Apparently, when you turn sixteen and get your driver’s license, you’re everybody’s errand boy. Never mind that you have twenty geometry problems to finish and it’s nine-thirty at night. Nope. You have to drive to the new Walmart and get some treat bags for your mom.
And when you ask why she can’t get the treat bags, she uses the “Don’t you talk back to me, Jason, I went into the Valley of the Shadow of Death to bring you into this world, and I sure as heck can take you out of it” glare.
As Fall Out Boy blasts from the radio at a barely legal noise level, I turn into the parking lot, my hands clenched on the wheel.
There had better be a decent parking spot.
To my surprise, the streetlamps only illuminate a few grocery carts tucked into their storage place and the white and yellow lines of parking places.
The parking lot is completely empty.
I didn’t know it was humanly possible for a Walmart parking lot to be empty. Especially a new Walmart parking lot.
Guess this works for me, then?
I pull into the parking space closest to the entrance and turn off the ignition, the heavy guitar and angry drums fading away.
This parking lot looks like a great place to get mugged.
I snatch my wallet and phone off the driver’s seat and step out of the car. A chip bag and several soda cups tumble across the parking lot, the clatter of the plastic cups the only noise in the otherwise empty silence. I don’t even hear any honking or the rush of cars on the nearby road.
Yep, I’m going to get murdered. At least this way I won’t have to do my geometry homework.
A cold breeze whispers down my arms, and I hunch.
Why didn’t I bring a jacket?
But it was warm outside when I left the house, wasn’t it?
I jam my earbuds in my ears and punch the “play” button on my phone. “Heathens” drips into my ears as I speed-walk towards the Walmart, hoping that the music gets rid of the shiver down my spine.
Harsh fluorescent lights hit my eyes as soon as I walk into the store.
I don’t really know what I expected. The store looks like any other Walmart, with the same rows of green produce, bins full of sub-standard onions, apples, and potatoes to my left, and the same long aisles of cleaning supplies, notebooks, and other stuff to my right. There’s the same numbered signs and black conveyor belts of the checkouts. And I’m sure that if I turn off my music, the same tinny, outdated music will be playing through the speakers.
The only difference is that I don’t see anyone around.
Not even an employee.
Is this place not open yet?
But no. It opened—what, a month or two ago? And it’s a freaking Walmart, it never closes.
I’m thinking about driving to the nearest Target when I see a man in a blue vest and polo pushing a dolly filled with banana boxes.
My heart, which had been starting to skip at an uncomfortable pace, slows down immediately.
The store isn’t closed, there are still people here.
A person, at least.
I’ll just get Mom’s crap and get out of here.
Curled over his dolly, the employee doesn’t look up at all. His position conceals most of his name tag, so I only see the letters IAN as I pass by him.
Turns out that I had forgotten to ask my mom where the treat bags would be in Walmart, so I end up walking through aisle after aisle of off-white shelves, scanning each of them in the hope that the decorated cellophane bags would appear in an easy-to-spot location.
Cleaning supplies. Toys. Notebooks. No gift bags.
Something’s bugging me, tapping at my brain like the beat of “Sick Boy” that’s currently thudding in my ear.
What is it?
I pass through yet another aisle. This one contains art supplies, so I linger a bit longer at this one, studying the rows of drawing pads, watercolor paints, and drawing pencils. I pick up a box of charcoals that look somewhat good in quality. Hmmmmm. I check the price: $30.00. Nope. I put the box back on the pile.
I’m about to turn around, but my eye goes back to the charcoals. Something’s off. But they’re all of the same kind, same brand . . . wait.
I stare at the crooked angle of the top box—the one I had put back. It stands out from among the neatly stacked pile of boxes, jutting out like a broken bone.
I move to straighten it . . . and then I realize what has been bothering me.
The neat rows of paper towels. The perfectly aligned rows of Tide, Gain, and Cheer. The smiling stuffed bears arranged by color. The straight corners of the notebooks.
At every other Walmart I’ve ever been in, the store is a mess. Jutting holes with missing products. Disordered piles. Crooked rows. A roll of duct tape sitting among the candles because someone couldn’t be bothered to put it back.
Here, everything is perfect. Everything is in a neat pile, a straight row, organized by color and size.
Okay . . . did they just restock?
I scan the aisle again. Perfectly uniform rows. Piles of paints and pencils all the same distance apart. The exact same distance.
Guess the employees have been super bored?
I check my phone. I’ve been in the store for twenty minutes, but I still haven’t seen anyone other than Banana Man. No other customers.
Something touches my shoulder.
I shriek, pulling away, spinning around—what touched me what touched me—
A Walmart employee stands there, looking very unimpressed with my horror victim audition. He looks older, maybe mid-forties, and his plastic name tag reads HELLO! MY NAME IS DAMIAN.
Does Walmart offer any discounts on holes that I can crawl into forever?
The man’s lips move, but I can’t hear anything above my music. I yank out an earbud.
“Is there anything I can help you find?” Damian says. His voice is hoarse, and it has a weird kind of buzzing quality to it. It vaguely reminds me of my uncle’s, who smoked two packs a day until my aunt forced him to quit.
If Damian isn’t going to bring up me screaming like a ten-year-old girl, then I won’t either.
“Yeah, uh, I’m looking for treat bags? You know, the small plastic kind you use for party favors and food and stuff? My mom makes fudge for the neighbors a lot, and—yeah. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Damian stares at me without blinking. His salt-and-pepper hair hangs in strings around his face, and there are bags under his eyes that could challenge mine after a week of all-nighters. He has a small silver skull earring in his left ear, which seems a little weird on an old Walmart employee, but who am I to judge? Buttons are scattered all over his vest, demanding to ASK ME ABOUT OUR CREDIT CARDS and LEARN HOW TO GET 10% OFF! Smiley face buttons crowd among pins advertising Frozen and Deadpool and Zootopia.
“But, yeah, I don’t want to bother you or anything, so I’m just going to uh, keep looking,” I stammer.
Orrr get out of the store and drive to Target as fast as humanly possible.
“Follow me,” Damian rasps. He turns around and starts walking out of the aisle.
I hesitate for a second, considering my Target plan.
But if Damian can show me where the bags are, I can get home sooner.
I follow Damian.
We walk down the never-ending row of aisles until we come to a small end display near the birthday aisle. There hang the packages of cellophane treat bags. There’s a variety of them, decorated with balloons, snowflakes, Easter eggs, flowers, footballs, and superheroes.
Damian flicks a package. “This what you’re looking for?”
“Yep. Yeah. That’s it. Thanks. Thanks for your help.”
I turn towards the bags, replacing my earbud, but Damian just keeps standing there, staring at me with pale eyes that almost don’t qualify as blue. It’s like they had been put through the wash again and again until all the color had faded from them.
A cold spike zings down my spine.
“I’m good, uh, Damian. Thanks.”
Damian’s lip twitches. He nods once, then shuffles away, disappearing down the aisles.
The unease I’ve been trying to ignore crawls around my gut. My heartbeat pulses against the beat of my music, trying to assert dominance.
You’re in a freaking Walmart. You’re in a store. Calm down. Just choose a bag and go home.
What kind of pattern does Mom actually want?
I try to remember what the ones she usually gives to the neighbors look like, but my mind keeps coming up blank.
I pull out my phone to text Mom, but the screen goes black just as I click on the text icon. The voices of the Chainsmokers die away, leaving me in silence.
Crap. Crap. Craaaaaap.
I yank out my earbuds, and stuff them in my pocket, along with my dead phone.
I’ll have to guess what Mom wants.
I reach out for the flower one—and stop.
I don’t hear any music playing in the store. No announcements. No commercials for a 10 percent sale on frozen chicken or a reminder to pick up sunscreen for the hot summer months.
All I hear is a faint, irritating buzzing noise, like static.
I shake my head the way that I do when I get water in my ears, hoping that will help. But it doesn’t. The buzzing is still there, like it’s trying to get into my skull.
Maybe that’s the air conditioner? Or something’s broken?
I grab a bag, but I have to squint to see what it looks like.
I look around. The harsh, slightly off-putting fluorescent lights are dimmer now. Items balanced on top of the aisles cast shadows over the floor’s speckled tiles.
Is there a power failure going on?
The lights flicker.
I grab the bag and sprint towards the check-out.
Ten registers stand near the exit, each labeled with a number and stocked with candy and chips, and magazines.
The only problem is no one’s here. The numbers are all dark, and the sign “This REGISTER is CLOSED” sits on the end of every belt.
I look at the end to see if the self-check, at least, is open. But a small gate seals it off, and the sign hanging on it reads “The SELF-CHECK is CLOSED.”
I shake my head again, harder this time.
The number for register one suddenly flicks on.
I force myself to breathe as I make my way to the register.
I can almost leave.
I can almost go home.
The cashier is bent over behind the belt, so all I can see of them is the yellow circle on the back of a blue vest.
“Hey, thanks so much. I thought for a minute that you guys were closed.” I place my bag on the conveyor belt.
The person straightens, and I almost jump straight backwards into the Reese’s box when I see it’s Damian, his empty eyes staring at me.
“We never close here,” he rasps as he reaches for the treat bags.
“Oh yeah, yeah, I thought so. Cause, you know, it’s Walmart and everything,” I say while I grab the car keys in my pocket.
How is he here? I just saw him two minutes ago on the other end of the store! And why isn’t there another cashier here?
Damian slowly scans the item and puts it in a plastic grocery bag.
“Five ninety-five,” he says.
The buzzing seems even louder now as I pull out my wallet and hand him a ten. I don’t want to look into his weird eyes again, so I stare at his nametag as he rings up my change.
HELLO, MY NAME IS DAMIAN.
Something finally clicks in my brain.
I remember seeing those letters on a nametag when I came in the store, belonging to a hunched-over employee with a dolly.
Damian is Banana Man.
Damian is the only employee in this store.
I swallow, but my mouth feels like I’ve been chugging sand.
“Heeyyyy, you know, I’ve got to get home, so yeah, keep the change,” I say as I snatch my grocery bag.
I don’t look to see his reaction, but I hear the words “Have a good day,” as I sprint towards the grocery entrance.
A big sign over the doors stops me when I reach the entrance, panting.
The GROCERY ENTRANCE/EXIT is CLOSED. Please use the other exit.
Closed? How can it be closed already?
I step forward and back, hoping to trigger the automatic doors anyway. When that doesn’t work, I push on it. Then I start banging on the door, because I can see my car through the glass, because it’s right there, and I want to go home—
Use the other entrance, stupid.
Logic-mode finally switched on, I turn around for the other exit. I walk instead of run this time because I’m still a bit out of breath from my sprint.
And it finally kicks in how idiotic I’m being.
This is a Walmart.
I’m terrified of a Walmart.
This place is new! Maybe they still need to hire people. Maybe Damian is the only one working on the floor right now. Maybe everyone else is in the back.
And maybe the lights and the sound are just glitching.
And maybe Damian’s high and that’s why he looks half-dead.
I’m slowing down a bit as I’m walking to the other entrance, as if the rational thoughts are brakes, pushing down on my feet.
When I pass the missing kids’ board that every Walmart has, something in my peripheral catches my eye, and I stop completely.
There’s only one kid on the Missing and Exploited Children board. The paper with the announcement is faded and the picture and the text is pretty small, so I practically have to squint to look at the picture.
The photo itself looks old, with that weird discoloring effect that belongs to the 80s or 90s. The kid in the picture looks close to my age, with scruffy black hair, blue eyes, and a button-down shirt. Something silver glints in his ear, but I can’t quite make out what it is.
I know I’ve never seen this kid, but there’s something familiar about him, like I’d just seen him somewhere . . .
So I look at the name.
Damian Alex Johnson.
DOB: May 1, 1980
Missing Since: January 8, 1996
I’m running, sprinting like my life depends on it. I don’t feel the plastic bag on my wrist anymore. It doesn’t matter anymore.
I need to get out
I need to get out
I need to get out
The buzzing gets louder in my ears, louder, louder until it sounds like a bunch of hornets are nesting in my ears and where’s the exit where’s the exit let me out—
The doors are in front of me.
But it feels like my entire body has been plunged into ice water when I see another light green barrier in front of it.
This ENTRANCE/EXIT is CLOSED.
I squeeze around the barrier and slam my fists against the door, trying to move them, break them, anything, but they won’t move, they won’t move, WHY WON’T THEY MOVE.
The buzzing suddenly stops.
And it’s quiet.
The only thing I can hear is my heartbeat thudding against my ribcage like it wants out too.
Then there’s a loud crackle of something like static—
Then silence again.
And in the parking lot, the light in the light pole winks out, turning the parking lot pitch black.
Then the lights in the store start to flicker again, like some toddler is messing with the light switch.
Off. On. Off. On. Off. On.
My hands press against the glass in the doors.
I can’t move.
And when a light near me flicks back on, I can see my terrified face reflected in the door.
And Damian directly behind me. Holding out a blue vest as if to slip it over my shoulders.