wrapped his hands around Jeff's neck and began choking him. Jeff tried to pry Clarence's hands off but his grip was too strong. He couldn't breathe and started seeing stars and black spots. He felt as though he would black out soon. But suddenly, he was free. He opened his eyes to see a young woman standing over him with a confident smile on her face.
"My name is Monica," she said. "Everything is going to be alright. He won't harm you now."
Jeff was stunned at how this young woman had seemed to save him so quickly and easily. His eyes had been closed so he hadn't seen a thing but Clarence now on the floor, docile and merely mumbled some obscenities.
"How did you do that?" Jeff asked as he coughed and breathed in deeply.
"Your friends are coming," she said. "They will help you. I must go now." Then she simply disappeared before his very eyes.
Jeff wondered if he was now having a psychotic break and had imagined the whole thing.
Allan and several others came running out of the staff room.
"Are you ok?" Allan asked. "What happened?"
"I think so. That customer just attacked me for no reason." As Jeff pointed at his attacker, two male staff members went over and picked Clarence up and held him firmly. They were young, strong stock boys, about 16 and 17 years of age.
"Take him to the staff room and hold him," Allan ordered, and his staff complied. Allan helped Jeff to his feet and led him to the staff room where he covered him in a blanket, poured him a cup of coffee and said, "Take as much time as you need to rest. I'll cover you for the rest of the day. Just go home, Jeff." Then Allan made two calls, one to the police and one for an ambulance for Jeff and left to cover the dispensary.
The police arrived within minutes. The officers questioned Clarence, who still seemed dazed and confused about the whole incident but started to come to his senses.
"I'm so sorry Jeff," Clarence said. "The aliens took over my body. It wasn't me!"
The officers didn't waste much more time trying to question Clarence. As soon as he started babbling about aliens, they seemed to close their minds to further inquiry.
"He obviously needs medical assessment," one officer said to Jeff, as the other handcuffed Clarence and took him away. Jeff nodded but felt rather hypocritical, as he knew the officers would probably refer him to medical assessment too if they heard him say a young woman named Monica single-handedly rescued him and then disappeared right before his very eyes. He wasn't sure they would be wrong to do so either.
Jeff agreed to the police request for a written statement, but didn't offer details about Clarence's recent medical history. Such information was confidential and would have to be obtained later through proper legal means if needed for defense. However, given Clarence's recent psychotic episode, Jeff felt certain no charges would stand up in court. He couldn't see himself laying charges anyway.
Jeff was just glad it was over.
Allan's voice boomed over the pager system and indicated Jeff had a call on line one, and Jeff went into Allan's office to pick up the phone. It was Valerie. They exchanged strange stories, she telling him about millions of people disappearing all over the world, and he telling her about his strange attack. At least he knew he wasn't crazy now, seeing as how disappearing people suddenly became a common occurrence, but he didn't buy Valerie's explanation that the cause must have been a misfire from some new super-weapon. Monica had said she had to leave and then did so. Her disappearance was volitional.
He began to desire some of those Valium pills that Valerie had been taking lately.
"When are you coming home?" Valerie asked.
"Just as soon as the ambulance guys clear me. But I feel fine. I'm sure it won't be long."
"Get home as soon as you can. I'll feel better watching the four o'clock telecast with you."
Jeff confirmed he'd be home as soon as he could and hung up the phone.