It’s late, and the streetlight on the corner flickers fitfully as I park my car. I have my pick of the spots; the lot is empty save for some scattered shopping carts and an old, beat-up pickup a couple spots over. It’s probably the owner’s car, because who else would be at the grocery store at this hour?
I push the door open at 10:56 exactly. I’ve made it with four minutes to go before closing, according to the peeling sticker on the glass. I step into the fluorescent light and rub my aching temples. The too-bright glare with a greenish tint isn’t helping my headache.
The store is small but stuffed to the brim. The aisles are barely wider than my hips and the products are practically falling off the shelves. I glance down, but they don’t seem to be organized in any sort of logical fashion. Cans of beans and jars of pickles share shelf space with brightly-colored cereal boxes and packages of cookies. I smile despite myself; a few years down the road I’ll be buying those instead of formula.
The clock on the wall ticks, and I glance up. 10:57. I pick and aisle and wander down, heaving a sigh of relief when I come across the powdered milk purely by accident. I grab two cans and head for the checkout.
When I got pregnant, I’d imagined the miracle of childbirth, the wonders of motherhood, the sheer joy of creating and caring for a new life.
I hadn’t imagined crapping during the delivery, or having to go to work after a night full of interrupted sleep, or rushing to the grocery store at nearly eleven because I couldn’t breastfeed and my husband had selective hearing loss when it came to errands.
There is no one at the checkout, and I slam the formula down in irritation. The door is open. The lights are on. There’s three minutes till close – tick – two minutes till close, so where the hell is the owner?
I rub my eyes. All I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep for the rest of the year…but I’ll settle for buying this formula and going home. I’m going to be up all night anyway; at least at home I can watch reruns of Law and Order.
Tick. It’s 10:59, and I’m starting to get a little creeped out. Tentatively, I call out.
“Hello? Is anyone here?”
I’m met by silence.
“Hello? I know it’s almost closing but I really need to buy some baby formula.”
A door slams, and I nearly jump out of my skin. But it’s just the owner, coming out from the back room. He’s younger than I would have expected, with an open, friendly face and twinkling blue eyes. A butcher’s apron covers his jeans and checked button-down, and it’s seen some use – it’s covered in reddish streaks and hand prints.
“I didn’t know you guys butchered anything yourself – doesn’t it all come packaged?”
He just laughs. Something about him seems odd to me but I’m not sure why. I try to think through the fog of sleep-deprivation and come up empty.
“Listen,” I say, “Can you ring this up for me? I’ve got to get home before the baby drives my husband too crazy.”
The man lifts his hands and I notice he’s holding a meat cleaver. He runs a finger along the flat of the blade, then lifts it up to his mouth and sucks on it.
My heart stars beating faster, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
But the baby is at home, crying, so I try once more.
“Can you ring me up or not?”
Tick. It’s 11:00 pm. The man grins a jack-o’-lantern grin.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t work here.”