SHORT STORY. 1000 WORDS. APRIL, 2018.
PHOTO: STOLEN FROM THE INTERNET.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE LITERARY NEST (US) – JULY 15, 2018. VIEW STORY ONLINE HERE.
To pay for school, I work at a clothing store in the mall. Mid-budget, unisex, basic. Compared to the dusky sales floor, the dressing area is bright and stark, humming with fluorescent light. A wide entrance at one end leads to a short counter along the beige, rear wall. Two blue, upholstered armchairs form an uninspiring waiting area for bored husbands or boyfriends.
In front of the chairs, a floor to ceiling mirror is aligned with an identical one on the opposite wall, beyond the row of eight fitting rooms, four on each side. Standing between two mirrors transforms the narrow corridor into an infinite passageway, with countless closed doors, shrinking in the distance, as my own flip-flopping image blocks the vanishing point.
My duties include keeping the area tidy: picking pins, plastic and paper off the tiled floor, collecting hangers and re-shelving items left behind.
Like a hungry African leopard, my overactive mind wanders. Depending on whatever film I last watched, I picture aliens, zombies, serial killers and demons lurking behind the self-closing doors. A romantic comedy, endured during a tragic date, leads me to conjure a tender meet-cute as I open a supposedly unoccupied stall to find a perky brunette choosing between a floral print jersey tee and a bubble-sleeved white blouse.
I won’t mention what I picture behind those doors after streaming porn the night before.
Working alone one dull evening, my only customers are three giggling Asian women, sporting Canada Goose jackets, and a young Indian couple. Holding her purse and winter parka, he shakes his head each time she lifts a dress to her shoulders.
A white couple enters. She looks twenty, heavyset, mint green hair, dressed in black, with a silver stud between her lower lip and chin. Her beau is tall and wears a full length, grey trench coat. A fuzzy mustache suggests he’s under eighteen. His hair is brown and long. A mullet would suit him. An open can of beer seems missing from his right hand.
They ignore my offer of assistance. She browses, he curses. Crude expressions drip from his lips, phrases like: “Suck my dick,” and “Tiki torch.”
When she asks to try on a slate grey pullover hoodie, I show her the fitting rooms.
She disappears down the corridor, her friend slouching behind. Two minutes later, he shouts: “Bitch! You lousy bitch.” Then comes the unmistakeable sound of a fist striking flesh and bone. She screams.
Of the five people in the store, three look at me and two turn toward the dressing area. All are stunned, frozen.
My hand slams the panic button, alerting security, never more than two minutes away, but I don’t wait. Racing to the fitting rooms, I’m confronted by the repeating pattern of my image reflected in an endless corridor of closed doors, shrinking in the distance.
“Shut the hell up,” the ruffian shouts over muffled screams.
The acoustics of the uncarpeted room make it difficult to find the pair. Sound ricochets as tension builds. Overwhelmed, I begin opening doors.
Despite the illusion of limitlessness, the situation ends quickly. The fourth door is locked. I bust the latch and grab the aggressor by the throat. Considering his height and rage, I wasn’t expecting a weakling with slow reflexes. Pushing backward, I hook one foot behind his ankle and he goes down without taking a swing.
The mint-haired woman, her face swelling, flushed red and tear streaked, didn’t fight back. Security arrives. One guard handcuffs the coward, once I let him up, the other summons paramedics and police.
Some find a glimmer of bravery in my actions but my subconscious records a mere fraction of this episode and slips it into my nightmares, ceaselessly replaying those few terrifying seconds of my helpless image trapped in the echoing corridor, antagonized by a thousand shut doors, as a woman cries for help.
The haunting reverberates into my waking hours after my grandmother moves to an old age home: a charming place with an inviting earth-toned entrance and cheerful reception desk, leading to an enormous lounge filled with plants, crowded bookshelves, comfy sofas, card tables and large, flat screen televisions.
Looking for my grandmother’s room, I enter the residents’ hallway, abuzz with fluorescent lighting, and am assaulted by the nightmare. It grafts onto the long, tiled corridor. I hear terrifying screams but can’t tell whether they’re real. I begin a frantic, futile search for the correct door, which I never find. Instead, security finds me, escorts me outside and bans me from the building.
My mind continues its cruelty; sinister visions intensify. Apartment buildings, campus hallways, dormitories, even glances in the bathroom mirror, recall the infinite passageway and crushing helplessness.
On my next solo close, desperate to stop the apparitions, I stand at the last private stall and open the door. It swings outward, blocking the troublesome mirror. Aliens, zombies, serial killers, demons, porn stars and embattled white trash couples, line up behind me, watching – rooting for the mirror.
Violently, I ram the door into the end wall. The metal handle makes contact, sending a spiderwebbed pattern of cracks from floor to ceiling. The glass hangs for a second, then crashes like a waterfall, accompanied by the dying notes of a symphony. Crouching, turning, I cover my head as shards slice my hands.
Security arrives. Bandages are applied; my boss is called. I lie about slipping on plastic waste.
Days later, back at work, a life-sized advertisement of a familiar, smirking brunette in a floral print graces the far wall, beyond the eight stalls. Her mocking eyes follow my approach but the menace of infinity is gone. The corridor and my career in retail appear shorter.
NOTE: I refer to Canada Goose jackets in this story but I do not endorse the product.