Contest #173 shortlist ⭐️


Holiday Speculative Horror

It happened on Halloween. It was supposed to be my off day, but I ended up working a double shift because Tim and Nora both called out. They were the latest victims of a nasty stomach bug making the rounds at work, which we'd taken to calling the Panacea Plague.

Tim and Nora were pharmacy technicians, so their calling out wouldn't normally affect me, but since the other two techs had just quit, Mike had no choice but to move Zach and Carla from cashier and photo to pharmacy, since they were the only cashiers with active tech licenses. From there, I suppose, he had no choice but to bombard my phone at six a.m. with frantic texts. Can you work nine to close? Frankie? Hey Frankie, just checking to see if you got my texts from earlier. Frankie?!

I really wanted to tell him no. Halloween was my favorite holiday, and my daughter was finally old enough to enjoy the experience of trick-or-treating. Ever since mid-September, when the October schedule posted, I'd been anxiously awaiting what would surely be the best Halloween since I'd become a mother. If I closed my eyes tight enough, I could see it:

After I dropped Lily off at daycare, I'd catch up on laundry while watching classics like Hocus Pocus and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and sneak a stash of pumpkin-shaped peanut butter cups and other premium candies before setting out a bucket of candy for trick-or-treaters. That afternoon, I'd surprise Lily's class with cupcakes for snack time, the kind from the grocery store bakery with too-tall swirls of orange and purple frosting decorated with plastic spider rings. From there, I would go home to change into more festive attire while Lily's dad Drew picked her up, took her to his condo, and helped her get into costume. Then, we'd meet in a neutral neighborhood to trick-or-treat together. As a family, for lack of a better word.

But the truth was that I couldn't afford to say no to a twelve-hour shift. Not after I had lost half a week of work to my own bout of the Panacea Plague earlier this month. Being sick for three days shouldn't cause a financial crisis, but without paid sick time and a strict no-overtime policy, I just wasn't able to catch up. Late fees were rolling in, first on my credit card and then my student loans. I was getting dirty looks from the preschool director when I dropped Lily off at daycare because my portion of her tuition was late. Again.

Not for the first time, I considered telling Drew how tight my finances were. I knew that he'd cover the full amount of daycare and give me whatever I needed to get caught up without batting an eye, because he'd done it before. Most recently when I was out of work for almost a month. But I didn't want to take advantage of his kindness, so I texted Mike back: Sure thing. See you at nine.

I dragged myself out of bed and dug through the laundry hamper, on a quest to find the least dirty uniform shirt. I sprayed it down with Febreze, shook out the wrinkles, and hoped for the best as I tugged it over my head and tucked it into my last clean pair of khakis.

After I'd gently shaken Lily awake and sent her stumbling bleary-eyed to the bathroom, I began the process of packing my lunch. After a moment of consideration, I pulled out my phone and called Drew.

"Hey Frank," he said, picking up after just one ring. "Everything okay?"

"Hey, Drew. Yeah, everything's fine." I cradled the phone between my ear and my shoulder, freeing up my hands to untwist the tie on the loaf of bread. "Sorry to call so early. I hope I didn't wake you."

"Nah, I've been up since four." He stifled a yawn. "International sales meeting that could have absolutely been an email."

"Ugh. That sounds awful." I cut a banana in half and peeled the yellow skin back so I could slice it into rounds. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm not going to be able to come trick-or-treating tonight.”

I could feel Drew deflate in the silence that preceded, “What? Why not?”

“Mike asked me to come in to work today. We’ve got several people out with the stomach bug again.”

As I spread peanut butter on a piece of wheat bread, Lily appeared beside me and shifted her weight into my hip, a five-year-old’s halfhearted “I’m awake and not happy about it but I love you anyway” brand of hug. She’s changed out of her pajamas and dressed herself in black cat leggings and an orange dress featuring a family of ghosts. I leaned down to press a kiss to the top of her head and pointed to the table, where a fried egg and a piece of toast with jam was waiting for her.

“Can’t he ask someone else?” Drew asked, sounding indignant on my behalf.

“Not really. There’s no one left to ask. Everyone else is sick.” Horrified, I realized I was crying, and the choking feeling in my throat was building quickly toward a sob.

“This isn’t fair.”

I winced at the unusual sharpness in Drew’s voice. “I know. I’m sorry to do this so last minute.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m not upset with you,” he said. “I’m upset for you. I know how much you’ve been looking forward to this.”

“Yeah.” I swiped at my eyes, knocking hot tears off my face before they could dry and make my cheeks tight and sticky.

“Maybe we should just wait until tomorrow. I know several places downtown are doing trick-or-treat events.”

“No way! I don’t want her to miss out on this because of me.”

“Okay.” He hesitated. “Frankie, did you tell him you’d come in because you need the money? Because if that’s it, you know I can—”

“We’ve talked about this, Drew. I don’t want to take money from you unless I absolutely need to. You cover Lily’s health insurance, and most of the daycare tuition, and your mom always buys her a lot of clothes when she sizes up…”

“That’s all stuff for Lily. I’m asking if you need me to do anything. I care about you too, you know,” he said, an edge to his words that wasn’t there before.

I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. This again. The conversation we always talked around but never quite allowed ourselves to have.

Drew and I were friends long before we were co-parents. We met during an early orientation week at college, the summer before freshman year, where we and eight other incoming business majors familiarized ourselves with campus, registered for classes, and debated the eternal question: to rush or not to rush? (Both of us, for the record, decided not to rush.)

It didn’t take long to realize that Drew had a crush on me. While the feeling was very much mutual, neither of us seemed eager to change the nature of our outwardly platonic relationship. And then, we went to a bonfire during fall midterms our senior year and let ourselves get tipsy enough to tell each other the truth.

When I found out I was pregnant a few weeks later, he told me he loved me and asked me to marry him without skipping a beat. He was certain about me, so certain it scared me. I let him down as easily as I could, arguing that our baby deserved stability. Trying to build a new romantic relationship alongside raising a child seemed like to exact opposite of stable.

I always expected we'd start dating once we got our footing after Lily was born, but it never seemed like the right time. Drew...didn't feel the same way.

"Frankie. Please."

The way he said my name, tender and full of promise, was too much for me to bear.

"Listen, I've got to scoot if I'm going to get Lily to daycare before nine. Please take lots of pictures and text them to me, okay? I know you'll have a great time." Before Drew could protest, I'd disconnected the call and shoved my phone in my pocket.

"Thank God you're here," Mike said. "Go open the other register please, I'm dying here."

There were three people in line, none of them with more than two items. I looked at them, then back at Mike, trying to figure out if he was joking. The look he shot me confirmed he absolutely wasn't.

"Sure thing. Just let me go clock in and take care of these," I said, holding up my wallet and keys.

A flicker of annoyance passed over his face. "You still haven't set up ExpressLane yet?"

ExpressLane was a new feature Panacea had introduced a few months ago. Employees were encouraged to download the Panacea Partners app, log in with their employee ID, and enable automatic timeclock events. There were sensors at the main entrance, which would clock you in or out depending on whether you were going or coming in. The break room and restroom had sensors too, although Mike and the corporate HR partners who'd visited on ExpressLane launch day assured us that those would only clock us in or out if we spent more than our allotted fifteen minutes of on the clock break time.

Almost everyone else had signed up that very first day, and I was the last holdout. I was weirded out by how much information the app seemed to track, and the list of permissions it requested when I opened it the first time seemed way too long for a simple timekeeping app. Why did Panacea need access to my call history, my camera roll, my contacts just to clock me in and out? I didn't mind the few extra minutes it took to walk back to the locker room and punch in my code.

By the time I made it back to the front of the store, the customer queue had evaporated and Mike was waiting by the main register with a fresh cash drawer. He glared at me as I walked behind the counter.

"Took you long enough." He swiped his manager card to sign out and stepped back so I could sign in and swap the drawers. Once I was finished, he handed me a price gun. "Between customers, start marking down all the Halloween stuff by fifty percent. Candy, costumes, decorations, it's all going on clearance. Should have been done yesterday, but of course it wasn't."

He walked away without waiting for a response. You're welcome for coming in on my only off day, I thought as I grabbed the price gun and headed for the seasonal aisle.

I was surprised by how quickly everything Halloween-related cleared out. Before I took my lunch break at two, all of the costumes and decorations were gone and the only thing that remained was a few bags of B-list candy. Their only selling points seemed to be "big" and "nut-free." I snapped a picture and texted it to Drew once I got settled in the break room.

If your condo association changes their minds about trick-or-treating last minute, we still have a few bags. Let me know if you want me to set them aside for you.

A response buzzed in almost immediately. Haha. I don't think I need any more Halloween candy just yet. I'm still trying to work through all the rejects Lily left at my place.

I frowned. What was he talking about? Lily had done a little trick-or-treat party earlier in the week at daycare, but she'd only brought applesauce pouches and organic fruit snacks home from that. Maybe this was a joke, one that didn't translate well over texting. I laugh-reacted to Drew's message and locked my phone.

Unwrapping my sandwich, I noticed in dismay that the bread had molded. Like, really molded. It wasn't something I could have easily overlooked this morning, even if I'd been distracted by the conversation with Drew. These were quarter-sized splotches, dark blue covered in fuzzy white fibers. I swallowed back my disgust and peeled the sandwich open. The slices of banana were slimy and black, just shy of completely putrefied. With a shuddering gag, I tossed the entire thing in the garbage and started scrubbing my hands clean in the sink.

Mike poked his head in the break room. "Hey Frankie, you on the clock?"

"Will be in a few minutes."

"Good. Once you're back, I need you to help Amy update the seasonal aisle. Inventory and planograms just came in. And Frankie?"

I turned to look at him over my shoulder as I turned the water off. He was peering into the garbage can with a worried expression on his face. "Yeah?"

"You really need to consider setting up ExpressLane, okay?"

After Amy and I finished stocking the seasonal aisle with Thanksgiving decorations, I typed out another text to Drew. Thanks again for being cool with me working on Halloween. I appreciate it.

He responded with a row of puzzled-looking emoji, followed by How many times are you going to apologize for that? It's fine.

Around six-thirty, once I'd finally calmed down a customer who was downright irate that we didn't yet have Christmas items out in the seasonal aisle, Mike told me he could cover for the rest of the night if I wanted to leave early.

"I kind of forgot you had a kid when I asked you to work until close," he said sheepishly. "Carla just reminded me. If you want to try and make it to trick-or-treating..."

Tears welled up in my eyes. "Oh my God. Mike. Thank you. This is her first time trick-or-treating, and I was really bummed to have to miss it—"

He held up a hand with an expression that said, I'm a nice guy, but don't push it. "See you tomorrow."

I signed out of the cash drawer and handed it over, then sped walked to the break room to get my stuff and clock out. Mike's letting me off early!!!!! I texted Drew.

That's great, he replied. Too bad he couldn't have let his heart grow three sizes on Halloween.

I frowned. What was I missing here? Drew's texts hadn't made any sense today. My stomach rumbled and I remembered it had been twelve hours since I last ate. Low blood sugar must have affected my sense of humor more than I realized.

Jennifer, one of the pharmacists, was talking to Mike at the cash register when I walked back through the store and toward the main entrance. She furrowed her brow in concern when she took in my bare arms. "Don't forget your jacket, hon," she said. "It's freezing out there."

"Oh, is it?" I said with a frown. "I thought the overnight low was in the seventies today. Well, I have a sweatshirt in the car."

"Frankie." Mike's face was grave when I looked up at him, and a strange feeling unspooled in the pit of my stomach. "Set up ExpressLane tonight, please."

"You don't have ExpressLane yet?" Jennifer's eyes widened. "Yeah, you need to do that."

"Okay... Well, I'm off to trick-or-treat with my daughter. See y'all tomorrow."

Before either of them could say anything else, I walked through the doors directly into a blast of sleet.

"Hey Drew," I said, trying not to sound panicky as I fastened my seatbelt. "So I'm leaving work and it's crazy cold. And stormy. Not at all the weather forecast I was expecting for today. Anyway, um. My car won't crank. So if you don't mind giving me a call when you get this... Yeah. I'd appreciate it."

I ended the call and rubbed my hands together, desperately wishing for a blanket, a pair of gloves, anything to help shield me from the intensifying chill.

Five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty, without a return call from Drew. I picked up my phone to see if I have any missed call notifications. I didn't, but that isn't what caught my eye.

At the top of the screen, plain as day, my phone reads Fri, December 18.

After several restarts, my stubborn phone would still only display the incredibly fake and not at all real date. Since Drew wasn't calling me back, I didn't see how I had any other option but to walk back inside.

Mike was waiting for me just inside the door, looking remarkably more tired than he was just half an hour ago. "Hey Frankie."

"Hey. So listen, this is very weird and I'm not sure if you'll believe me—"

"But when you left the store, it was way too cold and your car wouldn't start and your phone told you it was December 18th?"

My eyes widened. "Um. Yeah. Something like that."

Mike sighed and rubbed his forehead before reaching into his pocket and handing me a card. ExpressLane Expert Line, 1-888-555-3535. "Go back out to your car and call this number. They'll tell you what to do."

"But I don't use Express—"

"Believe me, I know," Mike said with a weary sigh. "Just call the number, Frankie."

Thank you for calling the ExpressLane Expert Line, a partner with Panacea Pharmacies Incorporated. To get started, please state your employee number or enter it on the keypad. For assistance with setting up your Panacea Partner profile, press or say 1. To report an outage or other software issue, press or say 2. For assistance with a missing timeclock event or to report delayed timeline experience due to postponed ExpressLane integration, press or say 3.

"Three. Three. THREE." I could have just pressed the button, I knew that. But after everything I'd been through today (this month?), it felt so much better to shout.

November 25, 2022 22:45

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Philip Ebuluofor
08:27 Dec 05, 2022

Clapping and clapping. Congrats.


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Rebecca Lyman
17:06 Dec 04, 2022

Love it! Your attention to everyday detail is so good and almost lulls us along so the twist is that much better.


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Marty B
19:12 Dec 02, 2022

Creepy- Congrats on the shortlist!


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18:03 Dec 02, 2022

Congratulations. Good story.


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Claire Harding
23:52 Dec 01, 2022

Engaging story! Love the name of the pharmacy as a subtle foretelling of the plot. Nice breadcrumbs until the end helped us follow Frankie's weird afternoon of time travel. And yes, having an employer control all aspects of personal information is disconcerting! You might tighten up your language a bit.


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Tommy Goround
14:12 Nov 28, 2022

Yes. What dan said. clapping.


Olivia Ard
20:15 Nov 28, 2022

Thanks Tommy! So glad you enjoyed it.


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Daniel Allen
12:38 Nov 28, 2022

This was an immersive and engaging story that had me hooked from the start. The ending was especially powerful, making me revisit all those little odd details earlier in the story. The idea of a company disrupting the timeline of our lives is equal parts believable and disturbing. Kudos to you!


Olivia Ard
13:10 Nov 28, 2022

Thanks Daniel! I'm glad you enjoyed it.


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Charles Sarver
19:17 Jan 05, 2023

Nice twilight zone story! And yes employers are are attempting to exercise too much power over our private lives these days.


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Uni Versal
21:44 Dec 31, 2022

I don't understand is this the full story what happened at the end I don't understand please can someone explain


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