Incubator

Anderson pushed pieces of broken glass off the curb with his toe. His driver-side window was shattered. His glove box hung open. The place on the windshield where his GPS unit used to be was marked by white film from the dried spit where he stuck the suction cup to the glass. The fast-food napkins he kept in the center console were crumpled on the floorboard, soaked in someone else’s blood. He looked around the car for other things the thief may have touched: the rearview mirror, the seatbelt buckle, the turn signal lever. Everything seemed slightly to the left from where it should have been. The day was already hot and his air conditioner struggled against the early-morning humidity.

On the way to work, Anderson’s hair ruffled in the breeze, standing up on the side of his head. The thief had not bothered taking his cheap car stereo, and Anderson turned up the volume to hear the news over the wind. Swimmers in the Gulf of Mexico were coming down with life-threatening infections, the newscaster said. Bacterial strains that scientists hadn’t seen in years were coming back to life. Some believed the revived strains poured out of the earth during the recent oil spill. Others feared it was bioterrorism. Stock prices for medical equipment manufacturers had risen in after-hours trading. Analysts agreed it was a potential disaster for tourism-dependent coastal cities.

Anderson parked at the back of the parking lot, as required by corporate guidelines, and smoothed down his hair before walking toward the store. Shoppers stood at the gated entrance, holding coupons for mayonnaise and frozen fish fillets. Their heads were bent forward. They smelled like medicine.

Anderson’s manager, Mr. Dodd, opened the gate to let him in. The crowd of shoppers shuffled closer without speaking. “Fifteen minutes, folks” Mr. Dodd said. “Get those coupons ready.” An elderly man in a yellow button-down shirt coughed and looked up at the sky. Clouds gathered in the south. A thunderstorm was coming.

Mr. Dodd closed the gate, then lifted his nose and sniffed. “Pheromones,” he said to Anderson. “Look—they’re moving together like a school of fish.” He pointed at the crowd of shoppers pressed up against the chain-link gate at the front of the store. They shifted their weight from foot to foot and stuck their fingers through the gate. “We have to channel their need to be part of a group. It’s our primary point-of-sale responsibility.”

Just behind the gate, Anderson’s co-workers stacked packages of antiseptic cream. The display was already up to Anderson’s chest. “What shape are we going for, team?” Mr. Dodd asked the group. “Since ancient times, people have respected the power of the pyramid. Let’s aim for something like that, geometrically speaking. Close but not exact. There are certain connotations we want to avoid.”

The display grew quickly as Anderson and his co-workers stacked without speaking. Between boxes, Anderson looked up at the rafters running the length of the store’s high ceilings. When the aisles felt too crowded with shoppers, the long fluorescent lights made his chest feel more open. He imagined the store filling up with water. He imagined swimming up to the rafters, climbing out onto the roof. He imagined the surrounding neighborhood covered, the tops of traffic lights sticking up in between waves, coloring the oily floodwater red, yellow, green. Across the store, something moved at the periphery of Anderson’s vision. He looked at his co-workers to see if anyone else had noticed it, but they were focused on their work. He stared at the spot, over the condiment aisle, but the bright lights made it hard to focus. He rubbed his eyes.

Anderson loved the time before shoppers were allowed into the store, when the building was static and predictable. Boxes of cereal and crackers were stacked carefully on the shelves. The doors of the frozen goods section had been wiped down and polished. The floors were still shiny with wax. It was a temporary state of order, Anderson knew. Once the gate opened it would all be thrown out of balance.

Mr. Dodd returned from the back room, jingling his keys in his right hand. He said, “Stations, everyone,” and Anderson’s co-workers left for their assigned departments. The stack of antiseptic cream was beautiful. Mr. Dodd stood with his hands on his hips. “I want you to keep this display stocked,” Mr. Dodd said to Anderson. “Focus on this and this alone.”

“To the exclusion of everything else.” Anderson nodded.

Mr. Dodd smiled. “All right, shoppers. Prepare yourselves for an all-new day with all-new deals,” he said as he rolled back the chain-link gate. Anderson stood next to the stack of antiseptic cream. Shoppers grabbed three and four boxes at a time, dumping them into their carts and limping toward the medicine aisle for bandages and painkillers. Many had visible sores on their hands and faces. The store’s oversized air conditioner whined in the humidity.

Anderson hurried to the stock room to grab another pallet of the cream. In the pasta aisle, he stopped to straighten a jar of pesto when a sound caught his ear over the noise of shopping carts and cash registers. Anderson stopped in place and scanned the tops of the shelves. A bird poked its head out from a package of whole-wheat rotini. Anderson looked at the shoppers around him, but they were staring down at lists on their phones, picking out family-sized jars of spaghetti sauce and eight-packs of linguini.

It wasn’t unusual for birds to fly in the large open doors at the front of the store. Speakers outside played animal noises meant to scare them away—recordings of bobcats and hawks and alligators—but the small birds were smart enough or stupid enough to ignore them. They’d only cause minimal damage, rooting through bags of grapes or smashing into the screens of Ultra-HD TVs, but the customers hated it. It was one of the most frequent complaints on comment cards left in the box by the store exit. “I no longer feel safe shopping here,” the customers would write. “My mother owned a bird and it was her only friend and I don’t appreciate seeing them here when I just want to look for some good deals. I don’t come here to be reminded of my mother’s brain disease.”

The bird was brown and yellow. It looked at Anderson, tilted its head from side to side, then took off, flying low over the frozen food aisle. Anderson watched until it was out of sight before pushing a pallet full of antiseptic cream to the front of the store. As he filled in the missing parts of the display with new boxes, a thin woman with graying brown hair stopped beside him.

“Can you take a look at this?” the woman asked Anderson. She held her left arm out and rolled up her sleeve. An open sore extended from just above her wrist to the middle of her forearm. Its edges were hot pink and puffy. A green and white film covered the top of the sore. Anderson smelled rot. Her hand was balled into a fist and the muscles in her forearm were taut.

Corporate policy specifically instructed against giving medical advice. Anderson leaned away from the woman. “What would you say that I’m looking at?” he asked, covering his mouth and nose with his hand.

The woman tilted her arm forward and backward, staring at the wound. Wet pus reflected the fluorescent light in brief flashes. “It’s an entryway,” the woman said. “My skin was never good at keeping things out.” She picked up a three-pack of antiseptic cream. “Do you recommend this product?” she asked.

“Look at this doctor,” Anderson said, pointing to a picture on the box of a smiling man in a white coat. “He seems free of infection.”

The woman put the box in her cart. She leaned closer to Anderson. He could smell stale cigarette smoke on her clothes. “Do you want to hold my baby squirrel?” she whispered, turning her hand over and slowly opening her fingers. Curled up in her palm, a tiny squirrel poked its nose into the air, blinking. It rubbed its eyes with its paws and licked at the woman’s hand.

Anderson fidgeted with his nametag.

“It’s okay,” the woman said. “He doesn’t bite. His teeth are smaller than fingernail clippings.”

“I’m not allowed to touch customers,” Anderson said. “It’s considered a liability.”

The woman took Anderson’s hand away from his nametag and held it flat. She placed the baby squirrel on his palm and gently closed his fingers around it. “His name is Harold,” she said. “His mother died in my driveway.” She smiled, then pushed her cart away. It started to rain. Shoppers coming in from the parking lot shook off umbrellas and slicked back their wet hair. Mr. Dodd wheeled a rack of disposable rain ponchos to the front of the store.

Anderson tucked the baby squirrel into his shirt pocket. He could feel it squirm against his nipple as he filled in the display. The shoppers grabbed boxes at random, making holes in the pyramid that threatened the structural integrity of the stack. Anderson wedged new packages in the gaps. He tried to anticipate which box they would grab next, watching their shoulders and hips for indications of where they might go, then following quickly behind with a new box, ready to replace the one they had taken.

The pyramid-shaped display directed his eyes upward, to the white air conditioning ducts and metal beams that crisscrossed the ceiling. They looked like line graphs. Above the pasta aisle, Anderson thought he saw a floating data point, but it was the brown and yellow bird. He touched the baby squirrel in his shirt pocket. The bird looked in Anderson’s direction, but it could have been looking at the oversized jars of mixed nuts. Anderson thought he remembered that birds ate nuts. He had never been very involved with the local wildlife.

Mr. Dodd put his hand on Anderson’s shoulder. “They’re dropping like flies,” he said. “Two staff members in the deli department called in sick. We don’t want their wounds leaking on the cold cuts. What about you? Any open sores? Any small bumps feel like they’re getting ready to erupt?”

“No, sir,” Anderson said, looking down at his forearms. “I seem to be maintaining my integrity.”

“As per corporate guidelines,” Mr. Dodd said.

“As per the guidelines,” Anderson said.

“That’s exactly the kind of can-do spirit we need more of around here. If you can keep that skin intact for the rest of the day you’re going up on the break room Wall of Fame. Polaroid shot of you and everything. Also, I need you to work a double.”

“Understood,” Anderson said. He looked past Mr. Dodd, through the front door of the store. At the edge of the parking lot, rain poured off the roof and ran down in solid streams through the broken window of his car.

Mr. Dodd leaned forward, sniffing. “Do you smell something wild?” he asked.

Anderson touched the squirrel in his breast pocket, pretending to scratch an itch.

Mr. Dodd watched Anderson’s fingers. “Don’t scratch,” he said. “People don’t want your dead cells all over their new purchases.” He sniffed the air. “Have you noticed anything? Fur? Feathers? Trails of spittle?”

Anderson shook his head. Behind Mr. Dodd, perched on an air conditioning vent, the brown and yellow bird hopped from side to side. Mr. Dodd’s nostrils flared. He moved his head back and forth, scanning the store. Finally, he stopped moving. His eyes grew wide. “Look at that,” he said, wagging his finger at the bird and smiling. “God has a plan for you.”

It rained for the rest of Anderson’s shift. At closing time, every box of antiseptic cream in the store was gone. He couldn’t even remember how many pallets he had unloaded. His hands were covered in cardboard dust and small cuts. The baby squirrel slept against his chest. He was already comfortable with the weight of it. It woke up every hour or two, hungry, but Anderson didn’t know what to feed it. He crumbled little pieces of granola bar into his pocket, but the squirrel didn’t seem to notice.

Mr. Dodd closed the gate at the front of the store and put his arm around Anderson’s shoulders. “There are a lot of people out there with slightly smaller sores tonight,” he said, tightening his hand on the back of Anderson’s neck. “You’re what we call management material.” Anderson’s coworkers filed out of the building as Mr. Dodd led Anderson to the back office. He shut the door behind them and reached under the desk, pulling out an air rifle. “There are some things that corporate doesn’t want to know about.” He pumped the lever three times. “The more you pump, the harder it shoots.”

All of the other employees were gone. The squeak of Anderson’s shoes against the smooth concrete echoed in the empty aisles. Both men looked up at the rafters. “There she is,” Mr. Dodd said, pointing to the bird. “It’s mating season. Can’t have her reproducing in here. Think of the mess, the broken eggshells, the protective maternal instinct. What if her babies have some kind of birth defect and fall out of the nest in front of a customer? What would that do to our numbers?”

They stopped next to a patio furniture display. The bird preened, digging its beak under its wing. Mr. Dodd pumped the air rifle three more times and handed it to Anderson. “Sit down,” he said, pointing to a patio chair with a teal-green cushion. “Steady your arm on the table.”

Anderson sat down and held the rifle, placing his elbow on the frosted glass table. He lined up the bird in his sights. Mr. Dodd leaned down next to him, putting his mouth by Anderson’s ear. “They carry disease,” he whispered. “We have to look out for the safety of our customers.”

Anderson pulled the trigger. The bird fell without a sound.

“Goddamn,” Mr. Dodd shouted, slapping Anderson on the back. “Goddamn. That was a great shot. We should go hunting sometime. Goddamn. Do you feel that?” Mr. Dodd held his hand over his heart. He stared at the spot where the bird lay. “That’ll get me through the rest of the week. What a shot.” He took the air rifle from Anderson. “Get her cleaned up and let’s get out of here. That’s exactly the kind of leadership we’re looking for.”

Anderson approached the bird. It was opening and closing its mouth. A small hole in its breast leaked blood onto the shiny concrete floor. Anderson swept the bird into a dust pan, then knelt down to wipe up the blood with a towel. He leaned a ladder against the tall shelf and climbed up to the top, looking for the pasta box where the bird had been hiding. Inside it, brightly-colored strips torn from ramen noodle packages and potato chip bags were threaded together into a small nest. At the bottom of the nest was a single light-blue egg with brown spots. Anderson held the egg between his thumb and forefinger.

“Anything up there?” Mr. Dodd called from the bottom of the ladder. “You find a nest?”

Anderson felt the weight of the egg in his palm. “There’s a nest, but it’s empty,” he said. He tried to put the egg into his shirt pocket, but it wouldn’t fit beside the baby squirrel. He checked his pants pockets: phone, keys, wallet—too many things for it to crack against.

“Bring it down here,” Mr. Dodd said. “I want to see.”

Anderson slipped the egg into his mouth. It was salty and covered in small bumps. He ran his tongue around it, feeling its irregularities, then climbed down from the ladder to where Mr. Dodd waited. Anderson handed him the box of rotini. “Wow,” Mr. Dodd said, pulling the thin strands of plastic out of the box. “Adapting to her surroundings. It’s beautiful.” He looked down at the now-dead bird in the dust pan and nudged it with the toe of his leather shoe.

Anderson tried to find a way to hold his mouth shut comfortably, but the egg felt bigger in his mouth than it had looked in his hand. Mr. Dodd picked up the dust pan. “I’m going to let corporate know we’re grooming you for a promotion,” he said. His breath smelled like jelly beans. Anderson nodded, trying to keep the egg from scratching against his teeth.

Mr. Dodd shut off the lights and locked the gate behind them. In the parking lot, Anderson tiptoed around puddles, trying to step in the shallowest parts, but by the time he made it to his car his shoes were soaked. As he sat in the driver’s seat the wet cushion squished beneath him. He felt the cold rainwater through the fabric of his pants.

Anderson turned the car on and the newscaster was in the middle of a weather report. “Stay out of the floodwater, listeners. Lots of nasty stuff floating around out there, and it’s only going to get nastier.” Anderson flipped down the sun visor and looked at himself in the tiny mirror. Holding his jaw awkwardly so that he wouldn’t crush the egg, his face looked elongated, his chin lower than it should have been, his lips, straining to stay closed, pursed into a tight O. On the floorboard, the rain had washed out the bloody napkins, turning them light pink. Anderson thought he felt something move in his mouth. He closed his eyes and held his breath but couldn’t tell if it was the egg or just his own heartbeat. On the road, cars drove through water up to their hubcaps, sending waves lapping at the sidewalk. Anderson exhaled. Above him, the clouds were orange with light from parking lots and store fronts. He put his foot on the gas and crept through a deep puddle, watching as the water rose up, lapping against the bottoms of his headlights. It had been a while since the baby squirrel had woken up to eat, but Anderson was sure it was just sleeping. The sun had gone down hours ago. He knew that animals were more attuned to the rhythm of the planet, their peanut-shaped brains picking up on the smallest changes in gravitational pulls and barometric pressures, their noses and eyelids sensing humidity and static electricity, their fur and feathers detecting air currents that might alert them to the presence of nearby predators.

By Shane Hinton

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