September 19th – Hatchet

For the most part we’re not what you would call athletes. I’m not certain survival of the fittest really applies in this case, but only time will tell I suppose.

First there’s Phil Horst. Phil Horst takes the definition of meat and potatoes to the pudgy, Green Bay Packers-loving extreme. He’s not just the manager, he’s very much a gleeful retail sort of fellow. Most of us work here without complaint, going about our menial tasks with competence, but Phil is the only one who seems to really enjoy it. He loves this place. There is no limit to his enthusiasm for inane mystery novels and best sellers. He’s gulped down the Kool-Aid and can’t wait to hand out free samples.

Phil, Philsky, he’s a big guy, tall and solid, but not particularly fast or agile. Imagine the captain of your baseball team and now imagine him fifteen years down the line with kids, living on a steady diet of cheeseburgers and soda. Now imagine he manages a bookstore and believes himself to be the lovable papa bear and best chum of everyone he employs.

He has a gross habit of yanking up his pants by the belt, shimmying the hem up under his belly while drawing himself up like a Kodak getting ready to attack. Primarily he does this when he’s faced with an unpleasant request or question.

The other kids and I joke behind his back: This is your brain on baseball, this is your body on fast food. (I say kids, but really I mean anyone working here under the age of thirty). Phil’s our own rolly polly spokesperson for Midwestern living. He’s the type of guy you expect to see tailgating every weekend, the type of guy who says things like “drawring” instead of drawing and “donesky” instead of done. This has earned him the secret nickname of Philsky.

Once, on a tremendously slow and boring Saturday, I pulled the short straw and was chosen by the other underlings to rib him a little about his way of speaking.

“We’re having another salesky?” I asked him. He was taping up 50% off signs over different displays. Phil turned and nodded and jerked up his pants by the belt loops.

“Yup! End of Summer sale was doing so well for us I thought I’d just keep it rolling.”

“End of Summer and Back to School? Hitting ’em with the ole one-two punchsky, eh?”

It was easy to ignore the tittering of the other employees while watching Phil’s face go through an unsettling range of emotions: Confusion and then anger and then a quick dive to wounded. I hadn’t meant to hurt his feelings; I felt like I was picking on the big dumb kid in grade school, the one that wore suspenders and thick-rimmed glasses. I made it up to him by vacuuming the entire store top to bottom, to which he said: “Much obliged, buddy.”

Sometimes I’m certain he and I speak different languages; teach me your customs and your tales, Oh Great Philsky, teach me the way of the domestic beer.

Believe it or not this man was a philosophy major.

It’s good to know if things ever return to normal Brooks & Peabody will emerge with its managing staff completely intact. The two assistant managers are here with us too, spending most of their time huddled together over the same Newsweek we’ve all been reading over and over again. They too haven’t had a hard time adjusting to our bizarre diet of junk food and diet sodas. It’s familiar territory for them.

Janette is probably my favorite person to work with. She’s laid back, she sipped the Kool-Aid and dumped the rest out in the trash. She and the other assistant manager, Matt, are nerds in arms. They’re the only employees that actually see each other outside of work and while they’re both married I’ve always had this secret inkling that, were things otherwise, they would date. They give off that “You bother me so much but Oh God take me” vibe that so many odd couples exude like an awkward, sexually-charged musk. Janette’s a little bit Manga, Matt’s a little bit Sci-fi and fantasy.

Matt is our resident discerning snob when it comes to books. Miraculously, he’s never realized that having expertise in only one area of literature pretty much makes you ineligible for that position. But he’s nominated and voted himself into the role and none of us have the energy or perseverance to pick a fight. He never outright sneers at other peoples’ taste in books, he just has this one tendon that works in his jaw; it means he thinks you’re a plebeian, it means he is secretly spitting all over the cover of whatever book you mentioned.

Neither Matt or Janette are particularly out of shape but I’d wager most of their adventures take place safely in the mind. I’m not sure if any of Janette’s cosplay outfits involved katana but if so we could really use them now.

Holly-n-Ted are here too but they’re not employees. They hang around in the store often enough that I recognize them whenever they show up, I’ve helped them order enough stuff that I know their names and the kind of stuff they like to read but otherwise we’re strangers. Holly is a petite redhead, very quiet and mousy, with a little pattern of stars tattooed on the top of her hand. She looks like a lot of the girls I grew up with as a child, the girls next door, but Holly was clearly going through her undergraduate rebellion phase. She and Ted dressed almost identically and both of them had innocuous tattoos that weren’t quite hard enough to be considered bad ass.

These two are dating, or – more accurately – in a state of symbiosis, and Janette and I have taken to calling them Hollianted. They are never apart. They are one word. We now call them this to their face which they find a little insulting I think because they want desperately to be individuals and have meaningful identities. I’ve told them that when and if they can tear themselves apart for ten minutes we will consider assigning them separate names.

“Until then,” I told them over a meager lunch of salted peanuts and Crystal Light, “You’re Hollianted.”

I really don’t think it’s so mean. It sounds like a religious holiday to me and Janette agrees. We like to tease them by asking each other things like, “What are you getting your dad this year for Hollianted?” or “What are you giving up for Hollianted? I think I’ll give up chocolate.”

Ted is a Chinese exchange student. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he chose Ted as his American name. Then he tells me his mother gave him teddy bears every year for his birthday, that he has a huge collection of bears from all over the world at his parents’ house in Hong Kong. Suddenly I see why he chose it. Alone in the US, starting college and living with a complete stranger in a ten by ten closet… I would choose a name with a warm association too.

I guess that would leave me with the name Emma or Hermione.

Ted is an undergrad studying biochemistry at the university. He has that look about him, the studious, terrifyingly intelligent look that we literature majors, even the grad student level ones, fear. Like Phil, Ted seems to me like he’s come from another planet. He mumbles formulas in his sleep, he says it helps him drown out the banging and groaning outside the door.

C-six, H-six benzene, A-G-two-O silver oxide, C-U-Fe-S-two copper iron sulfide…

Iron. That reminds me: we only have two weapons.

Two doesn’t sound like much, but I’m actually fairly impressed that we managed to find that many in this store. We don’t even leave the box cutters in easy-to-reach places. Someone held up a bakery down the street with a pair of garden sheers last year and ever since then Phil has been paranoid about keeping sharp objects hidden. This oversight may have cost a few people their lives the other day. Thankfully, in the back store room I found a little treasure I had walked by and ignored for months and months. A fire alarm and a glass case with a bright red ax become part of the landscape after a while.

You just don’t notice these things until there is screaming in every direction and windows shattering and blood creeping down the green and ivory tiled aisles…

Well I noticed it. I noticed it just in time. Phil put me on one of the most unpleasant tasks in the store: cleaning the back storeroom shelves. The shelves go right up to the ceiling with about a foot and a half gap in between each one and they get unbelievably dusty after weeks of neglect. I have no clue where all the dust comes from but 90% of it settles on this fucking shelves. Phil doesn’t care that I have dust allergies, he won’t make the assistant managers do the chore so it’s me, only me.

Sending me to the back room probably saved my life, it put me by that fire alarm and just a few feet away from an old, forgotten ax.

When I sit and watch the monitors there’s an infected creature I recognize. I recognize her for three reasons:

1) Her name is Susan. Because she was – is – a regular. She bought six copies of The Shack. Six. I shit you not. She is shaped like an old, bruised pear and she wears the ugliest pair of glasses I’ve ever seen.

2) She was in the Christian section when it all started. The floor to ceiling window behind her imploded, sending shards of glass the size of stalactites crashing onto the floor. I watched her try to run toward me, through Biography and Home & Garden. She didn’t get very far. Some of the glass had hit her ankle and she was bleeding all over and limping. A gnarled, gray thing came in the window and caught up to her, limping harder than Susan, propelled forward with a terrible kind of hungry speed. It draped itself over her neck and they fell to the floor. I saw clumps of her hair flying in between the book shelves and her blood seeping fast toward me across the dents in the tiles. The blood overtook the book she had been carrying, it had flown out of her arms and landed with the spine mangled and open.

The Longest Trip Home

3) Susan should have been dead. You don’t lose that much blood, that much of your neck and walk it off. But she did exactly that. She just sort of shrugged off the decaying person on her back, and got to her feet. It is without a doubt the most unsettling thing I’ve ever seen. She inflated like an accordion pulled up off the floor by its handle. Her legs straightened unnaturally and then she slumped down, hunched over with a big, raw hole torn down the side of her neck. I could smell the tangy coppery smell of her and the too-sweet rotten smell of the figure at her back. Suddenly I didn’t mind that she bought so many copies of The Shack. I wanted, right then, to take her up to the register and help her buy six more. But she slid past the book she had dropped, smearing her own blood across the floor with her feet, feet that were turned in too much so that she was walking like a toy duck that had been assembled by a two-year-old. Susan came at me, not fast, but my brain was taking too long to compute what I had just seen. Then there was a little flash of red in the corner of my vision. It was the ax. The dear, beautiful, graceful ax with its highly-polished, gleaming handle and red, curved head. It was so bright, so perfectly red, like a new coat of lipstick just before a night out. There was a hard little hammer hanging down next to the glass case – Break in case of emergency. Fucking hell, I thought, this certainly ranks. I think my fist did more of the breaking than the hammer but my hand didn’t feel a thing, not until it was gripping the ax. And then I had both hands on the handle and I was running for the front of the store but Susan, poor, ugly Susan was in the way. I swung, hard, a big, overhead swing that came down at her shoulder. I took off her right arm at the joint and it came away easier than I had expected. She seemed soft somehow, hollow and boneless. Most people would scream after losing their arm but Susan just sort of grunted as if she had dropped her purse or tripped a little.

I didn’t stop to see if that had finished her off, I kept hold of the ax and sprinted to the front of the store where Phil was ushering Matt, Janette and Hollianted to toward the break room. Phil had a bat. I never knew we had a bat. I found out later that Phil hid it under a loose board in the cabinet beneath the cash register. I think I actually laughed aloud with relief, insane with fear, perfectly insensible of the carnage piled up on the other side of the counter. Phil swung the bat wildly as he caught sight of me, beckoning me with a bloody hand; I never thought I’d be so happy to see that pudgy bastard waving me over. He was shouting at me, screaming actually: I knew what he saw behind me, I knew Susan wasn’t down for good…

Now I see Susan on the monitor from time to time. We don’t call her Susan anymore, we call her Lefty.

Tomorrow I’ll have to confront Lefty again. We’re running out of food and we need to raid the refrigerators out by the register, we might even need to ransack the cafe if we can get that far. We’ll have to leave the safety of the door: we don’t have a choice.

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