$$$ IT CAME FROM THE WAL-MART $$$
By Mike Meginnis and Ryan Ridge
m: You stand outside the Wal-Mart, studying its recently improved facade. On the left, the recycling center’s entrance. On the right, the little lumber yard and a stack of plastic kiddie pools. The parking lot is full behind you (south). North, there is an entrance, and northeast, there is another. The glass doors are clean and clear. A shopping cart loaded down with groceries sits in front of the nearest entrance, plastic bag handles flicking in the wind like tongues of white flame. The gun is heavy in your pocket. The wide-brimmed hat shields your eyes from the sun. Your ruck sack holds only one book. This book is all you need.
r: Open ruck sack and read blurbs on the back of lone book.
m: "I thought I understood how to hunt and kill the Thing before I read this book. Now I know how wrong I was! But now I totally know how to kill the Thing."--Monica Marley, author of Monsterology for Dummies. "This is the ONLY resource on killing the Thing worth owning. If you have any others, burn them. Then, use their ashes to make the poison described on page 93!"--John Dallas, author of I Was a Teenage Monster Hunter. "What are you doing looking at the back cover? The information on killing the Thing is inside the book."--William Moss, host of Weird Tales from the Place.
m: You walk through the first set of doors, brushing past a young empty-handed couple who prefer to exit through the entrance. This part of the Wal-Mart smells like the inside of a candy wrapper. West are the long, long rows of gray shopping carts and the entrance to the recycling center. East are the candy machines and the crane game. North is the next entrance (and the next exit, too).
r: Examine crane game. Find the largest prize.
m: The crane game is loaded with digital pets, canned pogs, stuffed Toy Story characters, and plastic cell phones filled with candy. The largest prize is a plush Ham the Pig. The most valuable prize is a switchblade with a black pearl handle.
r: Play crane game. Attempt the switchblade.
m: You put two of your six quarters into the game and try for the switchblade. But you miss, lowering the crane just a little too late, and instead you get a can of pogs. (They're Transformers brand pogs.) You feel like maybe you would get the knife if you tried again.
r: Put pogs in ruck sack and try again.
m: This time you get the knife. It falls with a heavy thud. When you take it out the knife is very cold. It must have been in there for years. A mother walking toward the exit with her son tells him not to meet your eye. It's been a long time since you shaved. You've been too busy with your preparations.
r: Nod hello to mother while doing best to conceal switchblade. Once mother and son have cleared the southward doors, put switchblade in pocket (but first make sure the safety or lock button is on), then pivot and proceed North into the belly.
m: Entering a new Wal-Mart is like landing on some new moon: it overwhelms. The thing is fundamentally a warehouse with an ecosystem inside it. Nearby, to the northeast, the thickest clots of life: cashiers and the lines of people waiting to check out (to escape). Couples argue by the magazine racks. Children rearrange the candy. Northwest, the produce section, where avocados and green peppers are on sale. North, the artery that feeds into each lane: a long, relatively wide corridor framed by endcap displays of breakfast cereal and discount juice on the west side and baby clothes on the east side. Above it all, in the rafters that support the roof and hold the circulation systems, are the birds: gray, nameless things in the unshapes of balled-up plastic bags. ... Concerning your mission, there are two primary schools of thought as to how one should approach the Thing in order to catch it unawares (and, therefore, more likely survive the encounter). Either as a customer, or as an employee -- one of the bluevests.
r: Northeastward. Give hyperactive children rearranging candy the can of Transformers pogs, but don't linger. Continue past them and closer to the Thing.
m: You head north, bearing neither the protection of a shopping cart loaded with merchandise nor a Wal-Mart uniform, toward the electronics section, where you suspect the Thing has built its nest. A young woman stares openly at you as you walk; you tell yourself she isn't necessarily disgusted.
r: Stop and ask young woman if she's a fan of the rock band Korn. If she is, you know she's in her natural habitat and flash her a metal sign. If she isn't, retreat south and pick up a shopping cart.
m: "Corn?" she says. You can tell she doesn't know that there's supposed to be a K. "That's a band?" She doesn't want to talk to you. ... You head back for a shopping cart. The first three you find have a squeaky wheel, a crooked wheel, or one missing. Finally you find one that seems to work. There's a page of pizza coupons wrapped around something you can't make out in the basket. It makes you feel nervous and weird.
r: Inventory ruck sack.
m: There is your book. There is half a peanut butter jelly sandwich. There are your Investigation Tweezers. There is your Empty Key Ring. There is your badge, in case someone demands to see it.
r: Use tweezers to investigate strange pizza coupon sculpture.
m: It takes you a moment to understand what you're seeing. There is, inside the pizza coupon page, a bloody tooth. The blood makes the paper sticky.
r: Rewrap tooth and stow in hidden ruck sack compartment and then proceed north with shopping cart.
m: With prolonged use, it becomes clear that this cart has a problem also. It always wants to veer a little to the left. Where do you want to take your shopping cart? What are the things you want to put inside it?
r: For a moment I daydream about putting shopping carts into my shopping cart and then taking them to the counter and attempting to purchase multiple shopping carts, but then I realize that would be dumb. Instead I follow the shopping cart where it leads me, left: west.
m: You stand among the produce. A small man is sneezing on the oranges. The potatoes have mostly been taken. The misters are misting the peppers, the cabbage, the kale, the cilantro. Organic carrots cost five times the price of inorganic carrots. A very large man rolls by on a scooter. His feet won't fit in shoes.
r: Ask the man on the scooter to slow down. Then ask the man if he's seen anything unusual. Tell him if he has seen something unusual then to say something. Tell him: If you see something, say something. Tell him: Say something, dammit.
m: He looks up at you blankly. His eyes are small and deep-set, ringed by layers of fat and skin and fat and skin. He tilts his head to one side and then the other. Slowly, he opens his mouth. Slowly, he opens his mouth. Slowly. A Twix bar, still fully wrapped, falls out of his mouth into his cupped, upturned hands. Threads of spit connect the wrapper to his lips.
r: Tell him: "I can tell by your admiration of Twix that you're a good American, an innocent, probably a Korn fan. You see nothing." Then put some organic carrots in the cart and proceed North.
m: Aisle 14 is frozen pizza, ice cream, tater tots. Aisle 13 is raviolis, TV dinners, fish sticks, frozen ethnic foods. West is the bread. A child tries to pull his hand out from between several bags of white bread, but he can't. He's alone and he's crying. Aisle 12 is peanut butter, barbecue, salad dressing, pickles and pickled other, vinegars, ketchup, mustard, steak sauce.
r: Talk to the child.
m: "Aaah!" says the child. "Aaaaaaah!!!" Something pulls him deeper into the bread -- up to his elbow. There are eighty varieties of bread in the bags on the six rows of shelves that line the Wal-Mart's wall. Whole wheat, white bread, potato, rye, oat, multigrain, raisin, etc.
r: Ask the child what he's doing.
m: "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!" Now he's in up to his shoulder. The bread bags seethe.
r: Pull the child out of the bread bag and give him the last two quarters. Tell him: "There's a crane machine up front stocked like a pond with digital pets, canned pogs, stuffed Toy Story characters, and plastic cell phones filled with candy." Tell him: "Good luck, kid." After he leaves, examine the damaged bread.
m: There is an emptiness between the bread bags where his arm was, like a tunnel or an open body. The bread has been deformed in the corners the boy's arm was touching. It is dark inside the tunnel or the open body. It smells like saran wrap.
r: Put the bread in the cart and proceed east to Aisle 11.
m: Aisle 11 is pastas, ethnic foods, and canned beans. One of the Wal-Mart birds lands on your cart. It looks you in the eye. There are forty kinds of vermicelli.
r: Quickly give bird part of the P & B sandwich from ruck sack and move on. Head to Electronics.
m: As you walk toward Electronics the Wal-Mart seems to grow increasingly aware of your presence. Cans of black beans launch themselves off the shelves, striking you and your cart, then rolling away as if nothing has happened. A jar of salsa breaks itself and spills its guts on your shoes. When you emerge into the wider aisle, the clothes reach for your body -- t-shirts and hoodies and all. A bluevest asks you if you need anything. His cheek twitches. When his walkie-talkie tries to speak he turns it off.
r: Tell the man: "Every second of our lives has been leading up to this one." Unclasp the safety on the switchblade for the fuck of it. Get less than an inch from the man's face and tell him: "I'm on the market for a Samsung Plasma." Re-safety the safety and say: "Your attitude almost makes me want to to go Best Buy! Where's Electronics?"
m: "RIGHT THIS WAY, SIR," he shouts, sweeping his arm in a grand gesture. He leads you to Electronics, which is mostly walled off from the rest of the store by stacked sixty-inch HD televisions, only $299.99. "WE'RE SO PLEASED THAT YOU CHOSE TO SPEND YOUR MONEY WITH US AND NOT THOSE INHUMAN MONSTERS AT BEST BUY."
r: Extract tooth from ruck sack. Remove pizza coupons from the evidence. Then hand the molar to the blue vest. Tell him: "I found this in my shopping cart." Ask him: "Is Wal-Mart dabbling in some sort of black market dentistry?" Tell him: "I'd like to speak to the boss around here." Tell him: "Fuck that! I'd like to speak to the boss' boss around here." Meantime, examine Samsung Plasma televisions.
m: "I'LL PUT A CALL IN FOR THE BOSS' BOSS AROUND HERE," shouts the bluevest. He takes out his walkie-talkie and mouths words silently into its receiver, watching your eyes as he does so to see if you buy it. The Samsung Plasma televisions have many exciting features, including screens, buttons, and stands that hold them upright.
r: Push the buttons on the Samsung. Ask the blue vest if he'd leave. Tell him: "I'm going to need some time alone here." Open the lone book from ruck sack to page 33 and peruse.
m: The bluevest walks six feet away and stares at you from that distance. Page 33 is a description of the Thing: "...by very few people. However, it is rumored to have a hard shell with sharp, thorn-like protrusions and a mouth large enough to fit a human torso. It does not appear to have eyes or a nose, depending on its sense of taste and hearing to navigate the belly of the Wal-Mart. It has an innate ability to detect bargains. It sometimes excretes a liquid comparable in texture, appearance, and viscosity to something between mucus and spit. Its nests smell like compressed Wal-Mart.
r: Ask the bluevest if he's a Korn fan. Then tell him: "Never mind." Ask him: "Where do you keep the mirrors?" Say: "I have plenty of walls but no wall mirrors."
m: The bluevest takes your hand. "I’LL SHOW YOU TO THE MIRRORS," he says. "THEY’RE BETWEEN THE PICTURE FRAMES AND THE PLASTIC FLOWERS." He tugs at your hand.
r: Embrace the man's hand. Follow him.
m: He separates you from your cart. When you realize this might be a ruse and glance over your shoulder, you see the cart is vanished. It's a good thing you didn't put your ruck sack inside. "THERE ARE OVER ONE HUNDRED MIRRORS IN THE MIRROR AISLE," he shouts. He gestures at the plastic flowers as you walk past them. "WE CAN STOP AND SMELL THESE IF YOU LIKE. THEY SMELL JUST LIKE THE REAL THING."
r: Smell flowers.
m: "THEY SMELL JUST LIKE THE REAL THING," shouts the bluevest, again. He's so loud you almost believe it. You can't smell the flowers over his shouting.
r: Continue to mirror aisle.
m: The bluevest follows your lead. There is indeed a vast array of mirrors: circular, octagonal, hand-held, full-length, and slightly enchanted.
r: Peer into slightly enchanted mirror.
m: You see what you would look like as a woman, assuming the woman had the same haircut you do, wore very little makeup, and preferred to dress a bit butch.
r: Thank the bluevest for the fine navigation and continue mock- perusing mirrors. Once the blue vest is gone, remove book from rucksack and open to random page. Read page.
m: The bluevest doesn't ever really leave so much as walk six feet away and watch you from the end of the aisle. (To your slight surprise, the mirrors do reflect an image of the man inside the vest -- but not the vest itself.) The random page reads, "...found that, like the Medusa, The Thing is best viewed at a remove, whether through a mirror, or through the reflective screen of the plasma televisions it so often nests between. The direct sight of the Thing is not deadly but it is an unhappy thing."
r: Close book. Return it to sack. Pick up a hand held mirror and proceed to plasma aisle. If possible, lose the bluevest in the process.
m: You duck through baby clothes, crawl through the shoes, hide in the purses, double and redouble back, and eventually return to electronics. The bluevest isn't with you anymore though of course there are others milling about nearby, possibly watching you with the corners of their eyes.
r: Approach the largest plasma tv. Turn it on. Then off. Then on. Then off again. Hold hand mirror adjacent to plasma and describe reflection.
m: There is nothing and no one behind you. But there is a smell. Perhaps if you could find the right television show, the Thing might come closer -- might show itself to you.
r: Turn plasma on again. Commence channel surfing. See if I can find anything wild on Animal planet or perhaps some hit series like Bravo's Real Housewives. Or better yet: CMT.
m: There is a show on CMT where a sentient cowboy hat weeps over its loneliness. No one will wear the cowboy hat no matter how it begs. Randy Travis will not wear the cowboy hat. Kid Rock will not wear the cowboy hat. The Dixie Chicks will not wear the cowboy hat. Brad Paisley will not wear the cowboy hat. Carrie Underwood refuses to acknowledge the question. The sentient cowboy hat can't stop crying.
r: Change channel to AMC. Having a hunch if I can catch a Madmen rerun or perhaps a new episode of the AMC original series Breaking Bad, I can lure the beast closer still.
m: You get the episode of Mad Men where Don climbs inside his mother and never comes out. The smell is growing very strong.
r: Change channel to the Game Show Network. If I can catch a rerun of the Family Feud circa either Richard Dawson or Louie Anderson, I'm sure the beast will show itself here now.
m: Family Feud it is. The question is "Best way to die." Hunger is already on the board. So is drowning. The top three slots are still available. What are they?
r: 1. Sleeping (Asleep) 2. While Having Sex 3. On mushrooms.
m: The white family wins the round. The black family tries to look like they're taking it well. You can see part of the Thing in the mirror. The Thing does not make sense. The Thing is like a Wal-Mart aisle viewed at a distance: all noise and brands, bright logos you can't distinguish, things you do not want to buy and things you need to live. The stench is unbearable. Louie Anderson asks the families what is their favorite flavor of Combos.
r: Deep breath. Open book to final page of final chapter. Read page.
m: "...inside the Thing, there is said to be another Wal-Mart. And inside that Wal-Mart, another thing, and so on, forever and always. If you find yourself devoured by the Thing, and inside its inner Wal-Mart, then promptly leave that Wal-Mart. You may find yourself on a beach at the edge of the world. You may find yourself at home." You hear the Thing rumbling inside.
r: Remove wallet. Throw money at the Thing. Wad it up first. Then throw it at the Thing.
m: The money becomes a part of the Thing. There are many other dollars caught on its skin, flapping like loose shreds of flesh.
r: Throw a decade of Christmases worth of worthless, unused Borders gift cards at the Thing.
m: The Thing absorbs it all. You can feel its breath on your neck. Its breath is the temperature of Wal-Mart air. It is the same smell, but moreso. You cannot focus your eye on the Thing in the hand mirror. You thought you were better prepared. The bluevests are watching. They may be concerned. They might not care about you even a little. Louie Anderson is sitting down in the center of the Family Feud set. He says his chest hurts.
r: Hold the mirror to the Thing's faceless face. Meantime, tell the bluevests looking on that they need to bring me the plasma because I'm buying it. "Box it. Have it delivered, please. ASAP."
m: The Thing eats you in one bite. The bluevests feed it the plasma, which appears beside you, in the entrance to the Wal-Mart, carts to your left, crane game to your right.
r: Ask the Thing if he'd like to step inside and watch a little Madmen. Tell the Thing: There's a Monster Energy drink in it for you! Plus, I'll let you shoot my gun and listen to my Korn cds.
m: The Thing is all around you. It cannot come inside itself. There is another in this Wal-Mart, however, and a Wal-Mart in that, and a Thing inside that. And one of these might watch the television with you. Or you might do all this again.
r: Buy a case of Combos and a La-Z-boy. Buy a loaf of bread and animal's worth of lunch meat. Buy a remote control and a lifetime supply of batteries. Buy a Blue Ray player and the complete AMC catalog. Buy time. Buy time. Settle in. Buy doughnuts. Trucks worth of doughnuts. Invite the cops over to watch tv. In the belly of the beast, everyone is a cop. Make friends. Obey laws. And pretend to pretend not to care. Buy EVERYTHING!
Bio: Ryan Ridge writes and teaches in Southern California. He is the author of the story collection Hunters & Gamblers, the poetry collection Ox, and the forthcoming novella American Homes. Visit him online at ryanridge.com.
Ashley M. Farmer