Tom bolted for the front of the store. He knew the aisles by heart, and even in the dim light he could see well enough to navigate the tall shelves, the boxes that lined the floor, the random displays of furniture in any space large enough to accommodate them. The keypad for the alarm system was mounted next to the front door, and he flipped open the panel with a forefinger and typed in the four-digit code—his uncle’s anniversary.
The beeping paused. A red light flashed. The beeps resumed.
“Shit,” said Tom.
He typed it backwards. Another pause; another resumption.
There was a failsafe in the keypad to protect against just this kind of blind guessing. Three strikes would trigger the alarm. Tom could either try another combination of the anniversary digits – 74, 2, 6 – or he could hope against hope that somehow his old code hadn’t been programmed out. He gave it a shot.
6. 9. 89. The day Tom lost his parents.
A pause, longer this time, and then the alarm sounded.
In moments of absolute crisis, Tom had sometimes experienced a split second of clarity. As a kid, he had once tried to fashion a working grappling hook. The first trial failed and he fell, earning a small scar across his face. The second trial failed, too, but even more inopportunely, with Tom halfway up a tall oak in his uncle’s front lawn. And an instant before it did, before his self-fashioned hook snapped the dead limb it was moored to, Tom heard the crack of splintering wood that triggered a snapshot vision—a moment in which he saw himself as if from outside his own body. And what this perspective allowed him was the ability to see a small limb just outside the edge of his perception, a limb he could clutch to pull himself out of the way of the falling hook and dead branch.
But the vision Tom received now was not nearly as useful. He was lying in a field of grass, under cover of night, his back to the world. And there was Ellen, beside him and holding his hand, and he couldn’t seem to hold it back. He couldn’t seem to do much of anything at all.
The store phone rang. It was hard to hear over the shriek of the alarm, but he knew to expect it. It was one last chance.
“This is Armor One Security. Are you experiencing an emergency?”
“No,” said Tom. “I’m so sorry. I came in to pick up my phone charger and accidentally set the damn thing off.”
“Yes, sir,” said the dispatcher. “One moment.”
The alarm went silent, but Tom was still on the hook.
“Sir, may I ask to whom I am speaking?”
“Paul,” said Tom. “Paul Avon.”
The dispatcher clacked something into his keyboard. Tom heard voices from the back room—Remley and Ellen, hearing the alarm go silent, must have thought it was safe to come in.
“Now then,” said the dispatcher. “If I could have your security phrase.”
“Pardon?” Tom said. His mind raced. He searched around the base of the phone for a scrap of paper, a sticky note, anything that might contain a hint of what the security phrase could be. If he couldn’t provide it, the dispatcher would automatically call the police. Yet another of Armor One’s fail safes that had made them so appealing to his uncle.
“Your security phrase,” repeated the dispatcher. “The phrase you chose to identify yourself to us in a case such as this.”
There was a loud crash from the back of the store, and then the harmonizing sounds of Remley swearing while Ellen laughed.
“Shirley…” tried Tom, hoping his uncle’s penchant for sentimentalism, the reason he’d chosen his anniversary as the keypad code, would carry the day.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the dispatcher. “I didn’t catch that. Surely you what?”
Tom forced a laugh. “Surely I wrote that down somewhere. Ah,” he stalled. “Here it is.”
“Who puts a goddamned futon in the middle of the aisle like that?” Remley shouted, as he and Ellen appeared from behind a set of metal shelves. “It’s dangerous! It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen!”
“Sir, I can hear someone with you,” said the dispatcher. “If you are in need of police assistance but cannot say so, please say the words, ‘all clear.’”
“No, no, that’s my nephew,” Tom said. “He’s an idiot.”
“Yes, sir,” said the dispatcher. “Your pass phrase.”
Tom made slashing marks across his neck to shut Remley up, then jabbed his finger toward the door. The message he hoped to convey, get out get out go get the fucking car, was lost on them. Ellen and Remley simply stood, waiting.
“Daniel,” Tom blurted. He pressed a palm into his eye socket until he saw stars. “As in, Daniel Avon. My brother.”
The dispatcher clacked at the keyboard again. Tom waited for the alarm to begin wailing. He almost couldn’t make out the other man’s words over the beat of the blood in his ears.
“. . . choosing Armor One Security,” the dispatcher was saying. “We have deactivated the alarm. Please be sure to reset the keypad before you leave.”