“Sweet swinging starfish, what did you do?”
The space between the sports drink pallets and the paper supplies no longer led to the staff-only bathroom. Both the odor and hand-smudged doorway were gone, replaced and erased by a jagged, blackened, evidently absorbent hole in the air.
The suction was the weirdest part. Dust-bunnies trembled toward it with a slow inexorability that unnerved Patty for reasons she could not express. “Well?” she demanded.
Kneeling and sullen, Tay and Ben stared at her with the stillness normally achieved only by frightened does or ancient statues.
Patty gestured, trying not to stare too hard at the crumpled receipt gradually making its way toward the hole.
Tay cleared his throat. “We just thought we’d try.”
Patty’s forehead-crease deepened. “What?”
“Sorry,” said Ben. “There was a spell.”
“On the cereal box.”
That wasn’t any weirder than the rest of this. Patty acquiesced to managerial duty and picked the box up to read the back.
WARNING: ASK YOUR PARENTS FIRST blazed at her in #92 Fluorescent Red, followed by Papyrus-font instructions to achieve your dream vacation.
Patty exhaled slowly, determined not to yell. There were customers in the store, after all. “Ask your parents, it says. Did you ask anybody?”
“Ah,” said Ben.
“Of course you didn’t, and look at this!” Patty said, gesturing. A lint-encrusted name-tag for an employee she’d never met slid into the void and disappeared. “What were you trying to do, anyway?”
Ben smiled brightly. “We wanted to see Atlantis?”
“He wanted to see it,” Tay corrected. “I wanted to visit.”
“You’d flood the store,” Patty practically. “Close the hole, now.”
“We, uh. We can’t,” said Tay.
“Because the closing spell won’t come out until next month?” Ben said with a smile and an upturned lilt utterly inappropriate for the situation.
He was right.
Firing them wouldn’t help anyone, so Patty decided they’d just get through this until they could get the void gone. Upper management would never need to know. How hard could it be?
By the time the closing spell appeared on the backs of Golden Loops boxes, however, Patty no longer wanted to use it.
The disappearing name-tag had given her the idea. There was real benefit to having a hungry, bottomless void in the stockroom.
Expired goods? Into the void they went. Garbage, litter, unspeakable refuse from the lady’s restroom? No problem—the void ate it all, and budget allocated for disposal services could be used elsewhere.
Patty knew how to fudge numbers. She hadn’t always worked in late-night merchandise, and with this chain of stores, as long as the bottom line was good, nobody looked too closely at how they got there. The up-top was happy with low overhead, and that meant happy everyone. Magic, Patty realized, was actually pretty great.
The cereal boxes came and went (the expired ones going into the void they would never close) and were replaced with a gibberish-song supposedly from ancient Ireland. Yep, it was pretty sweet. Unfortunately, this—like all good things—could not last.
In the middle of counting cigarette cases, Ben said, “Another one star.”
“What?” said Patty, looking up from behind the counter.
“Some jerk. Gave us another one star online.”
The very word, full of perverts and con artists, was cause for panic. “Online?” Patty squawked.
Ben took out his phone.
- ONE STAR—there are f***ing ghosts here. DO NOT SHOP.
- Two stars: I can’t even explain what happened. I just know I’ve never been so scared buying Gaderade in my life. Will not be going back.
- Five stars: Excellent energy for seances. Back packing lot + Ouija board = a fun time for all.
Patty stared at him. “The hell, Ben?”
“Reviews,” said Ben. “We’re getting kind of a reputation?”
Patty snatched his phone and read for herself.
- Go here. Feel the aura. It is dark and hungry. Five stars.
- Why hang out in a convenience store, you wonder? Why, I counter, does the convenience store have the greatest Dark Presence of any building in the tri-state area? And yes, I am including the infamous Nabor Manor in that assessment. Four stars.
“I don’t understand,” said Patty, who actually did, but wanted to be wrong.
“Bet they’ll send ghost hunters next,” said Ben happily.
“Oh,” said Patty.
“They’ll find that thing in the back room.” Tay scowled. “It’s ours. They shouldn’t have it.”
“Oh,” said Patty.
“You can’t own an air-hole,” said Ben.
“’Air-hole?’ Really? I think they’re just gonna be pissed we didn’t report it for months,” said Tay.
They all stared at each other for a long, unfiltered moment.
“You know, I bet some of the boxes still have the closing spell,” said Ben, edging helpfully toward the dusty dry cereal section.
But none of them did. Old stock was gone thanks to the void, and these boxes all had a new spell for levitation.
Levitating the void could only end in tears, Patty thought. “We’ll figure something out.”
“You could call the customer service on the box,” said Ben. “Maybe someone can help us.”
“No. Nobody hears about this.” Patty stabbed the air, perhaps issuing a warning. “Nobody!”
“No.” Patty went back to counting boxes. “We’re good. There’s nobody coming. Nothing’s been reported. Business as usual.”
Tay and Ben looked at each other, then back at her.
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” shrugged Ben, who really wanted to go to film school in New Mexico anyway and just now realized this was his sign.
“I can fix this,” Tay muttered. “Nobody listens to me. Everybody’s stupid.” “Just for that, you’re on night shift,” said Patty, and to her shame, didn’t think that through.
Morning found the store unmanned and deliveries still stacked between the front counter and the teriyaki jerky.
“Maybe leaving Tay alone with the boxes wasn’t a good idea?” Ben suggested.
Patty sighed deeply. Being manager came with perks, but it also came with hella-bad days, and this was stacking up to be one of them.
She would not panic. She’d taken crisis classes and was even certified to act in case of an earthquake. Whatever had happened, whatever that idiot had done, she could handle it. Patty clenched her fists, straightened her back, and marched toward the stockroom like an executioner.
Hoping to catch Tay in the act (of what, she dared not think), she slammed the stockroom door open.
Tay was not there. Neither was the void. In their place stood a golden man.
He wore the kind of loincloth Patty associated with movies about Aztecs. His hair was straight, black, and blunt-cut at his well-defined shoulders. Gold and black feathers lined the backs of his arms and legs.
Something about his eyes was off, but she couldn’t place what it was because he was looking at her, unblinking, unmoving apart from each slow breath.
His look . . . did things.
Patty suddenly felt oddly unprepared. She was not a good offering. She was out of shape, and hid too much of her skin, and although her cardio wasn’t shabby, she knew she’d barely provide enough blood for the—
The golden man babbled something.
For some reason, hearing gibberish from a being whose skin (apparently) lacked pores snapped her back to herself. “Okay, bucko,” she said, eyes narrowing. “Who the hell are you, where the hell is Tay, and did I give you permission to mess with my head? I did not, so if you do it again, you’ll be sorry.”
The golden man blinked (he had two sets of eyelids and one of them closed sideways so that explained the offness) and tilted his head. The air in the stockroom swirled, warm and cold currents scooping dust from high shelves to form glyphs in the air.
“English,” he said, adapting with frightening speed.
“Yeah. English. And you owe me some answers. Now, buddy.” She sounded braver than she felt. But then again, that was most of life.
Of course, he took a step toward her.
Pressure filled her head with words that were not hers (present, sacrifice, unworthy, blood), and she shook it off again. To hell with this, she thought, and introduced the steel-toed tip of her boot to the golden man’s loincloth.
He squawked like some kind of bird and dropped, revealing a forked tongue, more feathers where there shouldn’t be, and a low pain tolerance.
“Ben!” she shouted and pulled out her Taser. “Get some rope!”
They were going to have to bring the police in now.
Well, if the cops were coming, she might as well hand this guy over properly. She discharged the Taser.
The bad news was they never found Tay.
The good news was the cops ended up attributing the whole affair to him—which wasn’t quite the same as blame, but close enough for government work.
“Can you believe this?” said Patty, showing Ben the headlines. “A god. An actual tee-uh . . . um, Aztec god.”
“Not Aztec. Way older than that,” said Ben with great cheer. “And it’s Teōtīhuacān.”
“Tee-oh-tee-wah-can,” she muttered a few times. Apparently, she’d narrowly missed sacrificing herself to him; he was known for encouraging people to rip out their own hearts and toss them at his feet. Nothing men hadn’t done to her all her life, really.
“They’re real happy about this,” said Ben. “The place he’s from is so old! We can’t even read their language. If this guy cooperates, he might be able to tell us stuff about the past we never dreamed.”
Patty shifted. “Yeah, like blood and weird sacrifices.” Well, it wasn’t her problem anymore. “What about the cereal guys?”
“Gone.” Ben sighed, puffing out his cheeks. “They hid behind some dummy corporation and took off. Sounds like they knew when that spell discharged. The cops think they’ve been trying to set this guy free for a long time.”
“Why?” Patty shook her head.
You know, that was the right response, she thought. “Never mind. Back to hot dog duty, kid.” Not her problem, not her business. “You may be going to New Mexico, but I’ve still got you for the next week.”
Ben grinned his thousand-watt smile and saluted her.
Why had those mysterious people wanted an ancient god loose, possibly in some kitchen in or kid’s bedroom?
And who knew how many more forgotten gods were socked away someplace, waiting for an idiot in a stockroom to set them free?
Patty shook off the questions. As long as it wasn’t her stockroom or her idiots, she didn’t care. Briefly, she hoped Tay made it to Atlantis, and maybe didn’t drown, then she grabbed the mop and bucket and headed for the bathrooms.