Standing over the puddle, looking down at the muddy footsteps moving through the store, aisle to aisle, Max isn’t sure he understands how they got here. For most of the night, he’d spent his shift facing the shelves and watching for customers. There’s been no one here. The last person that he saw was Tasha and her mother coming through the store. Since then, it had been him, Tuff, and Bill every now and then. Chaz is the night’s grocery manager, spending most of his time in the back office looking at porn like he always does.
So the puddle doesn’t exactly make sense to Max. It’s not just a little puddle either. It’s a big one, like someone had been soaking to the core and just stood here, dripping for minutes before turning and leaving back the way they came. He looks down the aisle. It’s the kitchen supplies aisle with bags and fake glassware. It’s a strange aisle for someone to come walking down.
He looks down the aisle at the wet footprints, watching as they lead all the way back to the swinging doors of the backroom. Suddenly, it makes a little more sense to him. It must have been Chaz. He might have gone outside for a smoke or something, weathering the bitter cold before coming back in to check to see if we were actually working up in the front end. Max shakes his head. He never liked Chaz. He showed up every day for work looking like he just rolled out of bed. He’s one of those managers that never really thought that his appearance mattered.
“What’s up?” Bill asks from across the empty store at Tuff’s register. Tuff turns his head slowly, looking over at Max with his hawkish eyes.
“Someone tracked water through the store,” Max calls back. “I’m going to mop it up.”
“Okay,” Bill says with a shrug.
Walking down the aisle, making sure not to step in the water himself, Max looks at the shelves. Before he gets too far, he stops and stares at the empty spots on the shelves. There’s no knives. Staring at the empty spots where the packaged knives are kept, Max doesn’t understand. Did Chaz really just come inside, check to see if anyone was working up front and pull the knives from the shelves?
The mops are kept in the back along with the buckets and all the other supplies that the courtesy clerks use to clean the store. Max has already been back there twice this evening when he was given the nightly checklist of things he needs to clean before the store closes. He’s basically the over glorified janitor that also bags your groceries and pushes in all the carts. Pushing through the swinging doors, he feels like he could walk back to the mops with his eyes closed, navigating the world like a blind man. How many times has he done this? It’s hard to remember.
As the doors let out the subtle boom as the swing open and immediately the scrape of plastic across the floor draws his attention, pulling him out of the self-loathing spiral this job tends to suck him into. Max stares at the floor—looking at the torn open knife package as it skids to a stop next to a pallet of water cases. There’s a dozen of them tossed across the floor, discarded as they were torn open and thrown aside.
Max swallows and looks at them, not sure what to do. What is Chaz doing back here? He takes another step, kicking away another package and stares down the corridor lined with pallets and shelves of merchandise. Everything here that Chaz could have taken and he decides to take a bunch of kitchen knives? Matt walks toward the little office tucked away next to the box compactor and the garbage shoot. Usually, you can find Chaz sitting behind the desk, feet up and eyes on the screen that you can’t see. Max never even wants to know what’s on that screen. But Chaz isn’t there. In fact, the doors to the outside ramp are thrown open and the snow is drifting in, already spreading an icy welcome mat across the concrete.
The plastic packs for the knives are scattered all across the ground to the open doors where the wind howls in, chilling Max to the bone as he stares at them. What’s going on here?
“Chaz?” He calls, looking for any sign of him.
Turn around, the voice inside his head screams at him. He should go up front and get Bill and Tuff. He should tell them that Chaz is nowhere to be seen and that all the knives are off the shelf with their plastic packs scattered everywhere. This is that point in the scary movie where Max usually tells the character to turn around and walk away. He looks at the darkness beyond the door where the light captures the veil of snow coming down, swirling and hiding whatever presence is out there, looking in at him.
He takes a step back.
Before something can come rushing through the doors, Max backs up into the water cases on the crate and heads back through the swinging doors as fast as he can. He’s seen far too many horror movies to fall for this. He feels the fear pounding through his veins, howling after him as he feels his heart picking up its pace and his legs moving faster. Running down the kitchen supply aisle, he looks over his shoulder as the doors knock against each other, slowly swinging to a stop.
He runs, feeling his feet slip as he skids across a puddle of water, his legs slipping out from under him as he crashes down hard on his ass and can’t help but look back through the small windows of the swinging doors. Staring wide eyed through the pain, he watches the windows.
A figure steps into view, beyond the windows in the dim back room, hooded and cloaked in shadow as it stops. He can hardly make out the profile of the person who is standing in the backroom. From the direction it stepped into view, the person had to have been hiding behind Max when he was in the backroom looking at the office. The person had been hiding down the right side of the corridor, toward the dumpy little break room in the back. A chill runs down Max’s spine as the profile of the person turns, looking through the window at Max who is sprawled across the floor, staring right back at the man.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the figure is gone. The person, whoever it was, vanishes on its way. It could have been Chas. He could have been stocking the dairy cooler or something in a hoodie. That’s a reasonable assumption, Max tells himself. Scrambling to his feet, he rushes back up the aisle to the front end where he can hear Bill and Tuff laughing at some joke.
Panting and wide-eyed, he walks the length of the register to Bill who looks at him, shaking his head as he chuckles. “What’s up?” He asks, recovering.
“Something weird is going on in the backroom,” Max tells him nervously.
“What is it?” Tuff grunts.
“So, there’s wet footprints all over aisle eleven and all the knives are missing,” Max reports to them somberly. “So when I went to the backroom to get a mop to clean up, the packages are all torn open and scattered across the floor and the exit is wide open.”
“What?” Bill furrows his brow. “Did you find Chaz?”
“No,” Max says. “I called out for him and he never came. I thought I saw someone back there, but I don’t know.”
“Call Chaz,” Bill tells Tuff. Staring at Max with suspicion written across his savaged face, Tuff picks up the receiver on at his register and turns on the intercom. “Chaz, call one-oh-one. Chaz, one-oh-one.”
“Did you close the doors?” Bill asks Max, walking away from the end of the register and peering down aisle eleven at the swinging doors to the backroom.
“No,” Max says calmly.
“I haven’t seen Chaz all night,” Tuff says grimly.
“Why were the knife packages opened?” Bill asks Max.
“I have no idea,” Max shrugs.
“Think he’s stealing knives?” Tuff grunts, chuckling at the thought of it.
“Well then he sucks at hiding the evidence,” Bill says, thinking in silence for a moment. Max picks up immediately that Bill and Tuff aren’t climbing over each other to rush to the backroom to take a look for themselves. Bill gazes up at the cameras overhead. “Too bad only like four of these work,” Bill says.
“Let’s have a look,” Tuff growls, stepping away from his register and leading the way toward the offices tucked back behind the customer service center.
“You know how to check?” Bill asks, furrowing his brow. “I’m the manager here.”
“I’ve been here longer,” Tuff snaps over his shoulder.
Max follows them, too scared to be alone right now. He keeps glancing down the aisle toward those still doors to the backroom. Slipping into the office with the others, Max rubs his aching butt, staring at the bank of computers along the wall that look like they’re fifteen years old. The store manager’s office is wide open and Tuff leads them into it. Greg Minear is the store manager and for years, he’s been known as the nice, cool guy in the store. He never gets made and he has all of his lackeys do the angry or mean work. He’s entirely dependent upon them. Stepping into his office, Max watches as Tuff works his magic.
“You know which cameras work?” Bill asks curiously.
“Loss prevention switches them up,” Tuff shrugs. “They usually keep one per department on so that they can keep a basic eye on things. They don’t activate any of the others unless they get suspicious.”
“Good to know,” Bill chuckles like he might be willing to use that information against the store. Max shakes his head. Bill’s all talk.
After a moment of Tuff working his magic, he goes tense. Max watches him, trying to glimpse the screen but can’t see anything over Bill and Tuff. “Shit,” Tuff whispers for a second and stares at the screen.
“Oh my God,” Bill says. “That’s freaky as hell. Someone’s messing with us.”
“Yeah, or we just got robbed,” Tuff growls.
Bill steps away, reaching for the nearest phone and presses the intercom button. “Chaz, we need you up front right now. Chaz, up front pronto.”
While Bill is talking on the phone, Max steps in and looks at the still frame on the computer screen. He looks at a man wearing a dark hoodie standing at the end of aisle eleven, barely registering on the camera, except for a small, inch of a figure. The person is standing there, staring at Tuff and Bill as they chat at register one. There’s no making out the figure, except that the sleeves of his sweatshirt and his pants look torn and shredded.
“What’s going on?” Max asks Tuff.
“Don’t know,” he says. “But in about five seconds, I’m getting the hell out of here.”
“No,” Bill snaps. “It’s probably just someone playing a trick on us. We should go back there and see what’s going on.”
“I’m not going back there alone,” Tuff says resolutely.
“Are you kidding me?” Bill shakes his head. “You got slashed with a broken bottle and you’re scared of some local playing a joke on us.”
“We all go,” Max says, taking a deep breath.
They turn and look at Max like he just suggested that they try and resurrect Hitler. Max looks at each of them and shrugs. It seems like the obvious solution after all. Bill glances at Tuff and they both nod in agreement. The pact is struck. Taking a deep breath, Max steps back, watching as Tuff steps away from the computer, his eyes studying the figure on the screen.
“We catch this person,” Tuff says in a deep, growling voice. “We beat the shit out of them.”