Contemporary Suspense Horror

Just so you know, I hate this time of year.

Oh, I’ve heard some half-wits crow on about what a wonderful time of year it is as Christmas rears its consumerist head and people spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need ,so that after the Winter Festival, they are deep in debt and even deeper into a depression the Winter Festival was supposed to lighten. Whatever they are referring to when they say wonderful, gods know what exactly they are focused on, it’s certainly not the miserable, damp mornings and the dank and depressing afternoons. 

At this so-called wonderful time of the year, darkness leaks into my life and this particular darkness is moist. Cold I can do. Those rare, glorious Winter days when the sun glares at you and challenges you to come out and play on the one day that it privileges you with its presence. Those days are good, but they are also a contrast with the many, many days that are a hint at what awaits us after this all too short and bitter life of ours.

I work the first shift of the day. This is not because I am a morning person. I am certainly not an Autumn, Winter and Spring morning person. Summer is different of course. Summer is a fix of all the light and warmth that we require in order to function properly. 

I take the Summer off every year.

Not from the job that I am currently walking to on this moist and miserable day, my other, proper job. The job that fulfils me. The job I was created for.

This morning is a typical autumnal morning. It isn’t raining and the statistics will show that it has not rained, leading idiots to conclude that the Winter is statistically no wetter than the Summer. This is a ridiculous thing to say because many are the days when it is wet without raining. Today is particularly wet. I am, in effect, walking through a cloud. I walk a gauntlet of water particles that have formed and awaited my arrival such that when I get to the rear doors of the store, I am wet. 

Soggy leaves make the pavement slippery. These are not the dry leaves from the ads. These are not the heart-warming array of reds, yellows, browns and whatever the hell else the director of the ad chooses to throw into the mix. These leaves are dead and they lay there as a warning to every living thing on this planet…

Your miserable time is limited.

“Lovely day for it Malc!”

I nod and grunt at the man that has greeted me. He told me his name once upon a time, I may have listened as he said it, but I’ve never used it and no longer remember what he said, so this is the charade we go through every morning. It will do, it always does.

The store’s back door is wedged open, not as a courtesy to the workers, but because at this time of year, the damp seeps into it and the frame and makes it difficult to close. I tug at it until it reluctantly opens wide enough for me to get in from that damn wet atmosphere, and not a moment too soon. I can feel it in my lungs. I was drowning out there. 

The air in the store is no better. This air is a different kind of bad. This air is dry and warm, too warm even now before the bodies of the shoppers raise the temperature so that it gets stuffy and my head aches. 

I’m here early. I always get here early because I have to prepare myself for what is to come. Get my game face on and face the onslaught. This time of year, the run up to Christmas, is hellish. There are more people and they bring that awful weather in with them. That damp and dark is their mood and I am a target for them. When I lower myself into that seat and they tower over me, they can take a moment to feel better about their humdrum lives and boy, do some of them grasp that opportunity with both of their greasy hands and suck the marrow out of it like they’ve been starved of any validation for an age.

I go into the bathroom and I splash my face with cold water. Washing away my former self. Then I try on a smile for size. I have to try three more until I’m satisfied with today’s mask. 

Walking into the bright lights of the store I expel a long breath and with it as much of myself as possible. The next six hours are to be endured. I leave a little of myself out in the back of my head. Just enough that I don’t switch off completely. I need to be awake and to keep an eye on things or else the day is wasted.

The shop opens its maw and the meat floods in. Most of the meat is unremarkable. That meat is going through the motions, all of them going through the motions. Even the ones who return my plastered on smile. Even the rare ones who seem genuinely kind. If they’re kind, then they’re trying too hard. Trying to squeeze some meaning into their empty lives and failing quite badly. They are not going to get any meaning from me this day.

Someone might. Today might be the day. I do have droughts, though. My longest drought was two weeks, but I was in a funny mood back then and it made me way too picky. I began to worry that I’d lost my touch, or rather my appetite. I got over it, though. Just like buses, three came along in the space of an hour and I was spoilt for choice. Letting two of them slip through my fingers hurt. It’s not often that they slip through my fingers. I found them later and I made amends. Once I see them, I have to do something about them.

Lunch time is the best time. This is nearing the end of my shift and I have to keep it together. The day has been long and I have had no nibbles as the conveyor belt spews the meat towards me. The incessant beep of the items, as I swipe them, sending me slowly bonkers. The anger threatening to bubble up and consume me. I dance the same dance, day in and day out. I fight to keep that terrible smile in place and I vomit my niceties towards the customers as gently as I am able. 

Service with a smile. That’s what it’s all about, and as long as I wear my smile, I remain hidden in plain sight. No one notices the guy sat below them on the checkout. That subservient position makes me invisible to all but a few, special ones.

And here she is! I see her for what she is in the instant that she is revealed. If I was in any doubt, then the look she gives me tells me everything I need to know. She thinks she’s marked me out for special treatment, but how wrong she is!

Today, it’s the cash transaction that she’s going to use as the opportunity to brow beat me, to take her day out on a helpless and defenceless victim. This interaction is her way of showing the world just how important she is and her way of feeling better about herself. By sticking it to someone who can’t give it back. By using her height advantage and the additional advantage of the customer is always right to best effect.

She hands me a twenty, plucking it betwixt finger and thumb from her purse and waving it at me like those keepers wave fish at captive seals. Making me work for it. 

“Did you just touch my bag!?” she hisses loudly at me.

“It was going to get caught on the conveyor,” I explain to her, not that she’s listening to me.

“I don’t want you touching my bag!” her voice is raising, “don’t you dare to touch my things!”

And there we have it, she was an only child and she never shared anything. Except this. This tirade. This weak and pathetic, low level pain. She likes to dish it out, and she does so, often.

I apologise. She expects it, so I say it. I don’t mean it, but nothing I say will placate her. Nothing I do will make it better. That is not the point of this interaction.

I take the twenty and I have the change in my hand, the till shut.

“I have the fifty six,” she announces.

“I’ve already got the change for you,” I counter.

“Well, I don’t want that change. I don’t want all that shrapnel!” she shouts at me. I see the white foam of phlegm on her lips and I imagine it detaching itself and hitting me in the face. Most likely in my eyes. The thought repulses me. She repulses me, but I keep the smile in place. Always the smile in place. I have to keep the smile in place, it is required. It is all a part of the game.

I offer her the change.

She stares at my hand like it is diseased. We have something in common then. Our distaste of each other. There is a difference here though. She has the higher ground and she has the power. If the meat sacks around her were actually human. If they contained a modicum of humanity, they would see that she is unreasonable and that I am reasonable and that dynamic would give me the moral higher ground.

That isn’t so, though. No one will take my side. I am supposed to take this. It’s her money, and she’s spending it, and that gives her the right to do this. 

It’s all part of the service and she’s merely taking what she is owed.

“Are you stupid?” she asks me.

I smile sweetly. Not a smile to confirm my stupidity. Not quite.

“Are you too thick to do the maths?” she growls at me.

I’m really rather good at maths, but she is not to know this. What she sees is a guy on the checkout and that is all she sees and because that is all she sees, that is all that I am. Nothing more and quite probably a whole lot less.

I do my own spot of judging. She may be OK at maths. But I’m assuming she isn’t anywhere near as formally qualified as I am. Furthermore, were I to stand up and step away from the checkout and shed this skin I choose to wear. Were I to stand before her in another guise. Were I to use all of my height and all of my strength, then she would begin to wither before me. Then I would speak, and I would talk down to her. I would run rings around her. Rings that bind and then constrict, and she would do a lot worse than wither.

I maintain my smile. I will have my moment in the spot light too, I think to myself.

“I would need to call the manager to reopen the till, madam,” I explain to her. I could spell it out further. The store is busy. This will take time. She won’t like having to wait, especially as she’s had her fun and the money is here, waiting in my hand.

Now she swears at me as she grabs at my hand and throws the coins in her purse. I zone out of the profanity. There really is no need to get so… emotional. 

“Have a good rest of the day!” I say to her retreating back as she stomps off. 

I am rewarding with a visible stiffening of her shoulder muscles, she slows, but she does not stop. What hit her the hardest was that I meant what I said. I am happy now. She has brightened up my day. The rest of the shift flies by and I return to the grim day outside, spat out of the swollen back door and into the surly darkness, but barely noticing it now as I have purpose and a focus that burns all of that suspended water away.

I have my phone in my hand and for all intents and purposes I look exactly like the rest of the meat. A zombie hypnotised by the light emanating from the rectangle in my hand. The image I am gazing upon is a map, and on the map is a flashing dot. I am pleased to see that I have a three mile walk ahead of me. I always walk. Walking keeps me alert.

Besides, who ever heard of a hunter riding a bicycle?

I was impressed that she saw my hand near her bag. They seldom do. She hasn’t looked inside for the small tracker though. The small, innocuous object that I marked her with as she showed me her real self and invited me to settle the score. If you’re going to take me on in an unfair fight then I’ll do the same right back at you, at a time of my choosing.

Her time is now. 

Two weeks is the longest I’ve gone without the universe presenting me with a meat sack prime for the cull. Two weeks. The procession of the vile and the irredeemable is endless and most days a candidate for my special attention saunters up and passes the interview with flying colours. 

There is no humanity in these creatures. They are cruel and callous. They did not grow when they were supposed to, and now they cannot grow. They are broken on the inside, but few see them for what they are. I do though. They are filled with anger and hate and are capable of feeling nothing other than pain. I will bring them pain, but even then, none of them ever learn. I have never encountered anything other than anger and bile in any of them. They are beyond redemption.

They call me The Pruner and that is close enough. Not everything in a garden grows, and even the healthy plants need to be cut back in order to encourage new, improved and stronger growth. 

I do what no one else can. I identify the terminally ill, those with a disease that they intend to spread. They are predators and they prey on humanity from a privileged place in their midst. No one sees them for what they are, not even as they ply their evil trade. 

Vampires are real.

These emotionless facsimiles that move amongst humanity and exploit that very humanity and feed from people’s desire to care and do good. I’ve seen them hollow out a person until all that is left is what these things are. Hate and anger and pain. 

I don’t for a second believe that I will ever stop them. There are far too many of them for that. But I like to think I make a difference by thinning their numbers. Maybe one day, I’ll find a way to turn one away from all that darkness. I haven’t yet, and they all die hard, denying their very nature until their very last breath. Blaming everyone and everything and never once daring to look at themselves, or me.

Not a one of them has ever dared to look upon me, because you see, when I come a-calling, they see me for what I am. I am one of them, only worse. I eschewed the exploitation of the weak humans and took up a higher calling. I hunt my own kind, and I’m really rather good at it, and I can hide in plain sight. Just like them.

You might say that I enjoy what I do. As I man this check out, my smile is genuine, and this as far as I am concerned, is the season for good cheer. 

Now to deliver my present.

I knock at the door.

She answers, and there is the same mask of hate with a sneer writ large upon it. Now I show her my real face and her mask falls away and I know I was correct in marking this one out. There is a moment, and it is here and now, when their mask falls away and I see what they once were. I see the bud of potential. They never moved on from that most violent phase in life. When all of the act and lies are blown away by my wind of change, I see the small child that they were, but then so too is there callousness, the cruelty that only an emotionless and stunted mind can contain. 

Long, long ago, there was something of the reptile about us. Only it’s still there, and that is what I see now. Her eyes are cold and there is a hunger in them. Her eyes are an invitation, for she would do to me what I am about to do to her. There is nothing else there.

Maybe one day I’ll be met by someone like me. Someone who took the time to think about their sad, soulless life and attempted to find some meaning in it. That will be an interesting day, to discover which of us will prevail. Who is the most practised and experienced? Who will read the situation quicker and act faster?

Which of us is the hungriest?

That day is not today.

This one goes meekly to her end. 

Sad really, it’s as though they always knew I would come for them. It was just a question of time. I swipe again and again, only this time the noise of it does not offend my ears.

November 19, 2022 14:13

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Belladona Vulpa
12:07 Dec 01, 2022

I enjoyed the winter and dark vibes of this story, and I think you made your character very interesting and with a distinct voice. I loved the part where he hides in plain sight and the shifting power dynamics. The part about rude customers who made assumptions and the smiling mask was very relatable. I also enjoyed that you creatively brought vampires into the story with a uniquely new turn. It was nice to be inside his head and contemplations, and what a fun ending fitting to the story with a touch of humor (a sound that does not offend hi...


Jed Cope
13:19 Dec 01, 2022

Thank you! I'm very happy that this story hit the spot. You've grasped all the key elements and commented on them beautifully. Thanks once again, you've made me smile!


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Lily Finch
19:36 Nov 28, 2022

Jed, you made me think about Vampires in a whole new light. A checkout person can obviously be a great 'job' for an undercover vampire so he can cull his victims. That was really creative! I was especially enthralled with his awareness of his victim's response - he has been doing this for a while and has much experience. He remains calm and relaxed and bides his time until it is his turn to turn the tables. Unique and well done. Thanks, Jed for the great read. LF6


Jed Cope
21:12 Nov 28, 2022

Thanks Lily, glad it hit the spot! I find myself thinking of vampires and other, fabled monsters when I consider the dark and monstrous side of human nature. We are capable of great things, but we are also capable of dark acts... A vampire would have a lot of time and experience on their side as well. That in itself giving him an advantage over us mere mortals!


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13:22 Nov 26, 2022

Oh wow, I didn’t expect that! Great story!


Jed Cope
21:56 Nov 26, 2022

Great to hear! I love it when I can deliver the unexpected, glad you enjoyed it!


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Helen A Smith
09:47 Nov 26, 2022

A clever ending Jed. I was not expecting him to actually want to finish her off even if he does see the customers as ‘’meat.” To see culling the worst of them as his higher calling, his real job. I thought he was just completely hacked off with his life and the fact that people treated him like dirt at the checkout. By the way, I can strongly identify with this. For some reason known only to themselves, some customers think they have the right to treat checkout staff like they are something to scrape their feet on. Fortunately, such people...


Jed Cope
10:46 Nov 26, 2022

I'm glad the story drew you in and the ending got you - always good to know I've accomplished what I set out to do! I've been on the receiving end of that sort of unpleasantness from people taking things out on me too, that in part inspired the story. The character was seemingly wasted in his environment, but is that the case when you get to the end and you see how he is using it? It's a brutal conclusion to a situation where someone is not realising their potential and become embittered... Of course, the damp and cold weather does not help...


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21:52 Nov 30, 2022

Jed, sorry but I got so caught up in all of the dampness, moisture, darkness, etc. that it became difficult for me to follow. I was impressed, however, with the patience of the clerk, attempting to turn his day around.


Jed Cope
22:23 Nov 30, 2022

Fair play. You do know how he turned his day around...?


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