Locked pantries came back in style. Fridges had thumbprint scanners. Headlines about “Them” had people bending their window-blinds at all hours. Police enlisted dogcatchers and parking enforcement officers to help deal with the “monsters”. Monsters had come up from the ground, or landed in a meteor, or washed up from the ocean or sewers or garbage dumps or something. They ate fat, but vinegar was like candy to them. Acetone was like caffeine.
People had to be careful, or wake up with their houses broken into and their black dandruff all over. It was sticky tar that stank like burning newspaper. When they burned through some street at night it just had to be sandblasted away. When your living room had an oily scorch mark from the ceiling to the floor you knew you would never get your deposit back. Teenagers would spraypaint their local tags over them. Poorly lit areas accumulated them like potholes.
Steff knew about “Them” from magazines and blog articles, and knew not to leave nail polish out just like she knew where the house’s fire extinguishers and smoke detectors were. She’d seen the public service announcements. She understood what the pale and smooth patches of sidewalk she saw on her walk to work meant. She’d reminded the butcher to lock the meat counter the day he left early. Tonight she was stocking shelves and had the store to herself, aside from one of the managers in the warehouse arranging pallets.
Isolated from the boss, she was able to listen to music on her phone. If she’d been listening to the soft classics dripping out of the store’s PA system, the sudden sensory deprivation when the power went out might have terrified her. Instead, the shock of going blind prevented her from realizing precisely what was happening. She dropped her boxcutter, and reached into her pocket. She brought her phone up to eye level and pressed her thumb into the screen. Rewarded with the blinding gift of sight, she tore her earbuds out and held the phone aloft like a torch. Was there rain tapping away at the roof? No, it had been sunny all day. Were rolling blackouts in the municipal forecast? No, her father hadn’t told her, and it was after midnight.
She heard her manager shout “fuck!” and knew it wasn’t the automated timer on the store’s lights. A tiny cartoon stowed in the back of her mind repeated a sing-songy mantra she’d heard her entire life: “If the power’s down then the monster’s around!”. She spun around with her torch. She’d been opening boxes and arranging their contents onto shelves for an hour, but only now with her heart pumping did the fact that she was on the cosmetics aisle enter her mind. Her mind also filled with a noise she’d heard before on the news; a noise her grandpa had called “a truck bed full of chainsaws trying to start”. It was a noise that scared people. You knew you were hanging out with assholes if they used it as their ringtone. She knew she was in trouble when she heard it on the other side of the shelf.
She yelled “help”, and knew she was drowned out by the chorus of broken gas motors. What could an assistant manager do anyways? She tilted her head, trying to get a sense of if the thing was moving. She crept to the end of the aisle, and the noise kept pace with her. Did it smell her fingernails, or the burger she had for dinner? No, it was dumber than that. She was holding a bottle of nail polish remover. She’d just opened the box. The thing was peering around the corner of the aisle now, black fur sticking to everything its hooves touched. Its throat was revving up, its teeth vibrating. She slowly bent her knees, half to reinforce their shivering, and half from an instinct to hide. She let the arm holding the bottle of yellow poison slowly drop to her side. Her eyes were locked with the thing’s now, flat wide reflective surfaces that never blinked. She wanted to run, knowing it would tear into her back in less than an instant. She wanted to scream, knowing its sick mechanical rumbling would drown her voice.
A lifetime of nursery rhymes and firemen coming to her school had filled her brain with a sort of shame. She wouldn’t go down holding a bottle of monster food. She wouldn’t die as a Goofus after striving to be a Gallant her whole life. She slowly made to lay the bottle on the shelf. The clot of wiry hair and all its noise stretched out towards it. She deposited the plastic bottle into the thing’s churning mouth and watched it dissolve. It rolled back onto its back set of hooves and savored the caustic sweetness. Sweat from her arm slid down the sticky hot coating of its dandruff enveloping her hand.
She watched it burn slowly across the aisle, whirring its teeth through boxes and bottles of whatever it found delicious. It coated everything with dried up flecks of ink as it went.
Hours after it had left, and the police arrived, and the sun had come up, Steff handed her apron to the store manager. Her hands stank with the aloe laden scent of hand sanitizer and burnt newspapers.
“Fuck this job, I’m not cleaning this up.”