Friday, May 15, 2015
Alicia opened the door and tiptoed inside.
She was twenty minutes early for work and didn’t want to be seen, at least not yet, so she hugged the walls and peeked around the corner, hoping not to be spotted.
The hallway was dark and there was no one around. It was a good sign for the moment. She wasn’t at risk of being seen, but if the lights were still dimmed it also meant she was one of the first people to set foot in the store. It was only a matter of time before someone figured out she was there.
Quickly, she tiptoed into the employee locker room across the hallway, giggling to herself. She was being a fool, she knew, but she took her fun where she could get it, and she knew that sneaking into work instead of out was just too ridiculous for words.
It wasn’t like she was in trouble. In fact, she had a reputation for being reliable, and that was the problem. It had snowed the day before, and she knew from experience that a number of employees would show up super late or not at all. It was only a matter of time before someone realized that Ms. Reliable was in the building and could be given more work to do.
Whoever thought that rewarding good employees with more work was a good idea deserved a serious talking to. Alicia wanted no part in it. Just because she was good didn’t mean she didn’t have things to complete, and with the holidays just around the corner she had stock room to prepare.
Let them make someone else compare sock brands to customers, she thought. She had things to do.
She put her bag in her locker and decided to put her coat in there too. If she didn’t hang it no one would recognize it, so she folded it and shoved it inside the small space, leaning on the locker door with her hip to close it. When she was done it looked like it was going to burst open, but it held.
She tiptoed to the locker room entrance and peeked back into the hallway. It was still empty and dark. No one had followed her inside, so she tiptoed down the hall to the back entrance of the shoe department, where she could cut through to the stock area without setting foot on the sales floor.
She made it to the door and walked inside, humming the theme song to The Pink Panther to herself.
She looked around the corner of the kid’s shoe section for any signs of life. It looked like the coast was clear, so she darted from the size 7 shoe aisle to the size 5, closer to the back stock room where she would be safe.
She knew it wouldn’t be for long. If the sales floor was short-staffed a manager would find her put her to greet customers or something, but she could use all the time she could spare. Even if she got to work for an hour without being noticed, it was an hour of work that she didn’t have to worry about later.
She could do three times the work in the same time as any of the other associates, and at the end of the day it didn’t matter if she had been pulled to do something else or if Godzilla had attacked the store. It was work that needed to get done.
Her main job was processing product as it came in, after all, and lack in staffing affected her job too. For every minute product sat on the back room it wasn’t on the sales floor making the store money, and people hardly noticed or cared until there were empty store displays or a customer complained that they couldn’t find a size and whined about “the back”. As in, “Can you get me a fresh one from the back.” Or, “Do you have another size in the back,” like the back of house was some sort of secret realm full or retail treasures that employees like to keep to themselves and not a poorly insulated graveyard of disassembled mannequins and displays.
But whenever she proved the myth right, whenever there was an extra size sitting in the back that should’ve been on the sales floor, it was Alicia they came looking for. It didn’t matter if she had been doing other work, it didn’t matter that she had been quarantined with an infectious disease.
Proving the myth right, making a sales associate search for an item through the piles of boxes, still folded in plastic bags and not steamed, buttoned and hung according to department, color and size was met with such ire and disdain that Alicia was sure she’d rather be set on fire instead.
Alicia preferred not to give them any reason to come looking for her.
The door to the stock room was just ahead. If she turned the corner she could see it at the end of the hall, but just as she thought she was home safe she heard a very familiar voice say, “You know you’re not fooling anybody, right?”
Alicia put on a ridiculous smile and turned around slowly. It was Joyce, the men’s clothing department manager and one of the few people Alicia liked and respected in the same way she would like a respect a hungry Rottweiler that was cornering her and she had steak on her breath.
Joyce had a grandmother vibe that Alicia liked. Not the kind that you knew she’d give you some hard candy if you told her about your day. Nope. Those were other people’s grandmothers. Joyce reminded Alicia of the kind of grandmother that stared you down until you confessed to everything you’d ever done and then some.
Joyce was also short and round and she had a twinkle in her eye like she could see right through you. The kind of twinkle that reminded you that hell was a place she’d happily escort you to if you ever lied to her.
Alicia wanted to grow up to be Joyce someday.
Alicia loved to act like a sullen teenager around her. Anyone listening to their conversations would think Alicia was poking a very grumpy bear out of hibernation, but there was an unspoken camaraderie between them that no one else could see.
Still, Alicia wondered, what the hell was Joyce doing all the way down here?
Like she could hear Alicia think the question, Joyce pointed to the camera above.
Alicia rolled her eyes. “What else is new?” And it was true. Sure they’d had more than their fair share of snow storms in the last couple of years, but there was always that type of retail worker that called out at any opportunity. True, working retail is a special kind of hell, but it’s not like it was secret.
“I need you in the children’s section.”
“Oh, c’mon!” Alicia protested, but Joyce just shook her head. Alicia knew there was no point in arguing, so she tried another tactic. “Where’s Remington?” She asked. Maybe she could talk some sense in the man.
But Joyce wasn’t fazed. “He’s snowed in,” she replied. “Right now it’s just you and Pablo from the janitorial staff. A few people are on their way in but they're running late. The highway is a nightmare. Oh, and Alfonzo is here somewhere.”
Of course Alonzo was here, Alicia thought. Alfonzo would be here in the middle of an earthquake just to be able to say that being pinned down under a pile of rubble and suffering from internal bleeding was no excuse.
Despondent, Alicia threw her arms up. “Fine, but can I at least work on the register?” She asked. She was fast on the register, and she wouldn’t have to clean the aisles, and most importantly, deal with Alfonzo. Instead, she would be standing on one spot and if Alfonzo had any sense of preservation, he would keep his distance.
But Joyce put the kibosh on that fantasy. “Sorry kid, but I need you to ring and clean the aisles between customers.”
Alicia threw her arms up. “What the hell, lady?”
“I told you we were short-staffed.”
“Want to throw me into an icy river too?”
“If you like.”
Alicia threw her head back and sighed. “Fine, but can I finish my coffee and check my manifest first?” Joyce gave her a look. The manifest was the daily list of shipment the store received. Every morning she could cross-check it against the inventory that came in for any discrepancies. It was important because boxes could get lost or left on the truck.
“The trucks haven’t come in, there’s no shipment.”
“I know, but now I have to make sure if we will be getting shipment later on today or double tomorrow. Plus,” She looked at her watch. “I’m still twenty minutes early and the store doesn’t open for nearly an hour. Even if I open the register the moment the doors open, I still won’t have people waiting to ring out, and I need the time.”
Joyce took a second to think. It was a reasonable enough request but she knew Alicia was stalling.
Although she was great with customers, Alicia hated being out of her comfort zone, and Joyce knew it. Still, she picked her battles. Joyce knew that though Alicia was pushing boundaries, she would still do ask she was asked, if albeit under protest.
“Okay,” Joyce finally said. “But I need you on the sales floor the moment we announce that the store is opening.”
Alicia nodded once and ran to the back room. She had told Joyce the truth, mostly. She did have to check the manifest, but everyone who worked stock knew the list for the next day wasn’t refreshed until late in the afternoon. So after she checked that the list was indeed not there, Alicia took the opportunity to clear out a few boxes from the night before and do a little paperwork. Plus, she still needed to finish her coffee. As in, she still had to throw out the empty cup. No point in littering, right?
Aside from the few hardcore mall walkers the mall was usually empty this early in the morning. No one was shopping for anything other than breakfast at store opening, and if the highways were as bad as Joyce said, they could be in for a slow morning.
She cleared the stock desk and took a quick visual inventory of the area. She knew this space like it was her own home.
Her eyes went to specific places: that one window pane that was newer than the others. That smudge high on the wall that she was too short to reach. The black spot on the concrete floor that was once a piece of gum and had become part of the floor over the years. The dust bunnies that accumulated where the walls met the floor.
This was her space, and she knew immediately if there was anything out of place.
No one had processed shipment the night before so everything was as she had left it. Moving quickly, she finished a box of jeans she had left incomplete the day before, then, knowing from experience, she moved the boxes of holiday decorations further into the corner, in preparation for the next day.
They were going to get two trucks the next day for sure, and she needed to make all the room she could. In moment of inspiration, she grabbed a box cutter and tried to consolidate the boxes of decorations further. They had arrived early and she had nowhere else to put them in the meantime, but if she could minimize the amount of space they took up, even better.
She knew that the boxes were packed lightly as not to damage the decorations in transit, but now that they were here, she was able to organize a few of the lights, decorations and curtains together without breaking a thing. She managed to empty out five boxes before the store opening announcement came.
Tucking a box cutter in her back pocket absentmindedly she hurried back to the sales floor. Joyce was lenient but there was no point in antagonizing her, especially on a snow day where Alicia didn’t have the option of hiding.
With a sigh, she walked towards the children’s section.
The children’s section, also known as the c-section, the warzone, no man’s land, and the minefield, was the hardest section in the store to maintain. It was always messy, mostly because parents who shopped at Remington’s often let their children run free there. It needed a sales person per aisle to keep it from looking like there had been a toy explosion, and they hardly ever had that kind of manpower. Anyone who worked at Remington’s had at some point worked in the children’s section and had nightmares about it.
The section consisted of four aisles: The sports section which was the one that needed cleaning the least. Half it featured bikes of every size and style and were all locked so that they could not be moved without assistance. The second half of the aisle, however, featured every ball in sports, as well as bats, and nets. The ball and catcher jokes were not worth the mess. The second aisle was the toys aisle, one side for girls and one for boys. The third aisle was the baby aisle, and then, like someone’s idea of a bad joke, was the fourth aisle: the magic aisle.
Remington’s had an entire aisle of merchandise dedicated to magic. Stage magic, specifically: wands, top hats, a Saw-Your-Own-Lady-In-Half Kit, the works, which was managed by none other than Alfonzo, or Mister Alfonzo, as he liked to be called, a retired stage magician with the personality of a bowl or cereal that’s been left out overnight.
The story was that Mr. Remington met Alfonzo while in the Army, during his first tour in Germany. There Remington saw one of Mister Alfonzo’s acts while he was deployed and was so amazed by the magician that he insisted they stay in touch.
For years, Remington wrote Alfonzo like an awestruck fan. Alicia suspected that Alfonzo had never responded. Remington was so in awe of the magician that she was sure that if he had any letters from him, Remington would’ve laminated and framed them. Still, years later when Remington got wind that Alfonzo was forced to retire due to a back injury after a routine Underwater Casket Escape, he made his move. Mr. Remington was in the middle of building the store at the time, and offered Alfonzo to come work with for him. Alfonzo accepted.
To a number of people it didn’t make sense that Alfonzo would spend his retirement working in a department store. There were rumors, of course, but nothing that really stuck. Some thought Alfonzo had made enemies overseas, that he owed people money, that he had made a huge mistake and revealed the secrets to his illusions and he was nothing but a fraud.
But that wasn’t it. Alicia only had to see Alfonzo on stage once to know it wasn't true.
Although he didn’t perform a full act like he used to, Alfonzo was more than happy to put on a show for the customers who adored him. They were mostly kids, boys who wanted to grow up to be magicians too, and Alfonzo practically beamed with pride under their adoring stares.
She had seen him on stage enough times to understand Remington’s fascination with the magician. On stage, he was truly something. He had a flair for the dramatic and put on a perfect show each and every time. His movements were precise: he wove his wand in the air with intent, he spoke with wonder, fascinated at the magic he could produce, like it was still new to him each and every time., and couldn’t help but be fascinated with him. The stage was the only place Alfonzo smiled. It was like was a completely different person. Though Alfonzo thought highly of himself, even on stage he showed some humility and you could only love him, even for an hour.
Alicia couldn’t deny it. She didn't like him, but she knew to give credit where credit was due. Alfonzo knew how to put on a show. You didn't have to believe in magic to make it true, but it sure helped. And Alfonzo knew how to make a person believe.
But once the show was over, he was Alfonzo again. Arrogant and mean. He refused to give out autographs or speak to anyone. Once, he walked right past a child who wanted to give him a hug. Another time he stared down a boy who had asked to hold his hat, until the boy looked down in shame and walked away, hiding tears. It was the kind of behavior that made Alicia dislike Alfonzo all the more. He valued magic, but people were another story.
No, Alicia believe that part of the reason Alfonzo worked there had something to do with how much leeway Remington gave him.
Alfonzo was also no regular employee. It was part of the deal that he had made with Remington. Alfonzo was only responsible for the magic aisle, and that no one was allowed to touch it or move anything but him.
Still, he was difficult to work with during the best of times. For starters, he treated them like his personal cleaning crew. He could come and go as he please and had full access to the store, holding performances on the weekends and often leaving the mess for the rest of the staff to clean.
He was always playing pranks on people like it was part of his job description. The magic aisle itself was booby trapped to the teeth. There were Jack-in-the-boxed that exploded unexpectedly, false entrances and hallways, and a couple of tiles that sucked you in like quicksand right up to the shoulders. The customers loved it. Employees hated it and sometimes lost sleep over it.
It wasn’t easy working with a magician, let alone a mean spirited one. No one liked having toilet water exploding in their faces when they’re simply trying to flush. Or finding a fake snake in their lunch. It was nerve-wrecking, and more than a few people had quit over it.
Remington did a good job of explaining Alfonzo’s pranks away. He believed people just didn’t understand Alfonzo, and was quick to make excuses for him. Others, because of this, were deathly afraid of Alfonzo. He was in essence above reproach, and getting in his way was a loser’s bet.
Whenever Alfonzo walked into a room most people moved away, like positively charged magnets. Alfonzo of course loved this and played it up as much as he could. He believed fear and intimidation were the same as respect, and he constantly needed to be in control of every situation. He constantly found ways to agitate people so that he always looked cool, calm and in control in comparison.
Alicia could see right through him. As far as she was concerned he was little more than a bully with a few parlor tricks up his sleeve. A retired stage magician with a sense of entitlement a mile wide.
The fact that he never let anyone see him outside out of makeup and costume made Alicia all the more wary. He was either hiding something, she’d once concluded, or he was using the power of his costume to intimidate others.
Either way, Alicia was not buying it, and although he constantly tried to intimidate her or get under her skin, Alicia often met him with a cool, detached stare that infuriated him even more. Other times she just ignored him. Alfonzo had complained to Remington about Alicia repeatedly because of this, but Remington, smart man that he was, just kept out of it and begged them to stay out of each other’s way.
For the most part, this worked just fine. It was only during the rarest occasions that they had to cross paths, most notably, during mandatory staff meetings where they were forced to sit within the same breathing air of each other.
Alicia walked onto the children's aisle and caught sight of Alfonzo out of the corner of her eye. They were headed in the same direction, and though she was sure that he was as acutely aware of her as she was of him, he didn't show it.
He walked tall and carried his hat with pride. Symbols were important, Alicia knew, and the magician’s hat was a strong symbol. Alfonzo carried a magician’s hat that shone like black lacquer in the dark. It was always polished, and it never had a speck of dust on it. If you didn't know any better it was made of plastic, but no, it was of the finest qualities that anyone had ever seen.
Alicia remembered how she had actually touched his hat once. Just once. He’d left it on stage one night as he was getting ready for an act, and didn’t know that Alicia was there too. She could hear him groaning in the back, probably wrangling all his props by himself and refusing any help. She saw it there, sitting in the spotlight.
It was one of the rare times he had left his hat unattended and she couldn't help herself, so she stepped carefully on stage and walked towards it, trying to make as little noise as possible.
She didn't know what she expected to happen when she picked it up. Part of her thought Alfonzo would come storming out that very second, demanding to know what she was doing. Another part of her expected the hat to explode in her hands. A decoy set to self-destruct in front of intruders. But as she picked it up, nothing happened, so she examined it gingerly, standing there under the spotlight, like an archaeologist examining an ancient artifact.
The first thing she noticed was that it was heavy, like it was made out of wood or lead and not cloth. It was soft to the touch. It was either the finest satin or silk she had ever touched, which one, she wasn’t sure, but she was sure Alfonzo had not bought this hat at a store.
She ran her fingers along the rim and up and down the curve of the hat. The material flowed smoothly under her fingers, and she wondered if there was such a thing as an object capable of purring with pleasure. The hat warmed in her hand like it enjoyed her touch.
She wanted to put it on. Her mouth watered at the thought and her face felt flushed with the idea, but she resisted the temptation. Instead she knocked on the top. It made a hard sound, like knocking on a door, and she stopped.
It was the real thing. No false floor or hidden pocket. It was a real magician’s hat. Magic was not something she liked to play with, and she had no idea what kind of power that hat held, and it made Alicia worry.
She realized she was already pushing her luck and quickly put the hat back and ran out. For all she knew Alfonzo had been baiting her or making a point, leaving his hat unattended for her to find so that she could know that, yes, he had power, and was not the least bit afraid to use it.
She was sure that afterwards Alfonzo had started to act differently towards her whenever they did bump into each other after that. She couldn't put a finger on it. She’d hoped that she was only being paranoid. But she could swear that, if she turned at the right moment, she could catch Alfonzo staring at her like a puzzle needing to be solved.
It was time to open. Alicia turned and walked up to the register. She was in the middle of the children's section, ready to spend the day working not ten feet away from the person she disliked the most.
Just as she suspected, she looked up to see Alfonzo, Mister Alfonso, she corrected herself with a snort, standing at the end of the aisle, waiting for her acknowledgment. He bore her down with charcoal black eyes.
Fine, she thought. Let’s play your game, she decided, and she stepped from behind the register and took the biggest, most perfect curtsy in his direction.
Alfonzo grimaced at her and put his hat on firmly.
The store was open.
This was going to be fun.
The store was busy.
From what the customers told her the roads were still pretty bad and half the town was still without power. Still, people found a way to flock to the mall in droves. It was actually interesting to see.
People who were usually dressed to the eyeballs were roaming the mall in wrinkled clothing and half-shaven. Lawyers and accountants that usually looked like they were born wearing Armani were now roaming the mall in faded jeans and thermals, coated in snow and looking a little lost.
Alicia observed from her post. Because she was working the register, Alicia had to stay close by when there were customers. She could walk around a little if it wasn’t busy and straighten the shelves out to pass the time, but by noon that became impossible.
One moment there were a few stragglers roaming in the store, and then the store was full. It was as if everyone woke up at the same time and gravitated towards the mall. It made sense in some sort of Dawn of the Dead sort of way. People didn’t like to be isolated during times of stress. It made them feel too helpless. It was easier to walk through two feet of snow and hang out with other people who hadn’t showered in 24 hours than to sit at home waiting for news.
By the time her break rolled around Alicia was busier than she’d been in a long time. It was worse than the day after Christmas a few years before when half the staff had called out sick and she spent the entire day ringing up returns with Mr. Remington in women’s shoes. That had been a long day. Remington knew nothing about shoes, let alone women’s brands, and he kept getting lost in the back room because he couldn’t tell one black shoe from the other.
Though a person had been scheduled to ring at each section, it was only Alicia and Joyce working at opposite ends of the store well past noon. Alicia spent that time was alone with a line that curved around the corner.
It wasn’t that she was helping a lot of people. It was that she was doing the kind of work that usually took more than one person to do. Three people needing your help isn’t a lot, but when one of those people needed you to check their credit card balance, the other needed you to get them another size, and the other wants to return something they bought a year before for cash, it got busy, fast.
As the day wore on and the line got longer, some people had enough sense to get their own sizes and checking their own credit card numbers before stepping in the line. Still, she breathed a sigh of relief every time someone simply wanted to be charged for an item and go.
Alfonzo, of course, refused to help. The first time she needed a price check Alicia paged Alonzo out of sheer habit. As she picked up the phone and started to speak, she’d realized what she was doing, but she had already started the announcement. She’d hoped that at the very least he’d realize it was his product and would want to sell it, but after waiting thirty seconds she knew he wasn’t going to come. So she took a trip down to the magic aisle herself.
The store was crowded, so she decided to cut through the back of house where it was empty instead of weaving through the customers. She turned around the corner and headed towards the double doors that led to the magic aisle, already seeing the activity through the windows. One little girl was playing a card trick, and a boy was quickly moving in her direction, waving a wand in the air. Alfonzo was nowhere to be seen. She stepped ahead pushing through the doors and watching the kids playing, and then something happened. She walked dead smack into a wall.
Confused, she put a hand out. She realized that what she thought was the aisle in front of her was actually some sort of mirror. It was one of Alfonzo’s tricks again.
She didn’t have the time to get mad, thought. She was trapped. She quickly realized that the walls next to her were moving towards her, caving in. She looked around for a way out, but doors behind her wouldn’t budge. She was trapped.
The walls kept moving. She tried to push against them to no avail. They were getting closer, and just as they were starting to press in on her. And then she heard a click.
The wall to her left stopped but the wall to her right kept moving. Alicia stood confused, not sure what was happening. Just as she was getting ready to scream the wall to the left pivoted open, and she was pushed outside and out of the box.
She was in the magic aisle, like nothing had happened.
It was a false entrance. Alfonzo had played her, scared her witless, and for what?
She looked behind her. The false entrance was practically invisible to anyone taking a casual glance. It was disguised like the double doors that only employees use, so no one would be the wiser.
Alicia shook her head and ran her hand down the side of the box. She didn’t like being played with and she didn’t like not knowing what was going on, so she examined the trick for the catch. There was always a catch.
She discovered that she could push the door and step back inside the box. Alfonzo probably hadn’t counted on that. He had probably banked on her running out of here, completely frazzled and afraid, not turning around to examine the trap he had built just for her.
She felt the walls looking for seams. The in-betweens, whatever held the trick together.
It took only a few seconds for her to find a latch. It was small but it was there, a false wall that activated on a timer, but it had a button attached to open manually. She’d figured the trick out.
She looked around. She wondered if Alfonzo had set this up specifically for her, but she couldn’t see him anywhere. He wasn’t the type to hide in the shadows. If he even suspected that he had gotten under her skin, he would be there to gloat. She suspected that he had no clue she was there, so she grabbed what she needed quickly and left the same way she came.
She kept this in mind and got back to work. She had to go back the magic aisle a couple of more times, but she was much more careful. When she had to go back into the aisle for another price check, she looked to see if Alfonzo was around. She got lucky each time. Once he had just walked away, and the other time he was busy showing off for a customer, so she stepped inside the box, and knowing how it worked, she hit the invisible lever and stepped into the aisle before the walls pushed her.
When her break came, Joyce came to relieve her. Only a few people had come into work by then, and they were all working in different areas all over the store. Joyce was the only one with the flexibility to go from department to department, so she was covering breaks. It was part of being a manager, and Alicia did not envy her.
Before she left, Alicia considered warning Joyce about the box in the magic aisle, but decided against it at the last second. It didn’t feel right, but she knew that if Joyce got trapped in the box too she would deal with Alfonzo her own way. So she left the slightly frazzled-looking manager alone and went on her way.
It was the first time she got a look at the store since she’d arrived that day. When she got to work the store had been quiet and dark, asleep. Now it was busy and alive.
The store had transformed into a living environment in just a few hours. It had turned from a place of fun and consumerism to a place of survival and communication. People were calling their loved ones to see if they were okay. Neighbors who hadn’t spoken in ages were finally having that cup of coffee together that they had been meaning to have for so long. The smoothie bar, which was usually full of stick thin makeup artists on liquid diets was now loud and bursting with conversations and jokes Alicia had missed.
She took the long way back to her locker and absorbed the activity. In the aisles, every power outlet in the store was taken up by someone charging up their cell phone or laptop. As she worked her way back twice she’d almost tripped over someone who was sitting on the floor in a random aisle, charging a too-expensive cell phone that cost more than what Alicia made in a week, and she almost stepped on one.
She realized that the store felt so busy because it was so full. It was the energy she’d sensed. A few people were shopping, but it was clear that people were hanging out at the mall because they needed a place to wear out the storm.
Alicia walked inside the hallway towards the employee entrance. It was a lot different than a few hours later. The lights were on and there was music overhead, and the rug was dark from mud and snow. There were other coats hanging inside the locker room, most of them puffy and warm looking, taking up most of the space.
She tried to open her locker but it was stuck.
Shoving her coat inside had not been a good idea. It took her four tries to get it open. By then she had just enough time to eat her sandwich and check her teeth for food in the bathroom. She walked back to her post just in time to catch an even more frayed-looking Joyce walking back to the register.
Joyce looked tired, like she was trying to concentrate hard but the exhaustion wasn’t letting her. She did not, however, look like she had just been trapped inside a false entrance with collapsing walls.
“Hey I’m back three minutes early if you want to take a breather,” She told Joyce.
“Great!” Joyce replied without looking at her. “I’m just going to finish with this customer and I have to go to shoes.”
Alicia nodded. “Were you just running a price check?”
“Yes, there isn’t anyone else.” There was, Alicia thought, but he made it a point to be as minimally useful as possible.
“Oh, did you have to go down the magic aisle?” She asked.
“Yes, twice.” Joyce said, “Why are you having trouble with Alfonzo again?”
“No,” Alicia replied slowly, over-emphasizing the “o”. “How about you? Did you have any trouble going down the aisle at all? Which way did you go?”
“The back, you know it’s closer,” Joyce replied distractedly. “One kid got in my way, but nothing I can’t handle.”
Alicia nodded. Interesting.
Joyce, finished up and walked back to the shoe section without much else, and Alicia got back to work.
It got busier. She suspected that as it got darker it was getting colder and more people wanted to warm up in the mall. She counted the minutes left before she could leave.
She had to go down the magic aisle two more times. The box was active again. Somehow it had let Joyce through but the moment Alicia stepped into the aisle the walls began to close in. But she knew where the latch was and quickly stepped out.
Everything was going okay, but the second time Alfonzo caught her. She thought the coast was clear but just as she stepped out he came out from around the corner and saw her calmly stepping out of the box.
She looked at him and then, slowly, she smiled. Sure, he had busted her defying his trick, but it had been him who had tried to trick her first. And from the look on his face she was sure that he hadn’t witnessed that it had actually worked the first time.
He was livid. Alicia grabbed what she needed and left to avoid his explosion.
She got back to work a little worried. If his face was any indication, Alfonzo was not going to let it drop, and she wasn’t sure what he would do. For the rest of the day she waited. She half expected him to appear out of nowhere, to sneak up on her, or worse, shut off all of the lights just to catch her. Alfonzo was capable of anything.
Still, she didn’t see him again for the rest of the day. When her replacement came in, she stepped away from the register and started walking toward the locker room.
And then she walked into Joyce.
“Hey,” She said after steadying herself. “I’m gone for the day,” She told Joyce.
Joyce nodded absentmindedly and handed her something. “That’s fine. Can you just put this away before you leave? It also needs to be priced.”
Alicia looked at it. It was a magic card kit. She started to protest and Joyce threw her a look.
“No lip,” she simply said, and kept on walking. Alicia threw her a squinted look and groaned. She couldn’t say no to Joyce.
Alicia looked into the magic aisle. The customer entrance was full. She knew she had no choice but to use the back way. She looked carefully and made sure Alfonzo was nowhere to be seen, so she turned on her heel and went around.
Maybe he was waiting for a better time to get back at her. Maybe he was so mad that the box hadn’t worked that he took whole thing down. She considered leaving the magic card kit somewhere and just going home, but she knew she had to deal with Alfonzo eventually, and she didn’t want to let him scare her off.
She stepped in front of the entrance and stared out the window. Everything looked fine, even if she knew it was only a reflection. She had no way to tell whether it was safe until she went forward.
So she stepped into the magic aisle.
Immediately the wall behind her closed and the walls to her sides began to move.
She rolled her eyes. Yep the box was still up. She reached out and opened the latch.
And nothing happened.
She tried again. It didn’t budge. She bent over a little and tried again. She was looking at it more clearly.
The latch had a nail dead smack in the middle.
He’d nailed the door shut. That bastard.
The walls kept on moving and she began to panic. She tried to push the door but it was shut closed tightly. He may have even nailed it from the outside. She stepped back.
The wall pushed her again.
She was beyond pissed. It had been a long day, and this little game was making it even longer.
Finally fed up, she turned around and pushed the wall to the right, the one that always kept moving. It was on a spring, she knew. But he had only reinforced the exit. This wall was still vulnerable. Maybe she
could get it to stop.
It didn’t budge at first, but slowly, it creaked and began to move. Alicia was angry enough to keep pushing, and after it felt like forever, the false wall was back into place.
And then the floor caved in from under her.
She screamed and tried to hold on but grabbed nothing but air.
For a few seconds it was as if she was falling through air. She kept on going down what appeared to be a steep slide. She still kept trying to hold on. It was dark and she was scared, but the slide was too steep and everything was moving too fast for her to keep up.
She didn’t even have a chance to keep screaming.
She finally went through some sort of curtain and tumbled onto a hard concrete floor, hitting her forehead on the floor hard enough to see stars. She was disoriented and wanted nothing more than to get up and start running, but her legs were not working and her heart felt like it was going to burst right out of her chest.
She took a few deep breaths and tried to steady herself. It was still dark, but the walls were painted in what looked like neon graffiti, shining enough eerie light to let Alicia know that as far as she could see, she was alone.
Alfonzo didn’t scare her; for all his talent he was still the type of man who was too stubborn to learn anything new. He had built a trap for her but didn’t think that she might turn around inspect it. He didn’t think to install a camera in case he wasn’t looking. If he had, he would’ve had perfectly pixelized proof that he had already gotten what he wanted: a frightened Alicia in one of his tricks.
She took the box cutter firmly in her hand and squared off to face the clown.
She took the box cutter firmly in her hand and squared off to face the clown.
Alicia took her time steadying herself and tried to stay aware of her surroundings. She didn’t like this. She wasn’t sure what game Alfonzo was playing, but is he was willing to trap her like this, it couldn’t be good.
She worked on calming down as fast as she could. She knew it was the only way to survive. To stay calm and think logically, and look for the seams, the in-between that held the trick together.
She had to beat him at his own game.
As soon as she got on her feet the lights came on. Music began to play, and she heard a familiar voice above.
“You need to be taught a lesson,” Alfonzo said angrily. She could almost picture the spittle collecting in the corners of his mouth.
“You need to be taught respect.”
Huh. So that was this was about.
Alfonzo continued. “I’ll teach you to respect your betters.”
Alicia made a face and looked around. She was worried because she wasn’t sure wasn’t expect.
If he had, Alicia could’ve already been on her way home.
She looked around. She was inside a funhouse. It was full of mirrors and toys decorating the walls. She felt like they were watching her, the toys on the walls. She could see them moving out of the corners of her eyes, but when she turned, they were perfectly still.
She wondered if Alfonzo had created this illusion for her alone. He had never figured out what scared her. Maybe the circus was as good a place to start as any.
Or was this is what it looked like behind the scenes? She thought. Alfonzo had dictated how the magic aisle would be built, and no one, especially not Alicia, had stepped into the space that Alfonzo had created.
It was almost ghostlike. Dirty and solitary. She could hear people in the distance, and while she knew they were only a wall away, they sounded like they were miles in the distance. It creeped her out significantly. It was like she was all alone and forgotten.
She was alone in the circus, and no one knew she was here.
She had a thought and dug her front pocket for her cell phone. She didn’t have a signal but by some miracle she still had access to the mall Wi-Fi and quickly called the store. If she got someone from the office they could somehow get her out.
The phone began to ring. She could hear the standard message starting: “Thank you so much for calling Remington’s…”
And then the message cut off. She pulled the phone from her ear. No signal.
He must’ve cut off the signal down here somehow. Shit.
Alicia looked around, not sure if he was watching or not.
She took a few steps forward. The music got louder. There had to be a way out of this, she knew. Every trick had a fail-safe. Every stage had an emergency exit. She just had to find it.
Then she acutely realized she wasn’t alone.
She saw his shadow at first. There are symbols that people always recognized. A clown nose, a large bow, and oversized shoes were recognizable indeed.
Alfonzo had sent in a clown.
As he got closer Alicia realized that it wasn’t just any clown. It was the type of clown you found in nightmares. The type of clown that still kept Stephen King up at night. His eyes were nothing but black pupils. His face was drawn in a painful grimace. His teeth were jagged and dirty, like cut glass and steel, and the rest of him leaned towards her menacingly.
As he walked towards her Alicia knew this was an image she would fight to forget. She wasn’t scared of clowns, but this was the type of clown that was made to make you afraid.
And she had nowhere to go.
She was about to break down in tears. She was so tired. Alfonzo wanted to prove a point, then fine. Yes, she was scared. Yes, he was talented. She was ready to say whatever he wanted. She just wanted him to stop.
And then she remembered something.
She still had a box cutter in her back pocket.
She felt her back pockets frantically and found that yes, it was still there. She reached for it and grabbed it tightly, afraid to drop it, and brought it close to her face.
It felt like it took her forever to turn the box cutter right-side up and open the blade. It was small, sure, but it was a weapon, and tired as she was, she wasn’t going down without a fight.
She was ready.
Hours later, long after the store had closed, Alfonzo worked his way down to the secret room he created for Alicia.
All afternoon he waited gleefully to see what had happened to her. If the trick had worked correctly, then Bob should have chased her back up into the store. There had been an exit, about that Alicia had been correct, but it was only supposed to be opened until Alicia had been good and scared.
What Alfonzo wanted, what he had gleefully pictured, was to see the little smug stock associate running through the store with tears running down her face.
Instead, he got nothing. He wondered if Bob had changed plans. Alfonzo thought he had been clear with the clown, but he also knew that Bob liked adding his own little twist to his “performances”. At least that’s what he called them. He had grown tired of explaining to the clown that he was just an employee, not a performer, and he was only paid to do what he was asked.
He hoped that maybe Bob had just gotten a little creative and was waiting for Alfonzo to see the result. At one point he fantasized about the girl, so scared that she had fainted on the spot, and cherishing that thought was the only thing that kept him going through the end of the day.
Finally, when it felt like he couldn’t stand the suspense anymore, the store was closed and there was no one left inside. He waited until everyone was gone because he didn’t want anyone to know what he was doing. That was never a problem. People knew better than to get in his way and he could do whatever he pleased. But he didn’t like people seeing behind the curtain. It undermined his art. If everyone knew how things worked, they’d start to do it themselves. Or worse. Start to give him suggestions.
He shuddered at the thought.
He worked his way down the stairs. It was a small trap door hidden under the aisle that no one else knew was there. The step ladder was safe enough, and soon he was in the basement.
He knew something was wrong immediately. It was no longer dark. Actually, it was like every light in the basement was on, and the room he had created looked more like a storage space. He had left it a fun house with mirrors and toys nailed to the walls. Instead the walls were now bare and there boxes all over the floor, filled with toys and half open, like someone had haphazardly begun to pack but didn’t want to tape the boxes closed until the very last minute.
What in the blazes was going on? Alfonzo stepped ahead, and saw, all the way in the corner, the stock associate sitting down with Bob.
Sitting down. Having coffee. And she was smiling.
“We’ve been waiting for you!” In a cheerful tone that grated his nerves. Alfonzo stepped ahead. Bob turned to face him and the stock associate got on her feet.
“You can stop right there,” She said to him. Alfonzo kept walking and something held his cape mid-stride.
“I said stop,” Alicia said.
Alfonzo was incredulous. He looked behind him. His cape was caught on the hand of a porcelain doll hanging out of a box behind him. He yanked his cape loose and kept walking.
He watched the stock associate shake her head.
He heard a rattle to his left and looked towards the sound, but there was nothing there. He kept moving but two steps later realized that there was a snake wrapping itself around him. It tightened and soon he was being held in place.
“What is the meaning of this!” He shouted, trying to get loose.
“See, that’s your problem,” the stock associate kept talking like she didn’t notice what was happening to him. “You don’t pay attention. You don’t care about anyone else but yourself. We’re trying to talk to you."
“You let me go right now!” He shouted. A hand, a disemboweled hand he called Lefty worked its way up his body and planted itself firmly on his mouth.
“There,” he heard her say. “That’s better.”
Alfonzo couldn’t move. He glared and tried to pry himself loose but it was no use.
“See, I didn’t know what to expect when you sent me down here. I have to tell you, you took me by surprise. I was ready to scratch Bob’s eyes out with a box cutter when I saw him coming. I was sure he was going to attack me, but you know what I heard him say when he saw me?”
Alfonzo glared. He didn’t care.
“Of course you don’t care.” She said smartly. “But you need to know, Bob uttered, ‘He doesn’t pay me enough.’”
“You force them to work for you. You force them to live down here and play your pranks for you, don’t you?”
Alfonzo kept trying to get out. The snake picked him off the ground and brought him to a chair close by.
He watched the stock associate from the corner of his eye. She walked back to the table where she’d been drinking coffee with Bob and picked up a sheet of paper.
Alfonzo looked around. The rest of the room was moving. Dolls were lining up and walking towards him. Some of the toys seemed to be paying attention. A few hid, but Alfonzo knew that he had the attention of the entire room.
The clown, no longer wearing his makeup but still as horrifying as ever walked over to his side and stood there. He was standing guard.
The stock associate walked up to Alfonzo.
“I’ve had a chance to talk to Bob the few hours that I’ve been here. I actually talked to quite a few of your employees. Your performers.” She shook her head. “You’re a horrible boss. Bob here hasn’t spent his anniversary with his wife in three years.
“You keep them down here and force them to do your bidding. It ends now. Lefty here,” she tapped the hand that was covering his mouth. “Took the liberty to write down a few demands.”
She handed Bob the piece of paper. “You’re going to listen. And you’re not going to leave here until you learn to treat people a little better. Or,” she shrugged. “You don’t leave at all.”
She turned and picked his hat off the floor. It fell off when the snake had moved him.
“Don’t forget your hat,” she said, placing it on his head. Then she got closer. “I know something about powerful hats.” She said quietly to him. Others could hear but the words were meant for him.
“My family, my mother, my sisters, they wore powerful hats long ago too. You know what they are. A witch’s hat is a very recognized and powerful symbol. So powerful that they were killed. Out of fear.”
She straightened up. “They were feared when all they wanted was to be respected. You crave fear because you feel you’re owed some sort of respect. But here’s the thing: I don’t owe you anything.”
She turned to leave. The crowd was closing in. The clown was clearing his throat to start talking.
“I hope you survive this. Bob,” She turned to the clown. She wasn’t nearly as afraid of him now that she’d gotten to know him. “It was great meeting you and I hope your wife feels better.”
Alicia climbed out of the trap door as she heard Bob start talking. “We the undersigned,” she heard the clown say, “Have the following demands for a safe, fun, and clean work environment.”
Alicia went to the locker room and got her things. She wasn’t sure how long they planned to keep Alfonzo there. She wondered if they were going to let him go at all.
After hours, during that time after midnight and before dawn, all the doors exiting the store were locked from the inside. The only way outside was to key in a security code from the stock room that unlocked the doors from the inside for about five minutes. She wondered if Alfonzo knew this.
He’ll figure it out, she thought to herself, finally stepping outside to go home.