Damien shook his head violently, throwing off his Manchester United beanie, “Damn it, daydreaming again”. He picked it up and folded it over his ears, which helped ease the noise from the incessant rattling of the store's windows. He stared down the aisle, through the store’s entrance and into the howling, frigid abyss beyond. Worst blizzard in over 100 years, Damien was uncertain as to how the weatherman on the local radio station was able to come to this conclusion with such certainty, but as a simple janitor with nothing more but a faded beanie to protect himself, who was he to argue otherwise.
Above the entrance, a digital clock flashed 23:00, 14 April 2001. Once again, Damien was the only store employee working overtime and yet he was still waiting for that elusive promotion call from Peter. He knew that faithfully day would come when he would hear his name over the old intercom system, every other janitor before him had been called to Peter’s office and sent away to manage stores across the province: Michael, Raphael, and even that thug Gabriel. Hard work and a positive attitude, that's all it took, he was sure of it.
For now, he focused on the job at hand. Cold and miserable as he was, he returned to the job of packing his trolley of tinned food on the shelves, his hands shaking as he did so. It was an inconvenience, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as when he stocked the fridges in the back with beer and ciders. He knew exactly why that was the case, but thought it best not to dwell on it.
As Damien packed, he thought of the potential route he could take back home to negate the risk of getting stuck in the snow or being caught in the blizzard any longer than necessary. To his dismay, he could not think of one, in fact, he couldn’t recall how he got into work that morning, doing so just made his head hurt. Ever since the accident, Damien’s memory had continued to deteriorate, his attempts at recollection futile, truth be told, he didn’t even remember what the “accident” was.
Once he was done packing the shelves of aisle four, he surveyed his work and made his way to aisle six to begin the process of stacking the dog food. However, as he walked passed aisle five, he heard the unmistakable wailing of a baby crying. Damien stopped in his tracks, wondering if the consecutive late nights were beginning to alter his perceptions. He waited and listened, the crying began once again in earnest. He peered down the aisle, at the end of which, lay a pastel, pink cotton blanket wrapped in a bundle.
Reluctantly, he began creeping towards it, with each tentative step the crying grew softer, until Damien stood over the enclosed bundle. The crying tempered down to a mere burble. Slowly he opened the blanket, as if diffusing a bomb, only to reveal nothing, the crying replaced with the rhythmic battering of the wind on the store’s windows.
“Just my old washrag, not sure when I left it lying about here” noted Damien. He thumbed the small plastic container in his pocket, “Need to get off these meds, it’s not like they do anything for my memory anyway”, he took a moment to catch himself, “Or maybe, I just need to cut out the hard stuff out when on them”.
Damien looked up at Peter’s corner office, the blinding light of which was blocked by cheap, plastic blinds. He imagined Peter’s smug grin from up above, looking down on his lowly employees, twirling his stack of keys on his long, crooked index finger as he went about his day, or at least he tried to imagine Peter’s face. He was uncertain if it was the head injury or Peter's reluctance to grace the store floor with his presence, but Damien couldn’t recall ever meeting Peter. All he ever saw was harsh, artificial light in the corner of the store’s high ceiling, obscuring any and all inhabitants of Peter’s domain.
The constant thinking left Damian with the telltale signs of an oncoming migraine, “Too hell with it”, he spat as he walked to the back fridges. He knew where all the cameras were and their blind spots, one beer couldn’t hurt. He stuck his hand into the second fridge, next to the soft drinks, and grabbed the closest bottle, the interior of which was as cold as the store itself, worst blizzard in 100 years was starting to sound pretty accurate. He didn’t care what he withdrew from the fridge, he wasn’t exactly one to drink as a result of brand loyalty.
He cracked open the bottle cap with the inside of his right incisor, the left one having been thoroughly worn out over the years, and put the bottle to his lips. In an instant, and upon the first sip of beer, pain shot through Damien’s skull like a bolt of lightning, his senses assaulted by the animalistic scream of what sounded like a distraught, yet wholly feral child.
He fell to his knees and clutched his head in time to the shattering of the bottle beside him, despite the cold, sweat poured from his brow as his fingernails dug into his scalp. Slowly the pain subsided, as did the screaming, allowing him to gingerly get up on his feet. Trying not to lose his footing as his feet slid on the spilt beer, along with the crunching of shards of glass underfoot, he turned to face the source of the screaming. To his horror, he saw once again his old, pink, washrag wrapped in a bundle before him.
Damien shut his eyes, “The meds… it’s just these damn meds”. A gurgle interrupted his mantra recital, he opened his eyes to find he’d moved closer to the bundle, as if some magnetic force drew him toward it. The same unknown force seemed to spur on his curiosity and force his quivering hands to inspect the bundle further. From within the folds of the once empty blanket, lay a child asleep and oblivious to the pain its screams had inflicted on Damien.
Carefully he picked up the child in its bundle and held it to his chest, it seemed to radiate heat in spite of the cold, its tiny face obscured by ringlets of chestnut brown hair. For a while Damien stood clutching the child, hearing its quiet breathing and watching its small hands grasp the edges of the blanket. He felt a sense of peace wash over him, despite the residual sensations of tremendous pain dwelling deep within in his temple.
Uncertain as to what to do, Damien began toward the store entrance, wherein to his surprise, stood a woman whom he felt certain he had seen before. The growing pain in his temple confirming this suspicion. She walked with purpose toward him, her dirty blond hair looking damp and lifeless under the fluorescent lighting, her breathing labored as her drab, gray coat flapped behind her.
Her voice cracked and her eyes watered, as she caught sight of the child in Damien’s arms, “I’m sorry, I – I just thought she was in the car, I don’t know what came of me”. She reached out, and with a thrust, pulled the child from his grasp, placing her hand on the child’s head as it instinctively nuzzled herself up against the woman’s inner neck.
“I don’t understand, I locked the doors myself and the blizzard? How did you – “
The woman looked puzzled, “blizzard? What blizzard? The doors are wide open”.
Damien looked over the woman’s shoulder, the sensor to the doors stood unlit, with the snow piling up in the parking lot worse than before. “I’m sorry, I think you’re in shock, please I think you should stay awhile till the storm clears” Damien reached out with an assuring hand and touched the woman’s shoulder, she flinched at the point of contact.
She took a step back from Damien and gestured with her free hand over her shoulder, “Look… thanks for your help and all, but I’m gonna go…”
“But the blizza-“
“Buddy, you smell like a goddamn brewery” spat the woman, her nose wrinkled in disgust “So whatever the hell you’re thinking or seeing or whatever you thinks going on outside, I’m not hanging around here to find out”.
She turned with haste and began toward the entrance. Damien attempted to follow suite, but was flung in the air as a stinging, gale-force erupted from the open doors as the women left the store, leaving him strewn across the floor, along with the contents of a nearby newspaper stand.
He stumbled to his feet and was left pressing his hands and face against the glass, as the automatic doors slid to a close with a mechanical thud. He covered his face with his trembling hands, trying not to breathe too heavily as to foam up the glass, squinting to make out any sign of the woman in the swirling tundra.
A moment passed and Damien spied the woman and child, as her silhouette was captured by the headlights of what appeared to be a white Toyota Corolla. As she climbed into the passenger seat, another figure made his way toward the driver’s seat from the boot of the car. His beard dirty and unkempt, with wild flashing eyes that darted from side to side. On his head was a faded red beanie, where unlike Damien, his hands remained steady as he leaned on the roof of the car, although his legs stumbled and faltered as he clumsily fell into the driver’s seat.
With a slam of the driver’s door, the headlights shone at full strength. The ignition heaved and spluttered in the cold, forcing the engine to roar into life, and with it, began the same cacophonous screaming as before, this time far louder.
Damien’s legs buckled, but he gritted his teeth, as he refused to tear his gaze from the vehicle outside, his hunger to understand what had just taken place, trumped his desire to give into the growing pain which was rising within him. The tires spun and screeched in time with the shrill, guttural anguish of a voice breaking with suffering.
Damien watched as the vehicle turned and fired black smoke from its exhaust, the sooty texture obscured his view of the vehicle’s exit and polluting the pristine snow before it. His legs gave in and Damien lay like an animal on all fours, bathed beneath the red, neon light of the entrance’s clock, its quiet humming doing little to break the sounds of screaming and rattling windows.
As he attempted, in blinding pain, to lift himself from the grime of the store’s chipped tiles, his eye caught the front page of one of the newspapers that had been throw from its stand:
Family of Three in Fatal Accident
Beneath the heading was a photo of a white Toyota Corolla wrapped around a large oak tree. Its interior, roof and doors scorched black, its tires melted to the tarmac, as if it arose organically from the earth like some sinister beast. The date on the top right hand corner read 15 April 2001. The screaming child was accompanied by the screams of two adults.
Damien collapsed as the shaking of his hands grew into violent convulsions throughout his body. He writhed in the filth and the icy slush of the black sooty snow which seeped under the store’s entrance, as if the vehicle had left behind dark tendrils to engulf him in a sinister embrace. He was left clawing and tearing at his face, an animal caught in the tendrils’ snare, desperate to relieve the pressure building in his skull as his anguish arose in tune to the cries of the hellish choir.
He felt blood ooze from his face as his nails began to chip away from his fingers, so violent were his attempts at relieving the suffering housed deep within his bones. Despite the cold, it burned.
It wasn’t your fault, you were sick and we tried to suppress the memories and the nightmares from making it worse.
Tears welled in his eyes and ran down his cheeks. They fell into the dark, swirling mass below him, the greedy tendrils consumed them with ravenous hunger. Despite the cold, it burned.
It was my fault! Goddamn it! It was all my fault!
He felt bile creeping up from the depths of his stomach, searing his throat as he tasted ethanol, his locked jaw forcing the putrid, chunky concoction to bumble and foam from the corners of his mouth. Despite the cold, it burned.
You were so close. The programme was going so well. We were all so proud of you, we’re still so proud of you!
His eyes rolled into the back of his head, blood and vomit continued to smother his face and torso. He smelt gasoline and burning rubber. Despite the cold, it burned.
Please, you’ve been through enough. It’s time to move on. We all miss you so much, she misses you!
He saw flames, they licked his face and the wood began oozing sap. It bubbled and boiled, searing his once steady hands. Despite the cold, it burned.
I’m sorry. I can’t, not yet. Not after what I did, I need to work harder.
The air grew still, as did Damien. Night became day and the snow began to melt, as his body started to bloat like a discarded pig's carcass on the wooden panels of a medieval slaughter house, a feast for rats, stewing and festering in its own blood and vomit.
The intercom crackled into life, the tendrils retreated as the blinds of the corner office released harsh light into the early morning, “I’m sorry Damien, but it doesn’t look like you’ll be getting that promotion tonight, I’m afraid you’ll have to show more drive at work” sighed Peter.
* Bing bong*
"Clean up on aisle five"
The store windows rattled with the howling of the wind. The radio’s news jingle gave way to an authoritative, but concerned voice, “worst blizzard in over 100 years! I tell you folks, make sure you stay snug and warm indoors with your loved ones tonight!”.
He shook his head, picking up his Manchester United beanie, “Damn it, daydreaming again”. Damien fitted the beanie over his ears, shivering in the cold.
He looked down the aisle, above the entrance to the store at the digital clock, “11 o’clock on this 14th day of April 2001, and as always, I’m the last one at work”.