Every day I die. It usually happens sometime between 2 and 4 p.m. I’m awakened by the sound of my name tag sliding through the time clock, and then placed back into my grave the next day. It’s a sad, lonely existence, but it is my life.
See, I’m one of the unfortunate ones that didn’t go to college or join the military. I found a low-paying job with equally low expectations. I got hired when I was eighteen, and I’ve been working here for over six years now. I work for a big box retailer called All-Mart; they have everything you need, or so they say. This slogan has caused me nothing but pain. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had customers say, “How can you not have Japanese sushi knives? You’re All-Mart; you have everything!” Working for the company for as many years as I have, I’ve been asked more than once to offer my interpretation of the ever-famous slogan, “We have everything you need.” Just last week I told a grown man I was speaking with that perhaps he didn’t actually need the Blu-Ray and digital copy of Ma and Pa Kettle Season Two. His response was first shock, followed by disgust. He informed me he would never shop at All-Mart again. I was real shook up about it.
Our store is set up like Target or Walmart. Only our stores goal is to offer our customers the personal shopping experience that those other big box stores don’t. This, of course, doesn’t happen, which is why we have a lot of mandatory meetings. I usually stand lifelessly at these, barely hearing the words as they’re mumbled out of the mouth of our store manager, Dave Shoemaker. Mostly I’m staring at Tara from housewares, trying to figure out if I can really see her bra through her shirt or if I’m just imaging it.
I spend most of my time daydreaming. Wondering what my life would be like if I went to college or fought in Iraq. I work in the electronics department. I’m given a set of keys to unlock videogames and computers, so people think I’m important, but the truth is I have almost no responsibility, so I spend most of my time wandering around bored.
Though the store’s been in Haysville for around ten years, it’s still referred to as the new All-Mart to distinguish it from the one across town, which has been here for fifteen. It’s an easy job that pays well enough for a single male who lives in a one-room apartment with no washer or dryer hookups, but for anyone else the pay would probably be considered somewhere between pathetic and depressing. I don’t mind it though. I get paid for what I do, which is basically nothing.
Having settled on a life of boredom and mediocrity, I’ve come to expect very little from life. Which is why I was blown away when Tara asked me out to see the new horror film playing at the Carmike, Exorcist Invasion. Turns out she noticed me staring and didn’t mind at all.
The movie was about a group of demons moving into a town and slowly possessing the people. I didn’t pay much attention to the plot; I spent most of my time making out with Tara and trying to make it to second base. By the end of the movie, I had completed my goal.
A week later she wouldn’t talk to me. When I’d approach her she’d act as if nothing had ever happened. Even for an All-Mart girl, that was pretty cold. I went about my business for the next month, paying more attention to the thoughts in my head than the behavior of my coworkers. I didn’t take notice that most of them stopped talking. They still stocked the shelves and answered questions when asked, but they didn’t engage anyone anymore. It wasn’t until José pointed this out to me that I started to think something might be wrong with the store.
“Huh…that is weird,” I said to José, leaning against the sale counter.
“Yeah, bro, nobody’s been talking. Not for, like, two weeks. Where you been, man? You come to work high or something?”
“No, I’m just still hung up over the Tara thing. She hasn’t been talking to me.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying. Jim, she hasn’t been talking to anyone. Just like most of the store.” José was serious. This was something I had never seen before. Suddenly I was listening.
That’s when my head went dizzy, and my vision blurry. For a second I thought I was going to throw up.
“Hey, you all right?” José asked.
“No, I’m not. I think I’m going to take a walk around the store. You be all right without me for a minute?”
“Yeah, sure man. Just hurry back. These pod people are giving me the creeps.”
Pod people. That was a good enough explanation for what I was seeing. All around the store—from automotive to pharmacy to grocery— no one was talking, and everyone was working productively. I’m sure the stockholders would have been thrilled at the sight, but I was frightened. I’d never seen anything like it, not in my six years with the company. We hadn’t had a mandatory meeting in weeks, and I could see why. No one needed encouragement. They were all doing their jobs. I returned to electronics and relayed the information to José, telling him what I saw.
“Its gotten worse. I guess I can cross Clay off the list.” José drew a line through Clay’s name that he had written on a piece of receipt paper. “We have to be smart about this. We’re in the back corner where no one comes by very often. That’s our advantage. But if we go out looking for these guys through the main aisles, one of our pod friends is bound to take notice.”
“So you think we should take the back aisles?” I asked.
“Yes. But be careful.” He tore the receipt paper in half and handed the bottom portion to me.
“There’s eleven people that I know for sure are still like you and me. I’ve been watching them closely. Jodi and Tim have been trying to fit in with the pods, but they just don’t do it right. They talk to each other. The pods don’t.”
I looked at the five names on my list, then said, “Your sure this is it? There’s no one else?”
“No, I’m not sure. There could be others that are better at fitting in, but we gotta go with what we know. We can’t go around asking everybody if they’re still them. That’s crazy.”
Actually the whole thing was crazy, and if I hadn’t witnessed John in dairy diligently organizing the ice cream by color, I wouldn’t have gone along with José’s plan. The plan was simple. I would locate the five names on my list while José had his six. Each person worked in a separate department, so José organized the list by those who worked closest together. I got Jodi, Tim, Sarah, Cory, and Carl, while he got Sammi, Elijah, Jake, Francis, George, and Jenny. Neither list was very lucky. These people worked all around the store, and no matter how you organized it, it was going to require some walking around. Someone was bound to notice. But just who was I so worried about noticing me? Stephan from health and beauty? Mark in pets? I knew these people by name and department. They didn’t scare me, and why should they have? Just cause they were acting funny? Well, they could kiss my ass if they wanted me to join the productivity band wagon, I hadn’t hung around for six years to wake up one day and decide to work, no sir.
I proceeded with the plan despite my best efforts to convince myself otherwise. I knew something was wrong with my coworkers, and tracking down the ones who were still acting normal seemed like a good enough idea to me.
I started with Jodi and Tim, the two who had been trying to blend in. Their departments were right next to each other, so it made it easy. I walked behind Jodi as she was stocking the 9mm counter. It had been empty for over a week due to the surge of hillbillies and hicks buying up bullets before Obama put all their guns in a big vault.
“Jodi,” I said. She jumped at the sound of her name.
“Yes?” She slowly turned around. “Aw, James! It’s just you. I was afraid you were Dave.”
“From furniture?” I asked
“No. I thought maybe you were Store Manager Dave.”
“Store Manager Dave?” I asked surprised. “He’s afraid of his own shadow. Why would you be afraid of him?”
“He’s changed, James. Lots of people around here have changed. No one slacks off anymore.”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” I said bitterly.
“Dave’s been calling people into the office. People who haven’t been working very hard. They come back changed.”
“Jesus. Do you think he’s just scaring the shit out of them or something?” I couldn’t see how. Dave Shoemaker was shorter than I am, and I’m five-seven. Plus, when he spoke his voice was as about as powerful as a windshield wiper covered in snow.
“I don’t know. But I can’t get anyone that he’s called back there to talk. I’m scared. What if my curiosity has made me a target? People are acting so weird. Ellie won’t even go to lunch with me anymore.” She started to sob. I put my hand on her shoulder. Ellie worked in toys. She wasn’t on our list.
When Jodi finally pulled her self together, I told her José’s plan and asked her to join us. She agreed and said we had to get Tim. I agreed because he was on my list.
The hardware department was kind of spooky. The walls of the aisles were taller than any of the other departments. They were stocked with different kinds of wood and nails. The overhead florescent bulbs were replaced with a sea of display ceiling fans. Their energy efficient bulbs created a soft glow that filled those aisles with shadows.
I remember asking Jodi if we could come back for Tim. To my disappointment she told me, “No. We have to find him now.” When we reached his register we found no sign of him. The eight aisles that made up his department were also clear. Other than the birds flying overhead, picking at the bags of birdseed, hardware was empty. I put a question mark next to his name, and we moved on.
Jodi insisted that we travel by the back aisles on our way to pharmacy to get Sarah. She worked outside of the booth. Her job was to make sure all the over-the-counter drugs were stocked and facing forward. If she were still herself, this would not be the case. Sarah had worked there almost as long as me, and she was twenty-seven. She’d planned on being a teacher, but the school she was set on working at wasn’t hiring, so she worked here. That was five years ago. Sarah was probably more jaded than me.
Getting to her wouldn’t be a problem. The problem was going to be talking to her with out the pharmacist or technicians noticing. I volunteered to scout ahead and find out which aisle she was on while Jodi waited on the cough syrup aisle. I distanced myself as far away from the pharmacy counter as I could, passing it nonchalantly. On the other side of the well-faced vitamin section I found her. She held a duster in her hand.
“Sarah?” I asked.
“Yes, James Drake of the electronics department?”
“Sarah, are you feeling, okay?”
“Yes, James. I’m fine. How are you?” she said with a smile that looked as if it were made of plaster.
“I’m fine, thank you.” My voice disagreed.
She stopped dusting and turned her body toward me.
“What are you doing all the way up here? Electronics is a long way away.”
I looked around the aisle and grabbed the first thing I saw. “Looking for Band-Aids. José cut himself on a box.”
“Aw, box cuts can be nasty. You should send him to see Manager Dave. He might send him home early.”
Beneath her placid tone I sensed something wicked. This wasn’t the girl I’d known for five years.
“Thanks, Sarah. I’ll do that.”
I made my way back to the cough syrup aisle, were Jodi was waiting.
“What happened? Did you find Sarah?”
“Yes, but she’s one of them now,” I said the words but didn’t quite believe them. I didn’t even know what “them” meant. But I knew the girl I talked to was no longer Sarah. She was something else.
Jodi and I left the pharmacy department behind us and headed for produce. We looped around the women’s department to avoid being seen by any of the cashiers, and headed east toward grocery.
We found Cory listening to his iPod with both earbuds in. When we came up behind him he jumped. This was a good sign. After he pulled his headphones out of his ears we explained the situation.
“So what? You guys think they’re being replaced by aliens?” He phrased it as if it were a question, but really he was just being his sarcastic self.
“Fuck, Cory, I don’t know what’s going on around here, but if we just keep ignoring it there won’t be anyone left to find out.”
“You really think something’s going on here, don’t you? Jesus, didn’t either of you pay attention at the last meeting?”
I started to think if I had or not, but he didn’t pause long enough for me to answer.
“Dave promised that everyone would get a $500 bonus at the end of the month if we could boost our sales by 5 percent. That’s what all this hard work you’ve been seeing is. People just want a little extra money.”
“But it’s more than that!” Jodi said with desperation in her voice.
“Please. Get out of here, both of you. Before I run and tell Dave how wacko the two of you are acting. Don’t you guys have work to do?”
“Yeah, we do,” I said.
I grabbed Jodi by the arm and headed toward housewares. I crossed Cory’s name off the list. I was hoping José was having better luck. One out of four was not good odds.
In housewares things were strange. We’d passed it on our way to pharmacy, but the plan was to stay out of the main aisles, and housewares has a main aisle running right through the middle of it. Which is why we saved it for last.
I noticed the smell immediately. It was the smell of raw meat after it’s been left on the counter for a couple hours. I’d smelled it in the damages section behind frozen, only this was worse. There was a pallet of half-worked boxes hanging out in the middle of the main aisle. This wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was the trail of blood that ran from the pallet of freight to the appliance aisle.
“Carl! Car—” I put my hand over Jodi’s mouth.
“Shhhh… Be quiet,” I said.
We walked slowly down the appliance aisle, passing displays of fridges and stoves as we followed the blood. It led us down the end of the aisle where we were welcomed to a pool of it. And in front of us placed on the glass plate of GE’s newest microwave was the head of Carl Hemmer.
Jodi puked chunks of what I assumed had been her lunch. It went flying on the floor, mixing with the blood. I had to hold back my own vomit. I swallowed most of it, while bits of it trickled down my chin.
I grabbed Jodi once again by her arm. “Jodi, Jodi.” I coughed as the smell of the blood and puke threatened to send my lunch all over the floor with Jodi’s. “Jodi, we have to go.”
She managed to stop throwing up long enough to say, “No. We have to call the police,” before gagging and throwing up some more. I pulled her up to her feet, the legs of her khakis now covered in Carl’s blood.
“We have to leave. We’ll call the cops when we get out. Do you have your cell phone?”
She shook her head no.
“Why not?” I said trying not to yell incase anyone was around.
“I left it in sporting goods. I was texting when you scared me. I think I left it in the case.”
Normally this kind of thing would have struck me as funny, but seeing a guy’s severed head in a microwave robs you of most of your humor. “Great. Then we have no choice, we have to get out of here. My Nokia doesn’t get any signal in the store.”
“What if someone sees us?”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll be fine.”
I mostly believed that. It was a Sunday, and the store had been dead. I didn’t expect us to run in to any customers on the way to the door, and if we did I’d use their cell phone to call 911. If we ran into any coworkers we’d just keep walking, not looking back.
As it turned out, no one saw us. No customers, no coworkers, but that wasn’t the problem. I could see the problem glimmering on the door handles as we approached. I kept silent, letting the fear build.
“What’s that?” Jodi squeaked. I didn’t answer.
When we were no more than ten feet away Jodi let out a scream, “No!”
She wrapped her hand around the lock and chain and shook the door. I eyeballed the chain; it was the thick stuff we sold in hardware. We weren’t going to get through that door without a small torch. Above the chain, there was a sign taped to the glass door, it read, Closed For Maintenance
“Jodi, there’s three more doors in the store; they’ve probably locked them too, but it wouldn’t hurt to look.”
That was a lie. I knew it could hurt to look at the east door. Passing all those registers with Jodi’s pants soaked in blood. It didn’t seem like a good idea.
“But first we need to head back to electronics. I need to know if José’s okay. He’ll have a cell phone.”
She seemed to consider this and then said, “Just go. I can’t do this anymore.”
“What? Jodi, you have to. I can’t do this alone.”
“I can’t, James. I just can’t. We found Carl’s head in a microwave for Christ’s sake. Whoever did it is still in the store, and they’ll probably kill us too.”
“You can’t think like that. I know this looks bad, but we’ll be okay. Just think about it. This store has everything we need.”
With that I got her to crack a smile. That was enough.
We made our way back to electronics using the back aisles, but I had a strange feeling that we didn’t have to. I hadn’t seen a coworker since we left housewares.
Jodi wanted to high-tail it to sporting goods to get her phone, but I told her no. Electronics was closer, and if José were there, we’d have our phone.
We made it back to electronics to find the counter a mess. Boxes of store-used electronics were overturned on the counter. Radios, mp3 players, and dummy cell phone displays were scattered about. Dummy cell phone displays… Of course. I quickly ran behind the counter, knowing what they had been searching for. I found it hidden deep in one of our drawers
“What are you looking for?”
“This!” I stood up, and held in my hand All-Mart’s store-used Galaxy S2. Never had I been so happy to hold that outdated piece of technology in my hands.
“Thank god. Hurry up and call the cops! Quick, before whoever did this comes back.”
I unlocked the phone and came to the password screen.
“Shit,” I said.
“What do you mean, ‘Shit’?”
“I always forget the password.”
“How do you forget the password!?”
“We use, like, three different ones, and I never use this phone. Fuck!” I contemplated throwing the phone against the wall, but I refrained. Then it hit me. I placed the phone on the counter and pried the back of it off, then took the battery out.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking out the SIM card so we can slip it in one of the phones on the shelf.”
“That’s going to be a problem,” Jodi said.
“What?” I said dumb founded by her statement.
“The phones on the—” I stopped midsentence. I jumped over the counter and ran to the cell phone aisle; there I saw the most horrifying thing I had ever seen. The phone aisle was empty. “Counter…” I swallowed what felt like a gallstone growing in my throat.
She gave me a minute to let the horror really set in. Then she said, “Lets just go to sporting goods.”
I agreed, defeated. On our way there, I went through every password I could think of that we used. None of them worked. I ended up slipping the phone in my pocket.
We found sporting goods the way we left it. No overturned boxes, no bullets missing. I briefly thought about loading a gun from the rifle case, but who would I point it at? Besides, I had never fired a gun. I spent most of my time outside of work online.
“Here, take this,” Jodi said as she handed me a gun. It was a rifle, light but intimidating. “Load it with these.” She handed me a box of bullets. I didn’t know how to load it, but I didn’t bother to ask. Jodi was still looking for her cell phone, and I didn’t want to distract her from that. If she found it soon enough I wouldn’t have to use the gun anyway.
I fiddled with what I assumed was the bolt of the gun, trying to get the chamber opened enough so I could squeeze a bullet in. I was still playing with the bolt when Tim’s shadow was standing over me.
I looked up at him, a little embarrassed. “Hi, Tim. What are you guys doing here?” The aisle in front of me was filled with All-Mart workers. Tim was at the front of the line.
“I could ask you the same thing.”
Jodi was still rummaging through the bullet case, looking for that lost cell phone.
“You won’t find it in there, dear. I’ve already taken care of it.”
Jodi stood slowly. She turned and faced him.
“You asshole.” She grabbed the gun from me and loaded the bullet I’d been struggling to fit in it. She pointed it at Tim, but before she had a chance to fire it an arrow was sticking out of her chest. John from dairy stood in the crowd, holding a compound bow. He loaded another arrow.
Jodi stood for a moment. Her face held a look of utter confusion.
“Bu-bu-bu-but…” she mumbled.
Tim walked toward her and pushed me aside. “Shhh, we don’t want to disturb our customers.”
He took the rifle from her and held it behind him until one of the workers grabbed it from him. He laid Jodi on the floor as she fell into his arms. Then, as her body began to touch the tiled floor, he pulled out a hunting knife from his cargo pants and drove it into her heart. After she gasped her last breath, he pulled the blade out of her chest, wiped it clean on her shirt, sheathed it, and placed it on the sporting goods counter.
“Now, are you ready to meet with Dave?”
When he looked at me, I nodded my head.
The crowd opened up, creating a path for Tim to walk, and I to follow. It was strange walking by all those faces I once knew, who now seemed like strangers. Among those faces I saw Tara. Her green shirt was covered in blood.
Dave’s office was the same as I remembered it. Decorated with the standard All-Mart posters and plaques. It was the kind of stuff you’d think they ordered from some corporate magazine. Dave was sitting behind his desk, staring at his computer screen. Behind me Tim stood in front of the door. Dave rolled over to me.
“Hey, Jim, sorry about the wait. Just got an e-mail from home office. Have to change some endcaps.”
“Really? Is that all?” Sweat was dripping down my brow.
“Is that all? Well, yeah. That’s all that was in the e-mail. But I didn’t ask Tim to bring you down here to talk about e-mails.” These were the most words that this man had ever said to me. “I had Tim bring you down here because I wanted to talk to you about the new direction All-Mart is taking in their employee management.”
“New direction? That’s what you call it? Looks like you’ve turned the store into a goddamn cult.”
Dave did something I’ve never seen him do. He smiled.
“Well, I guess by definition you could say we have started a little cult. But Jim, that’s not an insult. Many great things started as cults. Judaism, Christianity, democracy, capitalism. All of these things have enhanced the lives of the people of this world. And I think in time you’ll see that what we’re doing here will change the world as well.”
I had no doubts about that. “Well, when you put it like that, Dave, bring it on. Where’s the Kool-Aid?”
“There’s no Kool-Aid, I’m afraid. Our procedures are a little more complicated than that.”
I saw a familiar figure out of the corner of my eye; was it Maggie Martison, one of the pharmacy technicians? I’m not sure. All I know is I felt a sharp pain in my left arm then everything went black.
After that my memories break up, becoming… jagged, like pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit. One thing I do know though: Dave was right. What they’re doing is changing the world. It changed my world.
Like I said at the beginning, every day I die. I die and am reborn. When I hear the sound of the time clock accepting my offering of service, I shed the skin that binds me to the oppressive outside walls, and I become one with my family.
I was wrong when I thought Tara didn’t remember me. You remember everything. She just couldn’t be with me before. She wanted to, but she couldn’t. But now we’re together, and everything is perfect. My favorite days are when it rains, and our store is extra busy. Being busy is good.
Sometimes Dave hires new people who aren’t good. They’re like Jodi. We can’t trust these people. Tara and I help the family with these people. Then we make sure the house is clean. Afterwards, Tara and I kiss; it’s wonderful.
Sometimes customers tell me I’m wasting my time here. They see how hard I work, and they tell me I should go to college, or work at a hospital or a school, but they don’t understand. There’s nothing else out there that I’m interested in. Everything I have is in these four walls. I finally understand. They have everything you need.