The clock read 9:26. Thirty-four minutes until closing time. Eloise looked awkward at the register. She was leaning on the edge of her stall, built too low to be leant upon comfortably, propping her head up with her hand. When her manager had threatened a lottery on Christmas Eve duties, Eloise had raised her hand to volunteer. She preferred the serenity of a late-night shift to the concocted merriment of the holidays. It was her family’s turn to host the entirety of the Pennywise clan. Uncles, aunts, and cousins descending atop a tide of cheer. She needed money, but she didn’t need that.
Snow had started to fall outside, little flecks of white drifting to the ground without settling. There were few cars on the highway. Most people had probably already cocooned themselves with their families, waiting for the festivities the morning would bring. Normally there’d be one or two other staff on duty. If the people were cool, it could often be a lot of fun. Sometimes they’d heat up eggnog in the staff microwave. Crack open a small bottle of rum or brandy and call it their Christmas bonus. That didn’t seem as fun as a solo activity, so Eloise kept busy by counting candy bars and doing crosswords in magazines before putting them back on the rack.
The clock read 9:29. A single headlight skated down the highway. Eloise watched through the snow, thinking it would continue on past the turnoff and into the darkness. Instead it slowed, making the turn towards the store. The light inched forward. Whoever it was they weren’t in a hurry. The vehicle ebbed in and out of darkness, crawling its way under the long stretch of streetlights that led to the parking lot. As it came closer, Eloise could see that it was an old panel van. One of those design monstrosities that looked like a shoebox on wheels. The van rolled into a parking space right in front of the store, next to her own little Honda. Its solitary headlight shone in Eloise’s eyes as it turned.
The van sat in darkness while the minutes ticked by. The light from inside the store reflected back off the large windows at the front, obscuring Eloise’s view of the van and its driver. She stood up right now, staring at the van staring back. The hairs on her neck began to tingle, sensing a hidden presence amongst the shelves, but there was nothing but row after row of groceries.
The clock read 9:36. The driver’s side door opened like it was pushed with force, swinging out to its full extent before bouncing back. The driver wore a black winter jacket, their face hidden inside its dark hood. They almost looked transparent amongst the snow and reflective fluorescents. When they came into the light of the store, Eloise could see it was an older man, his pointy grey beard jutting out of its dark hiding place like a shark’s fin. The old man stomped his boots on the ground, releasing grey snowy sludge. He drew his hood back behind his head, and unleashed the sting of cold air as he stepped inside.
The old man stood at the entrance, silent. Eloise said, “We close at ten.” The old man nodded, once, his eyes taking in the whole store. He picked up a basket and moved slowly into the aisles, disappearing towards the rear of the building. Eloise edged out from behind her stall, trying to follow his movement, but she couldn’t track him. She looked down one aisle, then another, but still couldn’t see where he went. She walked back to the stall and waited, arms folded tight across her chest.
The clock read 9:53. Still the store was quiet. Eloise hadn’t seen the old man since he arrived. She re-emerged from behind her stall, peering again down the aisles. She didn’t stray far from the front of the store, but this time went as far as the last aisle. Again, it was empty. Then she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. It was the old man, standing at the far end of the store. She turned to face him, the two of them staring at each other across the vacant supermarket. He began to walk towards her, and she felt herself take a few steps back, towards the wall. The old man kept coming, never taking his eyes off her. When he reached Eloise’s stall, the old man stopped. He pointed to the number over her register, all lit up. She nodded and said, “Yeah … coming,” suddenly feeling self-conscious.
Eloise returned to her stall while the old man placed his items on the conveyor belt. A set of walkie-talkies. Batteries. Coat hangers. An emergency blanket. She didn’t recall having any of these things in stock, but they were probably tucked away in the far corner, down at the home and hardware section. She figured that’s where the old man might have been the whole time. She rang up his bill and he paid in cash, unfolding notes from an old felt pouch.
The clock read 9:59. The old man had taken his items and was about to leave, but instead stood in the doorway, staring out at the snow that now fell heavily. Eloise saw it too. The snow was almost blowing in sideways. It had reached the bottom of her little car, the top half already looking like a giant marshmallow. The wind and snow cut its way through the sky, but inside it was quiet. The old man spoke to her over his shoulder. “Looks like we’re stranded.”
Eloise sat cross-legged at the end of her stall, her head in her hands. The old man stood by the windows, taking in the chaos outside. She began to think about her family, wishing she were home. She tried texting her sister, but the signal was weak. Of all her relatives, Eloise’s sister, Liza, was her favorite. Liza always understood Eloise’s need for solitude, but she pushed her to be social at the same time. They were each other’s biggest supporters. If only Liza could be here now, Eloise thought, rather than this creepy old guy.
Eloise went to the staff room to heat up some soup and instant noodles. She sat where she could see the old man, just beyond the registers. His demeanour still unsettled her, but as she filled her stomach with warm soup, her feelings toward him also shifted. He looked a little sad, she thought, sitting out there by himself. She heated up a second serving of soup in an old mug and took it to him.
He accepted the offering with a faint smile and a nod, then ate in silence, his eyes fixed on the snow falling outside. Eloise studied his features. He had a sharp nose, pale despite the cold, and thick white eyebrows that arched skywards dramatically, almost like an owl’s. He smelled vaguely like a pine tree. Eloise didn’t know what to do when he finished eating, so she said, “Would you like some eggnog?” His eyes darted to hers, and though he didn’t say anything, they seemed to smile.
At 11:34, the power went out. Eloise and the old man were in the staff room, a carton of eggnog open on the counter. Eloise could see the snow more clearly now through the windows. It was blowing at great speed, making it seem as though they were travelling through space, stars passing by outside. She turned on the light on her phone, but it only lasted a few moments before going dead. Before the light cut out, she saw the old man sitting in the corner, the brightness casting shadows across his face, making those eyebrows seem more wicked.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Eloise tried to make him out across the room. She thought she saw him there against the wall, his form now just a murky shape that seemed to have become one with the objects around him. She tried to keep her eyes open, but they started growing heavier. Every now and then she thought she smelt pine trees, but the black shape against the wall never moved. Then, with the snow closing in around the store, she fell asleep.
At 9:13, Eloise woke. Sunshine had begun to pierce through the window onto her face, warming the room around her. She lifted herself up onto one elbow, her eyes immediately searching for the old man. He wasn’t in the room. She tiptoed out to the main part of the store, walking its full length, checking every aisle and even the hardware section up the back, but he was nowhere to be seen. When she circled back to the front of the store, she noticed that the old man’s van was gone. But there were no footprints out there, no tire tracks. The space where the van should have been was full of snow. Her own car was still there, buried deep.
Eloise walked towards the exit, but the doors wouldn’t open. The power was still out. She put on her jacket and went out a service door, the air stinging her exposed face and hands. The snow was pristine, stretching as far across the horizon as she could see. She could no longer really tell where the highway began and ended. A gust of wind whistled across the ground, sending a chill right through her. She decided to go back inside, but the service door wouldn’t budge. She pulled and pulled, shaking the handle up and down with her aching cold hands. Still the door wouldn’t open, the handle reaching the limits of its quarter rotation with a dull sound. She realised her bag, keys, everything, was still inside. In the staff room.
She let out a cry and began wading around the building in the snow, searching for another entrance. No other opening was accessible. Not a door nor a window. She continued on around the building, her feet and legs becoming cold and wet, her lips and fingers going numb. She stumbled twice, falling into the white powder, thinking of her family, her beloved sister, and wondered if this was it. She made it around to the front of the store, towards her car. Before she even reached it, she noticed something else: a package sitting at the front doors.
It was wrapped up like a Christmas present. Shiny silver paper with red and green ribbons. There was a note on the top, which read “Stay safe. Merry Christmas.” Eloise scanned the horizon for the old man. For his van. Anything. But she was alone. She squatted in the snow and began to untie the ribbons, opening the box. Inside were four items she’d seen the night before. A set of walkie-talkies. Batteries. Coat hangers. An emergency blanket. The breeze picked up again, smelling of pine trees. And the clock read ten.