Ashes of Indecisive Customers

Submitted into Contest #194 in response to: Write a story inspired by the phrase “The plot thickens.”... view prompt


Horror Drama Suspense

“Ahh Sweetheart, let me look at you,” says Gran.

I release Gran from my embrace, the scent of her rose soap lingering between us. I squeeze her shoulders. Her eyes smile at me with a bit of emptiness.

Sweetheart she called me. She hasn’t called me Jen in a year.

It’s been two months since I’ve seen her. My mom and my sister, Sam, have driven Gran to a small town that’s halfway between my house and theirs. Just some ladies meeting for a little antique hunting—or, as Gran would call it, shopping for modern treasures. None of us has the heart to tell her we’d be pressed to find anything modern here.

The beauty of the four of us, three generations—our similar faces, our shared history—is not lost on me. Even in this dusty parking lot in a town whose name I am already forgetting as I stand here. Sam comments on how eerily empty the lot is. Mom smiles. “More treasures for us then.”

The gravel crunches under our feet as Gran and I follow Mom and Sam into the old store. A sound chimes as we enter—not exactly a bell, more like the neigh of a horse. Sam and I shoot each other a look. She bites her lip to keep from laughing.

“Oh my!” Gran gasps. She is already in awe in the entryway. It really is impressive, the completely filled floor-to-ceiling shelves. The walls are covered with anything that can be hung, like paintings and jewelry and mugs. The contents seem to go on forever, the back of the store a hidden mystery.

Mom and I say at the same time, “It looked smaller on the outside.”

“Hehe!” A gruff voice half laughs, half chokes. Sam jumps, then curses. Gran appears unphased, gawking at a dusty Fine China set.

The voice adds, “That’s what they all say.”

Mom giggles politely at the man in faded overalls who has appeared before us like the ghost of antiques past. His skin is translucent, and his bulging belly is threatening to pop a denim seam.

“Welcome in. I’ll take your bags.”

“Huh?” Sam asks.

The man clears his throat. “Oh. Scuse me, I’ve been rude. I forgot t’introduce myself! I’m Gerald. I run this ol’ place.”

“Nice to meet you, Gerald,” Mom says, still dripping with politeness.

“I’ll store your bags in this here locker while ya shop. Y’know, so ya don’t knock anything over. You break it, you buy it…you get it?” He winks, which makes my hands feel clammy. “Aisles are narrow, and the treasure are a-plenty!”

Sam starts to object, “Does he think we’re gonna ste—" Mom cuts her off. “Makes sense, Gerald. That’ll be fine.” Mom hands the man her purse. I follow suit. Sam rolls her eyes then hands the man hers too, after slipping her phone into her back pocket. Mom reaches for Gran’s bag, who’s been shopping and not listening. She resists Mom’s tug.

“Gran,” Mom says, “I’m gonna take this off your hands for a while.”

Gran looks confused but says, “Oh. Okay, dear.”

Sam and I sashay quickly down an aisle. Mom and Gran head in the opposite direction. “See ya on the other side!” Sam shouts to no one in particular, in Gerald’s accent.

I quickly learn something during the first minutes of our hunt. What you see, what you find in this type of place, is greatly dependent on what you bring in. The baggage that you carry (figuratively, of course, no real bags allowed) is going to influence what your eyes land upon. Sam and I could look at the exact same spot; she would reach for the Billie Holiday record, and I would pick up the hand-knitted baby booties. Sam would see the vintage roller skates, and I would see 1970s Barbie, sealed in its box.

She’d say to me, “Cute, I didn’t see that.”

I’d echo her. And we would be telling the truth. Sam is an artist, a musician, always a fun time. And I am a 9-to-5 girl, desperate to start a family. She sees what feeds her soul, and I see what feeds mine.

Who knows what goodness we’d miss without each other.

That’s why we’re here together, the four of us. Mom would probably see the valuable gold necklace or the signed copy of her favorite author’s book. Gran would see a design akin to her own grandmother’s tea set or lace tablecloths.

The hunt is more meaningful when we do it together.

But I start to see too much. The dolls, the onesies, even a crib complete with a spinning mobile. I put a hand on my stomach, my empty womb. I need a break.

“Any idea where the bathroom is?” I ask Sam.

She shrugs, then shouts, “Gerald!”

I gasp. “Shhh!”

“But I miss him,” Sam jokes.

“You’re gonna make me pee! I’ll do just fine without him,” I whisper, putting my hands on my hips with faux confidence. “I’ll look for a sign or something.” I turn, nearly knocking over a stained-glass lamp with my elbow.

“Aisles are a-narrow, Jen! Aisles are a-narrow!” she shouts after me as I walk away. I resist giving her the finger, thankful that a bit of Mom’s politeness has dripped into my soul.


“There is more stuff for sale in the bathroom?” I whisper aloud as I pull my pants down. The walls are covered in plates and paintings and plaques, all with price tags, of course. A black cat swishes its tail to the tick of the clock that sits atop its belly. Its eyes stare me down as I pee. For a cool twenty-five dollars I could have that cat clock as a pet, I think. Too bad I’m allergic.

After I wash my hands and turn away from the mirror (also for sale), I notice the door is not where it was when I entered. My head does a spin the same way it does after one strong martini. That can’t be right.

I open the misplaced door forcefully, ready to bolt out of there and shake the feeling. But I freeze. Behind the door is an empty closet. The shock I feel now is not so much from being wrong about the door but for seeing something so empty in a building that is bursting at the seams with stuff.

What is the point of this closet?

I shut the door and my eyes. I take a deep breath. The sickening scent of burnt flesh tickles my nose. This forces my eyes open. The door has moved again, this time to its original place. Determined not to be trapped, I swing it open.

The store is before me. It appears unchanged. But have I changed?

I leap out of the bathroom, half-expecting it to cave in on itself like a used candy wrapper. I need to find my family. Something is wrong—with me, or them, or this place, maybe all of it. I’m getting them out of here, antiques be damned.

Down at my feet I see painted paw prints, heading away from the bathroom. I don’t remember seeing these before. In fact, the last thing I remember is turning away from Sam. Then, the very next moment is the black cat tick-tick-ticking its tail.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

I follow the paw prints hypnotically, pressing my palms to my ears in a futile attempt to diminish the sound of ticking.

“Mom?” I call out. “Gran?” I realize I haven’t seen them since we entered the store, what 20 minutes ago? Two hours? Hundreds of clocks tick-tick-tick around me, all displaying different times, all exceedingly loud.

The paw prints lead to a cashier counter. A dusty, decades-old cash register rests at the edge. In the center, a shiny, clean seaweed-green urn sits on display. Clear lettering on the front reads:

Ashes of Indecisive Customers

I brace myself on the edge of the counter. Dizziness threatens to take hold. This is a joke, I try to reason. Sam would think this is funny. But visions of fire and screaming threaten to consume me.

A ringtone. My eyes burst open.

My phone. That’s Sam calling me. My stupid phone is in the locker with the bags. I frantically follow the sound, fully intending to smash a lock if I have to. But after six rings, the sound stops, and I can’t find the locker.

“Jen?” A faint voice calls out. Then, again. “Jen?”

Gran’s voice. She’s calling out to me. Jen, she said. Fresh tears burn my eyes. “Gran? I’m coming to find you!”

I look for a weapon. I see a wooden baseball bat that’s probably fifty years old, and I pull it into position. Then I forge on through the breakable, valuable, antique crap.


“Mom? Gran? Sam?” I frantically chant their names until it becomes a sad song that loses the question. “Mom. Gran. Sam,” I say again and again, reciting it for comfort. Losing hope. Fighting tears. “Somebody please answer me,” I beg the stuffed, endless shelves.

On cue, a gruff voice says, “Ya gonna get the booties?”

I turn violently over my right shoulder to face the voice head on, my grip tight on the bat. Gerald is rocking in a creaky chair, wearing two hand-knitted baby booties on his fingers. I can only stare; my jaw is clenched in shock and anger.

Apparently, he’s unphased by the bat I have at the ready. He continues, cool as a cucumber. “I saw ya looking at these. I thought I’d get ‘em for ya, n’case ya decided to buy ‘em.”

I manage three words. “How did you…?”

He says nothing. His eyes peer up to the left. My eyes follow. A camera. Of course, there are cameras. I hadn’t thought of that before; the technology seems so out of place in this time capsule. Our eyes connect again. I push away the approaching thought of cameras in the bathroom. Too late now.

Gerald continues to rock in his chair. Creak. Creak. Creak. I wonder how many creaks I can take before I swing the bat, demolishing everything around me?

I swallow hard. “Have you seen my family?”

Gerald’s eyes flicker with knowing. “The other customers, you mean?”

I want to shake him. I raise my voice. “Yes! My family. The ladies I came in with. The only other customers here.”

“Hmm…” he won’t budge.

I lower my voice and attempt a sympathy tactic. “My Gran gets confused, and I’d hate for her to get lost—”

Gerald interrupts me. “You’re the one who’s lost, dear.” He stands abruptly. I nearly trip over my own feet shuffling backwards. The bat slips from my hands and bangs onto the tiled floor.

“What do you want?” I yell, reaching blindly behind me for something sharp, anything sharp.

“I only ever want one thing,” Gerald says firmly, slowly stepping toward me as I step backwards down the aisle, like a tango from hell. “Good, decisive customers. That’s it. They know what they want, and they buy it.” He’s still holding the booties.

A tear escapes, exposing my fear even more. “Do you,” I sniff, “want me to buy those?” I point to the booties with a shaky finger.

“Why are y’asking me, dear? You seem unsure…”

“Yes!” I choke. “I know what I want. I want them. I want them. I will buy them. Please…” I wipe my nose, humiliated.

Then a loud crack! Gerald’s knees buckle. I catch a glimpse of Sam behind him, pulling the baseball bat into position for a second swing. She slams the bat into his shoulder, narrowly missing his head. He crumples to the floor.

“Sam!” I shout.

“I heard you yell,” she says, breathless. “I sprinted.”

Gerald moans, a heap of plump denim.

“Have you seen Mom and Gran?”

Sam shakes her head. “Not since we got here.”

A fire stirs in me. I squat near Gerald but not too close. With gritted teeth I ask, “Where is my family?”

He spits at my feet. With no hesitation I kick him in the gut. Sam raises the bat, but Gerald’s eyes give something away, so I stop her. He blinks toward a bookshelf.

Sam and I bolt toward it. “What’s here, some kind of clue?”

“I don’t—” Before I can answer, Sam starts aggressively beating the bookshelf with the bat. Books fly, pages flutter, shelves fracture. I almost laugh at the absurd commotion amidst such dusty, sedentary stuff. But then a click and the entire shelving unit shifts. Sam and I look at each other then give it a shove.

A hidden door. A secret room. This would be exciting if I weren’t so ready to exit this nightmare.

I start to call out for Mom and Gran, but I immediately see they are not here. It’s a tiny, dark room filled with screens floor-to-ceiling. Sam and I study the screens. They cover every nook and cranny of this place. Sam shivers. Then, I find it.

“The bathroom,” I blurt.

“Ew!” Sam says. “Perv!” she yells over her shoulder.

“Sam, I think Mom and Gran are in the bathroom.”

“What?” She squints. “I don’t see them.”

“There’s a hidden closet,” I say, and she turns to look at me. “Sam, this place is possessed or something. And Gerald…” I hesitate.

Sam grabs my shoulders. “What? Just tell me!”

“I think he locks people in the closet before he kills them and burns them alive.”

Sam is stunned. “Jen, what craziness are you speaking right now? Please tell me this is not some den of death where sweet old grandmas are kidnapped and—”

“Decide…” a faint voice begs. “Decide…” he continues, louder. I had momentarily forgotten our threat lying on the floor twenty feet away.

Sam grips the bat. I mouth the word, “Run.”

We bolt out of the TV room. With quick feet we leave a pained Gerald in the dust.

When we reach the bathroom, I put my hand on the knob. “Wait,” I say.

“What?” Sam huffs.

“Remember that video game we used to play as kids, the one where you had to complete certain tasks in a specific pattern in order to escape?”

“Jen, are you really reminiscing right now in the middle of this life-or-death situation?”

“No, I—the point is, I need to go in here alone. I need to repeat the same steps I did before, to get to the closet.”

Sam furrows her brow. “Whatever, no time to argue. I’ll stand guard.”

“Oh!” I remember the sound of my ringtone. “Sam, don’t you have your phone? Call for help!”

She nods furiously. “On it. Jen, get in, get out.”

I step into the last place on Earth I want to enter and follow the choreography to a tee. I flirt with the black cat clock as I pull down my pants. I wash my shaking hands for the same amount of time as before. Then, when I turn from the mirror, there it is. A misplaced door.

I swing it open.


One year later

“You made it!” Sam leaves my hospital bedside to greet our guests at the door. Mom rolls Gran into the room in her wheelchair. Sam hugs them both, and they all surround me. Well, they surround us.

“She’s beautiful,” Mom says. “Gran, look at Jen’s baby. Doesn’t she look just like Jen?”

“Oh yes, sweetheart. Beautiful.”

I wipe a tear from my cheek. “Four generations,” I say.

A nurse knocks on the door. “Hey Jen, sorry to interrupt. You had a gift delivered to the desk out here.”

Sam takes it and sits back beside me. “Want me to open it for you?”


Sam slips the tissue from the bag, reaches in and pulls out the gift. The blood drains from my face; my head begins to spin; tick tick tick fills my ears.

Before I can object, Sam sets next to me the pair of hand-knitted baby booties. Then, like someone closing me into an empty closet, the room goes dark.

April 17, 2023 23:51

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Amanda Lieser
05:55 May 05, 2023

Hi Robin! Oh my gosh! Horror is such a tricky thing to get right, but this piece was spot on. The way you introduced your setting and kept your fast small was brilliant. I think you did a great job of touching on some of those classic horror tropes that made it feel so particularly spine chilling. I got goose bumps with this one! The ending was fantastic as well!!


Robin Owens
23:32 May 05, 2023

So kind, thank you Amanda!!


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Zack Powell
06:58 Apr 28, 2023

This is the kind of Speculative Horror that I love seeing on this site. Something that starts off mundane and progressively gets creepier and more unsettling as it goes. And I think a big reason this story succeeds is because of the visceral imagery here. A real knockout example of "Show, Don't Tell." The store, the bathroom, beating the hell out of the bookshelf, the secret room, even the hospital snippet at the end. We got to see everything, and it's that much more terrifying when everything is on display instead of just being told "Gerald...


Robin Owens
14:35 Apr 28, 2023

Zack, your comments are so thoughtful and encouraging! I am honored you read the story and then shared such detailed thoughts. This may have been my first attempt at writing Speculative Horror. I really enjoyed escaping into this one. And I always look forward to your stories, too.


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Mary Bendickson
04:42 Apr 28, 2023

Very suspenseful. You really know how to write.


Robin Owens
14:29 Apr 28, 2023

Thank you!


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Jackie Moon
12:39 Apr 27, 2023

I really enjoyed your story! I feel like this must not have been easy to get all in with the word limit. The atmosphere reminds me a bit of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, as in surreal reality. I would love to read this in a longer version with a lot of tension building. Well done!


Robin Owens
17:20 Apr 27, 2023

Everything about this comment! Thank you, thank you. The Night Circus is a gorgeous book, and to even capture a tiny percentage of that atmosphere would be an achievement. It was not easy to stay under the word limit, ha! So it was a good exercise in cutting.


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