Anita Willis sat there hugging her arms, shivering, waiting for the detective to return. Her teeth were clenched, grinding painfully, and her heart rate had been dangerously near a hundred beats per minute for at least an hour now. If she got any dizzier, she would faint. Wild-eyed, she glanced around the dingy room, catching sight of herself in the mirror. It was so grimy she had to fight the urge to produce a tissue from her purse and clean it. How long was this going to take? They had to start looking for Danny now.
As if he heard her thoughts, the detective opened the door. She had already forgotten his name. He set a cup of machine dispensed coffee down in front of her; it smelled metallic. Then he rounded the table and sat across from her.
"Why am I here?" She asked him. "Is anyone out looking for Danny?" She felt hysteria rising in her chest, and heard it creep into her voice. His name was almost a shriek by the time it burst from her mouth.
"I need you to relax, Mrs. Willis," he replied, watching her. "I promise you we have people who will take care of all this."
She swallowed, her throat tight. Closing her eyes she tried to take a deep breath. "My God...the last thing I said to him..."
"I need you to tell me exactly what happened," the detective said, his voice low and calm. It was almost a purr. "From the beginning. Everything."
She jiggled her head, aping a nod. Still clutching her arms across her chest she rocked slightly back and forth. Behind her eyes she saw the shadows slither, the flickering strobe of fluorescent lights. The stench of blood was still in her nostrils.
The words came tumbling out.
She hated Bargain Galaxy. Hated it. The generic, plastic-tasting food, the Made In China garbage that was not the only thing they could afford. She hated the shame of it. Since Mike had gotten laid off their lives had been in a downward spiral, first losing the house, then the second car. They had moved into a one-bedroom apartment and the kids slept in the living room. And while she was pulling double shifts at the restaurant, Mike's only contribution was self-pity quenched in beer. She was tired of coming home to dirty dishes in the sink, exhausted, the baby crying to be fed. And more than anything else she hated having to shop at Bargain Galaxy.
Danny had been acting up. He was hungry and cranky and Julia was bawling her head off. It was nearly nine-thirty at night and she had no idea where her husband was. And because there was nothing to eat in the refrigerator, she piled the kids into the car to head over to Bargain Galaxy before it closed.
"Do I have to?" Danny had started whining. He had been watching TV.
"Danny please, not now." She had replied, scooping the baby up. "We need to get there before they close."
"But why can't I stay here? I'm almost seven. I can be alone."
"C'mon, Danny, we are going."
He had come, arms folded in the backseat, scowling. Just to let her know how displeased he was, he kept kicking the back of her seat the entire drive over. "Daniel Martin Willis if you don't stop that right now, I swear!" She barked, exasperated.
"I hate this place, and I hate the new apartment, and I hate you!" He had snapped, glaring at her.
As she turned into the parking lot, the baby still shrieking in the car seat next to her, everything just came to a boil. She said the words.
"Oh yeah? Well sometimes I hate you too."
She regretted it instantly, but was too angry, too tired, too sick to death of everything to take them back. So she parked as close to the entrance as she could, gathered up the baby, and dragged her son into the store.
She noticed right away that the greeter was not there as you entered, some bored underpaid teenager or retiree who forced a smile and blurted "Welcome to Bargain Galaxy" to everyone who came in. She always did her best to ignore them and avoid eye contact, cheeks burning with shame. I don't have to shop here, she always wanted to assure them. It's just a bad patch. But this time she paused a moment, looking around wondering where the greeter was. There was only ten minutes to closing. Maybe they let him go early.
As the automatic doors whooshed close behind her, she was struck by the silence. The only sound was the canned muzak version of Top of the World lilting through the store. Julia has mercifully stopped crying and Anita shifted the baby in her arms. She nodded at a cart. "Grab one please, Danny."
"Fine," he snapped, sounding exactly like his father every time Anita got on his case for getting drunk again. Fine with an undertone of shut up you nagging bitch. He yanked one of the blue BARGAIN GALAXY carts from the line and rolled it behind her.
As they moved from the entrance into the front of the store, Anita paused again. The silence was very nearly deafening. Turning slowly, she ran her eyeline across the silent registers. There were no customers. No cashiers. She glanced at her watch just to make sure it wasn't already past closing time. But even if it was, there were always people here late, the clerks glaring at them with those please go home so I can go home too looks. But there was no one here. It was like a tomb.
"Mom look at the lights," Danny said beside her. "What's the matter with them?"
He was right. Half the lights in the store were flickering, the white fluorescence blinking erratically. As she watched them, her belly tightened, doing a slow roll. The flickering was...moving. Now it was the lights on the left side of the store...moving slowly aisle by aisle towards the right...moving from the back towards the front.
Moving towards them.
She opened her mouth to say something, but the words dried in her throat. Because, of course, now she saw. There in aisle 3, face down on the floor was a woman, half naked and soaked in blood. One row over, in aisle 4, the register was spattered with gore. Anita's eyes widened, her gaze now shooting around.
And there was the greeter, slumped against the wall between the bubblegum machine and another that dispensed Pokemon toys. He was all of sixteen, his pale skin hidden beneath clustered constellations of acne. He wouldn't need to worry about it clearing up any more. The teen's blue BARGAIN GALAXY vest was soaked scarlet, eyes bulging. It looked like chunks of flesh had been torn from his throat and wrists.
The lights above them started flickering now, the entrance lit in weird paparazzi flashes. The temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees. Anita reached for Danny's hand, clutching the baby to her breast.
Straight ahead, just a few yards away, a woman had just appeared out of nowhere, staring at her. She was tall and blonde, and too well dressed to be a Bargain Galaxy shopper. Instead of yoga pants and a sweatshirt, she was wearing what looked like Chanel. And the woman was clutching in her arms a figure much larger than a baby, the limp and bloodied form of a dark-haired girl. Her blue eyes fixed on Anita's. "For the love of your God, run!"
Anita nodded, groping for Danny's hand again and coming up with only empty air. The blonde woman shouted at her again. The same thing. "Run."
Anita turned, but where Danny should have been there was only empty space. A rising tide of panic exploded up her spine. Somewhere near she heard screaming, a mindless animal shriek of pure terror.
It sounded like her son.
"He is dead already!" The blonde woman hissed. She had moved with impossible speed right up beside Anita. She was still holding the dark-haired girl, but now with just one hand. He other hand closed on Anita's arm like a steel vice. "Take your baby and run!"
Anita shook her head wildly, eyes searching. Someone was screaming Danny's name. It took her seconds to realise it was her.
"Damn you we must go NOW!"
In the horrible, flickering strobe, the shadows were gathering. There was a darkness like a fog, and pieces of it tore away from the whole to form vaguely human shapes. There were at least a half dozen of them gathering around her, twitching like zombies in a B movie. Anita was screaming.
"You impossible woman!" The blonde lady shouted. Anita was lifted off her feet with terrible speed, and the world dissolved into a whirl. The blonde woman was carrying her, carrying her and the dark haired girl out of the store.
"OhgodnopleaseIhavetogobackintheremysonmysonmyson!!!!" Anita was shrieking, screaming, pleading. But the blonde woman was gone and she was alone with the baby in the middle of the parking lot, red and blue police lights flashing.
Anita Willis finished her story, shaking badly. The detective across the table was scowling at her, and she was afraid he didn't believe her.
"Please...it's true, I swear it's true. They took my son. They took Danny!" She reached across the table and grabbed his hand, pleading with her eyes. "Oh God you have got to help me!"
The detective looked away, towards the mirror, and nodded...not at Anita, but at whomever was on the other side of the glass. Then he pulled his hand away from Anita's, gently, and patted it. "I believe you, Mrs. Willis. Wait right here a moment."
He stood, and quietly left the room.
Anita broke, sobbing, face in her hands. She thought about her last words to him, the terrible thing she had said. Oh please Lord Jesus don't let that be the last thing I say to him. Please God bring back my son.
The door opened behind her, and she heard the click of heels on the floor. Wiping the tears and the snot away from her face with her hands, she glanced up. Her heart skipped a beat in her chest.
"Hello Mrs. Willis," the blonde lady said. She took the detective's seat across the table. "I am afraid we were not properly introduced. My name is Athena Harrington-Temple."
Anita thought of how easily she had carried that dark haired girl, how easily she had lifted Anita herself off her feet. A dozen questions jumbled in her head, each fighting to get out first. Only one did. "Where is my son?"
The blonde woman nodded, the corners of her mouth turned down. "I am so very sorry, Mrs. Willis. When you came home from work this evening your son was nowhere to be found."
Anita blinked. "What?"
"I understand your family has fallen on hard times recently. The loss of your home, your husband's livelihood. He has taken up drinking, I understand. Sometimes under such circumstances little boys run away."
The blonde woman's voice was soothing, and Anita felt her heart beat slowly. "No...we went to Bargain Galaxy...I saw...I saw..."
"You called the police right away, understandably. And they came immediately to your home. They are out looking for him. I am sure they will look very hard."
The voice...it was like slipping into a warm bath. It washed over you like perfume, and the way those blue eyes seemed to glitter...
"You never went to Bargain Galaxy tonight. When you hear about the tragedy there, the gangs and their turf war and the massacre, you still won't recall going there tonight."
Anita nodded now, agreeing. Danny was missing but it was going to be alright. She just knew that, she could feel it from the sound of the woman's voice. Danny was going to be alright. The police would find him.
The blonde woman nodded, and stood. She glanced up at the mirror and gave a single nod towards the people on the other side. Anita followed her gaze, and for the smallest fraction of seconds felt a stab of fear. She could see herself reflected there, her tear-stained face red and puffy from crying, and she could see the whole of the dirty room. But there was no reflection of the blonde woman in the glass. It was like she wasn't even in the room at all.
But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered in the warm, soothing buzz the woman's presence radiated.
Nothing mattered at all.