Three days ago, coyotes broke into the new blue sheen of Superstore’s tinfoil exterior. They slunk like transients in through the back and Corporate became clam-like, grasping for self-preservation. Only the bare minimum of press conferences were held, and no interviews. Lena V., Superstore employee, had her own theories. The new blue paint only barely hid the metal skeleton within. The coyotes were just one more piece of bureaucratic red tape, a line to step boldly across; yellow nails scraping the snow. It had been a hard winter, for Lena too; safety lights glistened off the slick of pork tenderloin packaging. It drew their animalistic hungers, stronger than fear.
The coyotes were dealt with quickly: stripped to their skins, they burned in the organic waste landfill ten kilometres out of town. Soon, night fell and only the fur was left. Reality began to tear at the edges. Lena kept the television on for most of the next day, switching between her two complimentary local channels for updates. But it seemed to her, reality itself was shifting, becoming malleable. She could no longer tell the difference between her memory and the screen. The story grew arms and teeth. It manifested itself through infinite online features and multiple public health exposés. Two coyotes became four, then a pack, then a fable.
A mechanical buzzing woke Lena from sleep. Streams of static crackled against her pillow; leftover sweat and nightmare clung to her hair and her thin night shirt, plastering the pilled fabric to her waist. Printed cherry-pie boxers strained against her groin, moving up against last spring’s thong. The waistbands of both fabrics knotted up around her narrow waist. She registered both with a simultaneous tug beneath her blanket.
The phone continued its musical drone, escalating in pitch. Lena reached out a sweaty hand from the duvet, fumbling to grip the slick case. A glass of water beaded with moisture grazed her fingertips. Her long arm hairs stood up from the cold, and she groaned. It was Tuesday, the worst day of the week; her earliest shift beckoned.
“Lena! It’s minus thirty today. You up yet?” Cora called from the orange light of the hallway.
Lena rolled her eyes inside their lids. Cora was a replacement roommate, someone to split the rent with, but convenience didn’t lead to anything. A gurgle and moan escaped her mouth.
“Lena?” Cora’s voice filled the room.
“I’m up. Awake.” Lena sat up fully on her mattress. Cora’s thick figure blocked a round portion of the light entering her room.
“Do you need a ride? I’m going out soon. I can give you one if you want.” The low whine of her voice burrowed its way in, a jack hammer against the pulsing amber black of the morning.
“Mmm. That would be awesome. I work at eight.” Lena stretched out her legs, heels against the floor; the cold splintered it into shards against her bare feet. “Frig.” Wrapping the duvet around her body, Lena curled back up in the center of her narrow mattress. Halfway between a single and a twin, it fought to control contemporary sheet sizing; the blue corners spilled out from the elastic like a sudden iceberg in the Atlantic.
“Are you sure you don’t have the day off? I mean, they didn’t call you or anything —”
“They’re dead by now. It was on CTV all day yesterday. Besides, I don’t have anything else to do today. I might as well go. See the scene of the crime.” Lena waited for Cora’s response. She couldn’t bring herself to get up; she hated Superstore. It made her insides feel like committing to spontaneous liquefaction every time she walked through the double doors.
She could hear Cora waiting in the hall. It was a measured calculated intake of breath, like that of a snorer still awake. Lena stifled a laugh at the thought of Cora anxious about her snoring when she slept over at Leduc’s house. What an absurd couple. A sudden, unsolicited gasp, heavy with phlegm rattled the ply-wood frame. Lena’s lip curled. Jesus, what if she actually had to thank Cora for the ride before she’d leave? She lay beneath her blanket, shivering from the chill of the floor. Cora’s fingers must have stroked the doorknob several times by now; Lena wanted to cry, picturing the residue left behind.
“Oh, umm. I have to leave in twenty-five minutes.”
“Okay, I’m up.”
“Do you need to shower?”
“God! No, just give me a few minutes to get ready. I’ll be there.” Lena waited for the sound of her footsteps to slink away. “Man.” Wrapped in the duvet, she shuffled across the floor to the dresser, yanking the third drawer open with one arm. Even Superstore with its dead coyotes had to be better than this.
Lena was late for work. It was the fourth time this month. Slush-encrusted vehicles dotted the parking lot. Cora honked goodbye from her White Ford F-350, and Lena waved a mittened hand in vague response. It didn’t feel like minus thirty degrees, but what did she know? Maybe through repeated exposure her blood was being tricked into a feeling of normalcy. She took a few cautious steps forward.
“Oh no, fucking — !” Lena stumbled across the ice, her knee-high faux hiking boots worn out, the grip reduced to a slick plastic veneer. Her coat-fattened arms swished through the air for balance. An unusual bout of freezing rain from the night before had shattered the parking lot into fragments of splintered asphalt; black and the ice-white gleaming wet. The wind shrilled, ripping through the flags on the roof. She gripped her smock tight against her stomach.
Packing crates leaned against the blue walls, still fresh with renovation. Lena stepped over one that had fallen in the path of the automatic door, causing it to spastically open and close; the jaws of a mouth that had forgotten how to swallow.
Lena checked her cell phone: 7:21 a.m. A message from Cora.
— Hope you made it on time! No coyotes, right?!
She shoved the phone into her jacket, resisting the urge to walk around back to the unloading area. She tried not to think of blood and men in white suits scrubbing the concrete clean.
In the tiny teal break room, she hung up her coat soundlessly. It was important not to appear late. That way, if someone spotted her, Lena could claim a task in the north end of the store. Her feet slid through the cosmetics aisle where she pretended to check prices.
After a few minutes of examining the new L’Oréal Colour Riche lipsticks, Lena heard her own slight footsteps echo in the long aisle. A deepening feeling of silence crawled through the building, resonating against the ceiling. Lena hated to look up; an impossible distance, the twenty to thirty feet high grey warehouse cement of the roof reminded her of space. Nobody registered its existence, but yet it lurked, a grey presence in her peripheral vision.
“To the staff room. Meeting has commenced.” The sound of the intercom grated, a nail file against her cochlea.
Was cochlea even the right word? She paused for a moment, letting the word hover, breathing it out slowly. “Cochlea.” The cochleas were the vertebras that kept you balanced, held you back from capsizing, like an overfilled crate. Like that time that Gregory B. filled the packing crate with too many pumpkins, and it was past Halloween. They spilled out onto the matting, leaving a trail of rot impossible to fully bleach clean.
But this morning the foyer was empty and her presence created a ripple in the women’s winter department. Sweaters shifted on the rack. Lena’s stomach fell unpleasantly: she was the only one on duty. Next, she’d have to casually walk past the staff room, just to see. The lipsticks would be useless as a guise of productivity now. Putting them back on their hooks, she cut through Customer Service, empty except for Gregory B. guarding the self-checkouts. Lena nodded hello.
“Morning.” Gregory bounced his shoulders forward in a hunched roll.
Lena could smell his cologne, like a slap of junior high school hallways. It was so goddamn fresh; she didn’t have the time to stop completely. She slowed her lengthy strides to a pace that facilitated discussion.
“Did you get out of the meeting early?” His voice nasal, tempered with the flickering of the lights and caught by the checkered pattern of his tie. He didn’t meet her grey eyes but instead held a black Sharpie up to his face, examining its logo closely.
“Oh, I’m not on the list today. It’s not about my department.”
“It’s an emergency-general meeting. You know, about the break-in.” He looked up with a jab of his gelled hair. A flicker of something surfaced in his pale cheeks and vanished.
Gregory looked at her and then very slowly and deliberately formed an “L” with his left index finger and thumb. Lena fought the urge to slap him.
“What about you then? Why aren’t you there?”
“Someone’s got to guard the gates.” He paused, as if waiting for her to share in the joke. “Better hurry, you might miss some important information in there. They’re probably training everyone how to operate a shotgun.”
“Ha. Right. They didn’t phone me, you know. How was I supposed to know about it?” She shook her face in the direction of a smile and felt her skin tear at the edges.
Lena picked up speed when she got closer to the frozen meat section, smock billowing out behind her. The employees’ room was only a few aisles over now. The sudden temperature drop wasn’t, physically, an unpleasant part of the store, though she hated the way the manufactured breeze ballooned her thin hair in a red cloud of static.
Assorted meat lay piled in a pink to red colour wheel, neatly displayed along an aluminum trough, ready to be discarded at the end of the day. Despite the all-time discount prices, only a select few ever bought meat from Superstore. This had gone on all winter, long before the coyotes had ever registered on the emergency horizon. The lower the temperature, the more the populace avoided the section. Even the employees felt it. It was as if Superstore’s frozen meat section had been contaminated by the thought of starvation. The unspoken public quarantine had tripled the amount of regular teamwork meetings discussing product promotion.
Usually she sat through these and thought about moving to where it was warm at least ten months out of the year. It wasn’t that she was cold. It was the way cold disappeared inside her suite with Cora now permanently lodged inside. The snow and wind only turned to rain.
Lena rounded the corner to where the discounted beef lay unwanted, and she tripped on the string of her smock. Her muffled gasp as she crashed into the marked-up chick peas came out as a guttural moan. An obese woman and a thin, bleached child in matching purple and white snow suits stood quietly considering the meat. The child spilled out from a shopping cart, arms and legs distended from the baby seat. Lena tore her gaze away from its blistered mouth, the lips licked so often that the skin congealed in red scabs. The woman gripped the handle of a shopping cart listlessly, twisting it back and forth to make a squeaking noise.
Lena bit her lip, blood coming to the surface, a reassuring touch of iron. She untangled herself from the chickpea display and walked slowly towards the customers. The woman in the parka suit picked up a package of ground beef and peered nearsightedly at the enlarged sale sticker.
Lena licked her own lips, tried not to cut her tongue on its suddenly jagged folds. “Can I help you find anything?” Her smock had become tangled around her waist somehow. She forced her hands to stay down.
The woman twisted a wide neck in Lena’s direction. Her mottled face hung down in pouches of extra skin, her eyes veiled by her thick lenses.
Lena frowned; the glasses were distracting. It was difficult to see the woman’s face, read her expression. “Just let me know if you need assistance then, ma’am.”
The woman turned slowly, a hull of a ship changing directions, and went back to sifting through frozen beef. She handed a package dripping with oils to the elongated child and bent over again.
Lena shrank back into the canned vegetables aisle. It was much too late to make it to the meeting now. “I’m back here, stocking, if you need me.”
She pulled out a few cans of pickled mushrooms and rotated them so that the bilingual side was exposed. She wondered what it really said in French, whether the label on the can said “Be a Fun Guy, Choose All-Purpose Mushrooms!” in Québécois slang. The grocery cart squeaked down the main aisle, closer to where she was hiding. She reached for a can of salsa closest to the sound of the cart trudging down and peered out.
The woman in the parka suit swished past as if every step counted. Lena watched with growing revulsion as she stopped every few seconds to further unwrap a package of raw hamburger, pinch it between her uneven fingers and poke in between the child’s teeth. Hamburger clung to the sores, meat oozing out from the red.
Lena wailed from low in her throat. Backing away from the salsas and nearly tripping over another display, she ran from the frozen meat section.
She stopped for breath at the door. Gregory looked up from his magazine in surprise.
“How was the meeting? You must have missed all of it. Sucks to be you, doesn’t it?”
“There’s something. Wrong. I mean. It’s not right in aisle twenty-five.” Lena choked out the words.
“What’s up with you? If you want an excuse for being late today and missing the meeting —”
“Someone’s eating the meat!”
“Out of the frozen meat section.”
“So what? I eat it all the time? It’s fucking cheap.”
Lena backed away, her mouth opening and closing in an attempt to find the right words to say.
Gregory leaned over his counter. “Tell Cora we miss her.”
The walk home from Superstore was muffled and pale. Her footsteps on the hardened ice were heavy, dragging more snow with each lift. She felt in her jacket for her cast-off cell phone. Keeping Cora at arm’s length required a strict, uncomfortable symbiosis. She would have responded to some of Cora’s text messages, maybe even have gotten a ride home out of it, but the presence of the toad-like family squatting in the frozen meat section had shaken her. She didn’t even make it to the staff room; only Gregory B. really knew the bare skeleton of her transgressions. He would get her fired, if she didn’t quit first.
She opened her phone to re-check the messages. All were from Cora.
— Hey! Just wondering how your day is going??
— There’s a sale on Hello Kitty pillow cases. I’ll pick you up one.
— I just saw Gregory. How can you even work with him? I wanted to see if there were any clues left, from the coyotes.
— Don’t feel well. See you tonight.
The snow outside had hardened with the wind. The outside world moved faster than the world inside Superstore. Snow blew all over the place, chunks of white bumping up against her shoes. She tried not to think about leaving her shift. Maybe nobody would even notice. That was entirely possible.
A truck honked at her, the lights momentarily blinding, threatening to knock her off the highway. For a few seconds, grey amoeba burst to flashes of colour inside her eyelids and she stumbled off the shoulder and into the ditch. Her knees stung with cold, snow seeping through her tights. Lena looked down, abruptly recognizing the blue smock draped across her chest.
“Stolen goods,” Lena muttered to herself. She liked the sound of it in her mouth. It felt dangerous and lethal; a justification for her departure. She could see the end.
It was snowing again when she opened the door of her suite. Hard, wet flakes that seemed to sizzle as they hit the shoveled walkway. Once inside she could hear the sound of someone using the shower. Steam curled out from beneath the bathroom door and into the kitchen. Lena surveyed the mess. Her laptop hummed on the wooden table, buried amidst a mess of dishes. She lifted it up gently, untangling the power cord from the detritus of empty tea cups that surround its angry hum. Though the surface of the table was electric hot, the china cups had gone bone cold, leaving the kitchen with an air of neglect. Pens clung to the inherent warmth of rubber.
Alone in her room, Lena watched Phantom of the Opera music videos on YouTube and tried not to think about anything at all. Her bed sheets twisted into a nest around her bare knees. If she kept her eyes closed for too long, images of the bulging fingers would return, an episodic rerun series, heightening in dramatic tension. Her stomach ached in fear or hunger; she could no longer tell the difference.
It was Cora who was using the shower. Lena could hear her singing. The sound was blurred and muffled through the walls. She pushed open her bedroom door cautiously, wary of the constricting hallway. Lately, the thin wood of the rental house had begun to shrink with the cold. All of the doors seemed smaller somehow and the hall resembled a throat more and more each day.
She opened the unlocked bathroom door with a gentle twist of the knob and the singing stopped. Steam curled around her cold legs and she shut the door behind her. She could almost make out the outline of Cora’s body behind the shower curtain. Lena opened her mouth a little, running her tongue along the edges of her teeth. If she hurried, she’d catch Cora unaware; make her jump, make her shout. Pull her hair from her head until it ran down the drain. From behind the curtain, Lena could see that Cora was frozen in place, waiting to be forgotten. Like a rabbit caught in the middle of a field, flattening itself to the ground. With her fingers stretched to catch the water, Lena slid her hand through the curtain.
CHELSEA FORBES is a recent graduate of the University of Saskatchewan’s M.F.A. in Writing program. She writes fiction and poetry — while listening to Mulder/Scully fanvid love songs. Her poems can be found in In/Words Magazine, (parenthetical), and SproutZine. She lives in Victoria, BC and can be followed on Twitter @CSiswriting.