The sickening mix of high-menthol cigarettes and petroleum jelly finds Claire even before she strolls into aisle eight. She almost abandons her cart next to the coffee and escapes back into the biting December evening.
“This is silly,” she whispers. Realizing she is thinking aloud, Claire forces a smile on her thin lips to excuse herself from anyone that might have overheard. I’m a grown woman, she thinks. That was twenty-two years ago.
Instead Claire pushes out of aisle seven, stopping only to grab a jar of catsup from a display on the end.
And there he is.
When the catsup shatters on the linoleum floor, the woman behind Claire grunts because now she will have to take the long way around to avoid the mess. A young man from the meat department rushes over with a dust pan and paper towels.
“Ma’am,” the butcher has to say twice before Claire breaks from her daze. “Can you move forward for me? You’ll step in it back here.” He politely urges her into the aisle — toward the shift manager — as he stoops to scrap the mess, blocking her easy exit.
It can’t possibly be him, not after so many years. So many miles from where she had lived when she was six. Then he turns to face her, the wrinkles of his owl-like face pulled into a frown. The organs in her stomach and chest clench and pound and freeze because she can see him, can smell him —
“You need a hand?” the owl-faced man calls over the cacophony of the shoppers. His frown is vulgar.
— and can hear the grating baritone of his voice, bringing back emotions Claire thought she had left with her little girl nightmares back in Tennessee.
When Claire, at six-years-old, stuffed the dog collar into the pocket of her overalls, she didn’t know that she was stealing anything. All she knew was that Gus, her slightly overweight terrier, breathed with a horrible wheezing sound when she took him for walks. Never mind the fact that Gus’s little chipmunk of an owner didn’t move fast enough, or that he choked so much because of a mad canine obsession to chase whatever had just skirted across the street or behind a house.
So Claire took a bigger collar from the pet supplies and stuffed it in her pocket as she skipped down the aisle to catch up with her dad.
Minutes after checkout, her red-faced father dragged her back into the store, found the shift manager in charge, and told Claire to confess what she had done, because, you see mister, my dog…
“Maybe we should sit down at one of these tables and talk, darling,” the manager cut in, gesturing to a small break area near the bakery. Claire caught him throwing a wink at her dad, which made her feel fine, just A-OK, because Claire knew that nobody could stay mad at her very long.
Claire plopped in the seat that the owl-faced man had pulled out for her. He smelled like Dad’s cigarettes, and a little like the slime Mom rubs on her chest when she has a bad cold.
Claire waved cutesy at her dad, who frowned at her from the magazine rack. This is serious business, his raised eyebrows said wipe that Pollyanna grin off your face and show the man you’re sorry.
“Claire,” the owl said. “I’m very happy that you came in and gave this back to me.” He patted the collar, and Claire nodded, though she had become fascinated with a fake tooth that kept slipping loose in the front of his mouth. He used his tongue to push it back into place occasionally between sentences. “You have a little doggy at home?” His deep, hollow words smelled like coffee and tobacco.
Big nod. “Uh-huh, Gus. And he goes like this — hehk, hehk — when I walk him. I didn’t mean to take the collar, but I was afraid for Gus.”
The SHIFT MANAGER, which is what it said on the red nametag pinned to his green apron, smiled and nodded because maybe he had a dog that goes hehk, hehk too, and he knew how worried a little girl could get. Claire flashed her chipmunk brown eyes and then remembered to frown and look sorry for what she had done.
“You know what happens when people take things that don’t belong to them, don’t you?”
“Dad says you might call the police, and that I could spend the night in jail with the robbers, and to think of how sad Mom would be if I didn’t come home for a couple days and only had bread and water to eat and a board to sleep on.”
He smiled. Patted her hand.
Then an old couple, the only other occupants of the break area, finished their coffee, stood up, and tossed their empty Styrofoam cups into the trash, the old woman smiling at Claire. “You all have a ringer-hum-dinger day,” the owl said to them, lifting carefree hand in their direction.
As he turned his attention back to her, the shift manager’s smile transformed into a fire and brimstone sneer. This and the sudden darkness in his gray eyes made Claire look to her dad, who was glancing at his watch because they had to get home soon and start supper. He wouldn’t have seen the manager’s face from where he stood. Wouldn’t have seen the way those owl eyebrows raised to a wicked, devil’s arch.
“No, Claire-bear, when I catch a little girl stealing from my store, especially a lollipop-dew-drop little turd like yourself, I grab her arm,” which he did, holding it fiercely in his skin-covered talons, “and I cut off her hand and mix it in with the hamburger.”
Claire felt cold run through her body and suddenly couldn’t breathe, wanted to hehk, hehk just like Gus.
Then the shift manager smiled and released his grip. Impatient to get home, her dad drifted over just in time to see this gentle old man, who probably didn’t have it in his heart to be too stern with a little girl, stand up and pat Claire on the head.
“Lesson learned, young lady?” her dad asked.
“Oh, we had ourselves a ringer-hum-dinger little talk,” the shift-manager said. “One more hardened criminal reformed and ready to start spreading smiles.”
And now, twenty-two years later, he has come back because —
because Sarah was messing with things and I didn’t
“Watch where you’re stepping, ma’am,” the man from the meat department says, putting his hand on the small of her back.
The shift manager frowns at her and shakes his head from down the aisle.
Twenty-two years and his hair is the same mix of copper and silver threads, and those same owl eyes watch her because she is the little field mouse that might try to scurry away, but swoosh, snap, swoosh and the owl has a tail dangling from its beak.
Even at this distance she can see his tongue worm along the edges of his front teeth, feeling for that one much-too-white bastard that won’t stay secure against his gum. He should be somewhere between seventy and dead by now. Should be crapping prunes at a retirement home back in Tennessee.
But he’s come back because little Claire-bear didn’t listen very well the first time.
“Come on, lady!” the butcher curses as Claire backs right over the mess, the cart and her shoes trailing pasty red. The lollipop-dew-drop little turd bumping into some fat guy, knocking against a tower of mayonnaise that almost falls because she thinks, silly girl — thinks that the shift manager has come back from the past, the grave probably — come for her hand to grind it up and sell for two-ninety-nine a pound during this red light special, folks.
And Claire is at the front of the store, stumbling away from her cart, which she can’t believe she pushed this far anyway, and she hurries toward the automatic doors, which open to a night that is draining of daylight so quickly this deep in winter.
“Finding everything all right?” this pudgy high school kid asks her because she has stopped suddenly, aware that the shift manager’s odor is strong here too. He has already slipped outside to wait by her car.
As if she hasn’t heard the kid, because she hasn’t really heard or seen anything in this frantic state, she finds the cart again and pushes it to the checkout lanes because here there are people. People with a thousand and ten coupons, perhaps, and seven screaming kids each. People who have to argue about the two cents in the price of every single goddamn thing, and then not have enough money in the end anyway. But there are people, and Claire is safe again. Can breathe again.
The girl behind the register doesn’t smile or ask Claire how she is doing, but talks to a teenage Dana Carvey, who is tossing the groceries into bags. Sometimes the checker has to run something over the laser eye four, five times because she’s so busy telling Dana Carvey that if her car doesn’t get fixed by this weekend, maybe she’ll hook a ride with him to the party. Claire doesn’t mind. This girl can take all night to scan that can of creamed corn if she needs to.
“Know how much this is?” the girl asks. Smacks her gum a requisite three times before asking again.
“No, I…maybe it was in the ad, but I don’t…”
“Fetch, Doug,” she says, tossing the can to Dana Carvey, who disappears into the deep of the store. She scans a bit more efficiently now, her lazy arm sliding the bar codes over the crisscross of red lines, letting each item roll or tumble to the large pile of groceries accumulating with no bagger.
“My goodness,” Claire hears behind her. “This is a ringer-hum-dinger of an order piling up here.”
“Doug’s on price check,” the cashier mutters, but the shift manager has already slipped past a petrified Claire, taking Doug’s place. He smiles at Claire and then begins politely bagging the items.
“Turning into a cruddy-duddy evening out there,” the shift manager says. “That rain is turning into ice as soon as it hits. Streets’ll be as slick as a buttered banana peel, my mother would say.” He winks at her and throws in a friendly aside, “Though, for the life of me, I don’t know why anyone would ever butter a banana peel.”
“Three for a buck,” Doug says, and the shift manager takes the can from his hand, stuffing it into a bag.
“I’ll take this one, son. This lady is a dear friend of mine. You’ve let too many carts gather up out there in God’s wrath. You know what happens to young men who don’t bring in the carts?”
Doug throws him an annoyed look as he throws on a raincoat and heads out, punching out some rap song under his breath.
“He must not know what happens to boys who don’t bring in the carts,” the shift manager whispers to Claire, grabbing a quarter-pound package of beef. “But we know, don’t we, Claire-bear?” He presses his thumb through the cellophane over her ground beef and drops it in the bag.
“Ninety-five-twenty-two, Ma’am,” the checker tells her.
Claire, who doesn’t understand why she hasn’t run out screaming or fainted yet, just wants to scribble her check and then get out, get out, get the hell out of here. But her pen, which had been in her hand a moment ago, is gone.
“It’s on the floor, dear,” the manager says, taking a moment to push that tooth back into place. “You dropped it just a second ago when you turned all white.”
The cashier just shrugs her eyebrows and smacks her gum, as if to say, “Don’t ask me to explain the old creep.”
“Of course you’ll let me help you out with these,” the shift manager says. “I’d be as happy as a Japanese jay bird to do it.”
The gum-smacker messes up and begins punching the check in again. Has to ask for change because Claire wrote the check for ninety-five-fifty-two for some reason, but there are no dimes in her drawer. And Claire is just about to scream as the owl faced man’s voice keeps drilling into her head.
“No…I mean, it’s fine…I don’t need the…”
“Amy, bring me some dimes.”
“I’d hate to have you slip trying to load these bags.”
“It’s just thirty cents….”
“Wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t give you a hand.”
“Just keep the…excuse me but…”
Then Amy tosses a roll of dimes, which the checker opens like an egg against her register, handing three of them to Claire, who grabs the cart and jerks it away from the shift manager.
“You have a ringer-hum-dinger of a day,” he calls after her, sending a rolling shiver down Claire’s back as she hurries into the wind and pelting ice.
As she throws the bags into the back of her car, some mischievous devil in her mind tells her to glance back at the door because he is standing there. Smirking. Watching, with his sharp brown eyes, as the chipmunk girl scurries away.
That same mischievous devil makes her take notice of the crumpled passenger door and the makeshift cardboard window because Claire knows that this is the reason he has returned.
He knows about two weeks ago, when she stood at the nearly empty intersection, waiting for the police.
Amber and Sarah crouched next to the Honda, which belonged to the old lady. They had become fascinated with the tangle of metal and plastic where the headlight and bumper used to be.
“I had the green,” the old woman muttered aloud, though this is mostly to herself as she pulled her coat tightly around her shriveled body and looked up at the traffic lights. The bitter air, with its flecks of sleet pinging against the skin, was too much for her eyes, and she lowered her head again.
“Well, I know what I saw,” Claire said, exerting herself over the woman’s unsure recollection. “But I don’t know how long it’s going to be for the police, so I’m taking my kids back into the car to wait. Too cold to stand here.”
Claire’s Escort has turned a complete one-eighty, finally stopping against the curb across the intersection. The old woman’s vehicle hadn’t been going too fast, just accelerating out of a stop. Any faster and Amber, who had been sitting against the crushed door, would have…
She couldn’t bring herself to imagine this as she ushered her daughters back to the car. With the shattered window, the cold still crept in, but the wind was not so bad.
There had been no witnesses. Shouldn’t have been anyone on the road with the weather the way it had turned out, but Claire had to run and pick up a prescription for herself and Sarah. Both had been running a fever since that morning.
“Honey,” she said to Amber, “and Bunny,” she patted Sarah’s shin, “You girls sure you’re all right.” Both gave her big nods, Sarah scooting away from a gust of awful that just swam through the shattered glass. “Nothing hurts? Your head? No scratches?”
“Mommy, polli saucer.” Sarah cried. Police officer, Claire realized, needing a second to translate this four-year-old language. Sarah pointed at the black and white car edging over the hill a block away. “Girls, I need you to listen carefully. If the police officer asks you any questions, you need to tell him the light was green for Mommy, OK?”
They nodded, though Sarah was too fascinated by the polli saucer, which was slowing to a careful stop, its red and blue lights brilliant within the bleached background.
Amber nodded too, but she didn’t look at Claire as she did this. Shifted nervously, but still nodded.
“And don’t tell him how Mommy was getting onto you about playing with the window, all right Sarah. You’re not in trouble anymore, OK, but the police officer might get mad if he finds out.”
Sarah always liked to brag, after getting in trouble, that she would never, ever do it again because Jesus is watching. Claire was not sure her warning would work, but she knew who would get this ticket if the officer found out she taken her eyes off the road to yell at Sarah because the rear window just kept squeaking down and then up and then down and then up.
As she opened the door to greet the young officer, Claire told them to stay in the warm — Amber, watch your sister. But Sarah didn’t want to miss talking to a real polli saucer, and she was out the back door before her older sister could stop her.
Though the officer seemed to believe Claire, he did, as it turned out, ask Sarah about the accident. The cute-as-a-button little girl seemed fascinated with him, and he couldn’t resist talking to her.
“Didn’t open window, polli saucer,” Sarah said slowly, her eyebrows arched in sincerity.
“Mom had the green,” Amber cut in. Her somber words, her refusal to look at her mother pushed the November cold right into Claire’s gut. Because Amber knew — big girl, good as gold — that her mom had asked her to lie.
When she arrives home from the store, Claire carries the bags into the kitchen and shoves them onto the counter — just lets the groceries sit there a moment as she collapses into a dinette chair and lets loose what has been building since aisle eight.
It is an empty little house when the girls are not home. They are with Brad until the weekend, and things like the pages of homework cluttered on the refrigerator or Amber’s collection of ceramic pigs along the top of the kitchen counters are throbbing reminders of their absence.
Finally Claire wipes the wet from under her eyes and begins to put the groceries away, pressing play on the answering machine as she passes. The first message is from Amber. “Mom, Cathy said our dance performance is January twenty-ninth.” Amber finishes saying goodnight and Sarah pops on for a few seconds. “Amber dance tonight and…” Claire misses the rest of this as she scribbles down the performance date on her calendar.
“Six-forty-seven,” the digital voice of the machine announces, and Claire realizes she has missed their call by fifteen minutes.
The next message is an unfamiliar girl’s voice. “Ms. Richter, this is Terra from Fresh-Mart. It seems you may have left a bag of groceries behind, so if you…hold on, what?…no, it’s just the answering machine…” Terra’s voice is distant as she talks to someone else at the store. “Ms. Richter, one of our managers is heading home now and said he would run it by. Sorry about the hassle.”
She stands quickly, moving away from the patio door because her reflection looks, for a brief moment, like an owl-faced man peering through the glass. There is a moment of light-headedness, and Claire is sure she will faint, but when this doesn’t happen, she runs to the counter and finds a large knife in the cutlery drawer.
The aggressive winter evening has completely absorbed the afternoon, and the only light out her living room window is the pale cast of sickly white from a few streetlights.
Her instinct is to call 9-1-1, but what is the emergency? Excellent customer service?
Drawing the Venetian blinds closed, Claire pries them apart just a hair, enough for her to peer into the darkness. Movement to the right of her yard, and she nearly cuts her own hand out of fright. Deep breath. It is only the Bradford pear bending to the wind, but there is a pair of headlights slowing at the top of the hill, turning onto her street.
The car slows as it nears her house. It’s him, she thinks, but the car continues past. Just cautious with the slick and poorly lit street. It is a silly tan bug anyway, not a car he would drive.
There are no more headlights at either end of the street and Claire considers that she just might have enough time to run downstairs to her car and be anywhere else when the shift manager comes for her.
Then she sees it. Already in her driveway. A large gray sedan has been waiting there as long as she has been at the window. A glowing orange insect darts inside the windshield. He is sitting there watching her.
Claire-bear. She imagines him whispering her name through the smoke rolling over those pale, chapped lips. Little lollipop-dew-drop turd didn’t listen. Stealing from that poor old lady by having your two chipmunk daughters lie to the cop. Stealing from her insurance and stealing from her wrinkled soul because she lies awake at night now, thinking that she almost killed your precious girls by running a red light, which was really green and you know it.
The car door opens, throwing a soft yellow throughout the interior, and Claire drops her gap in the blinds and checks the deadbolt on the door. She has left the living room light off, and maybe he will think she isn’t home after all.
Now, as Claire backs into the hall, she is convinced that the shift manager is really a vampire or a demon or a ghost.
Three quick knocks on the door and then her doorbell echoes through the house. As she clenches the knife, her knuckles turn white, and she crouches on the stairs to the basement, ready to run there if he breaks open the door or window.
Three more knocks, each one reverberating through her chest, but then the man outside the door calls out, and his voice is not deep and empty at all. “Hello,” he calls again, and Claire edges back to the window, peering again through the blinds at the overweight man standing in front of her door. He is shaking his head, frustrated and ready to leave.
Turning on the porch light, Claire yells for him just to leave the groceries on the mat; she will come out and get them. And the overweight man does just that before shaking his head with frustration and shuffling back to his car.
She watches out the blinds as the sedan backs into the street. Certain the shift manager is standing outside, waiting for her, she is content to let the groceries sit by the door through the night.
Finally she dares to throw her door open long enough to snatch the bag. Throwing the deadbolt back into place, Claire rests against the door for a moment, catching her breath.
It isn’t until she has tried to call the girls — busy — that she has calmed enough to begin doing something so normal as putting away the rest of the groceries. By then she is beginning to doubt it was the same man at the store after all. She still isn’t used to living alone after the divorce, and her guilt from the accident is just playing with her mind.
Then she finds the blue dog collar hiding beneath a box of cereal and, with a hysteric scream, slaps the bag off the counter, and from it spills groceries over the orange and brown linoleum.
And from it spills Sarah’s hand.
Only it isn’t Sarah’s hand, she realizes, but a gnarly piece of gingerroot, though Claire could have sworn that a moment ago she had seen her daughters pale little fingers, including the pink butterfly ring she always wears.
Then something in her subconscious emerges, telling her there was something in the phone message she hadn’t heard the first time. “Oh, God no,” she cries, pressing the play button on the answering machine again.
“Amber dance tonight,” Sarah tells her, “and she ringa-dinga, he said.”
Ringer-hum-dinger, he said. The shift manager had been at the dance class with them.
“Byemomloveyou,” she says before hanging up.
Her desperate fingers fumble Brad’s number three times before she is successful, but the number is busy. Brad is on the internet or has the phone off the hook because she tries again but it won’t ring —
— ringer-hum-dinger —
— or the shift manager has already reached the house and cut the line.
“Ohmygod, ohmygod!” Throwing open the phone book, Claire thumbs madly through the pages.
The high school girl answers on the first ring. “Fresh Mart. Help you?”
“Tell him to leave them alone,” Claire screams into the phone.
There is a moment of silence as the girl at the assistance desk tries to decide whether to yell back or hang up.
“They didn’t want to do it,” Claire continues. “I told them to lie, and they didn’t want to make me mad.”
She is yelling so loud she doesn’t hear the girl telling someone near her about the lunatic that has just called in. Sounds high on something, she tells this person.
“Just hang up the phone,” the shift manager’s deep, hollow voice tells the girl.
“No, no, they didn’t do it. I’m the one who stole from that old lady. Tell him it’s all right now. He doesn’t…doesn’t have to…cut their hands…oh, oh God…I’m the one who stole.” Her voice is trembling now, the words tripping over sobs. There is a soft click from the other line, but Claire doesn’t notice this. She cannot hang up anyway because the phone is clamped between her shoulder and ear.
“Tell him I’m…I’m doing it…I’m…because it’s my fault, not theirs.” There is nothing left but a disconnect tone now. “He doesn’t have to…please tell him to leave my little…”
Her right hand is hacking with the knife.
“Little girls…not their hands.”
Her shoulder spasms with pain, and the phone drops with a wet smack on the linoleum floor. Outside, the wind picks up and the sleet pelts against the patio door. The weather will continue like this for most of the night.