by Than Pence
Tina, a checkout girl starts hearing a man's voice. Then things get tense.
|“Tee, you’re needed at Twenty.”
“Whatever. We’re opening Twenty.” Garth, tugging his tight shirt collar, continued, his bald head reflecting the fluorescent lights brightly. “Andy and Floretta are gettin’ backed up.”
She sighed, sitting up. “I just opened my…”
“Tina! Now… please!”
“Fine. Fine!” She stood quickly, the metal chair legs stuttering loudly. “But I’m either takin’ a longer smoke break later, or leavin’ early.”
Sighing, Garth said, “You don’t even smoke, Tee.”
Wrapping her sandwich in a paper towel, she said, “Well then I guess I should get rewarded.” Meeting his gaze, she added, “For not being gross and having such a filthy habit.”
Garth rolled his eyes. “Fine. Great. Whatever.” Tripping over his foot, he recovered quickly. “Uh, thanks. Thank you.”
With her lunch in the employee fridge, Tina turned her phone on silent, set it in her locker, and made her way to Check-lane 20.
* * * * *
Hours at the checklane passed and Tina realized that she was being abandoned until closing time. Using one of the attention-getting tools at her disposal, Tina started flashing her light.
After several minutes, Garth showed up, his bald, sweaty head shimmering more than usual.
“Garth, you said I could go early. And where’s Andy anyway? I haven’t seen him since you let him go to the bathroom hours ago.” A customer was making a noticeable beeline toward Tina’s register, causing her pulse to rise a bit: the cart was full.
“Andy got sick and Floretta needs to get home to her kid. He’s sick.”
Rolling her eyes, Tina said, “Garth, I’m tired of getting dumped on because I don’t get sick and I don’t have kids. I’m doing all the work and what do I have to show for it?”
Wiping his lips, Garth said, “A bigger paycheck?”
“And when am I supposed to spend that paycheck if I’m here all the time?”
“Tee, I gotta get this entrance locked up. I’m already late in pulling Andy’s drawer.” The customer, a dumpish looking older woman with two chins and a stained tee-shirt that read Kiss Me, I’m Stylish, began unloading her items. “And you have a customer.”
“Well he’s a douchebag, isn’t he?”
Tina jumped, startled by the man’s voice. “What?”
Dumpy stopped dropping stuff onto the conveyor belt. “Huh?” she gravelled out, the wheeze of a smoker chasing the sound out of her mouth.
“You say something?”
“She didn’t. I did. My name’s Luke.”
“Ma’am, I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to…”
The older woman raised an eyebrow. “See, I don’t care if you think you’re talkin’ to Jesus H. Christ. Jus’ check me out. I wanna get out of here.”
Glancing around the front of the store, Tina saw Garth pushing the last shopping cart into place as he barricaded this side of the store. One other customer was using the self-checkout lane on the grocery side with Bitch Samantha watching her. The tall greeter, Gerald, was at the grocery entrance, his dark skin clashing horribly with this bright yellow-orange vest. He was waving at someone, a man, who had just escaped Tina’s notice. She only saw his dark blue jeans and maybe brown or black hair.
Two old men were coming in the other entrance at the same time, and a few stragglers were mingling around different areas of the store. The overhead music had been dialed down, letting the shoppers think they should hurry with their selections.
“How is this possible? Can you see me?” She couldn’t help smiling at the idea that she was hearing a man’s voice in her head. Dumpy started looking concerned.
“I can. You’re cute. What’s your name?”
“First tell me if this is a real voice and not just me going crazy.”
“The woman in front of you has a purple stain on her butt. Like she sat on some grapes in 1994.”
With a chuckle, Tina looked into the loss prevention mirror on the other side of Dumpy and noticed the stain for the first time.
The old woman didn’t approve. “Are you on drugs, girl? Hurry up! I don’t have all night! It’s bad enough I gotta walk all the way back down to the goddamn entrance when I parked on this side of the store!”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” Tina, focusing on the woman finally, finished checking her out.
But the voice was persistent.
“As soon as you’re done with that woman, come help me in produce. I want to be shown how to thump a melon.” The intruding thought made Tina blush.
* * * * *
For several minutes, Tina silently conversed with what she thought might be a real person or could be a figment of her imagination. Either way, she knew she was stuck here and what else could she do?
She learned that his name was Luke and he was out shopping in the store. He had first noticed her when he came in this entrance and had been staying behind hoping to meet up with her when she got off work. He hadn’t realized until it was too late that she was there until closing, a thought that she hadn’t realized herself until shortly before Luke started talking to her.
He never really was able to explain the telepathy, the way that he was able to speak to her with just his mind. All he would say was that he’d been doing it for as long as he could remember.
Tina saw Garth exit the main office in the center of the store and head toward Bitch Samantha. “Figures he’d pull her register first. I’ve only been working for twelve hours today.”
“That doesn’t sound fair.”
Tina grimaced, not realizing that Luke had been able to pick up such a thought. She was just forming a question to ask him concerning privacy when--
“Shit! What was that?”
Instinctively, Tina ducked at the sound of gunfire. At the grocery entrance, she saw Gerald slump to the ground. Then Bitch Samantha began to shriek and another shot silenced her. Finally, from around the corner of the grocery entrance came a lean man in dark blue jeans, a long-sleeved blue flannel, and a ski mask. He was holding a handgun straight in front of him. One moment after seeing him, Tina watched Garth get shot and slump over Check-lane 4. The two old men who had come in the grocery entrance earlier started yelling, pulling the shooter’s attention.
When he turned toward them to take aim, Tina took her chance and ran.
* * * * *
“What is that?” asked Luke, his mental voice sounding panicked. “Is that gunfire? Is there a shooter in here?”
“Yeah. Call the cops!”
“My phone’s dead. It’s been dead for a while. Remember I’ve been in here… a while.”
“Well, I can’t call. My phone’s in my locker on the other side of the store.”
Tina’s muscles trembled. She’d bolted from her register and ran up the main drag on this side. Small, cheap appliances and dinnerware lined most of the shelves. She wasn’t sure if the shooter had heard her run this way but she couldn’t take any chances that he hadn’t.
Moving into a side aisle, F12, she settled down on the floor and listened.
Screams and gasps appeared to come from the check-lanes and the front of grocery. There was a singular gunshot around the fitting rooms, but Tina didn’t know if Carol had been there or not. As more people became forcibly silenced, the stillness of the store started to suffocate to her. She even started to feel like the hair brushing against her ears was too loud.
“Luke, you still there?”
“I’m here, alive. You?”
“Of course I am. I just asked you! What do I do?”
Luke didn’t answer.
Closer to the front of the store, Tina heard whimpers and moaning. It sounded like an old man. She wondered how many other employees were still in the store this late, zoning their areas. In kitchenware, she knew Trace was in charge, but she couldn’t recall if he was even working today. Her mind raced and she was having a hard time keeping up.
A grunt came up the main drag, freezing Tina. It was followed by a howl and another gunshot. Then silence. That had only been a few aisles away.
“Was that you?”
“No. I don’t know who it was. I didn’t even see anyone else on this side of the store.”
“Is he near you?”
“Sounds like it. And he’s heading my way, I think.” Biting her lip, she furtively glanced through the cup display on the end of the aisle. Down the main drag, Tina could see the legs of the shooter. He walked slow, like he was now taking extra time to glance up each aisle. She turned and soft-stepped down her aisle, thankful that her shoes didn’t make that much noise. “He’s coming up the main drag toward me.”
“The main aisle, man! Where are you?”
Her heart stopped with a lurch. Tina knew he was wrong. Her own aisle sign was staring her in the face: F12
“I mean E-Twelve. Looked like an F with the light.”
Letting her held breath escape, she added, “If you’re clear, get anyone on that side out of here!” She knew people in grocery would be safe if they ran for the entrance: the shooter would have to cross almost the whole width of the store just to get there.
That wouldn’t save her, though.
With this grim thought on her mind, she ducked around the endcap. While the other end of the aisle held cups and tumblers, this end had an assortment of oven timers. Seeing them reminded Tina of the time someone had set the timers to go off at the same time. It had been an annoyingly funny joke that Garth had treated like a criminal case.
“I think I have a plan.”
“Let’s hear it.” Luke’s voice sounded clearer in her mind. Having moved to this end of the aisle, she knew she was closer to E12 in grocery.
“I’m gonna set some timers to go off. He’ll come see what the ruckus is over here and we can run for the door.”
“Why would he come to the sound of a beeping timer?”
With a grim smile, Tina thought, “Because one of them sounds like a person. It says, ‘Come and get it! Come eat, fatties!’”
“That’s… a terrible product. But set it up. Can you see him?”
Inching her face around the aisle she just left, she couldn’t see him.
A dark blue denim leg appeared at that far end and she pulled her head back as she heard him press deeper into the store.
Facing the end cap, she quietly looked for at least one of the talking timers.
“Where all the whores at? I’m ready to give you ALL my money, whores! Consumerist, fascist, whores!” As he yelled, Tina looked to the ceiling and saw pieces of it crumbling down, his bullet having loosened some of it.
Looking left, she saw a body jutting from the end of F7. The weeping sobs and panicked shrieks from minutes earlier hit home. He was wearing a store uniform and it could’ve been Trace, but she wasn’t sure at this distance. With his lifeless form lying there, Tina felt tears start to well up. She then looked forward, wiping her eyes, and found herself staring at oven timers. What for?
“You set up the timer yet?”
“Right. Not yet. Almost.”
“I snuck up to E Four. Gonna cross into the clothes.”
“I’m right on the other side of softlines. As soon as I set it up, I’ll duck in and meet you near the fitting room.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s what we call the clothes.”
“Oh. Won’t he check the fitting rooms for someone hiding?” The question, so clear, was laced with doubt and confusion.
The gunshot from that area still rattled around her mind.
“He already went by there. He won’t check again. He’s heading back toward toys… and I just found a timer. I’m setting it.”
“Good. Meet you there.”
As she set the timer - the ticking now sounded entirely too loud - Tina heard movement coming from her right. The shooter? Was he running down an aisle to this side of the store?
In a panic, she moved into F11 and squatted roughly five feet deep. The runner - shooter - stopped with a squeak of rubber-on-tile. A shallow breath came from that direction, from F14 or F15.
“You okay? Where are you?”
The shots made her flinch but she held her palms to her mouth, keeping the startled screams inside.
“I know you’re there, missy. I can smell you. Your shitty perfume. Smells like you want someone to notice you.” He laughed, a single huff of air escaping his mouth. “Well, someone did.”
“He can smell me! My perfume!”
Something loud clattered from deeper into the back of the store, on the other side of the shooter. She heard him run in that direction.
Without hesitation, she bolted from the aisle into the men’s section of softlines.
“What’d you throw?”
“A mug. He went after it. Come on!” With her pulse racing, she wasn’t sure she heard the words correctly in her mind. It wasn’t as clear.
A shout came from the back of the store near sporting goods. “I’m comin’ for you, missy! And your little dog, too!”
BANG! BANG! BANG!
“What’s he shooting at? Is someone back there?” thought Luke.
“Not unless someone ran back there, no. I guess he’s just making noise. I hope he is, anyway.”
To her rear, the timer went off: “Come and get it!”
“Shit! Why’d I set that up?”
“We thought it would help. Come on. The fitting rooms!”
“Oh, I’m comin’! But I ain’t no fattie,” yelled the shooter. To Tina, it sounded like he was doing a slow walk back to where Tina had just been.
A clatter of metal sounded and she knew he was loading another clip into his gun.
* * * * *
Staying crouched, Tina moved through the hanging clothes until she was almost at the shoes in the center of the store. The fitting rooms were on the right and on the other side of them were women’s clothing, then the check-lanes, and finally the unlocked entrance on the grocery side.
Straight through the rest of softlines, Tina could see the grocery aisles. They were empty. She couldn’t see the floor on that side and wondered if there were any bodies. “Like Trace.”
“Nevermind. Let’s go. Where are you?”
“In a fitting room.”
“Come out. Let’s go! He’s gonna come this way!”
“I can’t. The door won’t open!” Frustration and anxiousness bled through clearly now. “Let me out!”
Suppressing a sigh, Tina angled toward the fitting rooms, quietly wondering if she should even save this stranger named Luke. But she couldn’t dismiss the fact that they shared this unique, telepathic bond. She had never been able to hear someone else’s thoughts, let alone let them hear hers. It was enough to make her desperate to not only save the man, but to spend time with him and see why they were linked the way they were.
“Which one are you in?”
“I didn’t get the number. I just jumped in the only one that was open.”
Tine knew Carol always left Room 4 open so she would have somewhere to sit and eat her cheese puffs without the hassle of a lock. Staying low, she rounded the counter that acted as the last bastion for the fitting rooms… and froze.
Carol was there, dead.
She was sprawled out, her head up against the counter with her chin resting on her chest. Her giant brown eyes were open, unfocused. Her curly brown hair looked flawless as ever. The only blood Tina saw was gathered around a spot on Carol’s chest, dead center.
The sound sent a shiver throughout and Tina immediately moved toward the fitting room: the gunshot sounded like it came from within softlines. Crawling over Carol, half afraid that the chubby woman would reach up and grab her, Tina went into the fitting room area to rescue Luke.
“Where are you, you little slut?” came from nearby; it was a horrific voice, as if he breathed ash when he spoke.
Stifling a cry, Tina slipped into Room 4 and closed the door as quietly as she could, praying that Carol’s body would somehow deter the shooter from looking through the fitting rooms: a sentry as still as they come.
“Where are you?” asked Luke. As clear as it sounded, it felt like he was on the other side of the wall.
“In Fitting Room Four. Which one are you in?”
“Luke, where are you?”
Tina, crouched, began to tremble and she hugged her knees. Her mind racing, she feared for Luke, a stranger she’d never met face-to-face.
Like a wet slap, a jolt shot through her mind:
“What’d you throw?”
Tina knew there were no mugs in grocery… but there were some in kitchenware. Right where the shooter had been standing. And Tina realized she was in the only fitting room that could’ve been open for Luke to slip into. And he didn’t mention Carol at all. Was--
Knock knock knock.
The gentle rap on the fitting room door made her jump; a tiny scream escape unheeded.
“Let me in.”
“Who are you?”
“Let. Me. In.” The pause was palpable. “Now.”
Stopping and starting several times, Tina finally called out, “Who are you?” Her voice cracked. “How can I hear you?”
“It’s me that can hear you. And I make it so you can hear me, too.” A strange sound etched itself through the door, as if the person on the other side was tracing a large circle on the door with the barrel of his gun.
“Why me?” she said more loudly.
“There’s something about you, Tee.” Tina gulped, thinking about Garth and his sweaty bald head and how he was last seen slumped over Check-lane 4. “I can’t usually hear most people as clear as I hear you.”
“Talk out loud!” she screamed, wiping her warm cheeks. “Stop ta-… Get out of m-my head!”
The etching sound stopped. The voice in her head stopped. In the din of silence, an orchestra of sirens cried out to be heard. And they were getting louder.
“The question now is this,” came the deep, vicious voice from the other side of the door. Tina instantly wished he hadn’t started talking out loud as she wasn’t sure which was worse: the seductively velvet voice in her head, or the truly menacing voice out there. “The question is, do I let you live?” He forced a heavy sigh through the door. “Or do I kill you dead?”
With a sob, Tina started trembling again, wishing she could talk to her mom, her sisters, anyone. Anyone besides… him.
She knew that he was just toying with her more, now. That he’d been toying with her since before the shooting began. “Is your name even Luke?”
A snort of laughter bled into the fitting room. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”
With a whoosh, she heard him bolt away from the door, a door that he could easily have broken through. But she wasn’t sure he was gone. “Are you still out there?” The sirens were steadily growing outside.
A strange part of her felt like she should say goodbye, but she realized that was the part that had been fooled by the shooter. “By Luke.”
“Bye to you, too.” Tina gasped, the sudden thought feeling distant, but invasive. “See you ‘round, Tee.”
Realizing he was right, Tina understood that she’d never seen the shooter’s face. And even if they did pick him up, she wasn’t sure she could identify him by his voice alone. She’d mostly heard the normal voice in her head that contrasted harshly with the one the shooter actually used.
Crying more forcefully now with violent sobs and shudders, Tina waited in the fitting room, paralyzed by the idea that a murderous man was running free and he didn’t need to kick down a door to invade her most private thoughts.
Word Count: 3,397