The bright, shining, neon sign read Life Store. It was peculiar, not just because the wording of it didn’t make much sense; what would one sell at a Life Store?; but because I had passed this lot on my way to work countless times before and seen nothing of the sort on any previous trip.
It didn’t appear to sell anything, either. The glass front of it seemed to shimmer in the encroaching daylight, allowing an oily view into the stark and sterile insides. There was one shop assistant standing behind a lonely desk. Small in the vast, white interior. She smiled at me as I passed. It was a warm and welcoming smile, or, at least I thought it was, in the brief seconds that it took me to walk past the store. There wasn’t time to stop and browse. I had three minutes until my train, and I couldn’t afford to be late to work again. I was on my first official warning already.
It’s important to stay busy in times of emotional dejection. That was the tagline I murmured to myself throughout the day. Some incipient phrase from a self help manual, devoured many moons ago when I was a young lad, still fresh and clean and unworn by the passage of time and heartbreak. It’s funny how these things come back to you. It hadn’t meant much to me then, but it made sense now. It’s important to stay busy in times of emotional dejection. If you didn’t, you were likely to wallow in self pity, mind worrying the edges of some previously frayed thought/look/passing comment, turning it into a chewed piece of cloth. Unrecognizable as what it had initially started as.
It meant less as the work day wound down. The hands of the clock, that had previously dragged, flew by. Each hour became a minute, each minute, a second. Then it stilled again. The walk from work to the station stretched on for eternity. Each passing person, a young couple in the first throes of love. The train ride was worse. Stuck in a carriage surrounded by intimacy, pushed against bodies unwillingly, bodies that pushed up against others with smiles on their faces. My mind in leisurely torment, backtracking and weaving around insurmountable issues as the train ground to endless halts, prolonging it.
That day, the day I made my first and only visit to the Life Store, was perhaps the most lonely I had ever felt.
It was still there; of course it was, where else would it have gone?; as I made my way from the station to the inordinately expensive and unsurprisingly awful third floor flat in which I lived. The glass front still wavered and shimmered, although the light was seeping out of the day, hidden behind office blocks and parking structures, a faint glow peeking over the top.
The mantric phrase: It’s important to stay busy in times of emotional dejection: spoke up as I neared the doorway. Why shouldn’t I take a look? What was I going to do instead? Hurry home to a microwave meal for one, thoughts chasing each other as a puppy chases its tail? The fascinating glow of the neon sign seemed to beckon me, winking slightly in the deepening gloom.
Although the street was busy, the short patch of pavement outside the store was bare of foot traffic. People passing stepped off the curb just before the edge of the shop front, some turning their eyes to the other side of the street, most simply looking down to watch where they walked. I should have taken that as a sign, but I didn’t.
The door handle was slick and cool underneath my palm. For the briefest of moments it sucked at the skin there, almost like an ice lolly will suck at the tongue when it’s that perfect form of frozen. It didn’t bother me though. If anything, I gripped it tighter, preparing to swing the door open. The woman from before was still at the counter. She smiled her warm and welcoming smile, perhaps a little brighter, a slim sliver of teeth visible through her lips. It was the kind of smile that the person it was directed at couldn’t help but return.
The pneumatic hinge hissed as I entered, mixing with the garbled noise from the street, before clicking shut and closing off all sound from the outer world. There was no comforting muzak playing within the store. It was deathly quiet, hushed and still, like a funeral home with only the residents in attendance.
I wasn’t mistaken before. The store held no items inside, only the single desk and the woman behind it. It was maybe a trick of the eyes, caused by the seamless blending of the white walls and floors, but I couldn’t quite see the edges of the room. Before I could take a closer look, the woman spoke.
“Good afternoon, Mister…?”
“Renner”, I supplied, turning my attention from the white expanse. My shoes clicked painfully loud in the quiet as I approached the desk. Her head, previously tilted in a questioning manner, returned to upright. She nodded, smiling.
“Mr. Renner”. She said it in a way as if she were tasting the quality of my name, rolling it on her tongue. “How can I help you?”
As I drew closer, I noticed a name badge pinned to the breast of her light blue uniform. The uniform itself was strange enough, reminiscent of the mini dresses worn in the original Star Trek series. The name on the tag was even stranger.
“Libeal? What an unusual name”. I studied her. “You don’t look foreign…in fact, you bear a striking resemblance to Nurse Chapel from the Star Trek series, what with the uniform and all. Although I suppose you’re a little too young to know who that is”.
Her smile widened, stretching into a pretty grin, as she leaned forward on the desk. One hand came up, a long and perfectly polished fingernail resting on her cheekbone. “You’d be surprised. I get that a lot from guys around your age. The ones who grew up watching the series, of course”. She leaned further forward, affording me an excellent view of her cleavage through the gaping cowl neck of her dress. “So, Frederick, how can I help you?”
Odd. I didn’t remember telling her my first name. But, I must have. How else would she have known? “I’m not sure to be quite truthful. What exactly is it that you do here?”
“That depends entirely on the customer”. She laughed, light and musical, although I wasn’t too sure what was funny about it. “You could say that we give clients a chance at a more fitting life”.
“Oh, so this is some kind of life coaching thing?” It made sense now. The stark interior, the name of the store, her appearance and demeanor. No doubt they’d charge through the roof for an hourly session with someone selling a lifestyle that was all muscled bodies, expensive items and cocktail hours. Not the kind of thing for a guy nearly in his 60’s, working a menial office job and just scraping through with alimony. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time. I just thought I’d kill a bit of time, but this kind of thing isn’t for me. I’m sure you’ll be wanting to close up soon too. I’ll get out of your hair”. I was rambling, turning away, intent on leaving without showing any embarrassment at the social faux pas I had made, but the view out of the store stopped me in my tracks.
The windows to the outside shimmered also, although the lowering sun created a strange hue. A reddish, glowing tint. It was difficult to see through the oily surface of the glass, the setting sun seemed to set everything on fire. There were no people out there. The buildings and cars appeared deformed, misshapen, a childish concept of what a city street should look like. A moment of spiking anxiety stilled my steps. Words rose and dashed into consciousness. Hellfire, damnation, end of days. Then she spoke again.
“You’re mistaken, Frederick. We don’t do life coaching here. If you’ll give me a minute of your time, I’ll explain”.
I couldn’t turn away from the nightmarish hellscape outside. It felt like if I took my eyes off it for even a second, then it would rush through the glass and devour me. The clip clopping of kitten heels broke through the fascination, and then a small, hot hand touched my shoulder.
“Are you alright, Frederick?”
Wrenching my eyes away, I looked at her. Libeal, the oddly familiar woman with the unfamiliar name. She looked concerned, but that hot hand on my shoulder felt spiky, and somehow slimy. Incongruous. She smiled sympathetically, held tilted again in that questioning manner.
There were chairs on either side of the desk. Where they had come from was anyone’s guess, but I felt that weak and disturbed that I didn’t even question it. I should have, but I didn’t. My weight trembled on rubbery leg muscles, I didn’t sit so much as fall into it. It was a simple, white, wooden chair. Straight backed with thin arms. Despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t help but notice how uncomfortable it was. It seemed to cling to me, pulling me down into its centre.
She patted me on the shoulder, and in spite of my depleted energy, I cringed from her rancid touch. It felt inhuman, bizarre. The sound of her heels rounded the desk, and then she sat in the opposite chair. I couldn’t look up to confirm, my head seemed to weigh a ton, but the chair legs squealed on the floor as she pulled it back.
“What’s…what’s happening…to me? What’s…going on…here?”
She giggled, high pitched and discordant, a sinister, deep echo layering it. I wanted out. I saw myself standing up and running out of the store, but it was just a vision, and once ended, I found myself still sitting in that white, wooden chair.
Sinking into it deeper, the wood clinging, sucking at my body.
“Nothing, Frederick. You’ve had a funny turn, that’s all. Be still. Have some water”.
I looked up and was unsurprised to see the desk furnished with a jug and glass. The desk had lowered too. It was no longer smooth and clean. White, yes, but scarred and pockmarked, aged, yellowing at the edges. Her fingers grasped the jug handle, the nails not perfectly polished – had they ever been? – but long and ancient, thick and grooved, shadowy where the nail bed met the skin. I didn’t want to look up further, didn’t want to see what had become of her previously pleasing face. The face that had reminded me so much of Nurse Chapel when I’d first arrived. I focused on the jug instead.
I hadn’t realised how parched I was. My tongue was scaled and swollen, desperate for relief, but what came out of the jug wasn’t clear and refreshing. It was viscous, full of debris and living, swimming things. She pushed the glass towards me, nails tinkling on its surface.
“I don’t want to, thank you”. My voice was papery, dry.
“You sure sound thirsty. Drink”. Her voice was gleeful, cajoling, all pretense of sympathy gone. I didn’t want to drink whatever was in that glass, but my hand was reaching for it against my will. Lifting it, tilting it against my cracked lips. I could feel slithering things slipping down my throat as I gulped at it, unable to stop. Something crawling, digging into my insides.
I wanted to push the glass away from me, throw it across the room, or even better, into whatever passed for her face, but I couldn’t. Instead, I finished it to the last drop and placed it gently on the table. As I did, something plopped out of the jug and onto the table. It was small, febrile, jittering. Some kind of bug. It had a large head for its size, numerous eyes, some on half formed antenna, attached to a rudimentary, sectioned body, all legs and suckers. It half lifted itself, seeming to look at me. Then it chittered. A squealing, pained sound. An answering chitter sounded from my stomach, something was clawing and scratching in there. I wanted to throw up, but I couldn’t. Then Libeal’s fist came down, smashing the bug, or whatever it was. A crunch and squeak, and all that was left was a smear of red and yellow entrails, bits of black hide. That’s when I looked up, as her hand raised to her face, and the Nurse Chapel face was no more.
The skin had sagged, wrinkled. Liver spots and crusting caps covered it. Her teeth were long and yellow, sharpened, and a pustulous tongue rolled out between them, lapping at the edge of her hand where the entrails resided. She smiled, sunken, bleary eyes closing in delight. I couldn’t speak, even if I’d have had the words to describe how that image made me feel.
“Mmmm, waste not, want not. Isn’t that what you humans say?”
Its eyes opened, red and gleaming through the yellowish film of gelatinous ichor that covered them.
“What’s happening? What am I? What are you doing here?” It asked mockingly, a grin showing how far back its fangs reached. “Shall I introduce myself properly?” It stood, and all its deceiving affectation fell away. It was impossibly tall, towering over the shortened desk. A boxy, wolfish head sat atop an elongated, crooked neck. Its body was twisted, roped with sinuous, reddish muscle, limbs seeming to sprout at awkward angles. It swayed slightly, as if such proportions were difficult to control, and yet it oozed power, strength.
“I am Belial, Prince of Jinnestan, purveyor of guilt and lies, and you shall kneel before me”.
Its voice thundered in my ears, the room darkening at each word, until there was naught but shadows surrounding us. I fell to my knees, crushed by the weight of its expectations. My body seemed to shrink, withdraw into itself, to escape the terror that was building around me. A singular claw found my forehead, pressed the centre, and a lightning bolt of knowing whipped through my brain. I was the reason my marriage had broken down. My lies, my affairs, my deception. All the rage I had felt over being passed over for promotions, unworthy rage. My fault. Laziness, stealing work, too many lingering, lustful hands on attractive coworkers. It was all my fault. That’s why I was here. To know, to realise…to pay the price.
“And pay the price, you shall”.
Now, I wait in the viscous fluid, although I’m not sure if I’d prefer to stay here or be drunk by some other fool that thinks they know better. All I know is that I won’t try to claw my way out of here. I’ve seen what happens to the bugs that try that.
Credit : Lauren Kujo
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