I remember it was really bright outside when I left for the store. The colors of the sky, grass, and trees were vibrant, as if someone had turned up the saturation to two hundred. Even the brown and red of the houses shone bright in the mid-morning sun.
It didn’t take me long to drive to the store, considering it was only fifteen minutes away from my apartment. I could tell my shopping trip would be quick too, judging by the lack of cars in the parking lot. I even was lucky to find a parking spot close to the entrance.
Inside there were barely any people. There were two or three workers around stocking produce and other supplies, and I saw one person shopping in the bread aisle as I passed them. I myself was looking for some fresh produce and meat for tonight’s dinner, and maybe I would look at some snacks and dessert as I made my way out. As I grabbed a hand-basket to begin shopping, an attendant who was restocking an end-cap turned to me and asked,
“Are you finding everything alright today?”
“Yeah, thank you.” I replied simply, smiling and politely nodding my head. I quickly moved on, walking with purpose to avoid further employee inquiries. I find it hard to interact with store employees; I know they’re just doing their job, but I always feel there is a spiteful insincerity behind their words. It’s the complete opposite of the welcoming facade they’re forced to put up.
I head back to produce where the three employees I saw are still working. I find some nice, fresh green peppers, and some fragrant onions as well as some spices like rosemary and thyme. I also grab a packet of sliced mushrooms and a bag of caesar salad mix, in case I feel like eating a healthier snack than I usually do later.
The store plays horrible covers of songs that are either from the eighties or the early 2000’s as I walk around, now perusing the snacks with mild interest. As someone who is definitely not Bon Jovi sings ‘Livin’ On a Prayer’, generally offkey and horribly stylised, I decide to grab a bag of tortilla chips and some popcorn. I also grab a jar of queso, so that I can make nachos in my microwave sometime this week. Finally, I head towards the meat section of my grocery store to pick out some cuts of chicken and some ground beef to freeze later in the week.
As I’m picking out my chilled poultry, I notice there’s no one behind the seafood counter, and no shoppers in the general area around me. The store is emptier than I originally thought, and I make a mental note to start shopping on a Tuesday more often. I know I’m not totally alone because I hear a baby start to fuss in the distance, and I have a passing moment of sympathy for the mother who has to shop with them. Once again, I am grateful that there aren’t too many people here today, so that the both of our shopping experiences can be quick and easy.
I finally emerge from the ice cream aisle, having picked up a treat to enjoy after dinner tonight, and am headed up to the checkout until I see something that stops me in my tracks.
I see the baby first, sitting in the middle of the floor just a couple of paces away from me. They are only wearing a little blue t-shirt and their diaper, and they can’t be more than one year old. They’re sitting up by themselves, and their face is tear-streaked but suddenly calm.
Cautiously, I look around to see if the mother is nearby. A chill runs down my spine as I notice two other things. One, the store is suddenly completely empty. There are no employees monitoring the checkouts or helping other customers. Even the employee who spoke to me earlier has disappeared, and with a gulp I hope that they have gone to the employee area.
Then, I glance outside, and notice that the bright sunny day has turned into a complete blizzard, which is highly unusual for the month of June. I look back at the baby with concern, and find they are looking at me with a similar, worried expression on their face. Slowly, I take a step toward them. A fluorescent light flickers above us as the storm howls outside in discord with whichever singer is howling over the speaker system. The music is louder than I remember, sounding garbled and disjointed in the collision with my racing thoughts. Once I’m close enough, the baby lifts its arms towards me, and I pick them up in one motion.
In a flash, the power goes out. It is too quiet for my liking now, and I start to feel panic rising up in my throat as I consider the crescendo of noise compared to the silence the kid and I experienced. Suddenly, the blizzard blew the grocery store doors apart with a horrible gust of wind, making me jump a foot in the air. There was a sudden screaming coming from far, far, behind us, and seized by my panic I took the opportunity the blizzard had given us and plunged into the storm.
It was even worse than it had looked from inside, but my fear of being chased kept me pushing through the storm. I fumble with my keys as I try to protect the baby’s face from the harsh wind. Once in the car, I buckle myself as fast as I can and hold the baby tightly on my lap. As I drive frantically out of the parking lot, I notice all the cars parked there earlier have vanished as well.
As I drive, I start to try to control my breathing. A million thoughts are racing through my head as I try to process what I experienced. The baby on my lap just gurgles happily, flailing their arms a little as I hold them. At least they’re happy to be out of the store. I can’t help but wonder if they had caused some of what had happened back there. And what would happen if someone was looking for them?
We arrived at my apartment shortly after. I hastily shove the stolen handcart into my fridge so that the food wouldn’t spoil, and place my new responsibility on the counter. I chew my lip anxiously as I looked at them. They, however, seem to be content and curious, looking around as much as they can with their large eyes, swinging their head around wildly. I steady them with my hands so they wouldn’t tip over as I think about what to do next.
First of all, I didn’t have anything for babies, and the little tyke was bound to be hungry soon. I knew there was a young mom upstairs, so maybe she would be kind enough to give us what she wasn’t using. Second, I needed to get away from here. Where I lived might have been a convenient distance from the store before, but now it was all too convenient for whatever mysterious forces might be after me and this kid. I need to pack some stuff for myself and find a place for us to stay. I hoped that this was just some freak storm that would just blow over, but something deep down told me there were greater things at work that I may never fully understand.
Was this all worth it though? What if this baby belonged to whatever it was that was looking for them? Maybe I should just surrender them, considering that I’m not one hundred percent sure I did the right thing taking them in the first place. As I thought this though, they looked up at me with their large, watery grey eyes, smiled, and reached their arms up to me. I was struck by the thought of them reaching for me in the store, and knew instantly that I had made the right choice. Unfortunately, that meant I had to keep running until I figured out how to stop what was coming for us.
I scooped my new companion off of the counter as I started to take action. I grabbed a backpack and shoved some clothes into them, as well as a bunch of the non-perishables I had just bought at the store. I grabbed some bottles of water, a blanket to cover the kid in case we entered the storm again, and a coat before I took my keys and locked my apartment. Before we could leave though, I had to try and see if the mom upstairs would give me some baby supplies.
A younger woman than I had expected answered the door, out of breath and flushed pink.
“I-I’m so sorry to bother you,” I stammered, thinking fast as to how I was going to explain myself. “I am, uh, watching my sister’s kid, but I don’t have any supplies or food for them, and I’m worried my ex is stalking me right now. We’re trying to get away fast, would you be able to spare some stuff so that I can keep them fed until we’re in a safer spot?” I felt my heart sink with each word of my feeble excuse, but the young mother’s eyes widened in an understanding sort of fear.
“Absolutely, come on in.” She said in a hushed tone. As we walked in, the kid flailed around again, and I noticed they were struggling with the tag on the back of their shirt. On the tag was written a name, and though it was faded I could still make it out.
“What’s their name?” The young mom asked as I tucked the shirt tag back in.
“That’s a nice name.” Was all she said as we weaved through children’s toys towards her kitchen. She started rummaging through her cabinets and fridge, adding things to a plastic grocery bag she had saved. Then, after handing me the bag, she said,
“I’m going to go grab some diaper stuff as well, if you wouldn’t mind waiting here. My kids are napping right now and I don’t want to make too much noise. Do they need changing?”
“Er, yeah, probably.” I admitted, holding the kid out to her to take. They gave a startled noise at me as the other mom took them. I tried to soothe them by saying,
“It’s okay, it’s just for a minute.” Even though they couldn’t understand my words, I think they understood my tone. They visibly relaxed, but did not take their eyes from me until they were carried out of sight.
After a few moments, my neighbor came back with a canvas tote bag slung over her shoulder and Avery on her hip.
“He’s all good, and was very quiet.” She remarked softly, handing him back to me. I simply nodded, a little stymied that I hadn’t thought to check Avery’s gender at all. I heard the wind pick up a little outside, and with another chill down my spine remembered that we needed to move quickly.
“Thank you so much, you can’t understand what this means to me.” I replied, slinging the tote bag over my shoulder. The young woman just nodded.
“Hopefully I’ll see you soon, when it’s safe enough for you to come back.” She escorted us out of her apartment, and I walked downstairs with my arms full of Avery and the baby stuff. I stopped short of the apartment exit, and saw that the thick storm clouds were slowly but surely making their way towards us.
“Alright Avery, we can do this.” I mumbled, shouldering everything and grabbing my keys so we could quickly enter my car when we got outside. “Let’s go.”
As soon as we exited the building, the storm clouds rushed forward to meet us, and we were quickly plunged back into the storm. I covered Avery with the blanket as he started to cry, shielding him as best as I could with my body. When I covered him, I heard hissing and screeching that accompanied the howls of the wind. I tried to walk forward, trying to beat my way through the storm as I had done in the store parking lot, when I was abruptly grabbed by a million hands at once, shooting out at me in all directions. They tugged and pulled at my coat, the bags hanging off my arms, and the blanket covering Avery. As his cries grew louder, another voice rang in my skull, harsh and grating like gravel on wheels.
GIVE US THE CHILD!
My eyes screwed up against the wind in concentration. There was too much noise, too many hands - I had to get to the car, I had to get us out of here.
GIVE HIM TO US!
I tried to wrench us away from the hands, but whichever ones I shook off found a new hold. One hand snatched at the blanket again, uncovering Avery’s head. His cries rang unmuffled, and the voice in the wind began chanting. There was screeching and growling, the wind and the hands now working together to pull me towards whatever it was that wanted us. The familiar sensation of panic rose in my throat again as I sensed the danger growing closer, until finally, I dropped to my knees screaming, shielding Avery with my body.
“NO! I WON’T LET YOU TAKE HIM!”
Everything stopped, just like that. Breathing hard, I opened my eyes slowly to survey the damage around me. The wind had stopped. Blue and grey hands were frozen in the air, surrounded by particles of snow. It was like being stuck in the eye of a storm. I couldn’t see any other solid being, but I was alerted again by the presence chasing us with a hiss in my ear.
“You wish,” it said, “To care for this being?” I could only nod, my voice having died in my throat with fear. The voice whispered harshly, so close in my ear. There were many tones and cadences to it, as if many people were talking in unison. I felt the presence’s cold breath on the side of my face, but did not dare look to see what form it took.
“Our own vessel could not safely care for the babe before you came along, and intercepted our collection of it.” The voice continued, its tone scathing. “There are forces at play here which you will never understand, human. This child is foretold to have immeasurable power, a boon to any spirit race that possesses it. How are you going to protect it with your own feeble mortal life?”
I knew I was in too deep. Still shaking, tears streaming uncontrollably down my face, I instinctively looked down at Avery. He was no longer crying, but looking at me seriously. Carefully, his hand emerged from the blanket and patted my face, and my resolve was strengthened. I steeled myself, and with a gulp, replied to the spirit.
“I may not be the best. I may not be able to save him for long. But I should be given the chance to try, the same chance you lost.” I winced as the wind growled at me, and the wind began slowly moving again.
“Very well. You have fifteen years before we try to reclaim what is rightfully ours. Then we shall see if you are ready.” The wind rushed around us again, and I tightened myself around Avery again, the tone of scorn still ringing in my ears. All at once, we were alone again, and as I slowly straightened up, I heaved a sigh of relief. I uncovered Avery’s now smiling face, speaking to me in his tones of gurgles and bubbles, and once again was filled with the feeling that this was all worth it.
Fifteen years to figure out what the hell was going on, and to prepare myself to protect this kid with my life?