Staff Only

MegaMart had finally made it to my neighborhood. For a month or so, I couldn’t be bothered to care about it. Back then, I did all my shopping downtown and rode the bus back home with two heavy bags, always standing, while teenage boys lunged on the seats, throwing faux innocent looks my way and pretending not to understand why I was frowning at them.

That evening, though, I’d received a new rejection email concerning a story I’d submitted to an online magazine. Unlike the previous ones, which merely informed me that my stories were not what the editors were looking for, this one deigned to provide a reason. Apparently what I’d sent was “too traditional,” whatever the hell that meant, but the editor felt generous enough to invite me to read the new story that she had accepted and published, probably for the purpose of getting myself schooled on what makes her tick. “Don’t hold your breath,” thought spiteful me.  I had set out to work on a new story, but the fresh rejection had put me in an oh-what’s-the-point-of-it-all sort of mood.

I resolved to spend my evening reading. The book I had begun a few days earlier was an anthology of short stories by a famous horror writer whom I will not name. I don’t even need to name him, because even people who haven’t read a word he’s written heard about him. The story I read that evening was about some guy about to become the subject of an autopsy while still alive and conscious. This sort of thing had happened in several horror movies I had watched and even a music video or two. The author himself gleefully admitted in the afterword that he knew it wasn’t an original idea and he just wanted to write a story of his own on the topic. Coming from an unknown writer, the exact same story would have been rejected for publication almost immediately on account of being derivative and unoriginal. “Rich asshole,” I thought, slamming the book shut.

I was as awake as I could be and had yet another long, lonely night ahead of me. It was a good time for a drink. You see, alcohol makes me cranky, but most of all it makes me sleepy. The closest place to buy a drink was MegaMart.

It was about 9:30 pm, only half an hour before closing time, so the place was nowhere near as packed as it was during the daytime. I kept my head down, swerving to avoid the owners of the pairs of feet that I encountered on my way to the alcoholic beverages aisle.

As it turned out, MegaMart sold my favorite brand of cider. I grabbed a couple of bottles and made for the only counter that was still open at that hour.

While I was rummaging through my purse, looking for my wallet, I heard someone talking to me.

You think you’re trapped? What about me, then?

“Excuse me?” I said, looking at the clerk.

“I didn’t say anything,” the clerk replied.

Indeed, the clerk hadn’t said anything. She was a young woman, and the voice I’d heard was a male one.

Over here, it rang in my head again.

I turned around and my eyes fell on a door marked “Staff Room.” There was no one there. All of a sudden, I felt cold. Finally, all the time I’d spent living on my own and not going out was beginning to take its toll. I was beginning to hear voices. I was finally going mad.

I couldn’t move. I just stood there, staring at the staff room door.

“Are you OK?” the clerk asked me.

Then, someone came out of the staff room. It was a middle-aged woman with a fed-up look on her face. I could see the word “manager” on her name tag. When she noticed me looking in her direction, she started, then froze in place.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just leaving.”

Her eyes seemed about to burst out of her skull.

“H-h-ave a good evening,” she stammered.

I smiled to let her know I had come in peace and was not a dangerous person by any means.

“You too,” I said, making for the exit.

You’ll be back, the voice said.

I halted. “Excuse me,” I said, turning to face the manager, “did you say something?”

Her eyes grew even larger and she propped herself against the wall, like someone about to faint.

“I’ll just go,” I said, and hurried to do just that.

Back at my place, I put the cider in the fridge and resolved to forget about it. I did remember it, though, a couple of days later, when, after not having heard any more voices in my head, I decided that it had all been a stress-related thing. I probably just needed to get more sleep.

Since my writing career was dead before it even had a chance to begin, I spent the first days of the next week at my computer, searching for jobs abroad. I eventually found two or three ads that looked good, but I never went past reading them. I had a pretty good resume. I had experience in the field. I knew there was no harm in trying, but, as usual, I fought hard to convince myself that it was pointless, and that they would never bother with me, even though the ads clearly said that they welcomed applications from other countries. So, instead of submitting applications, I went to MegaMart to buy some cider.

To my horror and embarrassment, the same manager who had looked at me as if I had an extra head happened to be working the counter evening. I only wanted cider, but I pretended to check out some of the other aisles, while in fact looking around to see if any of the clerks walking around the store would step up to any of the closed cash registers. It was no use. I knew stores like this one always keep only one cash register open during the last hour, and it was past 9 pm again.

Trying to look as relaxed as I could, I stepped up to pay for my cider. The manager jumped when she saw me, but I managed to keep my poker face on.

“Cider again?” she said in what she probably thought was a casual tone, but I noticed that her voice was shaking.

“That’s right,” I beamed.

She handed me my bag, and I was about to turn around and walk out, when the voice spoke again.

You think you’re in prison, it said, but you are not. I am.

Before I could stop myself, I had turned towards the staff room door. I could feel the manager’s eyes boring into the back of my head, but I pretended not to notice. I took in a deep breath, straightened my spine and walked out.

That week, I received an email from one of the publishers I translate for. They had work for me, which made me glad, because it meant money, but especially because I could keep my mind off that voice. After a few days of locking myself in and working around the clock, I clicked a satisfied “Send” on the email to which I’d attached the translated files and thought I deserved some cider for the hard work.

I put on some relatively decent clothes and started for the MegaMart. Of course there was no voice. It was all in my head. Luckily, the work had set my mind straight, and now I’d have some cider to help me fall asleep.

As if to spite me, this time, the voice did not wait for me to get to the cash register. In fact, it did not even let me get close to the alcoholic beverages aisle.

Come and see me, and you’ll see how free you really are, it said, just after I’d stepped through the door.

It was the third time I had heard it and, as they say, third time’s a charm. I was not imagining it. I’d heard it every time I’d gone to the MegaMart, and I’d heard it only inside the MegaMart. I forgot all about the cider and rushed out. There was a smoking place outside and I opened my bag, looking for the open pack I’d thrown in there about a couple of months ago, when I’d decided to quit smoking.

“Well, that’s gone down the toilet now,” I muttered to myself.

Just then, the manager came out, a cigarette between her lips. I quickly zipped up my bag and began to walk away.

“You wait just a minute,” she ordered me, and, in spite of myself, I turned back around.

“You know,” she said, “I used to run my own real estate business, but in this economy -”

“Yeah, ” I nodded nervously. “The economy sucks.”

“You shut the hell up and listen to me!” she snapped.

Not letting me out of her sight, she lit her cigarette.

“It never even talks to me,” she said, taking a long drag, “It just – it just lies there! It doesn’t even ask for food!”

Her voice was growing louder and shriller. I lifted one foot and placed it tentatively behind me.

“It always looks like it’s dying and, you know what,” she continued, without noticing my feeble attempt at getting away, “I wish it would just fucking die already! I just want it gone!”

I was about to move my other foot back, but, just then, the manager took a step forward and the suddenness of it made me freeze in place. Her face was inches away from mine.

“It talks to you!” she said, her lips pulling back in a crazed grin. “Don’t try and tell me otherwise, because I’ve seen you. You come here to get your goddamn cider and when you get to the counter you always look towards the staff room! It talks to you and you can hear it!”

“B-b-but,” I began, tentatively, “I only bought cider here, like, twice.”

“That’s enough for me,” she said, stamping her cigarette into the ashtray.

Then, before I could do anything, she grabbed my wrist and dragged me back inside. A young employee, who had been keeping busy along one of the aisles, saw us making for the “Staff Only” door and shot the manager a confused look.

“It’s OK,” she reassured him. “She’s with me.”

She placed her hand on the door handle and paused, looking at me.

“He can’t see it,” she whispered, with a head jerk toward the young man we had passed. “None of them can see it. They just trip a lot, but everyone fucking trips, so they have no clue. Only us managers can see it, don’t ask me why, because I have no damned idea why – I didn’t read the goddamn fine print when I signed the contract.”

Then, she frowned at me, “And as for how you can hear it, I don’t even –”

She paused, then sighed and shook her head.

“The point is,” she said, “It talks to you and it shouldn’t, but it does, and maybe you can convince it to go away.”

She opened the staff room door and shoved me inside before I could even open my mouth to protest. I heard the door slam shut behind me, and, in the silence that ensued, I slowly became aware of something watching me. I turned around and saw it – the very “it” she was talking about. Perhaps I was too stunned to be terrified, but my first thought was not to scream, or to bolt for the door and run back home as fast as my feet could carry me. My first thought was of how old it looked. It had a great lion’s head with a long mane, but I could see that it was shaggy and lusterless. The eyes, too, had lost their shine. They must have been golden once, but now they were merely yellow and bloodshot. The paws that the head rested on were more like bird’s claws – like the claws of a colossal eagle –, but they were blunt and cracked. On its back it had wings, and I could see that if it were to open them, they wouldn’t fit inside the room. They looked fragile and covered in dust, like the wings of a gigantic moth. I thought they couldn’t do much good, even if it were able to open them.

The creature drew its lips back. I tried to move, but I could barely even breathe. I thought that this was it. Even as old as it looked, a monster was still a monster, and this one was about to lunge forward and bury those lion fangs into my throat. Still, I forced myself to keep my eyes open. This creature was the sight of a lifetime, and, granted, it would be the last sight of my lifetime. It did not attack me, though. It spoke.

“Oh, it’s you,” the monster said, and my jaw must have dropped open as I recognized the voice in my head. “About time.”

I could think of nothing to say in return.

“I won’t bite,” the creature said. “Too tired for that. Do come closer, I’m really old and can barely crawl.”

It could have been a trick for all I knew, but, before I even realized what I was doing, I was facing the creature, kneeling before it, my eyes level with its eyes.

“What’s your name?” I asked, since asking it what it was would have been rude.

“My name?” he repeated. “Damned if I know.”

Then, after some thought, he added, “I think I knew it once, but I forgot.”

Up close, it looked even worse than before.

“Are you dying?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m always dying,” the creature replied in a weary tone. “Ever since I was brought here, I’ve been dying.”

I heard the door creak and I knew the manager was leaning against it, trying to listen in. I felt a sudden surge of hatred. She just wanted him gone. Here was a fantastic beast that had miraculously appeared in the most boring place ever and, to her, he was just an inconvenience. I’m not going to repeat the words I whispered through clenched teeth.

“It’s just a side effect of being summoned,” the creature continued, ignoring my language. “This is how it goes. Someone stumbles across a book they’re not supposed to stumble upon and they learn that if they summon one of my kind, it means guaranteed luck and prosperity for their enterprise.”

I nodded. “Then the person who started MegaMart must have summoned you,” I said. “But this one here only opened a few months ago.”

“Doesn’t matter,” the monster replied, shaking his great head in sadness. “I just move from one of these places to the next. In fact, I think I might be about to go now.” He paused and gave a great, ancient sigh. “That’s how it works. You’re summoned and bound, and you can’t live anymore, so you begin to die, except you can’t. Not while you’re bound. So you just move and move, but every place you move to is the same as the last.”

“Is there any way you could go back to where you’re from?” I asked.

“There should be,” he said. “After all, every doing has an undoing. It must be written in a book somewhere, but no one of yours has ever found that book, I’m afraid.”

“So you’re bound to this world,” I said, “and to this business.”

The monster produced a resigned rumble of confirmation.

I took in a deep breath.

“Does that mean I might see you again?” I asked, blurting out the thought that had just formed in my mind.

The creature gave another sigh.

“How would I know?” he said.

Then he was quiet. I began to run my fingers through the shaggy mane, not daring to look into the creature’s eyes, until I felt its head sink. It lay in my lap, not moving. It took me a while to realize that I was crying. I wanted to scream, I wanted to sob, but the thought of that woman hearing me filled me with disgust. How could she know? How could she understand how much I had needed something like this creature to pull me out of the darkness in my head? And it was gone, only minutes after I found out it was there. I buried my face in the creature’s mane. I let my tears melt into it. When there were no more left, I let my eyes close.

The next thing I know is that I woke up and saw that I was hugging my knees against my chest, resting my head on them as on a pillow. My cheek felt raw from the contact with my jeans, so I began to rub it, looking around. There was no sign of the creature.

I got to my feet, went to the door and, as I pressed the handle and pushed it open, I heard a gasp on the other side. Not without satisfaction, I realized that the manager must have been dozing against it and I’d startled her. As I walked out, she blinked and shook her head at me, not daring to ask the question out loud.

“It’s gone now,” I said, without looking at her. When she replied, “Thank you,” I pretended not to hear her and kept walking.

This wasn’t so long ago, but it feels like whole years have passed. I keep busy writing my stories and I’m glad to say I managed to finish a lot of them, even some previously abandoned ones that I had begun years ago. I also send out more resumes than I used to and go out more often. It’s still a pretty solitary life, but I don’t feel as gloomy about the future as I did before.

I still pass by MegaMart while walking to and from the bus station, but only because it’s on the way. I don’t go in anymore, though I sometimes see the manager out on her cigarette break. “Haven’t seen you in a while,” she always says. I just nod and continue along my way. There’s a new place that opened down the street, and they sell my favorite brand of cider.

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