Into the Light
by Arthur Vibert
Mrs. Givens was giving Mary a headache. Again. They stood in a supermarket aisle by the soup section under the harsh glare of the fluorescents, leaning on their carts talking. Or, at least, Mrs. Givens was talking. Mary pretended to listen, nodding occasionally to preserve the facade of interest. She looked around, desperately seeking anything that might serve as an excuse to escape.
Nothing so convenient presented itself. The store looked the same as it had for the past twenty years. She could see they still hadn’t fixed the “FRESH MEATS” sign. The “E” had been lost a decade ago and the sign now read “FRESH MATS.” It looked as though she would once again have to hear the entire saga of Mrs. Givens’ cyst when out of the corner of her eye she saw something. A glimmer of light. It seemed to come from behind the soup cans. Mrs. Givens droned on, oblivious.
Intrigued, Mary cleared away a few soup cans, trying to see what was behind them. She placed them carefully in her cart, still smiling pleasantly for Mrs. Givens’ benefit, who didn’t miss a beat. She was describing how she had come awake in the middle of surgery, a part she relished telling with much eyerolling and heavy, gasping breaths. Mary shook and nodded her head appropriately, still taking cans off the shelf.
Now Mary had cleared a space large enough to admit a person. The glimmer was brighter, but still impossible to resolve into anything meaningful. Stepping carefully onto the lower shelf Mary started climbing into the space behind the cans. Mrs. Givens finally noticed something was amiss.
“Mary, the soup’s canned. I don’t think you’ll find any fresher back there.”
Mary ignored her and continued climbing. It was a tight squeeze, but she was slight and by wiggling just a bit was making headway. She looked over her shoulder where she could see Mrs. Givens’ pudgy face, framed by soup cans.
“Come out of there right now,” Mrs. Givens said.
Mary looked away and started crawling again, towards the light.
Al Burik stood disconsolately by the door, watching the squad cars pull away into the night. A light snow was falling, covering the old, icy slush with a fresh blanket of pristine white. It didn’t matter much. It would be gray again by morning. The store was dark now, the harsh glare of the overheads replaced by the soft glow of streetlights reflected off the snow, punctuated by the occasional sweep of headlights from passing cars. He shot the bolt home and walked back across the store to his office.
This wasn’t the first time there’d been a disappearance in his store. A month ago Bob Strauss had crawled in behind the toilet paper and vanished. And there were some who suspected that little eight-year-old Vanessa Greene had gone missing in amongst the salad dressings.
No one had any idea what was going on. The police suspected him of somehow being involved, but of course none of them could figure out just exactly how. If he’d known anything he would have told them, but he was just as much in the dark as everyone else.
He shrugged into his coat and switched off the battered desk lamp, then worked his way to the back door by feel. He opened it and then turned, looking back into the store. It seemed the same as always. There was no evidence of anything strange or untoward, except where the police had taken the soup section apart looking for secret passageways or ramps. They’d found nothing.
Shivering slightly in the cold he pulled the door closed and walked across the empty employee lot to his old Buick station wagon, the snow crunching softly under his feet.
He opened the door to his flat and stomped his feet to release the snow and ice that had accumulated on them. He noted with some satisfaction that much of the slush had ended up on the envelopes scattered around the floor. They were probably all bills anyway. They deserved to be messed up.
Hanging his ancient overcoat on the door, Al flicked on a light switch and walked down the dimly lit hall to the kitchen. He pulled a tumbler out of the sink and held it up to the light to inspect it for cleanliness. Not too bad, he thought, and filled it with ice cubes and Irish. The Irish was good — one of the few perks of managing a store. He took a long pull and then walked back into the front room, where he collapsed his scrawny frame into his easy chair and contemplated his pot belly. He could never understand where it came from. The rest of him was so small. It had to be the Irish. Well, it was his only vice. Pot belly or no, he was sticking with it.
He fumbled the remote from the chaos on top of the side table and aimed it at the television. As he did every night, he delayed turning the set on long enough to look at the picture of his wife that sat in a gilt frame on top of it. He wasn’t sure why he kept the picture there. He felt nothing when he looked at it except a vague sense of wistfulness for a life promised but never realized. She’d wanted children but he always had a reason to put off having them. Now she’d been dead ten years and all he had were a few pictures. Like so many other things in his life, it was a missed opportunity.
Ritual completed he pressed the power button and began the familiar process of erasing consciousness.
The Greenes were in their customary position outside the entrance to the supermarket when he arrived the next morning. He could see them through the big plate glass windows at the front of the store when he came in the back. They held placards stapled to sticks that read, “MEGA MARKETS RELEASE OUR DAUGHTER” and “JUSTICE FOR VANESSA.” You’d think it was the ‘60s again or something, he mused. Shrugging, he told one of the bag boys to take some hot coffee out to them. It was pretty cold out there.
He saw that the message light on his phone was already lit when he sat down at his desk. Vultures. The usual collection of imbeciles and buffoons offering theories and asking questions and accusing him of being in league with the devil. It drove him nuts but there was no way to avoid it. He wished he could afford a flesh and blood secretary who could field all these calls, but small supermarket owners didn’t have that, not anymore, anyway. He supposed voice mail was the next best thing. At least he didn’t have to pick up every time the phone rang.
He shook open the paper and was getting ready to immerse himself for twenty minutes or so when he heard a familiar voice.
It was Stone. He folded the paper with a sigh and looked up at the slender, middle-aged man towering over him.
“If I didn’t write it, you wouldn’t have anything to read, y’know.” Stone was a reporter for the Tribune. He’d been following the disappearances at Al’s store and so far, anyway, had been one of the few rational voices who hadn’t assumed that Al was the living embodiment of evil.
Al shook his head. “Nope. Same deal. Woman named Mary Rathburn crawled in behind the soup cans and vanished without a trace.” He dug around in his drawer and pulled out a letter written on yellow lined paper.
“This is from someone who claims that the store is actually on the same meridian as the Bermuda Triangle. I guess it makes as much sense as anything else.”
Stone took the letter from him and looked at it critically, then tossed it back.
“I found out something new. About the people who disappeared.”
Al looked up with real interest for the first time. He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
“They all wanted to get away from something. Even the little girl. Vanessa. There are rumors that her father was molesting her.”
Al suddenly regretted sending hot coffee out to him.
“That doesn’t explain what happened to them, though,” Al said. “I mean, people vanish all the time, but not usually behind rolls of toilet paper in the market.”
“I know, I know. I’m just trying to find an angle.”
“Look, Stone, there just isn’t anything else.” Al held his hands out and ducked his head as if to show he had no more to offer. Stone got up.
“I’ll write it up in the usual way, then. Stick to facts, no conjecture. And as soon as-”
“As soon as anything new happens, you’ll be the first to know.” They shook hands, and Stone left.
Al tried to read the paper again, but his coffee was cold and the mood was gone. He threw the paper into the wastebasket and stalked out into the store.
It was already busy. He couldn’t understand it. He would have expected there to be less business after the disappearances, but in fact there was more. So much more that the store was actually making a profit for the first time in years. It probably just meant people were hoping they would get to be on the front page of the Enquirer. He could see the headline now: SUBURBAN HOUSEWIFE VANISHES BEHIND PEZ DISPLAY. Maybe he could make a contest out of it. Get people to come on down for big savings and a chance to disappear forever behind one of his displays.
There was no way for him to understand what motivated people. Probably he’d spent too much time on his own. He’d lost touch with the rest of humanity. It was that simple.
His reverie was broken by the appearance of a man he vaguely recognized as the district attorney, flanked by two large, oafish police officers. Al was being pointed out to them by one of his bag boys. Resigned, he waited for them to come to him. It was immature, he knew. He should have gone over to them, met them halfway. But he sensed that this was going to be one of the last times he would get to win for a while. He savored his small victory as they made their way over.
“O’Malley, District Attorney,” said the man in the middle. He didn’t offer to shake hands. This wasn’t to be a social call.
Al stood waiting, arms folded across his chest. O’Malley pulled a sheaf of documents out of his jacket pocket and waved them around in front of Al’s face. “We’re shutting you down. Court order.” The two harness bulls glared at Al, daring him to challenge them.
“On what grounds?” Al asked.
“All kinds of things, starting with being a threat to public safety.” O’Malley spat the words in sharp, staccato bursts, like gunfire. He didn’t seem too interested in getting into a discussion about it.
“You’ll be hearing from my lawyer about this.” Al knew this was weak, and he didn’t actually have a lawyer anyway. But he felt he had to say something, stand up for himself.
“That’s fine. But as of right now, you’re closed.” O’Malley nodded to the officers, who went to the entrance, allowing people to leave but preventing anyone from entering. Then he handed Al the papers.
“You’re due for a court appearance tomorrow. I hope your lawyer’s a good one.” O’Malley walked out, nodding pleasantly to people as he went.
Always campaigning, Al thought.
The supermarket seemed strange — empty in the middle of the day. Al stood in the produce section, looking at the store closely for the first time in years. It looked like hell. He’d opened the store twenty years ago, and a second one a few years later. He’d named them “MegaMarkets,” which in retrospect seemed overly optimistic. One of the big chains tried to buy him out, but Al had refused, thinking that one day he’d be as large as the big boys. Instead the big boys had opened a store near him. Within a year he’d had to close his other store, and this one had barely earned him a living since. The chorus of “missed opportunity” rang in his ears as he walked down the aisle to the liquor display.
He started to reach for a fifth of Bushmill’s when he thought he saw something glimmering behind the bottles. Interested, he moved them to either side, trying to get a better look. The light was small and difficult to see. He tried moving more bottles, hoping to get closer, but the light wasn’t getting any clearer.
This is what the other people saw, he thought, the ones who disappeared. The light drew him toward it. He really wanted to get in there and see what it was. Instead, he stepped away from it. He had to think about this. He could still see the light out of the corner of his eye. It glinted at him suggestively. It beckoned. He decided to call Stone.
“Stone,” said the voice at the other end of the line after a couple of rings.
“It’s Al. I think I know what’s going on. But you’ll have to come down to the store to see for yourself.”
“On my way.” Stone hung up. Al could tell he was excited. He went back out to the liquor display to try and get another look at the light while he waited for Stone.
It was gone.
I must be looking in the wrong place, Al thought. He moved bottles around, trying to find the light, but it was nowhere to be seen. He could feel a sense of panic rising in his chest. He kept looking, trying to remain calm. He still couldn’t see it.
Desperately he swept his arm across the shelf, knocking bottles to the floor with an explosive shattering of glass. Whiskey collected around his feet, soaking his shoes. But there was no light. In a rage he tore the shelves off the wall. There was nothing behind them but dusty, cobwebbed plywood. He noted abstractly the different colors of paint showing through in the places where he had ripped out the mounting apparatus.
Suddenly weak, he slumped to the floor.
Stone banged on the doors, trying to get into the locked store.
“Al,” he yelled, “let me in. It’s Stone.” Nothing happened. Stone cupped his hands around his eyes and peered in through the glass. There was no movement inside. He walked along the pavement that ran in front of the store, dodging the occasional shopping cart. He looked in again, and this time he could make out Burik lying in a pool of liquid and shattered glass at the back of the store. He banged on the window some more. Burik didn’t move.
“Damn,” said Stone. He walked to the pay phone that was mounted on the wall by the entrance and dialed the police. Then he walked across the street and got some coffee at a fast food place, and then he sat down to wait.
Copyright © 2007 by Arthur Vibert