I didn’t want to stop. My plan was to drive through the night to reach Chicago by mid-morning, but here I found myself in the middle of nowhere at 2 AM searching for aspirin. I’ve had this headache that isn’t going away on its own. It went from annoying to feeling like I’m actively being lobotomized over the past 200 miles. I can’t focus on the road anymore.
I’m not sure if you can call this area a town. It’s a few structures clumped together along the highway, but the most civilization I’ve seen for miles. Turning off the highway onto what looked to be a main boulevard of the “town,” I found a gas station that was closed, boarded up. Of course. I continued driving down the unlit street and was about to give up and turn around when I saw it: a red neon sign for a 24-hour pharmacy glowing in the pitch blackness. I parked near the building’s entrance in the empty parking lot. Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen a car, parked or otherwise, since I turned off the highway.
The glass automatic sliding door at the entrance made a shrieking sound as it struggled to drag itself open. There must be a pebble stuck on its track. I shielded my eyes with my hand as I entered the pharmacy. The harsh florescent lights only aggravating my headache. I searched for the right aisle.
The air was thick and stagnant and tasted sweaty. It almost felt like it was pushing against me. A sign hanging from the ceiling gently swayed seemingly on its own since there was no ventilation in the building.
The shelves for pain medication were empty. There was only one bottle, knocked over, open and empty, taunting me. I scoured the area for any pain reliever that might have been stocked in the wrong section. If only anti-fungal cream or laxatives could help me out. They were fully stocked with those.
At the end of the aisle, an employee passed maneuvering a dolly carrying a large crate. The only employee I’d seen so far.
My voice seemed a little too loud, but the employee didn’t seem to notice me. She continued wheeling the crate and stopped it in front of the frozen section along the far wall. It was full of similar crates, nothing accessible to purchase, just storage apparently. I followed her, still clutching the empty aspirin bottle.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Can you help me?”
She replied in a low raspy voice with her back still toward me. She slowly turned, her thin greasy hair staying tight against her face.
“Of course, sir. That is why we are all here.”
A corner of her lips turned up to form a crooked smile. Her face was sunken in. I could almost make out the shape of her skull. As I neared her the stench of body odor overwhelmed me. She was between late thirties to fifties but had an ambiguous look that was hard to decipher. Her uniform polo shirt was surprisingly clean and neatly tucked in to her khaki pants.
“I need aspirin, or any pain meds that’ll knock out a headache.”
She eyed the empty bottle in my hand.
“Oh yea. This was all I could find, but its empty.”
I handed her the bottle and she immediately threw it aside.
“I’ve got just the thing.”
She smiled another crooked smile and then scurried toward the pharmacy counter disappearing behind it. I slowly approached the counter passing more scantily stocked aisles. The medical supplies and the food were mostly gone, but the baby aisle was brimming full of products.
A loud thud from the ceiling above and then the sound of footsteps and something heavy being dragged.
“You guys doing some late-night renovations or something?”
“Yes,” she called out from her hideaway behind the counter. “There is always work to be done and people to help. You said headache?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
After much shuffling of boxes and rattling of pills, the woman reemerged from behind the counter with an orange pill bottle. She dug her fingernails under the label to peel it off.
“Now, we aren’t supposed to give these to customers without a prescription, but considering the situation, I’ll give it to you. We are always waiting for shipments, but nothing comes often.”
She handed me the bottle filled with large white capsules.
“What is it?”
“It’s our little secret.” She replied as she smiled widely. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. It’ll help.”
She closed my hand around the bottle with a clammy palm.
“What do I owe you?”
“No, no.” She shook her head. “This was my help.”
She quickly walked away back toward the crate.
“Well, I appreciate it.” I said.
She was already busying herself again with the crate. I turned toward the door. The thud, footsteps, and dragging sounds from the ceiling repeated. It was louder this time.
“See you soon,” she replied without looking up.
I sat in my car in the dark parking lot and switched on the overhead light to try to read what was left of the prescription label. From what I could make out, it was Vicodin. A little stronger than what I was looking for, but my head was throbbing so intensely I didn’t care. Just one pill should be fine.
The pill stuck to the back of my throat and I washed it down with the last swig of cold coffee from earlier. I tilted the seat back and closed my eyes, waiting for it to kick in.
An overwhelming feeling of dread engulfed me. I sat up quickly and was hit by a wave of dizziness. I fumbled to put the keys in the ignition, but they slipped from my grasp. My body grew heavy. My head felt numb and the sensation spread down my spine and into my limbs. I tried to reach to lock the door, but my arms were no longer cooperating. I slumped back in the seat, my forehead pressed against the window of the car door. I couldn’t move.
Fingers slid across the side of the window leaving a damp trail as they moved toward the door handle. The familiar low raspy voice.
“Time for you to help.”