Josie A. Okuly
The bright blue light blinked overhead, signaling the onset of another blue-light special. Eager shoppers grabbed discounted items as they made a shambles of the once-neat shelves. Arnette DeNance had the uncomfortable sensation of being smothered in the narrow aisle. She picked up a pair of thick gloves just as another woman grabbed for them.
"Sorry," she mumbled. The woman did not return her smile.
Arnette chose what she hoped was the shortest line. An irate customer complained to the cashier that some item should have been marked down. This couldn't be the correct price, she argued. Just look in the weekly flyer.
"But this flyer is from last week. It's expired." The cashier managed to sound flustered and bored at the same time.
More verbal wrangling ensued. The cashier picked up her small microphone.
"Manager to Aisle 3 for customer assistance."
I always get in the wrong line, Arnette thought. It was a family joke, and her children teased her about it. She always chose the line at the grocery store that stopped moving, clogged up, or closed down for half an hour.
"Mom, you have a gift," her daughter Hayley once said.
Arnette remembered Hayley's remark as she stroked the homemade necklace she always wore. The necklace, simple and nondescript, had been crafted by one of her Arcadian ancestors. Her mother had given it to her when she was a child. It was a family heirloom.
"Remember, you must never take it off your neck, ma petite fille." Her mother's soft patois held a warning.
"Why, mama?" she asked.
Her mother took her small hand, holding it tightly in her own. "The women in our family are special," she said. "For centuries we've been protected. The necklace is a sign of that protection."
Arnette realized that her throat was warm, almost as if heat radiated from the necklace.
Her mother leaned closer. "If it's removed from your neck, blood must be spilled."
"What about now?" Arnette whispered. "You took the necklace off."
"No, the passing from mother to daughter is no cause for blood to be shed. It's a cause for celebration." But her eyes held no joy.
Some part of Arnette, ancient and knowing, had understood the responsibility of the necklace. It became as much a part of her as her black hair and green eyes.
Another five minutes in the checkout line. Another memory.
A summer night with Ronnie McCallister. Groping each other in his Trans Am as they sat parked near the lake. Things got out of hand. She pushed him away. She slapped his face. He slapped her back and then threw her out of the car. His tires flung small pebbles in her face as he sped away.
As she lay on the ground, she touched the necklace. Warm to the touch, as if it had its own pulse, a life within its stones. What would happen if she took it off? It was an old superstition, nothing more. And yet, some part of her, the old and ancient part, knew what would happen. She craved revenge, fought the craving, and lost. She removed the necklace, held it in front of her eyes, let it fall to the ground.
The night grew chilly. She forced herself to pick up the necklace again. The stones seared her fingers, surprising her with the icy intensity of their chill. Back around her neck, the necklace grew warmer, and warmer still.
The next day the town buzzed. Ronnie Gray had disappeared sometime during the night. His abandoned car was found by the lake. The lake was searched; his body was never found. Disappeared into thin air, the townspeople whispered.
Arnette shivered. She stroked the hard surface of the stones. As usual, they were warm to the touch. Unnaturally warm.
The check-out line hadn't moved. Babies started to lose patience with their beleaguered mothers. One child started to cry, and then another joined in. Soon the sounds swelled to a chorus of irritated and irritating cries. Why couldn't these people move faster? She had to pick up her children from school in exactly twenty-three minutes. It would take ten or eleven minutes to get to their school. That left how long? She was rotten at math. Probably thirteen minutes to pay for her gloves and hit the freeway.
She searched for an opening, some fast-moving queue. It wasn't just that she needed to pick up her kids. Something urged her to leave the store and be quick about it. Her heart pounded. A warning sounded in her head: "Flee, ma petite fille. Hurry!"
The line inched forward. She stood in front of the checkout counter. Four minutes to spare.
"Do you know the price on these gloves?" the bored cashier asked. Her bubblegum popped in Arnette's ear.
"It had a tag on it." Arnette's heart raced again as she searched for the price tag.
"I need a price check on Aisle 3," the cashier's whiny voice began.
"No, here it is. The price tag was hidden inside the glove."
"Cancel price check on Aisle 3."
"I don't need a bag," said Arnette. She handed over the money. Her face reddened with impatience. Two minutes left. She hated being late, but it was more than that. The urge to flee the store could not be ignored.
Arnette hurried to the front door clutching her gloves and receipt. She sidestepped an elderly woman and some kids. As she neared the sliding glass doors, a man dressed in combat boots, faded jeans, and a filthy jacket burst into the store. The metal detector went off with a piercing shriek.
The man reached into the pocket of his green army jacket. He pulled out a gun and pointed it at the ceiling.
"Everyone get back or I'll blow this store to the moon!" It was just possible to hear him over the screech of the metal detector.
"Turn that alarm off!" He fired a shot into the ceiling.
Seconds later, the alarm ceased its shrill scream.
"Everyone to the back of the store. Now!"
People fell over each other and stampeded like frightened cattle. Jewelry cases toppled. The sound of shattering glass blended with the frightened screams coming from the human cattle drive.
What's happening here? Arnette wondered. No one noticed her as she lay on the floor. She had dropped down when she'd spotted the man's gun. Now she was hidden from view by the divider that kept the shopping carts away from the main flow of traffic.
Gunshots erupted from the back of the store. Arnette tried to flatten her body even more. Hayley and Chris were probably standing in front of their school waiting impatiently for her. Pretty soon they would call home. When she didn't answer at home, they would call her ... Oh no, Arnette thought. They'll call me on my cell phone. Her cell phone was in her purse. She was laying on top of it.
The man with the gun walked back and forth in front of her hiding place. She heard his footsteps advancing and retreating. He mumbled to himself and then laughed. She wondered what fears hounded his diseased mind.
The sound of his footsteps grew fainter as he headed to the back of the store again. Arnette rolled off her purse and dug around inside the bag, trying to locate the cell phone. Where was it? Suddenly, it rang. To her ears, the noise was loud enough to shatter glass in the quiet and cavernous store.
Arnette dropped her purse. She crawled away from the shopping carts. The man was running back in her direction. Sweat rolled down her forehead and stung her eyes. Her vision swam. She crawled behind the checkout counter where the bored salesgirl had stood.
Arnette crouched down, panting for breath. After a moment, she peered around the counter. The man held the cell phone in one hand and the gun in the other. He stared at the phone as if it were some new species of animal never before seen on earth. She prayed he wouldn't answer it. Her children would be frightened.
He didn't answer the phone. It stopped ringing and then started again. Arnette jerked her head back behind the counter. It was only a matter of time before he found her. She searched for some kind of weapon, then realized it was hopeless.
Hysteria threatened to overwhelm her. She closed her eyes.
"Lady, it looks like you picked the wrong aisle to hide." The man stood over her. She stared into the barrel of his gun.
Instinctively, her fingers touched the warm necklace. Was it just a coincidence that Ronnie had disappeared after she removed it?
Before she could change her mind, she tore the necklace from around her throat. The clasp broke with a small snap.
She held the necklace for a moment before allowing it to slip from her hand and fall to the floor.
The man watched her movements. His eyes were unfocused, insane. She expected to feel a bullet tear into her flesh.
The man's hand was unsteady. His skin was pale, blue veins visible beneath his temples. She wondered how long it had been since he had eaten a good meal. In spite of the circumstances, she felt unexpected sympathy for him.
"Please," she began, but the words died in her throat.
She caught a whiff of a stagnant, rotting smell and gagged on the pungent odor. As a child, she had spent summer vacations with her grandmother in Louisiana, the ancestral home of her Arcadian relatives. Her grammie's cabin had sat perched on the edge of a bayou. To Arnette, the swamp had been a melange of slow festering aromas. When the sun had risen high at midday, the smell of rotting vegetation and general decay had emanated outward, floating over the wetlands in nauseating waves. Was she imagining this distinct scent from childhood?
Then she heard something. A muffled dragging sound, almost inaudible but growing louder. It reminded her of black galoshes slogging through thick mud, or bloated tentacles with tough, viscous suction cups slapping against concrete. The sound was wrong. Like the stagnant smell of the swamp, it didn't belong here.
Something lurked at the edge of her peripheral vision. Had she imagined the sly, furtive movement? Tiny hairs stood up on the back of her neck.
A long-forgotten nightmare crept into her thoughts. The creature who lurked in the dank bayou of her childhood memories.
As she stared into the barrel of the gun, something loomed up behind the man. It advanced with slow, stealthy movements. Inhuman movements. It slithered across the floor dragging moss-encrusted appendages that resembled tentacles. Arnette's eyes widened as fear closed her throat. She couldn't scream. She couldn't warn him.
Had Ronnie lived long enough to stare into the eyes of the abomination and see the emptiness behind those eyes? Or had his end been swift and merciful?
Ronnie was dead; she had never been absolutely sure of that until this moment.
The man stood frozen for a second. Then he turned around and fired several rounds into the monster's bulk. He kept firing until the gun was empty. The creature grabbed the man in a ferocious caricature of a hug. Suction cups wrapped around his neck. Purple bruises appeared on the man's neck as if by magic. She watched as his body was engulfed into the monster's gaping black recess of a mouth. He's being eaten, she thought. He's being eaten alive right in front of me. Inch by agonizing inch.
"Hey, I think she's awake."
Arnette opened her eyes. The bored cashier was kneeling beside her. She didn't look bored now. Arnette sat up and then touched the back of her head. She had a lump where her head had hit the concrete floor when she fainted.
The necklace was on the floor where she had dropped it. She picked it up and then managed to tie it around her neck, since the clasp was broken. It was warm against her skin, so very warm.
"What happened to the man with the gun?" Arnette was surprised that her voice sounded normal.
The cashier shrugged. "He ran off. The cops can't find him."
"What about the security cameras? What did they show?"
"The tape got erased. It's just blank airtime." She leaned closer. "That's pretty weird, isn't it? Kind of like an inside job."
The cashier's face registered feverish excitement. This is probably the most exhilarating thing that's ever happened to her, Arnette thought.
"Hey, you look like hell," the woman said. "The ambulance is on the way. You better go to the hospital and get checked out."
"I'm fine." Arnette pressed her fingers to her temples. Ronnie had made a mistake and paid for it with his life. How could she live with the weight of her guilt? Forgive me Ronnie, she prayed. Now I know what happened.
The necklace was a protection, but also a curse. She could throw it in the river, burn it in a bonfire, or bury it where it would never be found.
She touched the stones around her neck. She would miss their warmth. But the voice in her head could not be ignored.
It was time to pass the necklace on to Hayley.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM