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I was shaking when I made the closing announcement for the store. Repetition over the year since I transferred here held my voice steady while I spoke into the phone, listening to my words echo back at me over the PA system as I politely told the customers to get the hell out so we could close. I couldn't see the sales floor from the office unless I stood nose to the door at the peep hole and watched the distorted three feet directly in front of it, so I stayed in my office chair and turned the heavy black receiver over in my hand, watching the dim florescent lights reflect in the patches that had yet to be scratched into a dull matte, and waited five minutes before I repeated the announcement. I pushed as much enthusiasm as I could into my voice, pretending I was somewhere else. An amusement park maybe, somewhere down south, from before all such places were forced to close. One more announcement and I would be safe to go out and finish my own duties.

I sipped my company-approved H20 from my company water bottle, its logo scratched and worn, not unlike everything else in the room. The company was too cheap to buy anything new, even before the world went hurdling into hell. There's always been something apocalyptic about corporate destinations, even in small towns, which were now all that was left in North America. I shoved down the wish for a different time, a different year when the world wasn’t crazy and the future had been an open field at my feet.

The hand on the clock inched towards 10 pm, as though something was trying to drag it back. I glared at it. Time never seemed to pass here, not really. Even back when I started, when we were busy and I had more work to do than I had time in a shift, stepping through the glass doors onto the linoleum sales floor was akin to hopping with both feet into some time-warped hell dimension where no one looked at each other and lines of impatient customers stretched from the front registers all the way back to the ice cream coolers. That was when I came back from the city, when my parents cut me off unless I agreed to come home. A degree wouldn't be any use to me if I was dead, they reasoned. They were right. A lot of people dropped out that year, or put off their plans to start attending post-secondary school indefinitely. Those of us who deferred our dreams were the lucky ones. It was fine. I had new dreams now, smaller, attainable dreams in this changed world, like getting out of work early and keeping my cactus alive. It was less devastating than longing for a regular school day or waking up in Jason’s arms in their apartment. Things would never be what they once were.

A loud knock rapped against the door and I jumped, dropping my water. The bottle rolled into the dark corner under the desk, out of sight and out of reach without getting down on all fours and shimmying under the furniture. The knock sounded again. It was quick, peppy, and familiar.

I slipped out of my seat and peered through the glass at the distorted image of my last cashier. Rupert held his cash box in one meaty hand. His dark hair was pulled up into a wild bun. His barrel arms protruded from the short sleeves of his work shirt. He was distorted by the glass, too big in the lips, where the image was centred, while the rest of him was pulled back, soft and distant around the edges like a bubble ready to pop.

I unlocked the door: it was a process. This room was where the money was kept, and it was made safe by not one, but three, heavy locks, each one requiring a different key just to get inside where the safe was kept.

Rupert raised his hand as if he meant to knock again, but dropped it and stepped back when he heard the metallic clicking of me pulling the door open. I tipped my head back to look up at him. He made me feel like your average gnome or a mushroom at the roots of a tree.

"Hey, Kaleigh. I had a look around. Everyone's gone."

"That's good, thanks."

We stood in awkward silence for a beat, then he shoved his cash box at me. The coins inside clinked together when the tray connected with my boobs.

"Sorry," we both said at the same time.

"Got somethin' on your mind?" His voice was low, like the first rumble of thunder on a humid summer day. "Is it... you know? What happened earlier? Because if HR wants to do an investigation, I'll tell them what happened. That creep shouldn't even be allowed back in the store-"

"No!"

We both fell quiet for a long moment before he offered, a little urgently, "Do you want me to wait for you? I know you have an hour left on your shift, but there's some college stuff I can do here since everything is long-distance”.

I was already shaking my head "no" before he finished offering. I didn't need a babysitter, or a hand, or a man. "Don't worry about it."

"But that guy-"

"Will be long gone by now."

"The store isn't doing overnight security anymore," He gently reminded me. "I know you're not ready for a new relationship or anything, but I want to be your friend, and I want you to be safe."

He was sweet, but I’d given up on any sort of future. My future was grounded firmly in the past, where dreams were more abundant.

"Have a good night, Rupert." I stepped back into the office and firmly closed the door between us. I set the tray on the desk and tried to ignore the rising tide of feelings. I brought my hands to my cheeks and found them a little warm. At the same time, my eyes stung. I'd already left an entire life behind, why set myself back up for failure? I sat down and took a handful of nickels out of the drawer and dropped them on the desk in a noisy silver rain. I swiped them into my open palm two at a time, a trickle of money totalling a dollar and sixty-five cents, and then moved on to the dimes. Methodological. Easy to focus on. Exactly how I liked things.

I was the lucky one, for getting to do this simple task, for having any life at all when the city I called home was now empty, a ghostly husk that we'd crossed off every map. Even Google wouldn't lead you there these days.

It only took five minutes to count the til and deposit the money in the safe. I was still obligated to do my rounds, so I stepped outside. The door creaked closed behind me, and I was alone on the floor.

The store was relatively small. I walked to the front door and checked both the entrance and the adjoining exit. The twin doors sat side-by-side. The entrance was locked and dead-bolted at the base, but the exit had been left unlocked by Rupert on his way out. Outside, pale yellow lights illuminated the empty lot and a light flurry had begun, fresh snow dusting every surface like icing sugar. Two cars were parked. One was mine, a black Hyundai I'd had since high school with a childish bumper sticker smiling at me from the far end of the lot. The second, parked closer to the door, was a wide red van. I reasoned it was a customer who thought we were open later. We had a few like that every night, despite being the only grocery store in the area and having dependable hours. Sometimes the dead "Open" sign wasn't enough to keep people from trying the door. A shadow moved inside the car and I hurried out of sight before they came to beg for five minutes of shopping time I couldn’t grant them.

It was always eerie in here after hours. It wasn't so bad when Christa the security guard had been around, or back when shipments were regular enough to employ people through the store’s closed hours. The night crew used to blast their music and disperse themselves among the shelves like tired elves in Santa's workshop. Most of what we got anymore was locally sourced and came during daylight, so now I was alone. I meandered from the front doors through produce and bakery. They occupied the same space on slick tiles that were still glistening from a fresh mop. The area smelled vaguely of cabbage, vinegar cleaner, and freshly baked bread. There was a package of buns on the ground that I picked up and tucked back onto the shelf. Ten feet in front of me was a pack of bagels in the same condition. Was this Rupert's way of playing a prank on me? I regretted sending him home before me.

I followed the mess up and down the empty aisles. The path was comprised of baked goods, bananas, and finally a spilled package of rice, the grains sticking to the damp floor. The half-empty sac was resting on its side on the floor. It wiggled when I reached for it and I shrieked. It began to cry in great, piercing wails. I pulled the open top down, revealing the powdery face of a baby, her skin soft and new under a white onesie.

"Shh, shh," I whispered. I looked up. The aisle stretched in front of and behind me, still and empty except for me and the baby. "How did you get here?" I picked her up. The hairs along my arm raised and it felt like something touched the back of my neck. I scurried back to the office, struggling to juggle the baby and my set of keys. I couldn't explain why I felt so uneasy, except that this baby couldn't have gotten herself here and the store felt too big with too many places for monsters to hide. The baby squirmed in my arms. I set her down on the floor at my feet where she watched me through alert eyes while I got the first lock undone. The second one always stuck and it jammed predictably when I eased the key into it.

The baby went still. Thinking she had fallen asleep, I also quieted. The lock clicking was the only sound that I should have heard, but I realized I was hearing something else, down one of the aisles. Panic made me jerky, and I dropped my keys. They clanged against each other on the floor. Then I heard the shuffling pick up. It wasn't accompanied by any human breathing. It was a heavy dragging noise, accompanied by slow steps, and it hit me that I was hearing the solid swaggering of an angel, its marble gown dragging across the floor. Impossible, I thought, even as I rushed to open the door. The town was too small for an infestation. Perhaps the mother had left the baby in the rice to hide her, to save her, and I had just exposed her to certain death. I looked at her. She wasn't asleep at all but was staring up at me. Her silent, soulful eyes were wide, as though she sensed the danger and was smart enough to keep quiet.

The shuffling picked up the pace, so I shoved my last key into the slot and turned it, swinging the door open just wide enough to slip inside, dragging the baby with me, and closed it firmly, quickly re-locking the door from the inside.

The feeling of safety was short-lived.

There was a hammering on the door. It was not an upbeat rap like Rupert had done earlier, but a strong pounding. The door began to crack, a spider web of fractures reaching out from the centre. The baby gurgled at me. I grabbed her and slid beneath the desk, where the chair was meant to go, just as the door shattered. The debris flew in a hot torrent as the door caved in and the thing walked in. It was huge. Monstrous. White from head to toe with a little moss peppering the hem of its dress, darkening its creases. It stood still for a long moment, its chest rising and falling like it needed to breathe. Like it was alive.

It was all made from the same stone and I knew that if I touched the hem of its long, draping dress it would be solid. But when it stepped forward, cocking its head to the side and turning it to look into the corners of the tiny room, the gown billowed about its ankles. The motion of the dress revealed a bloody foot. Its fine details dripped with red from a clean, diagonal line across its calf. My gasp slid out of me before I could catch it and it swivelled. The motion sent its wings out and the tips shredded the granite walls on either side of the room, sending down a flurry of rock.

It took one step towards me, slowly, as if uncertain of my location, and I used the opportunity to reach further under the desk until my fingers closed around my water bottle. I threw it out from under the desk in the direction of the doorway with as much force as I could muster. The angel snapped towards the sound and drifted out, leaving a trail of red footprints in its wake.

The baby gripped my shirt with more force than should have been possible, and I ducked out of the room with her in my arms. The angel was done drifting, and now stalked down the nearest aisle. I slid my shoes off to make less noise and booked it for the door, trying not to step in anything that could leave a trail. I swore when I got to the exit. It was still locked and dead-bolted, and even if my car was fast enough to outrun one of these living statues, which I doubted, I only had the store keys. The baby hummed and pressed a chubby finger to the glass. The red van sat, untouched, and when I squinted through the flurry of snow I saw a figure still waiting behind the tinted glass.

"Is that your mom?" I wondered aloud while I unlocked the deadbolts. The first was freshly oiled and slid quickly and quietly, but the door made a whirring noise as I opened it. Footsteps picked up behind me and I hurried to the external door. The angel made a sound behind me, not really a scream, but something like a laugh. The baby shrieked and I almost dropped her. I jerked the deadbolt and heaved the door open. The wind was bitterly cold as I slid into the storm. The glass behind me shattered, but the van roared to life, the headlights cutting a clean yellow line onto me and the baby and our wicked pursuer.

The side door flew open and I ran, not caring about the bite of the snow into my bare feet or the baby that had begun to cry loudly in the cold. The car was moving before I was even fully into it, the tires hitting the ground and sending a spray of snow on our pursuer. We zigzagged out onto the main street, and then out of town, towards the country.

"Thank you," I said when I finally found my voice.

The baby snored against my chest.

There was no answer from the driver.

I stepped gingerly over the console, where hot air blew out of a dusty vent, and almost fainted in bliss. The headlights weren't on, I realized, but the driver knew the road well enough to turn every corner in the dark. I reached out and pulled the hood off of his face.

"Rupert, you saved me," I breathed. I knew it was him, of course I did, the great oak of a man dwarfed me and still smelled faintly of vinegar cleaner. But his face was pale and his eyes were stuck wide. He was cold when I touched him. "Rupert?"

He shook his head. We were quiet for a long time, until we were sure we had left the angel far behind. It could've outrun us, I thought. But there had been that slice across its leg, and the blood dripping. I assumed the blood belonged to someone else, but what if whoever hid the baby had injured it somehow? Finally, the van slowed, and he pulled over to the side of the road. Gravel and ice crunched beneath the tires.

"Why did you wait for me?" I asked.

"I was worried about that guy from earlier." He snorted. "I wasn't expecting that."

We were silent for a long moment.

"Where'd the baby come from?"

"A bag of rice."

"What?"

It wasn't the weirdest thing to happen tonight. I would tell him all about it, but first...

I slid my hand into his, pressing our palms together.

"Thanks."

"Anyone would've waited given the circumstances."

I didn't bother to correct him, or to shove down the dream that was unfurling deep inside me.

August 01, 2020 02:13

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3 comments

Heather T
21:37 Aug 05, 2020

This is a story that popped up in my Critique Circle recs, and I'm glad it did! Liked the sinister apocalypse twist for this prompt. Ending feels like a hook to another story that can be expanded on in the future. Happy writing! :)

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Joy Rayner
22:10 Aug 07, 2020

Thank you so much!

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Peony P.
21:31 Aug 05, 2020

I really liked this!

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