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Sarah couldn’t recall why she’d started working nights at the supermarket. She knew she needed the money, but at this point, was it really worth it anymore? The lack of sleep wasn’t as bad as she expected, but the main problem with the graveyard shift was that it was so incredibly dull. She didn’t know why they decided to stay open at all hours in the first place. On most nights, they barely received any business. The only customers so far this week were a few drunks who wandered in to get out of the rain and some college kids. Dull didn’t begin to describe it. It was utterly mind numbing. Recently, to stay awake, she’d begun to do things, things that others might call strange, to play little games in her mind.
Some of the employees may have read paperbacks or filled out crossword puzzles. Sarah’s games were different. If no customers were in sight, she would step out from behind the register, and walk around the store, counting the items on each shelf. Sometimes, she’d do other things, too. Little things. Things no one would notice. She would flip all the cans in one row upside down, or put things in the wrong places. A few times, she went to the case where they kept the slices of pork, and used her fingertip to scrawl “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” in the mist on the glass, and smiled at her own joke. She knew it was all childish and stupid, but it was harmless, and it kept her awake.
This night was no different from any other. It was a relatively small store, and she was almost always the only one working. Sarah sat behind the cash register, leaning back and reading a magazine. She wasn’t really paying attention to what was on the glossy pages, though. Instead, she was watching the flies that buzzed around the fluorescent lights above, counting them. She peered up at them as they moved in circles, rubbing their front legs together. She imagined them grinning in anticipation as they did this, like the villains of silent movies, plotting things. Outside the automatic doors, the rain poured, streaking the glass windows. The sky flickered as a pair of circular headlights glided into the parking lot. Setting down the magazine, she looked up. As the headlights faded into darkness, she heard the faint noise of a car door slamming shut, muffled by the rain. In the soft orange glow of a streetlamp, a figure moved across the parking lot.
As it grew closer, Sarah could see that it was wearing a long, dark coat, and carrying an umbrella, but she still couldn’t make out a face. It kept its head down as it approached, folding the umbrella shut. Just as the doors slid open and the man stepped inside, the lights went out. She drew in her breath sharply, and called out to the man with the umbrella.
“I’m sorry sir. It looks like we’re having a little trouble with the power. It’s going to be a few minutes until I can get it fixed. You know, there’s another place just a few blocks from here.” He wasn’t responding. Instead, he was moving closer. The lightning outside cast long, blurry shadows over the linoleum floor, its surreal glow framing the umbrella man’s silhouette perfectly in the glass doorway. She heard his footfalls approaching further. “Sir,” Sarah called again, “I really can’t help you until the power is back on.” He lifted his head and spoke. His voice was like gravel in a blender.
“And no one can help you, either.” He let out something that might have been a giggle. The umbrella slid from his fingers and struck the floor with a dull thump. The giggle continued and rose into a shrill, screaming cackle. Sarah stepped out from behind the register and stepped back. She heard a rustling of fabric in the dark. Lightning flashed again, and she saw the man’s crazed, mannequin-like grin, as something long and sharp glimmered in his hand. Still laughing, he lurched forward and swung the blade in front of him, narrowly missing Sarah’s shoulder. She screamed, and ran blindly, further into the pitch-black maze of shelves. Slashing wildly at the air around him, the man in the coat followed.
Sarah knew there was an emergency exit at the back of the store, but at the moment, as she jogged cautiously through the aisles, she had only a vague idea of where the back of the store was. She could hear him behind her, cackling like a hyena, the heavy steps of what might have been motorcycle boots reverberating off the walls and floor. The employee training had given her instructions on what to do in the event of a robbery, but this was different. She didn’t think money was what this man wanted. No, he wanted blood. This wasn’t a robbery. It was a hunt.
Feeling her way along, Sarah ducked between two rows of shelves and tried to make her eyes adjust. She had read once in a detective novel that you could do that by shutting your eyes and counting to ten, but somehow it never worked properly. She was just barely able to make out pale grey outlines of things, nothing more. She heard a heavy clatter from somewhere else in the store, as her pursuer knocked into something. Cans? She wondered. Bottles? It didn’t matter. Whatever it was, he was closer than she thought. She took a deep breath, and ran again.
As Sarah darted out into the open, she saw the dark form of the man in the coat sprawled on his side next to a scattered display of products, the one he had most likely crashed into when he was fumbling in the dark. She didn’t think he’d noticed her there. Not yet. Slowly, he lifted himself off the floor and turned his head. She gasped.
“There you are, piggy.” He whispered. Even in the gloom, she could see him smile. The muscles in Sarah’s legs clenched, preparing to run. A shriek of manic laughter shredded the air, and he sprinted toward her. Sarah stumbled back into a shelf, and as he came closer, her hand shot behind her and grasped the nearest object. Her fingers closed on a jar of something, and, aiming as best she could, she hurled it at him.
The jar slammed into the man’s left cheek with a horribly satisfying crunch of bone, then hit the floor and shattered, leaving a dangerous puddle of liquid and glass shards. Subconsciously, Sarah hoped he would fall backwards and land in it, embedding dozens of the fragments in the back of his scalp. He didn’t fall. Instead, he wobbled back and forth on his feet, stunned and clutching his chin. Then shock turned to rage, and he spat an ugly string of words at her, his voice now petulant and whining. She had started running the moment the jar hit him, hands stretched out in front of her to avoid running into anything. Dazed, the man chased after her.
Although she would never admit it aloud, hurting her pursuer had given Sarah a sort of excitement, a newfound bravery, brought on by the discovery that she was not helpless. The knife man’s quick recovery, however, had led to another discovery. He did not want to be stopped, and had no intention of giving up. She had a feeling that even if she reached the emergency door, he would follow her. Out into the parking lot, through the streets, back to her apartment if he had to. A phrase flashed through her head, one she didn’t particularly enjoy. Flight or fight. Flight wasn’t an option anymore. She was going to fight.
Her breath coming in sharp, rattling gasps, Sarah slowed down, and stopped running entirely. Her fingers reached out until they found the cardboard boxes that lined the shelf beside her. Starting from the end of the aisle, she walked along and counted. When she got to the end, she had found that there were forty-two boxes in total. Cardboard boxes most likely meant either cereal or crackers, and since, as she remembered, the aisle that held crackers had sixty boxes, this had to be aisle twenty-eight. Now that she knew where she was, Sarah turned in the direction of the deli, where she knew there was a big, heavy meat cleaver hanging on the wall. That would be just perfect.
As she made her way through the labyrinth of packages, all of this began to feel oddly familiar. Someone working the graveyard shift, murdered by a stranger in the dead of night. Suddenly, she realized. This had happened before. Headlines and missing person posters filled her head. A gas station attendant two months ago. A hotel housekeeper last year. A cashier before that. No evidence. No suspects. Just three corpses, hidden at the bottoms of rivers or in a cellar somewhere. Three families missing a son or a daughter. This time, Sarah thought, the story would change. This time he would pay.
Sarah’s fear became fury, as she grew more and more sure that each of those cases had the same killer, the same knife. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t hear the pounding footsteps, coming closer and closer. The man rounded a corner and appeared in front of her, grinning from ear to ear. He stepped toward her slowly, his knife flickering and dancing in the shadows as he spun it between his fingers.
“I knew you would like this game.” He said, “I’ve been watching you, on the security camera tapes. I watched you play your own games when you thought nobody was looking. That’s why I decided to play my own game with you, why I cut the power lines. To even the odds. I knew you liked games. I like games, too.” The movement of the knife as he spoke was almost hypnotic, and Sarah couldn’t stop watching the flash of silver. Carefully, she pulled her eyes away from the blade and looked into his psychotic face as she replied.
“I’m not playing your game.” She almost whispered, too terrified to raise her voice. His smile fell, and he raised the knife. With uncanny speed, Sarah’s hand snapped out and seized his arm before he could bring down the weapon. She twisted the arm as far as it would go, shoving him into a shelf, then grimaced, raising the other hand toward her attacker’s face. Fight or flight. There was a soft squishing sound as she plunged her thumb into his eye.
The screams came immediately, as the man released long, wordless wails of pain. Holding her breath, Sarah pulled her finger out of his bleeding eye socket and stood for a second, panting and stunned. He turned his head to face her, still pinned firmly against the side of the shelf. Blood and fluids ran down his face in a small red stream, almost dripping into his gaping mouth as he howled over and over again, sounding more beast than human. In her shock, Sarah had loosened her grip on his arm, and now he was squirming free. She didn’t notice. She was still transfixed by the blind, oozing hole where his eye had been. She had only just begun to realize what she was capable of, when he wrenched his arm free, and the knife flashed, making a long, deep gash in her side.
Sarah gasped, gazing blankly outward. He was facing her now, and grinning through the gore that smeared his face. He lifted the knife again, aiming at her throat this time. Wincing from the sharp, stinging pain in her abdomen, Sarah clenched her right hand tightly and slammed her fist into his stomach, pulling the punch a little at the last minute, only to draw back her arm and hit him again. He doubled over. The knife left his hand and skittered under the shelf behind him. As the man bent forward, trying to regain his breath, she laced her hands together behind his head and brought her knee up into his nose, shattering it. He toppled and fell on his side, laying in a fetal position, his face a mess of red. Not bothering to look for the knife, Sarah limped as fast as she could toward the emergency door.
Flight it is, then. She thought, moving across the glistening asphalt of the parking lot. Somehow, she was the tiniest bit disappointed with herself for not finishing the job. She didn’t want to be a killer though, and he wasn’t going anywhere. She would call the police as soon as she got home, they found him, unconscious and bleeding, he would get what he deserved. It was better this way.
She pulled into another parking lot, and went toward the apartment building. The clock on the dashboard had said it was two a.m. now, but she didn’t think she’d be getting any sleep. In the warm glow of a streetlamp, she checked the cut on her side. It was long, but not deep, and it had already stopped bleeding. No hospital visit needed. She smiled slightly, enjoying the rain on her face, and began to walk up the staircase that led to her floor. Halfway up, she stopped. Standing at the top of the stairs, drenched with rain, was the man in the dark coat.
In the yellow orange light of the small lamps that hung above each door, she could see his blood-streaked face, one eye missing and the nose twisted to the side, red still spilling down his chin. He was smiling.
“The game isn’t over yet.” He said.