Aisle upon aisle, layered like stacks of laundry. Bags of chips and cans of soda gleamed from between sandwiches of shelf as freezers hummed. Layers upon layers of packaging and gleaming candies, sending sparse glints of light from neon tubes spinning off into the aggregate. It was half-dark, but still lit-up, half-shorted out, but still running.
Starling’s shoes clacked as she went into the candy aisle, eyes searching the bags, the bags that swung on pegs sticking out from steel honeycombs and packs of it that folded over each other on racks. Candy bars gleamed like molded iron in the flickering, hued light that made gummy bears glow from the inside, and sugar sparkled from sour soft candy and peach rings, like grape-juice-stained geode crystal. Bags of porcelain mints painted with red seams crackled and muted shock-neon gummy worms shifted in the plastic.
She thought of the gummy worms, how she could pluck them delicately with chopsticks, or roll them into a ball and eat them like an apple. She thought of crunching across sections of KitKats, splitting peppermints open with rocks. She thought of skipping the peanut butter cups over water like stones. She thought of cracking the M&Ms together like walnuts or making them beads in a necklace, of folding tiny, waxed swans from colorful starburst wrappers, or applying strawberry push pop residue like a coat of candy chapstick.
All of the prospects were deliciously disturbing.
She heard a crackling sound, and turned. A boy was busy cleaning out the shelves of chocolate bars. Mussed black hair rippled over his head, with butterfly wings sprouting through the cracks and fluttering in the drafts. He left as quickly as he came, the plastic basket swinging from the crook of his arm, with the smooth slabs of candy sliding around inside. The door swung closed behind him.
Whatever. She wasn't here on other-people-buisness.
Taking a bright orange packet of Reese’s peanut butter cups, her feet tapped over the back room. The computer screen glowed like a pulsing moon jellyfish.
SURVEILLANCE RECORDS 9/30-9/40
Yesterday. Yesterday she’d come in here and taken the folding chair, from behind the desk. Someone flickered onto the screen, her, behind the grainy, broken glass and electric signals of the security camera.
She slid a bottle of iodine and a cotton swab from behind the monitor. The bottle was brown and glassy, stored there a day or two ago, because she knew she would come here often.She let a few drops of the iodine dribble, and pressed the cotton ball over the face, that small, grainy image of her face on the screen.
A gradient blue bubble hovered.
The image started moving and flickering. Her face had been blurred out, now only an orb of haze in her mess of hair.
tak tak tak tak tak tak tak
Her feet clacked back out of the back room, about to leave, when she heard a voice from between the back aisles.
“Would you like your fortune told?”
“No,” she replied, but she wanted to know who was offering.
tak tak tak tak tak tak tak
Her skin was golden and greased like a stale waffle, and seven braids were knotted into dirty blonde hair that floated around her head. They spilled over her shoulders, dripping with loose strands and flyaways that waved in the drafts from the door. Her fingers were long and worn, and cupped around an opened can of ravioli with a red and white label. She sat on a rolled throne of ravioli cans. The open jaws of a geared opener were splayed on a nearby shelf.
“Pleasure to meet you, though."
At the moment, she was a bit underdressed to be recognized as an up-and-coming specter. For errands she wore a stitched pair of jeans and a plain sweater to keep warm. But her aura of chaos was unmistakable.
The woman before her seemed equally chaotic. Impressive.
"Who are you? You're strange."
They faced each other, both exotic birds, but with different colors and tones, eyeing each other from under hooded gazes and gleaming feathers.
“I’m an Oracle.” the woman answered simply, poking the ravioli with a fork.
“Is that so?”
“Yes. I can see the stars spelled in ravioli.”
“You know tea leaves?” the Oracle continued absentmindedly. “It’s like that. Dregs of green in the bottom of a cup, mashed dumplings of low-grade meat in the bottom of a can, what’s the difference, really?”
She stabbed a rippled, pillowy piece and began nibbling on a corner.
"Don't go back for the shoes," she said.
* * *
Daffodil shivered in the damp chill. She would’ve gone insane, she just knew it. She could hear it knocking at her door, voices whispering at the dark corners of her mind, tendrils of madness starting to take root and bloom into a poisonous crimson flower. Was there anyone else? Was she alone? She scrolled father and faster back in the social media feed glowing from her phone screen. She could see them, other people, in the photos, smiling like the word was a sun. Were they just images, and nothing more?
It was a boy. A person. Maybe she was imagining it.
She couldn’t tell how old he was, other than that he was young, somewhat. His head wavered uncertainly on his shoulders, a fungus like butterfly wings blooming from one eye socket. They’d eaten away the jelly inside. More sprouted from him like feathers from a brooded nestling, poking through his hair and dead spots. His bleached skin gleamed dully, as if it was made of polished white wax. Some of the skin and layers of tissue from his arm was missing. It was a bloody rose blossoming on his shoulder, a meaty blot of lichen. Bits of bone had been chipped away by rat’s teeth. His hair was a grayish-brown the like the bark of a maple tree, and his skin was pale as milk. Old, mildewy clothes hung from his limbs.
Daffodil felt a slight, uneasy discord swimming in her stomach. Something was...off. Something about him didn’t sit right.
“Can you help me with my arm?”
He helpfully tapped the spot of raw flesh.
“I don’t know....Is it supposed to hurt…Doesn’t it...?”
“I’m not sure….”
“Oh...sorry, I don’t have anything that could help.”
“Oh.” He looked down. “I’m looking for other people. Are you also?”
He paused, thinking.
“I could help you push the shopping cart so you don’t have to push with the broom,” he said. "Then we could look together."
creak creak creak creak creak creak creak
People weren’t supposed to look like this, Daffodil thought. All...rotted and things. At least I don’t think so. He seems...just…
Then she saw someone. Someone she'd seen before.
“You...the drainage grate lady…”
“Yes. And you, the storyteller.”
“I’d thought I’d imagined you.”
“That’s what I strive for.” She held out a hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m not sure what my name is.”
“Did you check the card with your picture in the wallet? That’s what I did. My name’s Daffodil.”
“Ah.” She rummaged through her pockets and slid out a card. “So I’m Starling.” Starling glanced at the boy. “What’s his name?”
"I’ll call you Aaron then."