by Peter Emmett Naughton
Holy Mary, full of grace, help me put things back in place.
That had always been her father’s favorite saying. Erin wasn’t sure why he’d glommed onto that particular phrase. It hadn’t been passed down from his parents or other relatives as a familial expression. She thought it might have come from a novel, the non-biblical part of it anyway, though she wasn’t sure which one. Whatever the reason, he’d started saying it more and more invoking it for even the most minor of dilemmas to the point where Erin thought of it more as his mantra than an actual plea for spiritual assistance.
After he died she had taken to using it herself as a way to remember him; her version tended to transform its wording depending on the occasion, often in ways her father likely would’ve disapproved of.
Holy Mary, full of dirt, help me fit into this skirt.
Holy Mary, full of cheese, help me pass this midterm please.
Once when she was trying to examine a red spot on her upper back, that turned out to be a zit, but that she feared might be a tick burrowed into her during a recent camping trip, she’d said, Holy Mary, full of piss, I’m not sure what to make of this.
Her Dad definitely wouldn’t have approved of that one. It wasn’t that her father was staunchly religious, his own adage was a bastardised prayer after all, but he was part of a generation that had religion baked into their bones. He hadn’t been a regular mass attendant for nearly forty years before he got sick, but there were still things you didn’t say and Erin’s more profane alterations would’ve chafed the former altar boy’s hardwired reverence.
Erin always apologized to her dad every time she did it, but whatever guilt she felt hadn’t stopped her from continuing to paraphrase her father. Whenever she said it she felt close to him; it was her version of visiting his grave, since going to his actual gravesite only made her sad.
Holy Mary, full of sight, what should I make for dinner tonight?
Erin said this while scanning over the aisle of dehydrated pastas and beans. She’d gone past the point of everything looking good because she was hungry and was now disinterested in all of it. She just wanted the rumbling in her stomach to go away with as little fuss as possible.
She wandered over a few rows to the prepared foods and picked out cans of beef vegetable and split pea soup and put them into the plastic basket slung under her arm. It seemed to her that soup was the ultimate don’t-give-a-fuck food. Even a frozen dinner required you to read some instructions; soup only involved a bowl and a spoon. Hell, these days you didn’t even need a can opener. She strolled over to the other end of the shelves and perused the rest of the selection, but decided that canned ravioli was a bridge too far even in her current mood. Erin walked to the end of the aisle and had just started to round the corner when she nearly ran into a little girl who was standing stock still like her feet were glued to the floor.
“Oh, uh, hi there.” Erin said.
The girl looked up at Erin, but didn’t reply.
“Are you lost? Looking for your parents?”
The girl nodded twice.
“Okay.” Erin said, suddenly uncomfortable at being the adult. She thought about looking for a store manager so they could make an announcement over the intercom. That’s what people did in this situation, right?
It sounded right to her, but a part of her felt guilty about foisting the responsibility onto someone else.
“Do you remember where you last saw them?” Erin asked.
The girl pointed left toward the toiletries and cosmetics.
“Alright, let’s see if we can track them down.” Erin said and held out her hand, which the girl took without hesitation.
They walked slowly, Erin scanning around for frantic looking adults, but everyone she saw seemed completely oblivious. Some of the faces that turned to meet hers smiled broadly and gave the girl big, exaggerated waves. Presumably they thought the girl was her daughter, an idea that was completely ludicrous to Erin, who didn’t feel responsible enough for a goldfish much less a kid. Most of her friends had paired off and gotten married and some of them already had children only a little younger than the girl; Erin would see them at birthday parties, reunions, and other gatherings, and it looked to her like they were juggling live grenades without realizing the pins had been pulled.
No one who actually knew her would ever think that this was her child. The girl’s dark brown hair was done up in pigtails and she was a wearing a frilly pink dress that looked like it belonged on a porcelain-faced doll. Erin swore that if she ever did have children that she’d never dress them up in that stereotypical gendered bullshit, though she supposed that every new parent said the same thing.
Erin paused in front of the cosmetics counter.
“Is this where they were?”
It took a moment for the girl to acknowledge the question. She was staring at something and Erin followed her gaze, but didn’t see anything except a display for lip balm. The girl pointed straight ahead and they resumed walking.
Erin looked down at the girl, who seemed completely at ease, which only made Erin more nervous. I should get them to make an announcement. People are going to think I kidnapped her if I keep this up much longer.
It wasn’t something she’d initially considered, so determined to do the right thing, but public perception was unpredictable and something like this could quickly get out of hand if she wasn’t careful.
“I think I need to take you to the customer service desk sweetie. They can send out a message to the whole store and tell your parents where you are.”
The girl stopped walking and looked up at Erin.
“What is it?” Erin said.
“They won’t come. That’s not how the game works.”
“She speaks!” Erin said and laughed, but the girl didn’t so much as crack a smile.
“Are you guys playing hide-and-go-seek or something?”
The girl shook her head.
“Well then what kind of game is it?”
The girl peered into Erin’s eyes but remained silent.
“Listen, I don’t know what’s going on with you and your folks, but we can’t just keep wandering around the store. We’ll go and let them know where you are and you can tell them that it’s my fault for ruining the game because I didn’t know the rules.”
Erin started to walk towards the opposite end of the supermarket, but was stopped with her arm extended out as far as it would go. The girl hadn’t pulled her back; she was still standing in the same spot with her arms at her sides, but the hand Erin was holding suddenly felt like it belonged to a statue with a plinth at its base securing it in place.
Erin stepped back, released the girl’s hand, and knelt down beside her. “Look, I know maybe you’re afraid of getting in trouble, but we need to find your parents.”
“It won’t work.” the girl said, her voice monotone and emotionless.
“I promise it will.”
The girl shook her head again. “That’s not the way you play.”
“Sorry kiddo, I’m gonna have to pull rank here.”
Erin carefully positioned her hands under the girl’s arms and lifted, half expecting her to remain anchored to the ground as she had before, but she came up easily and Erin rested her against her hip. She had just started to move when the girl began screaming at the top of her lungs.
Everyone in the area turned toward the noise and Erin could see a couple of them poised with their phones, ready to turn her into the next social media pariah. Crazed Millennial abducts child in frozen foods aisle.
Erin put the girl back down and her shrieking ceased.
“Okay, okay, no announcement.”
The girl nodded curtly as if this should have been obvious.
“So how do we play this game?”
The girl pointed toward the deli section of the store and was now leading Erin past the refrigerated flower bouquets and potted plants to the glass cases filled with sliced cold cuts and containers of pasta and potato salad.
It was no longer concerned faces that Erin was searching for but adults crouched behind a produce stand or secreted in the shadowy overhang of a tortilla chip display.
The girl stopped at a tall open-fronted cooler with a sign at the top proclaiming “Cheeses of the World” despite only having American, Cheddar, and Munster on display. She was looking directly ahead at a man in a long, gray wool coat wearing a similar color hat that was tipped forward on his head so that it obscured his features aside from a small wedge of lower jaw.
“That your Dad?” Erin said to the girl and strode over to the man without waiting for a response. She playfully tapped him on the shoulder. “We found you!”
The man turned toward Erin and stared at her for several moments before returning his attention to the butter and margarine tubs in front of him.
Erin staggered backward nearly toppling over onto the girl.
Maybe she hadn’t seen him clearly? Erin thought, even though she knew she had.
The man that she had mistaken for the girl’s father couldn’t have been him, because when she looked into his eyes there was nothing there except two empty black pools like she was staring into the bottom of a well.
Erin didn’t know what was under that titled gray hat, but it definitely wasn’t human.
Erin walked quickly down a random aisle with the girl trailing along after her.
“That wasn’t your father.” Erin said and there was no questioning in her voice.
“No.” the girl said.
“Then what the hell was that thing?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a fake; a decoy that’s supposed to look like my dad. If I’d tapped on its shoulder instead of you I would have lost.”
“But what is it?”
“Just something to try and fool me; it’s probably already gone by now.”
Erin darted back up the aisle looking for the thing in the gray coat, but there was no sign of it.
“Where did it go?”
The girl shrugged and looked down at her feet, smacking the heels of her sneakers against the tile floor to activate the blinking lights in them.
“I don’t understand.” Erin said. “What is all this about?”
“I have to find my folks before the sun goes down. If I do, then I win. If I don’t, then they win.”
“And what do you get if you win?”
The girl shrugged again. “Don’t know. Never won.”
“Well what happens if you lose?”
“I have to go back to the dark place.”
“What’s the dark place?”
“You can’t see or hear anything there and it’s kind of like being asleep…except you’re not. After awhile I get let out to try and find them again.”
Erin couldn’t believe what she’d heard, but didn’t think that the girl was lying to her. She wasn’t sure what to say; the entire idea of it was so astoundingly awful it made her nauseous. “…I’m so, so, sorry that happened to you….”
“It’s just part of the game.”
“It isn’t a game, it’s abusive and sick.” Erin said, trying to keep her disgust from leaching into her voice. “We have to speak to the police about this.”
“I already told you that won’t work; it isn’t allowed. Please don’t make me scream again.”
“None of this makes any sense.” Erin said, putting a hand against the glass door of a refrigerator case to steady herself. “That ‘man’ that you called a decoy…it didn’t have any eyes.”
“They don’t need them. All they do is stand around in one spot hoping I’ll confuse them for my mom or dad.”
“They? You mean there are more of those things in here?”
The girl nodded. “You can leave if you want to. I can look by myself.”
Erin gazed at the girl wondering if she really was just a girl. There were certainly things about her that weren’t normal, though after what she’d experienced earlier, she wasn’t sure what normal was anymore. Either way the girl needed help. “Let’s go.”
They went down to the opposite end of the aisle and turned left passing over the next two rows of shelves and heading into one filled with notebooks, folders, markers, and other school supplies. The girl stopped walking. She stood there motionless for several moments, her forehead furrowed in concentration like an animal scenting the air for nearby prey or the approach of a predator.
“Are you alright?” Erin said.
She didn’t reply but took Erin’s hand and led her past racks of magazines to the tissue and toilet paper section of the store. The girl crouched down next a Charmin display and peered around the corner and Erin slunk down behind her, looking over the girl’s shoulder and following her gaze to a tall, slender woman in a green, floral-patterned dress with blonde hair done up in shiny, sausage curls.
Erin motioned for the girl to retreat back into the aisle so they could talk without being overheard.
“Is that your Mom?”
“Not sure. Looks like her, but it could be another trick.”
“Why don’t I go check it out while you stay hidden.”
The girl nodded.
Erin looked to her left and right before stepping out like she was crossing a busy intersection. She sidled up next to the woman and pretended to read the ingredients from a container of cottage cheese. What she could see of the woman’s face in her peripheral vision was fine-boned and appeared ageless like the skin had been airbrushed of all birthmarks and blemishes.
“Excuse me.” Erin said, holding out the cottage cheese and trying to keep her voice even. “Have you ever tried this one before?”
The woman turned toward Erin but said nothing. She had those same shining, obsidian circles that made it seem as if the pupils had somehow consumed the rest of the eye.
“The store, they um…they stopped carrying my brand and I’m not sure which to uh…which one to pick?”
The woman stared at Erin and her lips parted slightly as if she might be about to speak. Erin leaned closer, terrified, but also curious to know what the decoy might say; the woman in the green dress with bottomless black pits where her eyes should be held Erin’s gaze for a moment more then turned back toward the yoghurt and sour cream as if nothing had happened.
“It wasn’t her.” Erin said to the girl when she’d made it back to their hiding spot.
“I figured as much. My parents would never be that easy to catch.”
“How many times have you tried?”
“This is our seventeenth game.”
“They’ve locked you away in some lightless, soundproof room seventeen times?!”
The girl held up her finger to hush Erin and peeked around the corner to make sure the decoy in the green dress wasn’t looking at them.
“I’ve lost sixteen times.”
“We should try the other side of the store. They almost never hide near the decoys.”
“Have you ever found them?”
“…I think so…a few times….”
“They slipped away before I had a chance to get close.”
“This whole thing seems rigged. Why don’t you just refuse to play?”
“It isn’t that simple. And even if it was, where would I go? I’m just a kid.”
“You don’t really act like a kid.”
“It’s that place. You don’t age there, but everything else does. It’s part of the reason that it’s so hard to catch them. I’m not even sure if my parents still look the same.”
“So how old are you?”
“I honestly don’t remember.”
This time it was Erin’s turn to nod. She couldn’t think of anything to say to the girl that wasn’t some trite, meaningless platitude, especially coming from someone who might be several years her junior. They walked to the far end of the supermarket over to the little alcove where they kept the alcohol. Erin and the girl turned down one aisle filled with whiskey bottles and Erin spotted a gray-coated man with a charcoal fedora two rows over.
“Probably another decoy.” Erin whispered as she pointed the man out.
The girl touched Erin’s arm and motioned for her to wait there as she crept closer to the man. She had gotten within a few feet of him when the air began to shimmer like heat rising off hot blacktop.
Dark spots appeared in front of Erin’s eyes and everything around her began to twist and warp. She reached out to the shelves for support toppling several bottles in the process, which shattered on the floor showering her shoes in glass fragments and sticky brown liquid.
“What’s happening?” Erin stammered.
The girl glanced back at Erin as if she’d only now noticed the commotion behind her. The man in the gray coat was still standing in the same spot and the girl started inching toward him again but then abruptly stopped and headed over to help Erin.
“It’ll pass soon.” the girl said as Erin continued clutching the shelf. After several minutes the haze dissipated and everything settled back into place. Erin went to brush the glass from her shoes only to discover that they were clean and the whiskey bottles had vanished replaced by racks of greeting cards.
“We’re in the middle of the store?” Erin said.
The girl nodded.
“How did we suddenly get here all the way from the east end?”
“We didn’t move, the store did.”
“My parents can shift things around. Switch one part of the store with another.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Jesus Christ on the mother fucking cross…ooops, uh sorry….”
“Trust me, I’ve heard far worse. Also, we don’t really have religion.”
“And for all we know you might be older than I am anyway.”
“Holy Mary, full of kelp, we could use a little help.” Erin said and burst out laughing.
“What did you say?”
“Oh, nothing; just my version of something my Dad used to say.” Erin said, but couldn’t keep the grin from her face. “Hey, I never got your name. Probably something I should know seeing as how I’m tagging along on this little schizophrenic adventure.”
“Erin and Emily, that’s got a nice ring to it. So level with me Emily, am I having a psychotic break right now? Are you even here, or am I just standing in the cereal aisle jabbering to a box of corn flakes with drool running from the corner of my mouth?”
“There are lots of things that exist in the world that most people never know about.”
“Like hollow-eyed human replicas and shifting jigsaw puzzle grocery stores?”
Emily nodded. “I’ve had experiences that would be considered impossible by most ordinary individuals.”
“I’ve only known you for a few hours, but everything about your life seems pretty extraordinary to me, not to mention batshit insane.”
Emily looked down at her feet, tapping the heel of her right sneaker to make it light up.
“Shit, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean it like that….”
Emily looked up. “It’s okay…the truth is, I don’t really know what me and my parents are. Growing up I thought the things we did, the ways we behaved and interacted together, were the same as everyone else. It was only when we started playing these games that I realized we were different.”
“Maybe this whole thing is normal for you, but it still seems unfair of your parents to make you participate.”
“The game is a rite of passage; a ritual our people adopted to mark the transition of adolescence into adulthood.”
“But what happens if you never win?”
“Then I don’t move on.”
“So you stay a kid forever?”
“Until my parents decide to stop.”
“What do you mean?”
“Every set of parents gets to choose how many chances their child gets. If the child doesn’t succeed and move on, eventually the parents stop playing.”
“What happens to them then?”
“They stay in the dark place.”
“I take back what I said before about it being normal; that’s the most sadistic thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Moving on is considered a privilege, something that has to be earned.”
“I don’t care how they rationalize it, they’re still sticking kids in some void for eternity.”
“It’s part of our traditions.”
“That doesn’t make it any less twisted.”
“I suppose not.”
“I’m sorry Emily, I don’t mean to take it out on you. It’s just difficult trying to come to grips with all this.”
“But you’ll still help me try and win?”
“I’m in.” Erin said and smiled.
Emily returned the smile and they started off again scanning the aisles for gray coats and green dresses.
Hours passed as they scoured the store from one end to the other without catching sight of either of Emily’s parents.
“Could they have left the supermarket and gone somewhere else?” Erin said.
“No, that’s against the rules. Once a game begins they have to remain in the designated location and can only manipulate that space.”
“We don’t have much time before sunset and we haven’t even run into a decoy in forever.”
“I think it was him.”
“The man in the liquor section. I think he was my real father. That’s why they’re laying low; I’ve never gotten that close before.”
“If that was your dad, then why didn’t you grab him?”
“I wasn’t certain then, but I am now. Besides, I had to help you.”
“You should’ve just let me fall on my ass.” Erin said laughing.
“I couldn’t do that. You’re the first friend I’ve had.”
“In the game you mean?”
Erin put her hand on Emily’s shoulder and gave it a small squeeze. “I’m honored to be your friend.”
“Same.” Emily said and grinned at Erin before getting embarrassed and looking down at her feet. “I know how to spot him.”
Emily nodded, her head still pointed at her shoes. “There was a frayed thread on the left sleeve of his coat. The replicas don’t have them because they’re copies taken from an earlier time, like looking at an old photograph.”
“But what if they just stay hidden until the sun goes down?”
“They have to change locations at least once every hour.”
“That only gives us a few more chances.”
“So what happens if we don’t find them in time? Will you just disappear right in front of me?”
“You won’t remember anything after I’m gone. It’ll be as if we never met; like I never existed to you.”
Erin grabbed Emily’s hand. “C’mon, lets go get them.”
They went aisle by aisle, methodically looking for the gray coat with the frayed thread, but at the end of the hour they still hadn’t seen any sign of Emily’s father.
“We can hit the store from opposite ends and meet in the middle.” Erin said.
“But even if one of us found him how would we tell the other?”
“I don’t suppose you have a cell phone?”
Emily shook her head.
“I wish they sold walkie-talkies in this place. The toy aisle just had a bunch of coloring books and plastic figurines.”
Emily slumped down with her back against one of the endcaps and put her head in her hands. “I’m not going to catch them…I never do….”
“Hey.” Erin said and sat down beside Emily. “There’s still a chance. They have to move at least one more time, right?”
“But nothing. We’ve already investigated all the public areas and we know what we’re looking for now, so we hit every backroom nook and cranny of this place as fast as we can, okay?” Erin said gently lifting Emily’s chin so that their eyes met.
They checked the bathrooms with Erin making a quick sweep of the men’s room before anyone had a chance to object. They slipped into the employee break room and the stockroom in back, but the only man they found was wearing brown coveralls.
Emily pointed to a clock on the wall. “We only have thirty minutes till sunset.”
Erin closed her eyes in concentration. “Think, where haven’t we checked?”
“We’ve been everywhere.” Emily said. “We just weren’t there when they were.”
“We should’ve seen something, a hint or glimpse of them, I mean the goddamn store isn’t that big!”
Emily took Erin’s hand. “It’s okay.”
“But they have to be here somewhere, we just have to….” And then Erin thought of the one place they hadn’t been. “Follow me, quick.”
Erin sprinted across the store practically dragging Emily along with her sneakers barely touching the ground until they reached the meat counter where Erin suddenly halted.
“My uncle worked as a butcher when I was a kid and during the summer I’d help at his shop. He showed me all the different cuts and where they came from on the animals. When the shop closed for the day, we’d take everything from up front and bring it in back to put away. There’s a whole huge space that we haven’t checked yet.”
Emily’s eyes grew wide and a tiny smile creased the corners of her mouth.
“I’m going to create a diversion and you sneak in back.” Erin said.
Holy Mary, full of quirks, I really hope this fucking works. Erin thought as she approached the counter, which was thankfully being manned by a lone teenager.
“Excuse me?” Erin said to the tall, bespectacled boy wearing a pointed paper cap. “I had the most incredible meal at a friend’s house the other night, but I’m not quite sure what the meat was and I was too embarrassed to ask. Do you think you can help me?”
“Um, sure, I’ll try.” the boy said. “What did the meat look like?”
“It was shaped kinda like a pork chop, but it definitely wasn’t pork.”
“No, no, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t lamb either. My friends are originally from Europe if that helps. Austria, I believe.”
“Might’ve been a veal chop?” the boy said, pointing to one of the other meat trays.
“I don’t think they eat veal, ethical reasons, not that I’m judging.”
“I’m afraid those are all the chops we have here.”
“To be honest, it tasted like a steak, but I know that can’t be right, I mean not with a big ol’ bone sticking out the end of it.”
“Oh!” the boy said and motioned for Erin to follow him to the far end of the glass case. “Was it these?”
“That’s it! What on earth are they?”
“They’re called tomahawk steaks. They take a ribeye and leave a long section of the rib bone intact so that it looks like a tomahawk axe.”
“Well isn’t that just the cleverest thing. Can you wrap four of those up for me? I’ll be back in a minute, just going to use the ladies’ room.”
“Sure thing ma’am.”
Erin made sure not to pull a face at the use of the word ma’am and walked to the other end of the case, waiting till the boy had his back turned to quickly slip through the swinging door behind the counter.
She looked for Emily in back but didn’t immediately see her in the prep area.
Erin scanned the underside of the long, stainless-steel tables and checked inside the overhead storage bins before making her way to the walk-in refrigerator at the rear of the room.
The door was ajar when she got there, wisps of white air curling out from the opening like frigid specters. Erin pulled it open the rest of the way and stepped inside to find Emily staring down a woman with the same flaxen curls and emerald dress as the one she had encountered at the dairy case.
“Are you sure that it’s her?” Erin said.
Emily said nothing but pointed to a small tear in the hem of the skirt.
“Well okay then, you found her, you win, right?” Erin said, glancing at her watch and confirming that they still had a few minutes left.
“Not yet.” Emily said.
“What do you mean? What else do you have to do?”
Emily picked up the meat-tenderizing mallet that she had placed on the metal rack beside her, the head on the hammer almost twice the size of the hand holding it.
Emily turned back to Erin.
“I have to finish the game.” she said, and walked toward her mother with her pale, slender arm raised high above her head.
About the author:
Peter first fell into fiction penning stories to amuse his grammar-school classmates, which helped him overcome his shyness, but resulted in very few completed homework assignments.
He is an avid fan of horror movies, especially those with a sense of humor, food served from carts and roadside shacks, and the music of The Ramones, The Replacements, and other bands of like-minded misfits who found a way to connect with the world through their music and their words.
He was raised and currently resides in the Chicagoland suburbs with his wife and cats and his writing has appeared in various online and print publications. You can find out more about Peter and his writing at: http://ravenpen.wixsite.com/authorsite
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