“You’re gonna want to send someone to clean up Aisle 16…”
“What?” Matt asked. He’d been three hours into his shift stocking the shelves and it already felt like eight. It beat the hell out of check out, but people were buying food like it was the end of the world. Matt couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a full shelf for more than an hour. The only reason he took these shifts was so he wouldn’t need to talk with customers like this girl.
“There’s a mess in Aisle 16,” the girl urged. She had long, blonde hair tied up into a messy bun. She was wearing a bright yellow raincoat, a floral t-shirt, jeans, and soaked through sneakers. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen, but Matt didn't think he'd seen her at his school. Matt wasn’t sure if he’d heard her correctly or not with the thick, cloth mask over her mouth.
“Miss,” Matt sighed, “we don’t have an Aisle 16…”
“I think you should check again,” the woman said, a little firmer. “Let me show you.”
“I have to—“
“Please,” the woman urged. “You will want to see this…”
Something about the urgency of her voice surprised Matt and he decided to follow her. He tugged his mask a little further over his nose and a few steps behind her. Why she’d chosen him to handle things, he had no idea. Even if there was an Aisle 16, he was sure there would be someone closer to it than he was. Still, he followed the woman to the mysterious aisle.
The girl led him to the fifteenth aisle and turned around the corner. Bottles of soda and bags of chips flanked Matt on either side. Checking both ends of the aisle, the woman held a finger over her masks. Her eyebrows raised to ask for confirmation and Matt nodded.
“I know there’s no Aisle 16,” she said.
“Thank goodness you have a basic grasp of numbers,” Matt rolled his eyes.
“But I need your help.” The girl pulled off her mask. Her eyes were normal enough, but the lower half of her face startled Matt. Her nose was flat and broad like the gorilla Matt had seen at the zoo when he was thirteen. Her teeth were flat, except for the two sharp tusks protruding up from her bottom jaw. Each one was as long and thick as Matt’s pinkies.
“Please don’t faint!” The strange girl urged, pulling her mask back over her face. Matt could still see the outline of her tusks, but anyone who didn't know about them wouldn't give it a second look. “If you do, they’ll find me for sure.”
“Half…” the girl said, looking over her shoulder. “Half-Troll, I mean…on my mother’s side. Be glad I only inherited her good looks and not her temper. But I still need your help…”
“What are you? What’s a—?”
“For now,” she raised a hand to quiet Matt, “know that there are things you do not see in this world. And know that there are people who want to exploit and control those things at the risk of your world. And know that my name is Mira.”
“Mira…” Matt exhaled. “OK, so…why are you here? Shouldn’t you be under a bridge or something?”
“That’s offensive stereotyping!” Mira snapped. She relaxed her clenched fist and Matt could hear the exhale through her mask. “Everyone is wearing a mask these days, so I figured it would be a perfect time to come above ground for something important. Vampires and elves get all the luck, but I’ve never had the chance before now.”
“Why do you need me?”
“I need help getting across town. There’s someone who can help me get back home.”
“Can’t I just…give you bus fair and forget you were here?”
“I’m afraid that won’t work…”
“I don’t know, I’m very good at forgetting things.”
“They’re looking for people like me on the buses. Please, I need your help. I’m begging you…” Mira paused to read his name tag, “Matt.”
“Who’s after you?”
“Go take a peek at the doors. There are two men in black coats—windbreakers. They’re looking around the store…one at each exit.”
Matt walked down to the end of the aisle. At each of the two doors, there was a man in a tight black windbreaker and disposable white masks. One was wearing dark glasses, but Matt could see the other man’s eyes scanning people’s faces as they walked out the door. The man without glasses turned towards him and Matt frantically ducked behind the aisle display. After he checked again to ensure the other man wasn’t pursuing him, he rushed back down to where Mira waited. “OK….so what do you want me to do?”
“Do you have a car?” Mira asked. “Can you take me out through the loading dock and drive me across town?”
“I’m in the middle of working!”
“Say you’re feeling under the weather? They’d legally have to send you home, right?”
“Yeah, but I want to keep my job, thanks!”
“Look, do this for me and you can have all the money I have.”
“Trolls have money?”
“Half-Troll!” Mira corrected. “And, yeah, I have some. The person I need to find might offer you more. Look, I know it’s a big request, but I’m out of options that don’t involve me getting dissected and experimented on.”
Matt looked over his shoulder again, paranoid. “OK…” Matt whispered. “Follow me.”
With Mira close behind, Matt led her back through the store and into the produce section. Checking from side to side, Matt opened the side door for Mira and led her inside. In the stock room, there were towers of boxes left for Matt to unpack and shelve over his shift. While he needed the money, the sight of the boxes made Mira’s strange offer even more appealing.
“Wait here,” Matt said, tucking Mira between a stack of boxes. “I could get in trouble for ditching my shift, but I could get into even more trouble if I get caught bringing you back here. Just wait here until I talk to my boss. Maybe I can still salvage my job at the end of all this.”
Matt walked into Jake’s office, knocking on the door frame. Jake had a bit of a potbelly and had lost most of the hair on his head. He usually wore a white shirt and tie, but he had recently accented it with a face mask made by his youngest daughter.
“Hey, Jake? I’m not feeling too hot. I’m thinking I should get out of here before it gets worse.”
“Are you sure you can’t just tough it out for a bit?” Jake said. “I’ve got people jumping ship left and right. I’m struggling to keep this place running…”
“Sorry, I just don’t want anyone to get sick. I mean, can you imagine if someone got sick and the traced it back to us?”
Jake’s mask puffed out a little when he sighed heavily, shaking his head. “Sorry, Matt, I need to keep this place running.”
“I just wanna go get tested. I wouldn’t want anyone to get sick. I can’t imagine what would happen if corporate found out we got someone sick?”
Jake sighed again. “God, I’m gonna be happy when all this is over. Fine, get checked. Unless you can get me a doctor’s note, I’m gonna need you tomorrow.”
“I swear, I’ll be back the moment a doctor gives me the all-clear. It might just be stress ramping up my anxiety.”
“We’re all stressed, but…I can’t have you getting anyone sick. Go to the doctor and get the all-clear. If you’re not back by tomorrow, don’t bother coming in for any more shifts, got it?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be back tomorrow, I just need to get a doctor to check.”
Jake said something else, but Matt couldn’t hear it. Jake may have been a hardass as a manager, but he was responsible to a fault. He was still risking his job to help a stranger, but he was sure this would clear up in time for him to be back to shelving tomorrow.
“All clear, come on,” Matt waved towards Mira. Mira staggered out of her hiding space, adjusting her face mask to cover her snout. Walking out through the loading dock, Matt checked ahead for any other men dressed in windbreakers or something else out of the ordinary. When he saw the path to his parked car was safe, he led the way, avoiding the security camera above the loading dock.
“Do you have an address for this friend of yours?” Matt asked, sliding into the car as Mira closed her door.
“The instructions I got were to go left of Valiant Apartment Complex,” Mira said, turning to look out each window. “I know the way. I was also told to ‘follow the sword.’”
“Follow the sword?” Matt said, buckling his seatbelt. “Weirdly prophetic. Why couldn’t you take the bus again?”
“The buses aren’t safe. I was riding one when those guys from the grocery store hopped on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they got off at the same stop.”
“Why are they after you?” Matt asked, starting his car.
“Oak Hand hates anything that’s not human. We thought they’d be smarter about the virus, but it looks like even a pandemic won’t stop them from trying to kill people like me.”
“This just keeps getting better and better,” Matt said, putting his car into drive. He turned around and started weaving his way through the crowded parking lot. As he started driving towards the main exit, Mira’s hand snapped out and grabbed his shoulder.
“What?” Matt asked, keeping the car rolling.
“That’s not a cop.”
Matt hadn’t seen it at first, but he followed Mira’s finger to the cop car parked at the edge of the exit. He was stopping cars every so often so the exit was more congested than usual. The man was wearing a tan trooper’s uniform with a broad hat. He’d lean over, peer in each car and then wave people through. He'd parked his car on the grass lawn, an ugly beige sedan that Matt would never choose to drive.
“I don’t know how much you Underfolk see the world of the Above?” Matt said. “But that’s how cops dress these days. The car is just unmarked, relaxed.”
“Except that there aren’t any antennas on the trunk,” Mira said. “Even unmarked cars have some kind of antenna array to communicate with one another. And he has bumper stickers on his car which is a violation of code. I live underground, not under a rock.”
“If I can’t go through the exit, what do you propose I do?”
“Drive through!” Mira urged. “Ram the car and drive as fast as you can!”
“That’s not really how we do things up here,” Matt said. “He’s just talking to people right now.”
“Oak Hand don’t just talk when they run into people like me…”
“Just let me do the talking,” Matt urged. “If I can’t talk our way out of it? Then we’ll turn into Bonnie and Clyde.”
“More like Thelma and Louise.”
“Just focus forward and keep your mask up.”
Mira started to protest, but Matt was already slowing his car for the patrol. She put her hands in her lap, squeezing her fingers together. Matt rolled his window down and looked up at the cop. Or impersonator, he wasn’t sure anymore.
“Afternoon,” the officer said, putting a hand on the roof of the car. He was wearing a mask and sunglasses, but Matt could still see his eyes looking around the car.
“Afternoon,” Matt nodded. “Is there a problem?”
“No, we’re just making sure that everyone is following distancing behaviors. Where you two off to?”
“She’s uh…she’s not feeling great,” Matt said. “The boss worries she might have the virus, so he’s sending her home and I’m her only option for a ride.”
“What symptoms?” The officer asked.
“Trouble breathing, dizziness, nausea…we’re all wearing masks and gloves, but only a handful of shoppers are still wearing masks.”
“Yeah, I’ve been seeing a lot of that,” the officer said. “She does look a little pale.”
“Boss thought it’d be best not to have her take the bus.”
“Where does she work?”
“Bakery…” Mira stammered. “I was near someone without a mask on the bus this morning on my way in, so that might have been it.”
“Well, I hope you feel better,” the officer said, considering the situation. “Alright, go on through.”
Matt nodded his thanks and pulled through. Mira let out a shaking breath and rubbed her arms. “That was so scary…”
“Sorry, it was the only way out,” Matt said, turning into a smaller street. “What made you say bakery?”
“I like muffins,” Mira shrugged. “I think if I could live in the Above, I would have been a baker.”
Matt grinned and pulled his car over. He took out his phone and dialed a number. While it was ringing on the speaker, Matt checked over his shoulder.
“Hedgefield Police Department…” a woman answered.
“Hi, my name is Matt Brand,” Matt spoke, loudly. “There’s an unmarked police car with an officer engaging with people at the Hedgefield Grocer. I’m curious if it’s legitimate or not…something about it felt wrong.”
“Were you threatened?” The woman asked. “Are you in danger?”
“No, but he didn’t seem like a real cop.”
“What was the license plate?”
“6DL G990…it was an Indiana plate.”
There was a brief moment of quiet and Matt could hear the other woman typing through his phone speaker. “Nothing is coming up in our records…I’ll send an officer over to check it. Even if he’s not threatening people, impersonating an officer is a very serious offense. Thanks for calling it in, Mr. Brand.”
“Thank you,” Matt said. He hung up his phone and looked over to Mira. “That should spook them away from the store. If they’re smart enough, they’ll stay out of the spotlight for a while.”
“Thank you,” Mira said. “You didn’t have to do that so…thanks.”
Even with her mask on, Matt could tell that Mira was smiling so big that there were little creases around her eyes. “So…” Matt asked. “Where do we go from here?”