A 24/7 Mega Mart is scary as hell … all by itself; it doesn’t need a blizzard and whiteout conditions to entice passers-by inside. It needs only the promise of heat … and, possibly, an answer to the question of why a passer-by is passing by a 24/7 Mega Mart at the height of a blizzard … at 3:34 in the morning. Let’s make it a Wednesday morning.
Introduce an abandoned baby to the mix, and God only knows where you could end up ... like I ended up in aisle 16b. That’s where the samples are handed out and the cooking demonstrations are held. Before that I was in the dairy aisle, picking up eggs, and a quart of whole milk. Before that I grabbed up a home-brewing kit; that was in 34a. Honey, sugar …molasses –
Somewhere in there I acquired a baby.
And three dark chocolate and almond candy bars that I unwrapped and ate on the fly; I kept the wrappers so I’d remember to pay for them at cash-out.
Somewhere in there, also, I lost half a small town’s worth of people … that’s how many people there were at Mega Mart when I arrived; I snapped a quarter into the lock release that freed my shopping cart. I started down aisle 1a. I didn’t hear them leave … but I knew, on some level, they were leaving; I could feel them … leaving, slowly. Purposefully. Indescribably.
I know I knew I was being deliberately left behind.
I felt the last one leaving as he paused to punch in the series of codes that sequenced 24/7’s shutdown. He flipped a blue toggle and pulled on gloves; a black SUV rolled up behind him. He got in, and the vehicle crossed the street to slide in between two police cruisers – both locked and running against the cold. Driver and passenger hurried into the little coffee shop that waited for them with hot chocolates and a splash of bourbon … each … against the cold. The coffee shop held, almost to bursting, half a small town’s worth of people.
“Hot chocolates all around!” someone shouted. And someone else produced a mandolin, and started to play. One couple started to try to dance.
And across the street, at the Mega Mart, the lights dimmed.
And a baby started howling.
I wondered whether the baby had been crying all along and I only just heard it. I doubted that; someone could not have not responded … as loudly as the baby was crying …
Someone would have.
Someone should have.
That’s absurd, I thought as I bolted down aisles 4c, 7, 17a … 32 – someone certainly would have responded to a crying baby … if only to tell it to shut up! I shot past lawn furniture – seasonal items – 58 –
I thought about the emptied store –
Maybe several someones had responded –
I went down aisle 17a again. I stopped to reorient myself … the baby’s crying was coming from a different direction; it was echoing around me. Was it moving? Aisle 17c … to 18b … a; then hang a louie to aisle 19 … was I lost?
Not impossible in a store the size of a couple of football fields.
The baby was screaming –
More loudly – but –
In the next aisle over.
I zipped around an end-cap … and there it was: the ugliest baby in the world! Bar none.
It was red, and wet, and it stank. It looked like it was positively ancient. And it stopped crying the moment It saw me. It giggled. It burbled. It reached out to me to be picked up … but when I leaned toward him to ‘kootchie-koo’ he hit me with his empty bottle.
Then he laughed.
He looked like an angel, at that moment - a very small, very old angel – laughing at me.
I laughed back at him. What else could I do? He was a baby. I changed him. I refilled his bottle … I found a note at the bottom of his car-seat that read:
This is not my baby. I don’t believe, in fact, that this is a baby at all. Look into its face – look at its eyes; they are old eyes; they have seen many terrible things, those eyes. They are looking to see more …
They are watching me, now, as I write this -
He is not my son; he - they – took away my son one storm-wracked night, and they left me this curmudgeon in his place; I think he is a changeling. They are faeries –
I think he means to hurt me.
So I am taking him to the Mega Mart where I will leave him on a shelf for somebody to find
The rest of the note was torn away … or perhaps it had never been written. I said to the baby, “Your mum was a regular loony-cakes.” And watched as his ancient face dissolved into a gurgling smile. Was there, also, relief in that smile?
“Did she even know what a changeling was?”
The baby clapped his hands together.
I said, “Let’s take you to the service desk. See if you’ve got a bar code on you any where.”
And the baby started crying again.
I shushed it
And it glared at me.
“What?” I asked. “You want me to take you home with me?”
The baby’s head bobbed up and down excitedly. I whispered, “You can understand me.” And the child shrugged. He farted, and sucked on his bottle.
I shrugged … and wheeled my cart to the infants aisle to pick out formula and diapers and talcum, lotion, bottles and a binkey. I returned to 34a for another, larger brewing kit.
I ended up in aisle 16b - where the samples are handed out and the cooking demonstrations are held. Where the clock on the wall announced it was 3:34 … I set about to task - boiled water, and added vegetable-skins and honey. I explained to the baby that I was brewing a small vat of egg-shell beer … to taste … as long we had time before someone came to release us … I cracked a dozen eggs and rinsed the shells in cold water. I floated the shells on the boiling water. I added fruit. I added molasses, and vanilla. I deliberately stood between the baby and the brew.
At last, I heard him leave his car-seat. Heard him pad up behind me. Step across my legs. He pulled himself up on to my shoulder. “I canno’ see, Da, what is happening?”
“Egg-shell-beer is what is happening,” I answered. “It’s delicious.”
“In all my 314 years I’ve never tasted egg-shell-beer,” he offered
And I offered him a purple sippy cup. I said, “Have at it, old man.” Adding, “It’s best served up hot.”
But I’d made a quarter batch of egg-shell-beer, in a deep pot; so he had to reach past his tipping point to fill his cup. It took only a touch to tip him over and into the scalding water.
He tried to shrink himself down to ride out the boiling storm inside a half-egg-shell … but I sprinkled anti-glamour dust over him … that I’d purchased at one of the late-night outdoor stalls behind Mega Mart; the label read:
prevents visual and most physical transformations
a huge pinkish – greenish – blueish bubble pushed its way out of the pot; it swelled till I pricked it with a needle; it burst.
And the old man looked younger, somehow.
I murmured most physical transformations under my breath.
A buzzer sounded.
Doors unlatched … that was for the early morning clean-up crew to shuffle in … Zombies R Us … followed by the goldfish walkers, and the people who actually lived at Mega Mart –
The first register clerks lingered around their last cigarettes before punching in …
I had work to do.
I had signage to change … it was Wednesday morning; I erased Broccoli Soufflé and, in my most precise lettering wrote: