Beth pulled into her local Web-Mart parking lot in a silver 2009 Ferrari 612 GTO. It didn’t have a lot of room for groceries, but it sure made heads turn — and her shopping list wasn’t very long. So… why not take it?
The engine purred, calming down, as Beth stepped out of the car and into the bright sunlight.
“Excuse me,” a gravelly voice called out from a man quickly approaching. He was wearing a tracksuit and hoodie — with hood up — with a giant, orange logo for Bitcoin on the front. “That’s some nice chrome you’ve got there.”
Beth fingered the keys in her pocket, tracing the outline to find and hold a finger over the alarm button. The parking lot was bustling with activity from shoppers but she’d made a habit of parking on the far end of the lot to avoid stray carts dinging up her baby.
“Thanks,” she assertively said back, stepping out of the man’s path but keeping her steely eyes on him. “It’s a 2009 — ”
“That’s cool,” the man interrupted, physically brushing her words away with a waved hand. “You’re not planning on going into Web-Mart, are you?”
Beth stammered, caught off guard at the sudden change of subject.
“I… yes? That’s why I’m here, yes.”
“Why… what? Why am I buying food? Because I need to eat. Do you need to eat?” Beth stood firm next to her car with the looming stranger between her and the grocery store. Surely someone would see — and help — if something happened, but she wasn’t about to take the chance. She unlocked the car and took a step toward the door, ready to hop back in if needed.
The stranger picked up on her vibes and took his hood down, holding his hands out, palms out.
“Oh, don’t be afraid. We’re safe here. You’re probably actually safer with me than in there.” He gestured wildly back to the Web-Mart. “Anything could happen to you in there. You could fall, break a leg, or worse. Someone could attack you, steal your purse, or tell you terrible things you’ll never forget. Something could happen that calls security — the enforcers of it all — and they could frame you for anything, even murder — or worse. God forbid they get the real police involved; corporations like this work with the government and basically own the police. Never trust the police… or these companies.
“Not to mention the privacy concerns,” he continued, getting more animated. “You know Web-Mart tracks every step you take, every product you touch, and every label you read, right? How long you spend in the vegetables, what kind of meat you buy, and what advertising strategies work best to brainwash you, control what you buy, and force-feed you things you don’t need.”
Something the stranger said clicked and Beth’s face softened.
She shrugged. “But that’s just the way things are.”
“They don’t have to be that way, though.”
“I’m not going to shop somewhere else,” the woman shot back defensively. “Web-Mart has everything I need in one place — and they’re cheap.”
“The price of evil,” the stranger muttered. “But that’s not what I mean. You can still shop here, get everything you want, and not be exposed to the evils inside. That’s what I’m here for.”
Beth raised an eyebrow. “And who are you?”
“I’ll be your Web-mart browser today. I know the extent of corruption and suffering at play inside; I know the risks and liabilities of exposure; I know how corporations like this eat, breathe, and sleep; and I know how to protect myself against their soul-sucking vacuum. You’ve got a list, right? I’ll go in for you, get what you need, and bring it back out. And I’ll be fast, too.”
“I don’t have a lot of money,” Beth started — but was interrupted.
“No problem! My services are free. I’m only here out of the goodness of my heart, trying to help those in the world who don’t know better. No cost at all; just give me a list and I’ll be on my way!”
Beth paused and nervously glanced at the Web-Mart looming at the far end of the parking lot. The stranger had a point: she didn’t know the extent of what went on inside such a large and potentially-corrupt operation. Anything could happen! She looked back at her car — her baby, which she knew inside and out — and felt a sense of security emanating from it.
“Here,” she said, taking a bulleted list out of her pocket. “There’s not too much on there. Very basic stuff. And you’ll be fast?”
“So fast,” the stranger promised. “This is what I do, remember? I know these stores like the back of my hand. I’m probably two, no, three times as fast as the average person. The fastest browser ever, maybe. The trick is to keep moving, never meander, never look at the same item twice, or for too long. They’re watching; they’re always watching. Don’t give them anything to learn from.”
“Okay,” Beth agreed. “It’s really brave of you to browse the store on behalf of a stranger, with everything going on in there.”
“I know,” the stranger said, smiling. “Some people even call me the brave browser.”
* * *
“That should do it,” the brave browser proclaimed, placing the last item from Beth’s list into his cart.
“Excuse me,” said an older man behind him, hunched over a thick, wooden cane. “Would you mind grabbing me a can of beans from up there? Whichever one is cheapest is fine; I can barely taste anything anymore anyway.”
The brave browser felt a tinge of fear at the cranial assault, but this is exactly what he had trained for.
“My skull is impenetrable,” he announced proudly. “Nice try, though. You can find some other braindead sheep to do your choose-the-brand test, grandpa.”
He left, quickly, and marched to the front of the store with a horse-like gaze, equipped with a mental set of blinders constructed from nothing from cerebral superiority.
Don’t give them anything to learn from. Eyes straight ahead; don’t look at anything. You’re almost out.
Cashiers blocked the way from the exit and the brave browser skipped the line, aggressively pushing his cart through people who had been waiting to pay and leave. A few heads turned, but he knew the eyes in the sky saw everything already — and the eyes in the lines were just pawns strategically placed to invade his privacy from new angles.
“Excuse me,” a cashier called out, waving an arm to get the brave browser’s attention. “You need to pay for that, sir!”
Ad populum. Bandwagon appeal. Fallacies are the words of the devil, spoken through vessels put here on earth to serve Him. I can handle a mere wordsmith.
The browser turned on his heels, leaving the cart in place, and walked over to the cashier who succeeded in stealing his attention. He slammed both fists down on the conveyor belt and the shopper who had been loading his groceries onto it stepped back, keeping his distance.
“You need to pay for those groceries before you leave,” the cashier repeated, voice cracking.
“And how would you like me to pay,” the brave browser shouted back, “with my privacy? With the lives of my friends and family? Their consent, maybe?”
“Cash or credit is fine,” the cashier muttered nervously. “We also accept SNAP.”
“What you’re doing here isn’t right,” the browser preached. “It’s downright evil and you should be ashamed of yourself. Cash, credit, food stamps, they’re all the same: just tools by our government to track their sheep and keep them alive, fed just enough, and ready for the slaughter. You know every monetary note has a tracking chip in it, right?”
“I don’t think that’s — ”
The brave, indignant browser pumped a fist at his chest to direct the cashier’s peanut brain to the Bitcoin logo on his hoodie. “Bitcoin, you ever heard of it? Of course you haven’t! The only morally acceptable currency for you to use should be cryptocurrency. But can I pay with my crypto? Of course not! Not by your societal rules, at least. I’ve transcended, though. Ascended out of the matrix you call home. I know what goes on under the floorboards, in the circuit ceiling, and behind the curtain. I refuse to assimilate into your dystopian nightmare.”
The cashier quietly flipped the switch behind the register to signal that he needs assistance.
The browser seethed, breathing loudly from his mouth. “I’ll be paying, of course, because this is a transaction and I’m receiving goods.” He took a crumpled up piece of paper from his pocket and snatched up a pen from behind the register to write on it.
“For payment, go here. Bring the receipt so they can see what items I purchased, not just a fake balance due. The man — or woman, wouldn’t you like to know? — you talk to will pay you what you’re due. Obviously with a safe currency like Bitcoin, but if you want to stick to the blue pill you can always trade it back to your flawed currency.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” the cashier said, looking around to see if anyone was coming to assist him. He didn’t see anyone, but many store patrons were crowded around — some with their phones out and recording — to watch the quarrel.
“This is a transaction, no? If you expect me to agree to your terms, you need to agree to mine too. I’ll be taking this cart now, and you can get paid whenever you want.”
As the bravest Web-Mart browser in the world stomped back to his cart and left, the cashier was left dumbstruck at the interaction. He called out after the man but was ignored and he flipped the assistance button back and forth several more times, frustrated at the lack of assistance.
He picked up the phone and dialed security and let them know that a shoplifter was about to leave the store with a cart full of unbagged groceries he didn’t pay for, and then watched as the shoplifter left the store with a cart full of unbagged groceries he didn’t pay for.
* * *
“It wasn’t so bad,” the stranger professed to Beth as he was unloading the groceries into her trunk. “It could have been much worse. The evil just radiates out in there; you can feel it in your bones if you’re awake. They’re always trying some new, dirty tactic to get under your skin.”
“How much did it come out to?” Beth was leaning against her Ferrari, only slightly nervous to have the stranger close enough to do some damage to it if he wanted. He’d been inside long enough that she was beginning to wonder if he’d actually come back, but when he did return with everything on her list it bought him a bit more trustworthiness.
“Not too much,” the stranger said. “Don’t worry about payment; I don’t do cash anyway. I take tips in cryptocurrency though, if you’re satisfied with your browsing experience. A man’s gotta eat to survive, as you know.”
“Thank you so much,” Beth said. “That’s so generous of you. I don’t have any cryptocurrencies I think, but I’ll definitely go look them up and figure out how to get one for next time.”
“It’s good you didn’t go in there,” the stranger repeated, shaking his head softly. “Everything on your list is in the cart. Feel free to take a look before I head out; full transparency is the only way to live in this world, right?”
“What about that?” Beth pointed to a bag of potatoes in the cart. “I didn’t have potatoes on the list.”
“Oh, those are for me. I love potatoes.”
“Okay,” Beth said, surveying the remaining items in the cart. She pulled out a few cans of vegetables and asked, “Did they not have the regular brand here? I haven’t heard of Milla before.”
“You can’t always buy the same brand,” the stranger warned. “That’s how they get you. Besides, Milla’s great. A friend of mine started the company a while back; they’re legit.”
“Fine, that looks like everything then. Thanks again for your help. I can’t believe you’re giving it all to me for free.”
“We need to eat, don’t we? You wanted — no, needed — food; there’s no reason you should have to have your privacy violated and your wallet decimated just to survive.”
The stranger took his bag of potatoes and left.
* * *
“Excuse me,” another stranger’s voice called out as Beth was about to get back into her car. This was a much deeper voice with a more assertive tone, clearly intended more to demand her attention than excuse the stranger’s intrusion. “Excuse me, miss?”
Beth turned and saw two police officers clad in blue, nightsticks and tasers on their hips. These weren’t grocery store police — these were the real deal.
“Yes? What can I help you with, officers?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am, but did an older gentleman just come out of the store and give you his cart of groceries? Wearing an orange tracksuit?”
Never trust the police, the stranger’s voice repeated in her ear.
“Is there a problem?” she asked politely.
“Please answer the question, miss. Store cameras show him talking to you before he went in. Do you know him?”
“I don’t know him,” Beth said slowly. “He complimented me on my car. What did he do?”
“He stole that cart of groceries, ma’am. May we take a look inside your trunk?”
“That can’t be right. He said he paid for them.”
“Did you pay him?”
“No, I didn’t. He just asked for tips, but I didn’t have any coptercurrencies to give him. He offered to go inside and get my groceries for me, is all.”
“We’re familiar with him,” the officers said. “Did you coerce him in any way to steal these groceries on your behalf?”
Beth put her hands up and stepped back, taken aback at the accusation. “Of course not. He came over and offered, that’s all. I didn’t know he was going to steal them. I wouldn’t have gave him my list if I knew he was stealing.”
“Please open your trunk. Unfortunately we’re going to have to seize the stolen property and return it to the store. And we’re going to need you to come with us down to the station to answer a few questions.”
“I’m so sorry,” Beth pleaded. She opened the trunk and said, “Take it all, I didn’t know. He just said he’d be fast and talked about how dangerous it can be to go inside and shop for myself. He said he was just protecting me. I didn’t tell him to do anything! Is it really necessary that I go with you?”
“Unfortunately it is, ma’am,” one officer said as the other went to get a cart to unload the trunk into. “We just need to ask you a few questions about the man, though. We’re well aware of the problems he’s been causing; just a few answers from you might help us put a stop to him stealing from stores in the area. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.”
Beth looked nervously at the silver 2009 Ferrari 612 GTO she’d put so much time, love, thought, and money into, and thought about leaving it alone for however long in a Web-Mart parking lot. Even though she’d parked far away to avoid stray carts, she’d heard plenty of horror stories about the things that go on in these parking lots — and the stories the stranger told of the systemic evils within only exacerbated her worries.
“Can I meet you there?” Beth asked, nodding toward the car. “This might not be the best place to leave a nice car, you know?”
“Unfortunately you’ll have to ride with us,” the officer stated. “Procedure. We’ll give you a ride back from the station when we’re done, though.”
Beth teared up as she was handcuffed and led back to the squad car, watching her baby get further and further away. She promised she didn’t know the stranger was stealing, but it wasn’t good enough. The damage had already been done; the brave browser had succeeded in damaging a store they morally disagreed with and the innocent, naive consumer was carelessly thrown under the bus as collateral damage.