July 15th, 2017
Mr. Molyneaux heard the whimper of the door as it opened but saw no one come through. He sat behind the counter with his glazed eyes and adjusted his glasses to correct the confusion. No one walked through, he assured himself. But there was a thud. Somewhere in the many aisles of his small shop, he could hear the thudding and tapping like light rain. His face shifted direction to the sound of bags of discount razors falling and scraping the floor.
“Who’s there?” Mr. Molyneaux said, hopeful to nothing. There was another thud on another aisle and he could feel the creeping sensation of fear tapping along his spine and playing music with the rapid tempo of his heartbeat. Things would not stop falling. Noises would not stop rising and he swore he could hear a crawling, distinct and low. The sound of a predator in the high grass.
“Who the hell is there?” He screamed out again and knocked over wooden shavings and miniature horses and blocks of half-carved wood. His used knife rolled on the counter as he stood up. His legs could not lock, age and fear both shaking him. They kept a wobbly right angle and teetered between failing and breaking.
He heard the crawling again. Like mice or some centipede dancing along the floor. He tried calming down but remembered the newspaper and it fed his paranoia. He was remembering the words and pinching his legs for doing so, ‘Vampire strikes again, man found dead. Stabbed three dozen times and left on top of a manhole’. He started shaking and it looked as if he was going to break into seizure.
Crawling noises, again. He walked back and bumped into his liquor cabinet. He was going to die, he felt it. Then silence overtook the store. There were only his palpitations as if someone had thrown a wrench inside of a broken engine and turned the key to hear it chug. He held his chest with his hand and pulled on his white hairs with the other. His breathing was uneven. His hand rubbed his scalp to fold the standing hairs back on his nape and balding head.
That was when he felt the long breath. A cold breath that seemed to suck the heat out his body. He fell down onto the chair like a weight and gag dragged him down. His skull pulsed with rushing blood that fueled the frightening thoughts in his brain, I will die.
He was in the jaws of the beast, he figured. All he could do was jump and give the illusion of putting up a fight. So in one swoop, he did all he could manage: cry, moan, beg, take his knife and push himself against the counter to a corner where he could huddle himself. He did it in such a quick succession that he tripped over himself and landed on the edge of the glass countertop, knife crying out as it scratched the surface.
“Don’t kill me.” He pleaded with that muffled voice as his face pushed against the glass. “Please, don’t.”
And all he could hear was a maniacal laugh.
A snorting laugh.
A stupid, childish laugh.
He turned and saw his granddaughter on the floor, red and turning purple as she chortled and suffocated herself with humor. Mr. Molyneaux’s shaking did not end rather, was transmuted. He no longer felt limp and oozing. His limbs felt like tree trunks. Heavy, full, filled with the sap of rage and he went up to her and grabbed her by the shirt.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” He screamed. She laughed. “I’m seventy-four, do you know how easy it would be to give me a heart attack?”
“I’m sorry gran-paw.” She tried to say in the brief moments of calm.
“Sorry? You’ve made a mess of me. Scared the soul right out of me, girl. Git damnit, Sophie. What the hells the matter with you?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I just thought you’d be happy to see me.” She cleaned the spittle off her overalls and blue shirt. The old man looked at his grand daughter’s small face in surprise. He couldn’t believe the wide grin on her as if it didn’t even belong to her, rather, stolen from a mad clown. She looked like a snake with an unhinged mouth.
Mr. Molyneaux sighed again and relief filled his lungs as he breathed what he now realized was precious air. He sat back, laid the knife down and rubbed his temples.
“Why’re you here? Shouldn’t you be at school?” He said.
“Well, aren’t you happy to see me.”
“I would be if you weren’t skipping and weren’t trying to kill me.”
“Well, gran-paw. If you must know, they canceled school. Must’ve got scared by the news today. Another abduction. Don’t you read the paper?”
“Are you lying Sophie?”
“The hell I’m lying.” She lifted herself up to the counter and let her legs dangle.
“Hell isn’t a curse. It’s just a place.”
“It’s both.” Mr. Molyneaux found his glasses on the floor. They looked bent to his eyes, felt bent on his nose. “Well, what’re you doing here anyway? Go play with your friends.”
“I don’t like playing games. I’m here for merchandise.”
“Merchandise?” He looked at her through crooked spectacles. “You certainly have my blood in you. How long you been selling those candies?”
“They’re chocolates. The highest quality, processed and manufactured in Switzerland since nineteen-forty-seven.” She showed her gums with a wide grin. Her teeth looked like broken porcelain shards, all uneven and sharp.
“Besides… what are you, IRS?” She asked.
“What do you know of the IRS.” He reached for a half-finished block of wood and began carving again.
“Enough not to answer to you.” She took out a wad from her overalls. “I sell enough that it might get me in trouble.”
In her closed hands was a bundle of twenties.
“Let me see if they’re real.” Mr. Molyneaux dragged his eyes to the money. Sophie reeled it back.
“Let me see the good stuff first.” Her tone became deeper and Mr. Molyneaux knew what the voice meant. Haggling.
“You want a box?” He asked.
“That’ll be thirty bucks.”
“It was ten per box last time.”
“You didn’t have money last time. I pitied you, honestly.”
“I won’t take anything short of fifteen dollars for both boxes.”
“God damn girl. First, you try to kill me and now you try to bankrupt me?”
“Twenty-five for the two.”
“Who the hell changed your diapers? Me. Who took care of you when you were sick? Me. Who lets you run amok in his store? Me.”
“Fifteen.” She did not blink, did not move. She looked like a blue wall. With her stern face, a real enduring face. They went at it in the battle of stares. The Old Man was the first to turn his cheek. He sighed, opened his counter and saw nothing. A depressing absence of green. He began to sweat again and felt the chill of another kind of death coming onto him.
Mr. Molyneaux twitched a bit but ended up shaking her hand.
“I’ll give them to you after I close shop.” He had to rip the bill from her hands. “Stay on the counter and take up space. I want the store to look like it’s busy.” Mr. Molyneaux said. She stood for a bit, it wasn’t long. Ten minutes, fifteen maybe and when he turned, she was gone. Disappeared into the back where she climbed the gondolas, a little monkey in her little metal jungle, searching and inspecting with that primate curiosity. He smiled. She was his granddaughter. Very small, though mentally too old for middle school. She resembled him more than his own daughter, Sophie’s mother. For inside of Sophie was that stubbornness he found in himself. It was a likeness that vindicated Mr. Molyneaux and his failing bloodline, a collection of reprobates as he had told Sophie, lectured to her at least. He wondered if his genes must have played leap-frog for a generation. The thought made him chuckle and in the humor, he almost lost track of the door opening again. The creak, the bell ring.
Sophie dropped. She stared from the back room where her gaze locked on to the counter space, it looked like she would burn a hole through the glass.
Dion came forward first with a pumped chest and eager smile. Apollo was behind. While Dion wasted his time lurking the aisles with hungry eyes, Apollo made his way to the counter.
“I want a pack.” Apollo pointed down to a gold-branded box of cigarettes. He eyed a map of the town and put it on the counter too.
“You two new around here?” Mr. Molyneaux asked. Sophie felt pride from her grandfather’s stuff face. He reminded her of an old oak tree, or at least a slab left to dry and harden into a bulwark.
“Something like th- Put that back.” Apollo pointed to the bag of potato chips Dion came up with.
“Please, I’m hungry.”
“We’ll eat later. Put that back.”
“Stop being obnoxious.” Apollo hissed.
“What?” Dion looked around for sympathy.
“It’s rude.” Apollo said.
“You of all people? Calling me rude?” Dion went over back to the wall of the many-colored plastic bags and almost knocked it down with his firm placing.
“That it?” Mr. Molyneaux rung up the number. Apollo looked at a silver wrist-watch hanging by the side and added it to the potpourri.
“Oh, but you’ll buy that huh. A watch? Real important to tell the time. And the cigarettes.” Dion said. Apollo threw an annoyed stare at him.
“That it?” Mr. Molyneaux repeated.
“Yeah.” Apollo said. He took out his wallet and set down some bills and when his eyes came up they met with the girl. Sophie felt cold as if the veins in her body had all stopped their transactions. He bore the markings of a violent man on his face, he looked dirty, like a human being who had spent his years bathing in the gutter, living and acting like gutter trash. She swore he would eat her, hurt her, kill her. Do something to her. She held her breath behind the wall though did not understand her fear. They were just people, weren’t they? No. Maybe. They were odd, she knew it, felt it. It was enough to justify her shivering legs.
“No, actually. I’d like some news if you don’t mind.” Apollo redirected his eyes to the wood-carved horse on the counter.
“We don’t sell the morning paper here.” Mr. Molyneaux said.
“Good thing you have a mouth and an ear, right?” Apollo could feel he had offended Mr. Molyneaux in some way. It was in the air like a kind of steam or mist. “I just wanna know if anything strange has happened around here.”
“Besides you?” Mr. Molyneaux said. He did not like them and it was clear on his face. Maybe it was because of how tall they were or the color of their skin or Apollo’s rugged face, but they made him uncomfortable as if they were things pretending at being human and falling into uncanny valley.
“With that attitude, I’m surprised you even have a business. I just want information.” Apollo said.
“This is why no one likes you city people. Always insulting us.” Mr. Molyneaux mumbled. “Why do you care about the news so much?”
“What business is it of yours.” Apollo said.
“None. And since it ain’t my business to know it ain’t my business to tell. Maybe you should try being a friend.” Mr. Molyneaux said.
“Right? Right! He’s not anyone’s friend.” Dion chimed. He walked up next to Apollo and donned his bright, piercing, smile. “We’re just with the church. Just here to help the people with a little faith, you see.”
“Don’t know what the bible can do.”
“About what?” Dion asked.
“About the crazy weather we’ve been having lately. Or the strangeness of the city. Or the killings.”
“Anything you know about them?” Apollo pressed and they could all feel something drop. It was the sound of the little rapport they had, thrown away, into an echo-less pit. Mr. Molyneaux frowned again.
“No. I don’t know anything. Go buy the paper elsewhere or turn on the tube.” Mr. Molyneaux opened the register, took the money and they both kind of floundered. They looked like fish breathing hopelessly on land. Sophie saw the wide frown on Apollo and laughed. She knocked over shelves onto herself. Then her fear came back. Everyone seemed to turn to her but only Dion ran to help. He extended his hand and she crawled away from his worried face.
“Are you hurt?” He asked.
“Of course she’s not.” Apollo said from afar. Mr. Molyneaux looked helpless with his quaking hands. Dion lifted the shelf, he picked her up and stood her though she squirmed. He backed away from the flustered girl. He wanted to apologize, started on it but felt a tap on his shoulder. Apollo, who pointed to the door. They left with the plastic bag of things on their hands. Sophie looked at their shadows through the windows of the store and how they dragged along with the falling sun, she could not help but feel small. It was the smallest she had ever felt and it incited in her an anger. Anger grew into desperation, desperation for a relief she wanted from her frustration.
She ran out. Zooming past aisles, knocking down things like a maddened miniature rhinoceros.
She’d give them a piece of her mind, especially the brown one with the rude mouth.
Mr. Molyneaux called out for her, but she was too far ahead and hounding the men trying their way into the flow of pedestrians. She reached them almost, touched their sleeves. But something came from the sidelines. Darkness, temporary on her right eye, then darkness all across her face, smothering her. She looked up, rubbing her eyes and saw another pair. A different pair, not the Vicars, the strange men as she called them, but another kind of strangeness. A man looked down, disgusted. His face was like clay, cracked and dry and beginning to harden into the perfect figure of disgust he looked like. She stood up, tapped her faces and realized warmth on her nose. Warmth down her lips and on her chin. Her nose was bleeding and as the faces of strangers looked around to her she began to feel small again like a bug desperate to find the dirt mound or the flower bed to hide, to sleep.
She ran to her grandfather and ran away from the disgusted man with the blood on his shirt. He wiped his shirt and by now everyone around them had begun gossiping and observing. The strangers, the Vicars, somewhere in the crowd watching too. The bloodied man looked back at Sophie. He too was feeling nervous and he too experienced a heaviness in his ankles. It was a strange thing, this moment, all four of them, Apollo, Dion, The Disgusted man, and Sophie. All looking at each other. All ignorant to the nature of the other. The players set, but blind to each other’s allegiance.
And this is how it would go. Apollo and Dion who would kill the disgusted man. The disgusted man who would kill Sophie. Sophie who would die a lonely death. But that was for another day and not today. Today? Today they just looked at each other before splitting away from the nausea-inducing crowd.
All terrified in some way, all taking their separate ways down the same labyrinth though they did not know it. But they would, soon. They would.