“This way!” Grace takes the lead while Nathan and Lori follow her along the wall of the seemingly limitless and monotone stockroom toward the back office. It is a dingy room, its walls lined with small lockers the color of dried phlegm. The only furniture is a metal desk covered with a layer of papers and an ancient office chair that looks like it would be hell on your back. There are no windows or doors to the outside. With the exception of the row of windows looking into the rest of the stockroom, it is a low-ceilinged concrete box.
Between the desk and the lockers is a wooden door with a square window, reinforced with thin wires inlaid in cross-hatched formation, like the doors of the high school classrooms Lori remembers from…about a million years ago, it seems.
Grace rips a keyring out of the front pocket of her jeans and inserts a key into the deadbolt. Lori has seen Grace’s work keyring before—a crowded but austere jumble of keys, and keys alone. This ring is not that ring. This ring has two keys, and one key chain, which Lori will later discover is plastic and similar to a snow-globe except that it is flat, the back of which reads “Jesus is my designated driver. Branson MO.” Floating inside is gold glitter, and tiny gold plastic crucifixes and martini glasses. It’s not a trinket Lori believes would be Grace’s style. And it’s not. Later on, Lori will also find out that it was a gift, the significance of the giver being the only reason Grace did not immediately toss it in the trash.
“There’s too many of ’em! That door isn’t gonna hold!” Cooper bursts into the office as a loud crash several yards away makes his announcement redundant.
“Downstairs! Go!” Grace yanks Nathan’s arm, tossing him into the darkness beyond the door. Lori dives past Grace, following Nathan into the basement.
The stairs are narrow, very steep, and empty into a long and narrow hall penned in on all sides by grey cement. It’s dim, lit only by a few bulbs ensconced in the walls. It smells like dirt and standing water. Through the murky light, Lori can just barely see the outline of a dark door at the end of the hallway. A strange shimmer of blue light spills out from the crack at the bottom..
“The safe room! Get to the safe room!”
It was all so strange, so surreal, so…alien. Is she still even in the store, the place she has come to day after day for three months? The place that up until today has seemed so mundane, even bland? And now this…how could she have missed all this?
“Move it or lose it Lilac!” Nathan grabs her hand and begins dragging her down the remainder of the stairs. “And I don’t mean that metaphorically either!”
Behind and above them a loud growl emanates from the space just outside the door, followed by what sounds to Lori like a baby sucking on a bottle only a hundred times more drooly and wet. She doesn’t want to think about the creature making that noise, or what it must be doing now. She clamps her hand around Nathan’s and forces her sore, aching legs to make one last effort. A few dozen feet to save her life.
Down the stairs, into the hall, past one two three four bulbs the door growing bigger with every step. Almost there…
There is the repeating crack of Cooper’s shotgun, and she hears footsteps pounding down the concrete behind her. Two sets…wait. No. Only one.
Lori turns to see Cooper, his face bloody except where rivers of sweat have cleared away the gore. She strains her neck to peer around him, to see Grace.
But there is no Grace.
Lori grinds to an unconscious halt, so sudden that Cooper has to barrel his shoulder into the wall to avoid running into her. Nathan tugs at her immobile hand. “Lilac, let’s go! We’re practically there!”
At the end of the hall, Lori sees her: pale, tall, thin, her back to them, her arms raising her hammer above her head as a gargantuan mound of evil flesh claws at her leg, it’s skull almost ripping itself in half as it opens wide and prepares to sink all seventy million of its pointy teeth into her. She brings the hammerhead down into its face with a mighty thud.
The thing screams. And so does Grace. Clutching her right shoulder, she drops her weapon and falls to her knees, apparently blinded to the threat still very much alive and just inches away from her injured body.
“Gracie!” Cooper’s voice is higher and almost fanatical. He fumbles with the shotgun magazine, struggling to reload the weapon with shaking hands.
“Cooper, do something!” Lori wails. “It’s gonna kill her!”
As the thing arches above the helpless Grace for another attack, Lori hears a faint click, followed by a soft breeze as the door opens behind them.
Cooper falls to the floor without hesitation, and Lori finds herself doing the same. She covers her ears instinctually, if not telepathically, as a rocketing boom threatens to cave in the slight hall and causes the monster towering over Grace to explode into a hellish firework.
The sound of the shotgun blast takes almost forever to fade. When it finally does, Lori peeks her head out from under her arms to see the person standing in the doorway that Grace, and probably all of them, owe their lives to.
He’s nobody Lori has ever seen before, and yet there is something about that arrogant smirk that seems very familiar. He’s older but still good-looking, his black hair dusted with gray and a serious five’o’clock shadow. As he lowers the smoking Remington double-barrel shotgun, Lori notices a glint of metal in his right hand…no, not in it. Over it. It looks like he’s wearing a metal glove. He’s outfitted in the standard work uniform—blue collared shirt and dress pants-and Lori sees that he is even wearing a name tag like the rest of them.
Welcome to S-Mart.
“Well well well…you guys really screwed up this time.” Lori can’t tell if he is angry, amused, or just taking pleasure in being kind of a jerk. She looks to Cooper, who sighs, seeming to neither agree or disagree with Ash’s statement. Down the hall Grace, covered in monster guts and holding her limp right arm to her stomach with her left arm like a sling, is slowly dragging herself to her feet.
“The portal’s collapsed, no thanks to either of you.” He slouches against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his shotgun as he watches Cooper, Nathan and Lori pick themselves up from their various states of dishevelment. “Meanwhile I’ve got pureed hellbeasts all over Aisles 11, 12 and 13. It’s a damn Jamba Juice out there and wouldn’t you know it, our cleaning crew is in the hospital and short half a face.”
His brown eyes fall on Lori for the first time, and they narrow—not in anger or annoyance that she can tell, but curiosity. “And to top it all off…I have these two little goofballs to deal with.”
Cooper runs his hand through the hair on the back of his head, nodding sheepishly. Grace has come up behind them now, her hammer scraping a deep grating groove down the length of the hall.
Ash’s eyes move over to Nathan, where he spots the six—or rather, five-pack in Nathan’s grubby hands.
“Well helllooo there! I’ll take that, thank you.” Nathan barely reacts as Ash grabs the beer from his arms. Cracking one open, Ash gulps down half the can in half a second. “Ah! Good stuff.” Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Ash looks from Nathan to Lori, smiling and nodding thoughtfully. “I like the way you two think. Yeah…this might just work out after all.”
Grace’s ears perk up.
“Work out? Work out what?”
“They saw everything, Henry. They know what`s going on, more or less.” He jabs the beer can towards Nathan. “This one knows combustibles. And the other one brought beer! They’re geniuses. We’d be crazy not to bring ’em onto the team.”
“They’re children, sir. And I’m pretty sure they were going to steal that beer.”
“Ah, so what?
“I’m pretty sure that’s a crime sir.”
“Hey, what you call a felony I call vision.”
Grace smiles that amused, annoyed smile again. “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
Lori is stunned to see Ash return a perfect mirror of her expression. “Say Gracie, be a peach and go close the door would ya?”
Grace’s smile drops from her face. Her eyes narrow in full-on irritation, but she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she flings the arm of her hammer against the wall, presumably in preparation for her long walk back down the hall.
Ash turns back to the rest of the team. “Alright now! We’ve got a lot of work to do with you kids. If you think you’ve seen something now…brother, you don’t even know the half of it.”
With that, Ash retreats into the safe room, knocking back the remainder of his beer as he goes.
Cooper smiles, almost apologetically, and extends his arms like he is herding children to bed. “Okay, you heard the man. Let’s go.”
Lori looks at Nathan. Even though they hadn’t left each other’s side all night, Lori feels like she hasn’t seen him for years. It even looks like he has aged. In the span of thirty minutes, Nathan’s gotten about ten years older.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Grace bursts into Lori’s reflections. “Do you have any idea how rare this is? How few people ever get to see what you are about to see?”
“You call this a privilege?” Lori snaps her question at Grace before she even knows what she is saying. “This is…crazy! It’s insane!”
Grace’s mouth drops open, her face a mix of shock, confusion, anger…pride?
“This is…do you have any idea how important this is? Or what would happen if we were not here?”
“Grace,” Cooper’s soft tone stops her from ramping up her rant. “They don’t know. Of course they don’t. How could they?”
He looks between Lori and Nathan. His brow furrows and his mouth becomes a tight little line. It’s an odd expression that makes Lori feel unsettled—she’s not used to seeing concern directed her way.
“But you will know it soon enough.”
Cooper pats Grace’s good arm. “I’ll close the door. You head on inside. I’m sure the doc will want to look at that shoulder—again.” He picks up his gun from where he left it on the ground as he starts walking back down the hall. “See you in a minute.”
Lori watches him go, then turns backs toward the blue glow of the safe room. Under the overhead lights inside she can see outlines of people engaged in small flurries of activities. Television screens. Piles of guns. And off to the left side of the room, she spots the familiar face of the store greeter, the man who attended to the seizing woman earlier…the woman that Lori now realizes was probably not actually having a seizure after all. He is standing next to an inclined bed of sorts, reviewing papers on a clipboard. On the tables next to him are pill bottles and bandages of various sizes.
The doctor looks up from his clipboard towards the door, and Lori’s eyes catch his. Much to her surprise, he smiles, and offers a small nod of hello. There isn’t the slightest hint of confusion in his face, but Lori’s growing bewilderment more than makes up for it. He seems almost like…he was expecting to see her tonight.
His gaze shifts to Grace, and her injured arm. The smile disappears and he sighs, flipping his index finger at Grace in a gesture to come over. His irritation is visible.
Grace sighs. “You know how when you go to the dentist they always yell at you about not flossing?” Lori nods. Grace looks back at the doctor. “Yeah…” She starts to walk through the door, but Lori stops her on the threshold.
Grace pauses, but doesn’t turn back.
“There is one thing I gotta know.”
“Why…why is the happening?”
Grace stiffens. She raises her head and looks forward into the room. Lori follows the direction of her eyes to where Ash stands at a table, watching a closed circuit security monitor and sucking down another beer.
“Because a good man made a mistake.”
Grace tilts her head to the side.
“Or two mistakes. Or…three?” She shakes her head. “Mistakes were made. That’s all you need to know.”
With that, Grace vanishes into the room.
For the moment, Lori and Nathan are alone in the long, quiet hallway. They look at each other. Nathan arches an eyebrow.
“Man…your mom is gonna be so pissed.”
Lori giggles, but only because she feels like crying. They both know what`s happening here. They both know it is the last day of what they used to be, and the first of…something else. This…whatever this is.
“Yeah, well…she’ll live.” And so will I.
“Well…I ‘spose we should…get on in there, huh?”
“Yeah, I ‘spose we should.”
Neither of them move.
Lori looks at Nathan. “Go.”
Lori smiles. “I went last time.”
“Heh, yeah…I guess you did.” Nathan smiles too and looks at the floor. He still does not move.
Lori takes his hand. He grasps her tight but doesn’t look up. Step for step, she walks both of them through the door and away from everything they have ever known…away from her mother, from his parade of families…and toward a whole other side of the universe. Darker, bloodier, and way more dangerous.
And Lori is surprised to find that she is okay with it. After all, they have been fighting monsters their whole lives already. How hard can this be?
END OF PART I