The snow sticks to my pyjama pants—I knew I should’ve put on jeans, but my bones just ache so much. I fumble with the car keys, which feel unduly clumsy between my fingers.
I should’ve just stuck out the fever at home.
The parking lot is bare, with only my car and a small pickup truck, but there are lights on in the grocery store so I suppose they’re still open. The employees must park in the back, I guess. The wind blows faster, cutting through my ratty sweatshirt. If I’d known there was going to be a blizzard I wouldn’t have risked driving here, but now I’m here and it’s too late, so I stumble my way blindly towards the bright lights.
Although the automatic doors swing open with a ding, just like normal, the air seems far too stagnant, too dry, and when I step inside, the lights are far too bright, although that could also be my fever. I grab a cart, although I really only need to grab the ibuprofen and go. The word “pharmacy” swirls before my eyes—that’s not a good sign, is it? The air conditioning is on too high and the spots on my pyjama pants were the snow was are freezing now. My face is burning, but my arms are covered with goosebumps.
I regret looking for anything specific. The words “ibuprofen”, “acetaminophen” and “analgesic” have far too many letters and far too many syllables and they swim around my head as I try in vain to find what I need. What do I need again? Do I want a fever reducer or do I just ant something to deal with my headache? What do any of these words mean? I just want to go home.
I’ve only got three bucks so I just pick the smallest bottle that has the word “pain” on it and hope it’s what I’m looking for. I’d ask an employee, but there don’t seem to be any around. In fact, even when I walk up to the register, there’s nobody around. I pocket the bottle—hopefully nobody thinks I’m stealing anything—and slowly trudge towards the dairy aisle. There’s probably some workers back there, right? That feels right.
There are no employees in the dairy aisle. Unfortunate. I rub my eye with my fist, as if that’ll help anything. Time to check every aisle. I feel like a child again, looking for my mother after fetching the milk or something.
Maybe the grocery store was actually closed when I walked inside, although I can’t fathom why it would’ve been unlocked then. Maybe it’s all an elaborate plot against me. Maybe it’s been a dream the entire time. There are no employees in any of the aisles. Super.
I’m about ready to just leave my three dollars by customer service and just go when I suddenly hear something snuffling from the deli counter.
“Hello?” Maybe all the employees are hiding from me. I wouldn’t blame them. “Hello? Is somebody there?”
I have to strain to hear it, but there’s definitely something alive behind the counter. “I just want to pay for this, please?”
It’s rude to go behind the counter, I know, but my head hurts so bad and I just want to go home. As politely as I can, I lean over the counter and look down at an infant.
Forgoing politeness, I careen myself over the counter and, once I’ve regathered my senses, lift the infant from the floor. It’s not crying, which is nice. In fact, as I set it on the counter, it turns its head and giggles at me.
The infant doesn’t respond except to squirm merrily. It’s eyes are a strangely familiar shade of brown—where do I know that color from?
There’s nobody in the entire store—whose kid could this be? I’ve never been a huge fan of babies, but it’s inordinately cruel to just leave an infant in a grocery store during a blizzard.
I pat it’s bald head awkwardly. “Who are you, uh, little one?” Shoot, should I even touch the baby? I’m almost certainly infectious with something. Maybe I should call the police? I slap my pockets with reckless abandon. No phone. Great. The baby giggles at my lack of foresight. “What’s going on?” My head is pounding.
The baby sits up, although I could’ve sworn it didn’t seem old enough to do that before. It watches me curiously, drooling ever so slightly.
“Okay, well, uh, alright.” I glance up at the security cameras. Surely someone has seen us? Surely someone is coming? Without my phone, I don’t know what time it is. The windows only give me a view into darkness, speckled by the billowing white snow, and the inside is no different—time passes differently in grocery stores. I could’ve sworn it wasn’t that late at night when I started driving, and it can't have been that long since I entered the grocery store. I turn away from the baby for a second—it’s not old enough to climb off the counter, is it?—and cup my hands around my mouth. “Hello? Anyone? There’s a baby here! Hello? Somebody come get your baby please!”
I swivel my head towards the baby, shooting my headache back into full action. “What?”
The baby’s familiar brown eyes meet mine with an unsettling stability. “Buh!”
“You can… talk?”
“Ben?” Maybe that’s its name. “Is your name Ben?”
The baby pouts. I guess that’s not their name.
“Ben… beniam! Veniam!”
“What?” Maybe English isn’t this kid’s first language.
They smile at me with more teeth than I think a child should have at that age. “Veniam! Nemo veniam!”
“Uh.” I look around again. Nobody is coming. “Here, kid, let’s go look for someone.” I lift the baby from the counter—they’re heavier than I thought, or maybe I’m just weaker than I expected. The baby doesn’t seem to mind my wavering steps. Instead, they put their clammy little hand on my forehead and suddenly I feel a little better, like the heat has been drawn away from my forehead. Maybe being up and walking around is helping? I saddle the baby on my hip and try to ignore their chubby little feet kicking into my bladder. I’d love to use the bathroom, I realize, but I don’t know what I’d do with the kid. “Do you think anyone is down the baking aisle, kiddo?”
“Minime,” the baby babbles, kicking me right in the kidney. “Minime! Nimis perditus!”
“Correct! There is nobody in the baking aisle!” I walk down it anyway. The baby weighs more heavily on my hip, making the medicine bottle dig into the top of my thigh. I handle it for about eight more steps before the baby’s weight becomes too much to bear. “Sorry, buddy, I’m going to have to put you down.”
When I lower the baby down to the floor, they set down their feet and stand far more steadily than I would have expected. They look up at me with expectant brown eyes. Those eyes are still achingly familiar, but I still can’t place it. They bobble their head while I stretch, dancing to music that isn’t playing, and their curls bounce merrily. Did they always have this much hair? They must have. The fever must have made my memory fuzzy. When I bend to pick them up again, the toddler reaches out and grabs my hand instead. I guess they want to walk.
Together, we walk past the baking aisle and into the aisle with various canned foods. The toddler tugs at my hand, and points to a plastic package of peaches. “Persicum!” they crow, delighted.
I do my best to be supportive—children were never really my forte—and respond “Yes! Those are peaches!” Hope I didn’t deprive some poor parents of this kid’s first word.
“Persica! Persica! Pea… Peaches!”
My headache is waning now, much faster than I expected. Maybe I’m not sick anymore after all. “Great job! Peaches!”
“Peaches!” There’s nobody in the soft drink aisle either. I’m beginning to think there’s nobody in this store at all. Should I cut my losses? I can’t leave this kid here. Maybe I could stop by the police station on the way home. The blizzard hasn’t let up yet, and this kid is just wearing a tee shirt—no coat or anything. I don’t even know if the police station is open—it looks to be pretty late. Taking the kid home with me—that’s probably a bad decision, isn’t it? Child endangerment, maybe? Or neglect? Kidnapping? All my Criminal Minds expertise isn’t coming in hand here. I can’t exactly leave them here though. “Hey, kid?”
The child looks up at me and I could’ve sworn I knew that face from somewhere. “Yeah?”
“Do you know where your parents are?”
The kid shrugs.
“No? Do you know who brought you in?”
The kid shrugs again.
“Alright.” I guess we’ll keep looking through the aisles. “How about the frozen vegetables? Think there’s an employee down that aisle?”
“No!” The child swings my hand and giggles and, once again, is right. There’s nowhere down there either.
“Alright.” I’m running out of aisles to recheck. “Maybe we check the back?”
The kid smiles at me. It’s so familiar I think I’m going to scream. “Yes!”
“Alright then.” The child and I wander off towards the back. I feel bad, pressing past the sign that says “No Customers, Employees Only,” but I’m not sure what choice I have. The back is dark and smells weird—out of the corner of my eye, I see the child wrinkle their nose in disgust. “Hello?” I call, and my voice echoes among the stacks and shelves of dented donuts and unstocked cants of lentils. “Is anyone there?”
Nobody responds. I don’t know what I expected. The child nervously pulls me by the hand—they want to get out of here, and I can’t blame them. It’s creepy back here, and the general vibe of misdemeanor that I feel from even existing back here is overwhelming. I let them drag me back through the door.
Once we’re out of the back, the child quickly jerks their hand away. I suppose they’re too old to hold hands now, and they’re probably embarrassed about being spooked back there. A real adult would say something comforting. “So, uh, kid.” I should stop calling them kid. “What’s your name?”
The child looks at me with narrowed eyes. They’ve stopped smiling at me all the time. We walk a few more paces towards the front of the store in complete silence.
“Nevermind, sorry, it’s not—”
“Alex,” they say. We stop in front of the doors.
“Hey, that’s my name too!” I hardly feel sick anymore. “Maybe we should wait out the storm in here, do you think?”
The kid shrugs. “I dunno,” they mumble. They seemed so confident before, but now they just seem so lost and confused.
“Or maybe we should try to leave? I’ve got a car, I can take you anywhere you want to go.”
Alex looks uncertain, as if they’re not sure where that would be.
“Who brought you here? If you have a phone we could give them a call.”
“No, I don’t have one.” Alex digs in their pockets uncertainly, as if they don’t know. They only pull out a single silver key.
“Oh, did you drive yourself?” The kid looks a little too small for that, but who am I to judge? I went into high school looking like I was ten.
“No, I don’t think so.”
I purse my lips. Alex’s jeans will be a little warmer than mine if we go out into the cold to get into my car, but they won’t fare much better than I. “Maybe I could pull my car around then?” I lean towards the door, but the minute the sliding doors open, my headache returns and my flesh burns fevered again and something in the dark tugs me towards it, just as Alex screams “No!” from behind me and yanks me back inside. The sliding doors slam shut. I didn’t know they could do that.
My breath is ragged. “What was that?”
Alex grabs me by the shoulder and yanks me around to face them. “What were you thinking? You can’t go out there!” We’re almost nose to nose, and I definitely recognize those eyes. Their shade is so familiar, it’s driving me crazy.
“What was that?”
“You can’t go out there!” Alex places a palm on my forehead and the heat dissipates into their hand.
“What’s going on?” I touch my forehead. It doesn’t hurt anymore. “Who are you?”
“I’m Alex,” says Alex, standing just as tall as I do, facing me. “I’m Alex.”
“I’m Alex,” I say.
They nod. “I know.”
I feel the bottle of pills in my pocket, jutting into my thigh, but when I pull it out, it’s already empty. “Where are we?” It was a grocery store a second ago, I’m sure, but all the produce and the merchandise is gone and everything is sterile and white.
“We never left,” Alex says.
I shiver—the air conditioning in the grocery store is up too high. Alex takes their sweatshirt off and ties it around my shoulders like a cape. “I like your shirt,” I note. “I’ve got one just like it.”
They pluck at the material. “Thanks. Are you feeling warmer?”
“A bit.” I look back out at the blizzard that had so desperately wanted me. “Where did my medicine go, do you know?”
“It was taken,” Alex answers. They brush my rank hair behind my ear. “You shouldn’t try to go outside again.”
“Duly noted.” I stretch my back. Everything is just a little bit sore. “I won’t try to do that. I would like to go home though, especially if I have nothing to buy.”
“I can help you get home,” Alex offers.
Alex reaches into their pocket and pulls out the silver key. “Sure.”
When I go to take the key from their palm, they yank it back.
“Not for you, Alex.”
I rub my arm, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Alex smiles and brushes their thumb next to my eye, like my mom used to do when I was sick. “Don’t worry about it. Hold out your hand.”
“Your hand,” they repeat expectantly, holding out their own. I place my hand into theirs and before I can respond, they shove the key into my wrist, and my arm splits in two, opening up into brilliant white light. I can’t even scream—I don’t know if it’s shock or surprise or just that I can’t feel any pain—but I don’t scream, not even when Alex presses their hand into mine and we merge and slide into one being and when I blink again, it’s their brown eyes I open, not mine, even though our eyes look exactly the same.
And when I blink again, my sheets are covered in sweat and sticking to my legs, and I can breathe again.