Something lay in wait in the storeroom. Charlie could feel it.
She knew she was lucky to be relying on public transport. There were other people here who stayed all night, or until three am, relying on their own tired eyes to keep themselves on the road or an understanding partner or parent to pick them up. She wasn’t quite as lucky as the college students, who could cry off at seven thirty with exam woes. But because the buses stopped at half past eleven, eleven was the latest they could keep her.
Her job tonight was to price the confectionery, the candy canes and selection boxes and the giant boxes of Lindt balls, and the Christmas cards, and the novelties like tiny gumball machines and dancing Santas. Charlie liked this job. She had been on her feet for hours, her throat hurt from endless talking, raising her voice so she could be heard over the music, the sound of the tills and her colleagues, and the repeated Merry Christmases. The music was switched off a quarter of an hour after closing and she could listen to a podcast for an hour while she scanned and printed labels.
The only thing was she had to get the pricing guns first.
The shop for public consumption was brightly lit, with soft golden spotlights, imitation marble flooring and delicate displays of elegant produce. Behind the scenes it was cold, grey, metal, industrial. It was a vast old building, and Charlie couldn’t quite understand how the floors worked in the Other Shop, as she had come to see it.
The Shop, the one that people saw, had five floors. Menswear and children lived in the basement, perfume and beauty greeted those entering the front door, womenswear – women needed more clothes it seemed – were the first and second, and the café and homeware glittered in the hard sun hitting the glass topped roof.
The Other Shop had at least six floors. There was the underground, which smelled of diesel engines and tiredness, where stock arrived. Behind the second floor there was the canteen and break room. There was also a mezzanine level, where stock and banks of electronic pricing guns slumbered. During the day Charlie could spot the Mezz, where the floor between the women’s levels was thicker.
Low ceilinged and thrumming with an unspecified rumble, the Mezz was a place of dread. Fluorescent lights flickered, and mutilated mannequins lay underfoot. There was a vague smell of mouse in the air. She tried to go with someone else to get the guns and was mostly successful. The others wanted company too, and their voices, over- bright and cheerful, almost dispelled the gloom.
The wait for the lift was interminable. It seemed to plummet to the centre of the earth and rise to the stratosphere in the time it took to come to the Mezz. There were no stairs there. The lift reminded her of the ones in the Tube stations in London, vast and capable of holding twenty people at once, done in raised stainless steel, with a clipped English voice announcing your destination.
Charlie felt small in that lift.
The worst thing was that feeling of panic when you glanced at your phone and realised it was quarter to eleven. Or sometimes someone tapped you on the shoulder. That was a good night, when you could go together. Otherwise Charlie felt herself rush up to put back the guns, get her stuff and get out the staff door, before security locked her in for the night. Or for forever.
Of course, Charlie thought as she grabbed her coat in the pandemonium of the locker room, nothing actually happened in the Mezz. It was a bit spooky, but why waste effort on making the Other Shop look pretty when it was perfectly functional?
She bade her colleagues good night and rushed out to the street for the bus, the sounds of Christmas cheer and revelry ringing through the air.
The next night was Christmas Eve and she was working again until eleven.
It was assumed when Charlie didn’t show on St Stephen’s Day that she had taken the money and run. It was annoying, her manager said, but there was at least one every year. Someone had drunk too much Baileys on Christmas night and knew they only had a handful of days left, so they just stopped turning up for work.
Still, Ana in Carvela said. She didn’t seem that type. She seemed conscientious.
Mary in Lancôme said she usually walked out with her to the bus, but she must have gone ahead, she didn’t see her leave.
In the Mezz, something waits. And along with something, Charlie waits too.
Róisín Tuohy currently lives in Waterford and works in the motor industry when not writing. She has worked in journalism and has had short stories published in a number of anthologies. She hopes to finish a novel someday and not have it live in a drawer forever more. Róisín has been a member of Cupán Fae for 4 years and has contributed to the Fiercepunk anthology.