The following is an excerpt from Retail Hell, my new short story (at 8,600 words it’s more of a novelette) now available on Amazon.
The Customers Cometh (an early chapter from Retail Hell)
Jezebeth led Barbara to a cliff side overlooking an endless subterranean shopping center. To Barbara it felt less like a cavern and more like another world with a rocky skyline. Great walls of shelving stretched in all directions, cut from lopsided stones, like catacombs with sale signs. Barbara could just make out the checkout counters on the horizon.
Jezebeth pinched Barbara’s shoulder.
“Do you mind if I give you a bit of fearless feedback? I couldn’t help but notice that you were lagging behind on the way out. I know it’s your first day and you’re trying to contain your enthusiasm, but don’t worry about it. Just let loose. Run headlong into each new challenge. Alright?”
Barbara half nodded.
Jezebeth slapped her on the back. “Don’t worry. You’ll get another opportunity after the meeting.”
Barbara turned away, preferring the endless hellscape to her micromanager’s wild unblinking eyes.
Greeters, in red and black uniforms, ran out and scattered along the plane below.
Jezebeth clapped her hands. “There they go.”
The greeters scurried behind volcanic craters, like townsfolk fleeing bandits in the old west. Some fought over hiding spots, while others helped each other bury themselves in the dirt.
Jezebeth bit her lip with anticipation. She tapped Barbara on the wrist.
“Okay, we should open the meeting by picking a coworker to congratulate for doing a great job.”
Barbara lowered an eyebrow, confused. “Well I only know you.”
“Uh-huh.” Jezebeth nodded.
“And we only just met.”
“Yeah-huh.” Jezebeth nodded even harder anticipating what came next.
“So it would have to be you.”
Jezebeth’s eyes bulged. “What about me?”
Barbara scanned her brow. “You have a very positive energy.”
Barbara noted the desperation in here micromanager’s eyes.
“You knew the entire credo by heart. That’s pretty impressive.”
Jezebeth rolled her eyes. “Well, I ought to.” She rolled up her sleeve to reveal the credo was branded on her forearm. It must’ve happened recently because Jezebeth’s flesh was raised, seared, and blistered. It was yellow with infection and ooze pooled inside the lettering.
Jezebeth grabbed Barbara’s wrist, fluid squirt out of her brand as she tightened her hold.
“Tell me. What are you most excited to learn today?”
“What the hell is going on?” Barbara muttered without thinking.
Jezebeth nodded matter-of-factly. She beamed. “I’m excited to learn how you’ll enhance the shopping experience for everyone who comes in.”
Barbara couldn’t help but notice how many of the greeters were clasping their hands in prayer. She wondered what a prayer in hell was worth.
“What are they hiding from?”
Jezebeth shushed her.
“Knowing would spoil the surprise.”
A trumpet sounded, chains rattled, and cranks started turning. The earth shook beneath Barbara’s feet. Jezebeth wriggled onto her stomach and peered over the edge. Barbara followed close behind.
A pair of giant gates opened from the rock face before them. It looked like a pair of sixteen-lane highways creaking open, like tectonic plates shifting in the wrong direction.
Light stretched across the valley as the monolithic gates settled into place. The light gave way to a series of long shadows that slithered and weaved across the terrain.
Disembodied voices roared as a cloud of dust rolled into the room. The ground began to quake.
A tidal wave of bodies came crashing through the entrance. Twisted limbs flooded through the plain. The stampede trampled the greeters in the dugouts, upended the ones hiding behind craters, and pried the others from the products they were hiding behind.
Barbara watched on as the remaining red vests were swept up in the current.
There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
When the mob flowed into the aisles the shelves groaned, tilting back and forth like ancient redwoods ready to topple.
Jezebeth wrenched herself up, skipped around, and raised her arms high. “Here in the pit it’s black Friday everyday!”
Barbara was still transfixed at the mass of shoppers swirling off into the distance.
Jezebeth did a cartwheel. “And tonight is inventory night! Just like every night.”
Barbra was too stupefied to pay attention. Her focus was on the shadows threading webs between the aisles, the tentacles digging into shelves, and the antlers skewering the displays.
The aisles were teeming with creatures that were almost human: tumor plated trolls with bellies sagging out of sports jerseys, skin-toned skeletons in ponchos and yoga pants, pus covered goblins in V-necks and sweatpants, wolf-like bipeds in popped collared Polos, balding batmen in skinny jeans, and reptilian women in long fur coats.
The only thing these creatures had in common were the long sharp growths jutting from their skulls.
Barbara raised a hand over her brow.
“Are those horns?”
Jezebeth shook her head. “Bluetooth headsets. They talk on them all the time.”
“What are those things?”
Jezebeth tilted her head back and forth. “Close-talkers, time-suckers, line-cutters. You know, all manner of psychic-vampires.”
Barbara’s breathing quickened.
Jezebeth studied her trainee’s face, a jeweler appraising a quality cut.
“Aren’t you exited?”
Barbara shook her head. “Quite the opposite.”
“You’re bored?” Jezebeth slapped her subordinate on the back. “Don’t worry, it’s about to get much more fun.”