Walking IN through the IN doors, Lori once again marvels at how much the scene never changes. The place is big enough, and yet it is so stuffed with shelves and racks that are in turn stuffed with so much crap and merchandise that she feels both small and claustrophobic at the same time. Floors shined to a high polish reflect the hollow neon lights above, casting a green glow from both above and below that gives everyone the look of the walking dead. The hum of commerce, the metallic rattle and squeak of a shopping cart, the beep of numbers exchanging hands via plastic and lasers, the low embarrassed murmur of the overly-conscientious consumer debating whether the $3.49 18oz bottle of Lysol dish detergent is really a better deal than the $4.29 20oz bottle of Dawn (the answer of course dependent on whether he is a member of the S-uper S-avers club), all of it is incessant, never-ending, eternal. That’s the nice thing about working at a ginormously homogenized consumer hellhole: it is nothing if not consistent.
Today, the store is buzzing with nervous energy. Voices are pointed and purposeful. Direct questions are asked and answered. The greeter at the door, a man in his early 60s with a round frame and face that seems to be equal parts Santa Claus and Bilbo Baggins, is so distracted that he does not even see Lori walk past. When he notices her watching him struggle to see around obstacles into the body of the store, he smiles sheepishly.
“Just curious,” he chuckles.
Lori offers him a nod and an earnest (if a bit confused) smile in return, and continues on her way.
As she walks through one of the two dozen checkout lanes and into the office supplies aisle, she catches a glimpse of a man—a manager, going by his clothes -speaking with two policemen. Suddenly interested in the state of the staplers, Lori stops to straighten them out, her hands flitting over the Swinglines as her eyes are pinned to the trio of men two aisles over.
The cops are cops—uniformed, diligent and severe, the younger of the two taking notes while the other stands in silence, arms folded across his chest, watching their subject for signs of monkey business. The manager seems concerned, but not scared. His hands are on his hips, his jaw set in a firm line, his thoughtful blue eyes trained comfortably on the young cop asking the questions. Everything about him, from his collared blue shirt to his pressed khakis to his name tag, pinned in the exact center of his right breast pocket announcing “Hi! My Name is Cooper. How Can I Help You Shop Smart Today?” is completely together, a normal part of the scene that never changes. Everything…except for the smear of blood on his right forearm, and the dampness of the short brown hair just around his brow line.
“Did they take anything?” the young cop asks.
“Not that I saw. They did break that window over there, and one of my stockers said he saw some new graffiti on the side of the building. Other than that, they just…well, you know what they did.”
“Uh-huh. And you’re the one that found him out here?”
“About an hour ago. We were stocking the toilet paper, getting ready for the day—toilet paper’s on sale 2-for-1 from now until Sunday—and I got a call from the back that there was some problem with a shipping manifest. I’m gone for maybe twenty minutes and when I get back…Charlie’s on the floor. Bleeding.”
“What do you think happened?”
“Well…he was on a ladder…maybe he fell?”
“And what, landed face first in an open bear trap?”
“Of course not. He could have fallen on a step, maybe got caught on the corner of a shelf…there’s a lot of sharp edges in these aisles. That’s why we have the Caution: Wet Floor signs for the customers, you know?”
The cops exchange a look, puckering their chins in acquiescence. It seems like they believe him.
“COMING THROUGH! MISS! PLEASE STEP BACK!”
Lori jumps, then presses her back to the shelves as a crew of paramedics surge from the aisle towards the door with their stretcher. As it passes, Lori catches a glimpse of its occupant: a man, maybe in his early 30s, disheveled hair and lolling brown eyes…well, eye. Beneath the oxygen mask and bandages and neck stabilizer, Lori can see that the entire left side of his face is sunken and fractured, as if the skin and flesh and maybe even the eye have been peeled right off his head. His passing torso and legs look lumpy under the pink emergency blanket, perhaps broken or in splints. For a moment, Lori thinks he may be dead.
As the stretcher passes the scene of the interrogation, the man’s head rolls towards Cooper, his hand twitching underneath the blanket in some kind of mute gesture. Then the paramedics push him through the sliding doors, and he is gone.
Lori’s stomach plummets and adrenaline shoots through her arms. She’d know that voice anywhere. She takes a deep breath and forces herself to turn around to face the severe look of Grace Henry, the front-of-house night manager. With her crisp collared shirt, dark red hair as straight as her painfully stiff posture, and a face as impassive as ice with an attitude to match, you’d never believe that she’s been up all night.
“Well?” Grace says, holding her clipboard tight against her chest and tapping a pen on its metallic jaw.
“I…I know. My mom wouldn’t wake up and then when she did she couldn’t find her keys…”
“This is the third time since you started here.”
“The third time in three months.”
“You know that showing up on time is, like…most of this job, right? Anyone can work a cash register. Monkeys, can work a cash register. But we employ human beings because they know how to operate a watch.” Grace’s right eyebrow arches slightly, the only movement in her expression. “Do YOU know how to operate a watch?”
Lori winces. “Yes.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
Grace nods with a stiff single bob of her head. “Okay then. Go put your stuff away and get out there. Register 4. Luckily with all this…chaos, this morning, people aren’t too interested in buying their $5 DVDs and hemorrhoid cream yet, so you caught a break there.”
Lori nods, adjusts the strap of her bag up on her shoulder and, eyes down, attempts to circumvent Grace and make a break for the front right corner of the store and the relative safety of the employee break room.
“Hey! One more thing.”
Lori’s shoulders retract towards her ears, and she turns back.
“Don’t be the last out tonight. I know you like to hang out in electronics after your shift is over…but not tonight.”
A sudden, unwelcome chill sizzles down Lori’s spine, and she shudders. Something in Grace’s voice tells her that this is Very Serious.
“Does this have something to do with…what happened to Charlie?”
Grace’s eyes take on the look of a blazing swamp. “How do you know about Charlie?”
“I don’t! I don’t know anything. Just…just what I saw, just now. Why…”
“Forget about it. It’s not your problem. All you need to know is when your shift is done, clock out and leave. Don’t wait. Okay?”
Lori nods, perhaps a little too vigorously. Grace’s eyes slowly return to their normal muddy brown color.
“And put on your smock. As long as you’re in the building, you should be dressed like an employee.” With that, Grace brushes past Lori, presumably heading back towards the shift manager’s station next to the customer service desk.
Lori shudders again in spite of herself, then digs through her shoulder bag for her blue work smock, the apparel of all the underling counter workers. What is it about Grace that makes her so formidable? The posture, the voice, the ominous eyes…it’s all of that, and yet that’s not it at all.
Lori finishes arranging her smock over her standard black shirt and jeans ensemble, and she is about to turn around and head back to the break room when she finds herself taking one last look at Cooper and the two cops. For the first time since the beginning of the conversation, Lori can see a cloud of worry casting shadows on Cooper’s face.
“Is Charlie going to be okay?” he asks the older of the two police officers.
The cop shrugs his shoulders, pulling his chin into his neck like an ambivalent owl. “He’s been through a trauma, and he’s definitely lost his eye…but they tell me he’s going to live. Whatever you did before we got here seemed to help a lot. You got an EMT on your night crew or something?”
Cooper smiles and looks at the ground. “Nah. I think we just got lucky is all.”
“Well, thanks for your time, Mr. O’Bannon. ”
“Call me Cooper.”
“Okay, Cooper. Would you mind if we ask your team a few more questions. Maybe one of them saw something.”
“No problem at all. Some of them will be clocking out soon—shift change, you know—but I’m sure they’ll want to help you anyway they can. Oh! And if you can’t catch everyone, make sure to check with Simon in security. He might be able to show you the footage from when Charlie got hurt.”
“Oh…well, that’s great. Mind if we start there?”
“Sure. Go to the back of the store, take any door to the stockroom, go all the way to the right wall and then just follow the signs.”
Cooper nods as the cops depart, his smile fading as the distance between him and them increases. At long last he drops his chin down to his neck and runs a hand over his eyes from—exhaustion? Or emotion? Lori can’t tell.
She watches Cooper walk OUT, her lips pursed and her brow wrinkled. Granted, she’s never met Charlie, or Cooper—they are night crew, and stockroom guys from the sound of it. And strictly speaking, there was nothing wrong, exactly, with the way Cooper had been acting in his conversation with the police. But as Lori makes her way towards her locker and the start of another day, she can’t shake the feeling that something is definitely not right.