THE OUTLET STORE
“Oh, God. Oh, Please. No. No!”
From the speakers a scream penetrates the near empty auditorium. Several of the audience members, including me, yawn. You never get the attentive viewers on a Tuesday night. Especially in a middle of nowhere town like this. Maybe in L.A., though there you’d have to deal with four million people all hurrying to be somewhere, or meet someone, or become something.
So, I suppose the tradeoff is worth it. Ugh, I don’t know. On evenings like this, after I’ve done an eight-hour shift, I don’t want to think too much. And that’s saying something, because usually I think a lot. Dad always said the world was divided into doers and thinkers. Dad was a doer, and I was a thinker. Mom would tell me this matter-of-factly, while dad would say this with an ever-so-slight frown. You’d assume that me being a “thinker” would make me a shoe-in to be a scientist, a doctor, or even a lawyer. But alas, the periodic table bored me, I was against most forms of Western medicine, and I had a sensitive conscience. And now I sell the products of a multi-billion-dollar corporation whose two major interests were what to sell the thirty-somethings that would make them feel like twenty-somethings, and how to ensure the sweatshops of foreign countries stayed open. Way to go, me.
I should be resting now instead of thinking. I should be staring off at the screen instead of having this self-pity session. But unfortunately, this movie was turning out to be far worse than its modest reviews had led me to believe, thus my struggling to stay awake. Of course, I could be much harder on a film than most people. Particularly the camera work. How do so many fuck up on the basic things that I’d managed to learn in three years of high school camera and Cinematopgraphy classes? Oh, great. The “shaky cam” had started again, now that the demon had begun chasing the actors. Why is the camera swaying like a pirate ship ride?
Yeah, I guess I’m a visual person, but to me, a movie’s look means so much more. Dialogue told the story you could verbally express. Everything else, the compilation of movement, lighting, and color, that revealed the untold story. If I were doing this scene -- well I’m not. Someone else got the job and I got to waste my evening and eight dollars on watching him botch it. I know I don’t have to watch it, but the only other thing to do when I’m this tired is go home, and I don’t feel like facing that place or having to listen to my two stoner roommates. I can go out and get a beer, but seeing as I got wasted off two drinks, I don’t think it the best idea. So, no pot or alcohol for me. And between those two things that’s basically all people my age got up to in this town. When they weren’t working their minimum wage jobs, of course.
The demon runs in from the corner of the screen and the camera cuts away. I check my watch. Still another hour left in the movie. Maybe I could just shut my eyes for a few minutes. As much as I don’t want to be that-weirdo-sleeping-in-the-back-of-the-theater, my head is actually starting to hurt, and I really don't feel like being awake. I get like that every so often: that weighty feeling, like I can’t bear to do anything else, for fear that I’ll fuck up my life even more.
I lay my head back, close my eyes, and try to not think about work or the fact that I’ll have to return to it in the morning. I try, but even as the movie’s piano soundtrack lulls me to sleep, I know that trying has yet to get me very far.
It’s not quite nine a.m. yet and already the air is stifling hot as I park my bicycle at the back of our store’s warehouse. The wave of emotion comes out of nowhere. One moment I’m yawning, the next I’m choking back a sob, some unbearable weight stuck in my chest, as if I’d swallowed a cannonball. I look down, expecting to see the hands of a fifty-year-old man, expecting to find in myself the memory of thirty years spent parking my bike at the exact same spot every day before work.
But I haven’t been doing this job for thirty years. It hasn’t even been up to one year yet. I mentally berate myself for my sudden flash of fragility. I am not going to be like my coworkers. No fucking way. I am not old yet, and I’m not going to let myself pretend like I am.
I finish locking my bike before heading the long way to our store’s entrance. It’s quiet as I walk through the mall, the only sound being the faint drone of highway traffic. None of the stores are set to open for another hour. There’s not a human in sight. It’s like one of those ghost towns in the old western movies, right before outlaws drew their guns.
I arrive at our store, far sooner than I wish, and knock twice on the thick, glass doors, instantaneously transforming from a jaded young man, into a pleasant and hardworking employee. Jack opens the front door for me and immediately I can tell he’s in a foul mood. And I thought I hated the morning shift. Of course, Jack wouldn’t lose his temper over it. He never lost his temper. But boy would he be an angsty bitch because of it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the guy. In fact, I found him to be one of my most bearable coworkers. Probably because we were about the same age and I let him do most of the talking, thus conversations are undemanding on my part.
I thank him and head to the back of the store. The rows of clothing and accessories are packed in tight, despite our open floor plan, and already I can feel the store bearing down on me. I wonder for the umpteenth time why I chose this place instead of the pet store. Easy. Pay here was twelve per hour as opposed to the pet store’s eleven. I guess I don’t like dogs as much as I thought I did. At least, not enough to turn down an extra forty dollars a week.
I head into the breakroom, unsurprised to find Alice and Kurtis—everyone referred to him as Kunu, though—already there. Kunu was telling Alice about the time when a street vendor in Thailand had sold him all four Lethal Weapon movies for sixty-eight cents. Kunu, our official surfer bum, is an endless supply of interesting stories, to the point that I’ve occasionally wondered if he made up new ones each night before he went to bed.
Alice, our head manager, listens to Kunu as she waits for something to print. As far as bosses, go Alice is pretty good. She could throw out orders at a hundred miles per hour while also checking someone out at a register and convincing them to sign up for a membership. She busted her ass to say the least, yet I couldn’t help but feel a little sad whenever I saw her. Overweight and firmly in her sixties, Alice had already given two decades of her life working retail, one of which here, and two before that running a gym and raising two kids, both of whom now lived on the East Coast and only saw her for Thanksgiving. She said she hoped to retire in eight years (seven if she did a lot of overtime), at which point she’d finally have the time to clean out her cluttered garage.
Kunu smiles at my arrival, tan face wrinkling around the eyes and mouth. “What’s going on, Doc?” He asks while I put my lunch in the fridge. “Ready to prescribe some clothes?”
Doc. Robert Docley Jr. I hate the name Robert. I hate Bob even more. Both are way too generic. And being called ‘Junior’ just made me want to hang myself. But the upside of moving to a place where no one knows you, is that you get to reinvent yourself a bit. So what did I put on my name tag when I got hired here? Doc. And I liked the name quite a bit, except when people started to make the medical puns. Although, Back To The Future ones I considered acceptable. “I guess.”
“That’s good,” Alice says before handing me the freshly printed paper. “This is everything that needs restocking. Get Jack to help you with that. Alright?”
She’s already walking away as I reply. “Gotcha, Boss. We’ll have them out in a jiffy.”
Kunu rubs his stubbly chin, lost in thought. “I also got the entire Lord of The Rings trilogy there for a dollar. ‘Course that one ended up being some weird Japanese Hentai version.”
I ignore him as I move about, clocking in, grabbing a radio, and departing at a faster pace than most would consider appropriate for twelve dollars an hour. On the way out, I glance in the mirror to make sure my work-shirt’s clean and straight. What can I say? I’m a good soldier. The job may have taken a bite out of my soul, but at least I haven’t devolved into a moping mess like some of my coworkers. If I’m going to restock, then I’m going to do it frickin’ right. That said, some weird feeling tells me that the restocking will turn out to be unnecessary. It is a Wednesday in the heart of summer though, so my intuition is probably warranted.
Ten-thirty, and not a single customer. This is even slower than I expected it to be.
I continue to label the mountain of socks before me with thirty-percent discount tags, wondering who in their right mind at corporate thought millennials would like knee-high socks with a purple and gray zigzag pattern.
Jack stands by the checkout counter next to me, fiddling with a register’s mouse and straightening the rows of plastic water bottles, all while running his mouth. “Mom couldn’t stop talking about how ‘great’ me going to Easter church with them would be. ‘Just think. All of us listening to the sermon as a family. So lovely’.”
“I thought you were atheist?”
“I am, and she knows that.” He rakes a hand under his beanie and through his limp, black hair. “Doesn’t stop her from saying a dozen times that I should go. Like, I’m already there for Easter, man. Why can’t she be cool with that?”
“Yeah,” I add as I climb up our two-step ladder and hang the socks.
“You know how long I have to drive to get to their place? Two hours. And I already have to do that drive every month for family therapy.”
I look to the front door, longing for a customer to step in so that Jack would have something to do. But all I can see are rays of blinding sunlight pouring through the dual glass doors. Jack continues. “And they just make me do it because my little sis keeps getting detention and won’t eat her green beans and veggies.”
“Didn’t she try to run away twice?”
“But that last time was, like, almost a year ago. I think. Maybe closer to nine months.”
The backdoor opens and Alice comes strolling in, scanner gun in hand. “Jack, have you not stopped talking since I left? What about our customers?” She hisses this last part under her breath, as if she’s terrified to even imply that our customers might be needy. Which they were, but I guess saying it would make them self-conscious. Yet, if retail marketing has taught consumers anything, it’s that we’re supposed to bend over backwards to appease them.
Jack shrugs. “There ain’t been anyone.”
“Not one customer since we opened?” Alice looks a little hurt and quite a bit worried. She’s obviously afraid that we won’t reach our day’s quota. Her brow furrows. “Are you sure you unlocked the door?”
Jack shrugs, looking sheepish. It wouldn’t be the first time he hadn’t turned the key all the way. Alice frowns and walks to the entrance.
She yanks on the handle, only to find the door unlocked. It swings open and Alice squints in confusion as she looks outside. She blinks, and she blinks again. And only then do her eyes widen. The look of shock is so great that I find myself dropping my armful of socks and racing to her.
I skid to a halt by her side, expecting to see—I don’t know. A rattlesnake? A dead body? Molten lava, maybe? I definitely don’t expect to see this. A vast sea of darkness, speckled by small, twinkling lights—stars. Holy shit.
They’re stars, and what I’m looking at is space.
I can’t help but feel a sense of awe as I stare at its vastness, though I doubt my colleagues are appreciating the view as much as me. Definitely not Alice, whose knitted eyebrows tell me that she’s primarily wondering how our customers are going to get to us.
Once our brains regain blood flow, we begin tossing out theories: We could be participating in a special employee evaluation. Or perhaps scientists are using us to test a new hallucinogen. Maybe it’s heat exhaustion. Or what if we had been teleported to an unknown alien galaxy so that celestial beings could watch us reenact Lord of the Flies? This last idea comes from Kunu. I’m more partial to J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, but either way, it’s an ugly image that I don’t want stuck in my head.
Okay, so obviously we don’t have a good grasp on what’s going on, and despite our wild ideas, none of us dare to step outside.
I consider stretching a finger out, but suddenly I’m certain that we’re in a delicate bubble, one ready to pop at the slightest touch.
Then a realization hits me. We have another way out, a door at the back of the warehouse. Who knows? Maybe it’s only this entrance that’s been affected. Maybe we’ll walk around and discover that it’s a billboard, or a TV, or a -- a hyper-advanced projector.
Upon expressing my realization to my coworkers we hurry to the back door, hearts fluttering as we pass through the sparsely lit warehouse, boxes and racks of merchandise flanking us like the walls of a prison. I reach the door first, throwing it open without hesitation. But there’s only more of the same. Stars and blackness. No way out. But did I seriously think it would be that easy?
As I stare outside, the racks of clothing and the unopened crates feel like they’re lurching towards me. I’m struggling to breathe. I half-expect the walls to come caving in at any moment. Jack makes some snarky complaint, asking how he’s supposed to get back to his car. Kunu wonders aloud if he can see Uranus from here. Alice grunts thoughtfully. And as sweat starts to collect on my scalp and in my armpits, all I can do is think of one word.
Trapped. The word ricochets through my head. We’re trapped.
Alice eventually interrupts our gaping and orders us to get ahead on restocking. I’m not sure what she’s thinking, but I hope for all of our sakes that this situation doesn’t persist much longer. I don’t want to think about what would happen when we closed. I don’t want to think about our tiny supply of food. And I sure as heck didn’t want to think about what state Alice would be in if we were still stuck here at the end of the day. Would she work us through the night, not letting us get a wink of sleep for fear that a mob of desperate alien shoppers would arrive on flying saucers? I stop the idea from going any further through my head. I’d lost too much of my sanity already today.
So, we stock the sales floor, then we clean it, and then we organize the storage room. And we do some more restocking and even more cleaning. And that is when we start to feel the gravity of our situation.
It’s one-thirty now, and I’m taking it upon myself to rearrange the sandals in footwear. They all have a spongy texture to them, and yet they’re made to look like thin, roughly cut leather. I guess it’s so that everyone looking at the wearer thinks it’s some high-end, designer shoe that was handmade by old Guatemalan women. Though, in reality I know it’s basically the equivalent of my grandmother’s orthopedic shoes and was made by the droves in a factory located in Jordan, not Guatemala.
I try to cling to these pointless thoughts. I try, but the air is so damn stale, and the terrifying questions begin to crowd in. Is it just me, or is getting harder to breathe? Am I having a panic attack? I don’t think so. Not yet at least. Are we running out of air? How long would it take to use up all the oxygen in here? Several days? Then why is the air already stale? Should I be worried about this, considering we’re suspended in space and haven’t exploded from depressurization? What laws of physics are still working?
My dizzying thoughts and racing imagination are interrupted by voices. I look across the room and see that Jack is complaining to Kunu about something. Kunu’s expression is prickly and he replies with a short grunt. Whatever he says gets Jack worked up, and his response is spliced with rigorous hand gesturing.
I sigh and head over to the two of them, preparing to defuse whatever ridiculous argument they’re having. Jack and Kunu were easy to handle by themselves, but mixing Jack’s bitching with Kunu’s zero-tolerance for bad vibes always caused a fuss.
Well, normally it would be a fuss, but the stale air must have been getting to them too. As I approach Kunu from behind, I hear him mutter something to Jack that I can’t make out. What I do make out, however, is Jack shoving Kunu, and Kunu slipping on the freshly mopped floor and falling right back into me. The good news, is that Kunu hitting me means that he’s able to regain his balance—his surfing skills probably also helped. The bad news, is that I have no one to catch me, no prior surfing experience, or general balancing skills for that matter. I do fall into the arms of a mannequin perched behind me, but all it does is go careening down with me.
My head slams against the cold, concrete floor, and the thick pungent smell of iron fills my nose as blackness engulfs my vision.
Okay... I don’t think I have severe head trauma. Actually, there’s no way that I do. Sure my head’s throbbing, but as Kunu and Jack help me up, both apologizing profusely, I find my sight already returning to normal. It’s also definitely not my blood that I’m smelling. But if it’s not mine ...
I look down at the floor and gawk. The mannequin it’s—it’s bleeding. Bands of crimson encircle the mannequin’s seams at the neck, waist, wrists, shoulders, and ankles. The neck is the worst, with full droplets of blood dripping onto our immaculate floor.
I stare at it, until Jack bumps my shoulder and points. I follow his finger to a nearby mannequin and gasp. It has blood on it as well. And in fact, as I look around, I discover that all the mannequins are bleeding. Every last one.
The next few minutes are a haze of muted terror, as we show Alice our discovery and, per her orders, take the dummies down and put them in storage. The only part of it that seems to worry her is that the blood on the floor might stain. Kunu, Jack, and I say nothing as we move the mannequins, only relying on grunts and nods. It’s like we’re as incapable of speaking as the plastic husks we now carried. Tape might as well have been across our mouths.
After we’re done, I head into the breakroom for lunch. I mechanically eat my chicken teriyaki salad, my mind elsewhere as I chew. It’s not until halfway through that I realize I left the sales-floor without asking permission. The first time I’d ever done so. But why should I have to? The corkboard said my lunch was right now, and we’re far from busy. Still, I feel a pang of guilt.
Why, though? What I should feel, is worried. Those mannequins had been bleeding. Or maybe they were just melting? But if so, why would they melt red? Were they filled with something? Was it part of this whole grand prank/test? Had some psychopath stuffed dead people inside the mannequins?
This last thought is especially ridiculous considering the mannequins hardly weighed ten pounds and had no rotting smell to them. I’ve definitely been reading too many thrillers. How could I consider something so insane? Actually, everything I’m thinking is insane. But these thoughts need to be let loose, otherwise I truly will snap. We should all of us be talking this over, coming up with contingency plans at the very least. But there seems to be this invisible wall between me and everyone else. I had expected for Kunu at least to take some action, but alas, he’d done nothing different from any other day of work, besides wearing his Lakers hat backwards. Am I the only one who’s scared? Am I the only one who feels like they’re being watched? Maybe I should go to my co-workers and just spew out my thoughts. Screw them if they think I’m crazy. But then, I think of the mannequins in the storage room, and my thoughts begin to blur as I do. It feels like the fog effect in video games that hides the unrendered world around the player.
My head throbs, so I let my train of thought slip away and into the fog of my subconscious. I concentrate on my surroundings in hopes of ceasing my head’s swirling, and in doing so, I take in the room’s contents with fresh eyes: there are motivational quotes on the refrigerator, ranging from “you are a badass” to “together, we can move mountains.” Then there were pages and pages of reminders tacked to the bulletin board. “Don’t forget to clock in/out”, “Shopping bonanza happening next month. Make sure you’re available to work during it. Get fifty dollars for referring a friend to work the event”, and so on. Then there’s the microwave and the instant coffee and the mess of plastic utensils, napkins, and pens. Finally, there’s a framed photo of Alice shaking hands with the company’s founder, a stern, thin-lipped man who had probably looked very intimidating in his youth, but now resembled a wrinkly, green apple.
I look at it now, and all I see are meaningless pieces of plastic and glass, encased in a room of plaster, and held up by metal bars. I rub my eyes and chuckle. Boy, I’m being extremely dramatic even by my cynical standards.
Alice emerges from her office, looking like a tired ghost with nothing left to haunt. She half-sits, half-falls into the chair across from me. “Still can’t get ahold of corporate. You think Kelly knew they were going to do this employee test?”
Kelly was our co-manager, an even further overweight woman who spent her breaks either reading vampire novels or employee guide books. I hadn’t even considered if anyone we knew was in on this cruel experiment. But that was assuming this event was a corporate test, which I’m still finding hard to believe. This was way more effort than corporate normally gave us. “Possibly,” I grunt.
“Maybe after lunch we can get through those last few shipments we got on Saturday. Alright? I think it’s footwear, and I guess you’re kind of our expert for today. Aaron usually is, and he was supposed to get here at twelve but ...” Alice trails off and massages her temple.
She titters and dabs her eyes. “You know,” she says. “You’ve been with us for, what, seven months, and I barely know anything about you.” She blinks, as if she’s a computer struggling to load a page.
I don’t say anything. I should say something, throw her a bone, but I don’t want to. Why, though? Why do that to her? Maybe it’s because, after so many months of asking the customer about themselves, I longed for someone to ask me things about myself.
Alice’s eyebrows knit. “Um, you’re not in college, right? At least, I’ve - I’ve never heard you ask for a rescheduling because of classes, so I assume ...”
I swallow my mouthful of food. “No. I’m not.” I should say more, but the words won’t quite form on my lips.
“But you are going to, yeah?”
“No, I don’t think I will. I wouldn’t know what to major in, anyways.”
“What are your plans then?”
“Plans?” The word hangs in the air like an idle pendulum. “Plans for me, before I graduated, were just lists someone else gave me. What chores and schoolwork to do. A plan was a thing made by someone else, a parent, a teacher, even a friend.” My lips crease into a smirk. “The only school events I participated in were the mandatory ones, or at least, the ones people expected you to be a part of. The only sport I ever did was baseball, and that was because my dad was obsessed with it. God,” I scoff. “The hours he spent either watching baseball or talking about it.”
I feel my cheeks burn as I remember the mitt he slapped into my hand, announcing in his bold, rich voice that I had team practice tomorrow. I force myself to take a deep breath. “All in all, I felt busy enough, doing all the things everyone else told me to do. But then graduation came and it was all gone. I wasn’t accepted to California State like my parents thought I would be. So, I made up some bullshit about wanting “work experience.” I got hired at a café and did alright. But the arguments became more and more frequent with my parents, until it felt like every damn day. Then, one of my distant cousins offered to let me be his roommate out here, a hundred bucks a week. And I thought ‘Sure. Never really knew or liked the guy, but okay. A fresh start. Just a few months, and then I’ll know what to do.” I swallow and gasp, feeling winded. “But in truth... I think I’m still waiting for someone to tell me what to do.”
I look at Alice, beggingly, because with all her years of experience, surely she had some piece of wisdom she could impart. Surely, she understood something I didn’t.
But Alice doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t even look at me. Just continues to stare off into space. And I eventually go back to eating my lunch.
Alice is leaving her office. Her face looks like a pale ceramic mask, one that’s been chipped away at the edges and has a thick crack running down its middle. Her uniform, this morning clean and perfectly pressed, now looked worn to the bone, as if she’d slept in it for weeks. She locks the door and heads to the storage room, clipboard in hand as she hoarsely hums ‘Hey Jude’ to herself.
I’m standing on the Sales Floor in Kids’ Apparel, assorting the rows of rain jackets so that they match the colors of the rainbow. I stare back and forth between two blue jackets. I swear that they’re two different shades, but I can’t tell which one’s darker and which one’s lighter.
Alice strolls through the catacombs of surplus stock. She walks past the pile of mannequins, hardly giving them a glance, and stops before a crate of hangers and shelf braces.
My fingers tap against my thigh. Are they the same color? Shit. Am I color blind or just being OCD? Or am I just bored? Well I don’t have to be doing this. Hell, I’m in the middle of space, I can do whatever I want.
Alice rummages through the crate, back towards the pile of silicone people. The nearest mannequin, a male with the same medium build and five-foot-eleven height of its brothers, slowly turns its head toward her.
I sigh through my nose before putting both of the blue jackets in my rainbow display. I step back and examine my handy work. Dear god... I really have become my mother. Dad would reel if he saw me now. Well, ignorance is bliss. As far as they know I’m in the Peace Corp.
Alice cuts her finger on the cardboard and hisses in pain. “Oh, god jam it.” She pulls a tissue out from her pocket and wipes the blood.
Dad would shake his head. Shake his goddamn head. Such disappointment. I could never please both of them? One always had to be disappointed. What did he want from me? For him to be the only person whose approval I cared for. I blink several times and wipe my brow. Definitely getting harder to breath in here.
The mannequin sits up. It pivots the rest of its body to face Alice, then rises to its feet.
Aliens you better hurry the hell up and prod us, because I’m gonna go nuts if I stay in here much longer.
Alice shifts a box, sending a cloud of dust at her face and throwing her into a fit of coughing. The mannequin’s hands close around her throat. Already short on breath, it takes only a moment for her face to turn purple. She scratches at the fingers, trembling and gagging, but the mannequin’s grip is like iron. She collapses to her knees, and then, to the floor. A quick, hard twist from the mannequin’s hands and --
I crack my knuckles and stare at my manmade rainbow. I glance to my sides with unease. It’s too damn quiet in here, even with the bullshit pg-thirteen pop music playing at low volume. A chill runs down my spine and I spin to look back. Nothing. Of course there’s nothing. Look at me acting so damn schizo. I half-expect my dad to come staggering out from one of the clothing racks at any moment and say, ‘Boy, what’s your head doing up your ass? You smell roses up there?’ He’d have his hands clasped in that oh-so-patronizing way, like he was a prestigious headmaster wising up the wild and lackadaisical student.
The dummy lets go of Alice’s throat and turns its smooth head about, as if trying to take in its surroundings. It gropes around, eventually finding the edge of the hallway. It heads into the depths of the warehouse. Behind it, its fourteen brothers and sisters begin to rise as well. Quicker to get their bearings, the small sea of white, silicone zombies head out in the first one’s wake.
Well fuck you, pop. You can’t get me here. No one can get me here.
There are two ways into the storage room, not including the backdoor that led into space. One is on the right side of the sales floor, and the other on the left side, connecting to our breakroom and then to the warehouse. It’s the latter one that the mannequins are groping towards, and it was in the hall between the sales floor and warehouse that Jack and I now stood. I ask him how bad the bump on my head is. He says it looks pitiful compared to what his head looked like after his skiing accident. He always compares anyone else’s injuries to that near-fatal one he’d experienced several years ago, though he still complains plenty whenever he stubs his toe.
Meanwhile, I’m trying not to notice how painfully quiet the hallway is. I’m keeping my cool. Cool like this room should be. The air-conditioning had suddenly stopped working about twenty minutes ago, and since then the temperature had climbed at a seemingly impossible rate. Add that on top of the stuffy air, and it was feeling like massive oven in here.
“Hey, guys,” Kunu interrupts us on the radio. “I’m on the sales floor and you know what I have to say?”
Jack and I are silent with befuddlement. Kunu replies before we can guess. “Show me the money!” our earpieces screech.
I grimace and turn down the volume.
Kunu laughs. “Dudes, it’s crazy out here. It’s like a goddamn ghost town.”
“Seems like the same damn store to me,” Jack grouches.
He yawns and takes off his beanie to wipe his hair, revealing the long, thin scar that runs from the back of his neck to the crown of his head. From what I’d heard about his injury, it really was a miracle that he’d survived; three broken ribs and a head cracked open like a chocolate egg on Easter Sunday. But what I also think is a miracle, is that he could have this near-death skiing incident and afterwards not have any life-altering epiphany.You’d think that shit would make you want to shave your head and join a buddhist monastery, or something. Maybe he thinks of it as shit luck? Maybe there isn’t any epiphany for someone as logical as Jack. Looking at it from Jack’s perspective, I guess that he probably sees it as a case of someone being stupid and unobservant, so caught up in their own run down the mountain that they didn’t notice the person skiing right in front of them.
My thoughts are interrupted by the clang of something metallic falling in the warehouse. Jack and I look toward the warehouse door, then at each other. Kunu is the first to act, though by his tone you’d think that someone had called him into work on his birthday. “I’ll go check on Alice,” he says with a sigh.
We wait for a few moments, in case Kunu yells to say that Alice fell off a ladder and broke her neck. It’s then that I detect a little voice in the back of my head, too weak to hear before, but now, in the utter silence, I can hear its icy whisper.
‘Run’, it says. ‘Run.’
Our radios crackle with Kunu’s voice. “Holy shit,” Kunu says with dismay. “Look at this mess. Those mannequins got fake blood all over the floor. And where are they anyways? I thought we put them—woah,” Kunu drawls in astonishment.
Jack looks at me and rolls his eyes. Kunu continues with a laugh. “I didn’t know you guys had engineering and programming know-how. How long did this take? Man, A-plus you guys, though I’m sorry if you were hoping to scare me. But seriously, was this both of you? Which one of you is the genius? ‘Cause no way are these Alice’s handiwork.”
“Um...” I struggle to find the proper words to express my confusion. “From the bottom of my heart, Kunu, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Maybe he’s cracked,” Jack mutters to me before pressing the button on his radio. “Hey are you going mental on us, dude?”
“‘What am I talking about?’” Kunu replies as if we’re the crazy ones. “Your mannequins of course. Stop playing dumb and tell me how you got them to walk?”
“Maybe he’s on acid?” Jack muses quietly.
“Kunu, could you please start making sense?” I ask in my most polite retailer voice, which I usually reserve for our most finicky old people and stickler fashionistas.
Kunu chuckles. “You guys are hilarious. Does Alice know about this? Woah, they’ve got a firm grip. Hey, do you think they can give me a massage? Is that one of their functions? Hey, señor Blank Face, I have this dull ache in my upper back whenever I ej” Kunu’s voice becomes hoarse. “Okay. Starting with the neck, eh? I ‘et it. Top t’ bottom. Alright tha’s a little too ti—” His voice cuts off.
I stare at Jack questioningly. He shakes his head. “Never took him for a mushroom guy. Well if he does go berserk, I’m glad we don’t sell guns or axes, though we do have those little pocket knives.”
Maybe I should’ve laughed it off. It was obviously a dumb joke made by our bored-to-death Kunu. But the events of today had put me on edge to say the least. I approach the warehouse door and grab the handle. “Kunu, I’m really not up for—” I open the door and choke on my tongue.
The mannequins. They’re—they’re—all of them are here in front of me, and they’re standing. Not standing like they’ve been propped up, but standing as in balancing on the white, plastic soles of their feet. All of them are looking back to the furthest one, which has its hands clasped around Kunu’s throat. Kunu rests on his knees, a straggled half-grin half-grimace frozen on his purpling face.
I open my mouth to scream, but a sickening snap cuts me off, and I feel like I’m going to faint instead. Kunu’s body hits the floor, and the fifteen silicone faces turn to face me.
Suddenly, I’m aware of Jack’s breath on the back of my neck. “Well shit,” he mutters.
Then, they start moving towards us.
I tell my feet to move, but as I lurch back they refuse to obey. The nearest mannequin staggers forward, coming within arms’ reach. Blood roars in my ears. I manage to take a step back, but it’s too little too late.
The mannequin snatches my wrist. I claw at its hand and bang on its arm, but it continues to squeeze, tighter and tighter. At any moment, I expect to feel a snap, followed by an explosion of pain.
“Hey!” I hear and look to see Jack swinging a metal broom at the mannequin.
He hits it on the wrist and—pop—its hand comes off.
The dummy stares at its stump of an arm, seemingly dumbfounded. I wrench the silicone hand off my wrist and toss it away. I look up and freeze. The mannequin looms over me, the shadows giving it the appearance of a glare. It raises its handless arm up into the air, as if to cleave me in half.
But before it can act, Jack’s broom catches it on the back of its head, stunning it. Now broken from my trance, I jump behind the safety of Jack and his Holy Staff of Sweeping. Jack’s beanie is gone and his blue eyes look like they might start shooting lasers at any moment. “Come on, bros,” he hisses.
I grab a short, metal brace from off the floor, the only weapon in sight, but as soon as I do, the rest of the mannequins pour into the hallway. “Um, Jack,” my voice cracks. “I think we should go. Like, now.”
Jack doesn’t appear to have heard me. His eyes are locked onto the mannequins, and I wonder if he’s gone into shock. I back towards the sales-floor door. “Jack,” I whine. “Jack, come on.”
But he’s swinging his broom before I’ve even finish, knocking down the nearest dummy. He swings again, but the mannequins stay out of his reach. Swoosh. The dummies’ knees and elbows start to jitter, almost as if they’re excited.
The knocked down mannequin staggers to its feet, head dented but otherwise unfazed. Jack’s hair is plastered with sweat and his face is bright red. With each swing, his face seems to melt like a candlestick, sagging further and further. His broom swishes, harder and harder, as if he wants to kill the very air itself. Occasionally, he manages to knock one down, but even then they get right back up.
I continue to inch towards the sales-floor, gaze glued to the mannequins that have begun to encircle Jack. “Bring it on you, shit-heads,” Jack seethes before swinging again. “I’ve had just about enough of this bullshit.” Another swing. “I’m done taking it.” And another. “To hell with this store. To hell with management’s game.” And again. “To hell with everyone. To hell with—"
His next swing goes wide, and for a moment Jack loses his balance. Just one moment, but that’s all it takes.
Suddenly, he’s lost in a wave of milk-colored bodies, screams of pain drowned out in the rumble of rustling and scuffling mannequins.
I drop the brace and stare as the torrent of pure, white bodies becomes splotched with blood, like an eye in the middle of a tornado. The eye looks back at me, and the mass of bodies head in my direction, marionette arms outstretched like the branches of a tree.
I feel like I’m moving through sap as I tear my eyes away, twist the door handle, and step onto the sales floor. I slam the door closed and head for the front door. Hardly have I taken a step when snap—the lights go out, and I’m devoured by darkness.
The blackness hits me with a wave of vertigo. I skid to a halt. Shit. What happened to the power? What happened to the lights from the storefront? I extend my arms, feeling the shelves around me as I struggle to recall every inch of the store. Okay. Okay, I gotta -- I gotta get to the front doors. Yes, I’ll likely explode the moment I step outside, but then again, maybe I won’t. If our store can teleport here and mannequins can come alive, then why shouldn't I be able to breathe in space? I like my chances out there a lot more than in— my outstretched hand closes around something. A pair of display shoes. But the shoe section is by the other warehouse door, not by the breakroom. So … what gives?
Clang! I practically jump out of my skin in fright. I whip me head back to the breakroom door, but it doesn’t burst open like I fear. Instead, the mannequins continue to bang away against it. Guess they haven’t figured out door handles, yet.
I concentrate on the darkness again, tossing away whatever impossibilities there are in my teleportation to the other side of the room. With the bright light from the storefront gone, the only remaining illumination comes from the sea of stars outside, though even that is only enough for me to discern several long, metal walls full of shoes. I stumble along the nearest one, careful at first, but less so when the pounding on the backdoor intensifies. My heart hammers in my chest. When I try to go faster, I only end up tripping and bumping into shelves and clothing racks that I swear weren’t there earlier today.
I still have a hundred yards to cross -- at least I think so -- when I hear the breakroom door open with a low creek. Clattering and clacking noises follow as the mannequins fill the room. It sounds like I’m inside a hornets’ nest now.
I increase my pace a little more, praying that the mannequins are as blind as me. But even as they spread out to find me, and my prayer seems answered, I realize that there’s still fifteen of them, and I might as well be playing Pac-Man blindfolded.
I walk faster, only to immediately hit a wall.
I crumple to the floor and stifle a gasp of pain. Ow. I don’t remember a wall being in the middle of the sales floor.
I look around to try and orient myself, but the stars are nowhere to be seen now. It’s so dark I can’t even see my hands.
The sound of hornets rings in my ears and rattles my brain. I sit, froze in the blackness as I tremble in fear. Christ, I can’t do this. I don’t wanna do this. Can’t I just go ahead and die?
I taste the word on my tongue. I feel it on the back of my neck. I hear it in my pulsating head.
I touch the word, feeling its initial roundedness, then grimacing at its sharp ‘i’ and monstrous ‘e’.
I see the word hanging in the darkness.
Die in this dark, dank, dismal warehouse. If I’d asked myself yesterday where I wanted to die, I probably would’ve spouted something like, “Why should it matter where you die? Either way you’re going six feet under.”
Today though—now? By god I wanted … I wanted to...
I’m not sure. But what I don’t want is for this fucking store to be my grave. Slowly, the gears in my chest crank, opening the door to a small furnace in my heart. A furnace with only embers inside, barely even warm. But not cold. Not yet.
I look around again, and this time I find them. The faintest, twinkling specks of light. It doesn’t brighten any of my surroundings, but their presence is enough encouragement. I feel around and find several clothing racks in my vicinity. Feeling their contents, I start to get a picture in my head.
There’s a four-way rack to my right with curvy, puffy jackets; Women’s winter wear. On my left, two more four-ways, both of these with women’s hiking pants. I find it harder than I expect to recall where in the store that would put me, but being in a life-or-death situation certainly gives the old noggin some motivation.
I stagger to my feet, but stop half way when I feel something brush against my hair. I hold my breath. The mannequin comes to a stop, joints creaking.
In my second sight, I can see the dummy’s head turning around in a full circle, like an owl searching for its prey. Its hand reaches out and I swear I can see it hovering an inch short of my eyes, smelling of dry blood.
The hand drops to its side and the mannequin moves on, drifting to another part of the store. I have to fight the urge to let out a sigh.
Okay. Moving slow isn’t going to work. The longer I take, the more likely it is that I’ll get caught. I need to get to the doors as fast as I can, and I can’t let them get ahold of me.
A thousand questions race through my head, but fear seems non-existent now that I know what I have to do. I don’t even have to tell myself to go. It’s not like during those crazy-as-hell workdays, when I’d sit in the bathroom between the onslaught of customers, breathing in and out through my nose, listening to the distant drone of shoppers. There must’ve been times when I sat there counting for twenty minutes before leaving. But there’s no counting now. One heartbeat after making my decision, I’m running.
I knock over shelves and trip over clothing racks, but I don’t stop. The mannequins converge around me, groping and tumbling as they try to find me in the blackness.
A hand brushes against my torso and I twist away before it can grab me. The double doors are dead ahead. Through the glass I can see a glittering sea.
Hands fall on my shoulders, and I duck away before they can clamp down.
My palms, slick with sweat, grab the cool, metal door handle and push. But as I do, another mannequin has its hands around my neck. I gasp and frantically kick backwards, knocking the mannequin away. Its hands, however, remain on my throat, still cutting off my breath. I feel light-headed, and it takes the last of my strength to squeeze through the cracked door. Hands are all over me now. I twist and squirm, and — and now I’m falling.
My fall is a silent one, with no roaring wind and no screaming whatsoever. My stomach rolls with nauseating intensity, and down I go. Where is this gravity coming from? It doesn’t matter. The mental fog has already swooped over and erased the question.
Down, down, down I tumble, the plastic hands still crushing my windpipe. My head becomes numb and my sight goes with it, but even under the clasp of death, I feel a wave of relief. I made it. I made it out of the store and got to be among the stars, if only for a moment.
I wake with a start, damn near bolting out of my seat. I whip my head around, not realizing for a moment that I’m still in the movie theater, and not realizing for several further moments that the auditorium is empty. Finally, I notice the startled guy standing three feet to my left, holding a dustpan across his chest like it’s a shield.
My face reddens as realization washes over me. Not only had I slept through the movie, but the mannequins and my coworkers dying—a shiver runs down my spine—had all been a farce. It felt impossible. And yet of course it was a dream. The lack of physics, my second sight, it was the only explanation. Despite all its viscerality, it was of course, a thing made up by my subconscious. As far as the world was concerned, the store was still sitting where it had always been, my coworkers were sound asleep in their beds, and I’d just taken a power nap in the auditorium. And yet everything looks different to me now.
The janitor clears his throat. “Uh... sorry, dude. Was going to let you sleep for a few more, but you seemed to be having a bad dream.”
I take in the young man’s patchy stubble and baggy eyes. His name tag says “Carl.” He must be about my age, though his tired expression reflects that of a middle-aged dad who needs an espresso at five p.m. just to finish the day. “It’s okay,” I croak. “Thanks for getting me up. It was a bad one, so I’m glad it’s over now.”
Carl nods. “Yeah. Must’ve been the movie. Really freaky shit, bro. ‘Specially when the hot chick gives birth to the second demon.”
He says all this with a mystified expression while nodding, as if he thinks he’s a wise monk.
I open my mouth to agree, but surprise myself when I instead say this. “Actually, I think it has to do with me hating my job.”
“Right. Been there, Bro. Rough, huh?”
“It’s hell, actually. Complete fucking hell. So, I think it’d be a good idea if I try doing something else with my life.”
“Sure. Totally, dude. Why put up with it? Follow your passion and stuff.”
I look down at Carl’s dustpan and broom. Something tells me he doesn’t live by his own words. But, I suppose it’s easier to tell others than it is to tell ourselves.
I nod. “Passion. Right.”
I think about how overwhelming—how daunting—the word “Passion” seems. What in the world had I ever been passionate about? Nothing. When was the last time I’d felt passionate about anything? I’d certainly been passionate about critiquing that movie’s camera work, but that didn’t count for anything. Right?
I rarely used cameras. At home that had always fallen into my overbearing mom’s domain. And I’d always hated the idea of ruining a treasured memory with a photo or video. What horrible brainwashing had taught us to take photos and record videos so we could let them collect dust and occasionally look at them to reminisce about these fake, framed, rosy pasts?
But... hadn’t I done a videography and a film class as electives at school? Sure, the latter mostly entailed me watching movies, but didn’t I every so often get an A-minus for those classes? As a matter-of-fact, I had. And that was because I worked hard. I paid more attention during those classes. I made notes. My essays were long and comprehensive. I did an extra round of editing. I was -- dare I even think it -- enthusiastic.
But... do those things translate to me being a professional? Would anyone want to hire me? Would anyone want to pay me? Would I be ignored? I don’t know. And besides, weren’t there supposed to be grand signs that pointed to our destined vocations? Weren’t artistic jobs for people that were endlessly creative, driven, and brilliant? For a long time, I’d thought that was the case. Now, I’m not sure of anything, but I’m curious to find out, and at this moment, curiosity is enough.
But what if—but nothing. I gotta stop making excuses if I plan on doing anything.
“Thanks for the movie, Carl,” I stand up and stretch, eliciting several joints to pop. “I’ll let you go on with your job.”
I slide past him, phone already in hand as I scroll through my contacts. In my grogginess I trip on a seat, nearly falling over.
“You calling a ride, bro?” Carl asks with a mild concern that makes me wonder how bad I look.
“I’ve got a bicycle outside. Thanks, though. Nah, I’m just calling my parents right now.” I sigh, trying to get rid of the butterflies in my stomach. “It’s going to be the first time I ever intentionally disappoint them.”
“Hey, if we never disappointed our parents, we’d be pretty crappy people, wouldn’t we?”
“Too true, man. Too true.”
And I guess we gotta disappoint them before we can learn to disappoint ourselves. My dad picks up his phone, asking with a grunt who it is. My lips crack into a smile. He never got used to the idea of caller ID. It usually ticked me off when he asked who the caller was, but now it feels like a small comfort, knowing that even my dad, one of the most successful and disciplined guys I knew, could still be stuck in his ways for a few things.
I chuckle to myself quietly, though it still nearly kills me when I open my mouth and start speaking. Nearly, but I’ll live. At the very least, after I’ve told him the truth, told him my plan, told him off, and told him “I love you,” I’ll live. At the very least, I’ll live.