Part 4

The parking lots ahead of me too were empty, just as the high school's several blocks behind me, but the strip malls were still there, and lights still glowed inside.

I pulled up to the bicycle rack in front of the first grocery store, and debated locking up my bicycle. With the traffic well and faded behind me, the boxy monsters were starting to creep in again, though they were much more hesitant after my show with the traffic. I smiled pleasantly to myself, though didn't let it show outside, lest someone take it as a sign of weakness.

With the lack of traffic and any sign of real human beings, I decided to bring it in with me. If there was anyone within, the least they could do is get upset and make me take it back outside, and if there were monsters inside too... well, all the more reason.

The doors opened obediently ahead of me, but absent from their usual squealing was a pleasant sighing. I lifted my eyebrow (just the right) dubiously, and shook my head, continuing within.

It looked empty. The shelves were stocked, so I grabbed a basket, wheeling my bicycle along one-handed. I took a moment to turn off most of my lights, conserving the batteries, before heading straight for the aisles that held my food. A few lights flickered above me, their glowing incandescence drably reassuring.

I approached the cereal-and-snack bar department without any new encounters, but that didn't keep me from checking each and every aisle as I came to it, just in case. I can't always expect there to always be a lily-livered monster or a bigger fish out there to save my vanilla skin.

I picked up my almond-flavored snack bars and almond-flavored cereal, and then meandered around the back on my way to the vegetables, taking in a solid whiff of bread en route.

As I passed the bakery, I was not disappointed, and much to my surprise, there was activity behind the counter. I eased up slowly, only the basket creaking softly.

Suddenly, a puppet popped up behind the glass. I don't think I jumped, but it didn't matter, because it seemed more startled than I was. It-- he wore a white uniform fronted by a garish apron, and at his neck sat a matching bow tie. He adjusted it nervously as I approached, felt hands shaking.

"Hey, hey, relax. Bow ties are cool."

He calmed somewhat, and I started to feel like we'd met before. I eased closer slowly, putting as much effort into looking non-threatening as I had doing the reverse outside. I leaned in and peered at his name tag, which read "Angelo."

I shook my head, no recognition stirring, and backed off, leaving him to his work, which, whatever it was, smelled delicious.

The heads of lettuce, on the other hand, did not. They looked morose, and before I could get too close, the cabbages started singing horrendously; I eased away before they could work up into a higher register.

At the check-out, I approached my usual self-service station (especially as all the employee-run ones were employeeless). The computer ran typically, neither trying to infect me with a silicon-based virus nor trying to eat my card, both or which I was somewhat expecting.

I paid, which is more than I think I would expect from any rioting members of the public, who hardly seem to contain themselves from breaking any windows just for the sake of it, let alone pay for anything they took, bagged my goods, and approached the doors, which still sighed pleasantly.

No boxy creatures were waiting for me outside, as I hauled my now full backpack back onto my shoulders and adjusted the straps. I unsteadily mounted my bicycle, careful with the extra weight, and started to ride thorough the parking lot.

The ground started rumbling first, and then seriously shaking. I pulled up next to a sign and stopped myself, propping myself upright, ready to flee in whatever direction necessary at a moment's notice.

A beast with no skin, its muscles and sinews pulsing and straining in the few flickering streetlights wobbled over the traffic, heading for the next strip mall over. It was distressingly obvious that it was male, and the mall roof barely clipped his thighs. The outlet's face fell in a crumbling ruin, and as I pedaled cautiously closer, realized it was the local Jimmy Johns. The titan peeled away the roof like a sheet of aluminum foil, scooped up the kitchen's contents and stuffed them into its mouth with complete disdain for cleanliness or furnishing.

I shook my head, turned back around, and decided to take a different route back to my apartment.

The End

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