The story so far:
“How you doing Stuart?” Millie McGreevy called to me from her post at the front cash register. She had owned and run the Great West Market with her husband for as long as I could remember. Even after he had died last year, she kept coming in every day, ringing at the front register. She stood there so she could see and talk to everyone coming and going. After a few months of working alone she had hired the Groskys’ boy Serge, a quiet kid, but smart, to help her with the books and inventory. He was saving up for college and Millie always said that there was nothing more important in the world than education, except for ice cream, and maybe lollipops. Millie had a bit of a sweet tooth. She waved me over to her, I grabbed a grocery basket and walked over to where she stood.
“I’m fine, Millie, how’s business?” I smiled, but she didn’t smile back. And somehow I knew.
“Did you have a visitor yesterday?” Millie asked, taking a quick look over her shoulder. It’s an odd feeling, knowing at once that you aren’t crazy, that the insane thing you’ve experienced has happened to others, while at the same time being gripped by the fear that the uncanny happening may be a bigger problem than you at first anticipated. Millie’s apron strings were twisted around her fingers.
“A preacher?” I asked. Millie nodded.
“Such a strange man too. I don’t know why I let him in. Since Rodger’s been dead I’ve been much more careful about who I let in the house you know? But, he just,” she threw her hands up, a gesture of surrender.
“Anyone else see him?”
“Well, Serge and his girlfriend, Sarah. Sarah’s mother, Dr. Hughes, and Linda from the post office, oh and that handsome boy with the Sheriff’s department, David. But Stuart, that’s the odd thing. It isn’t everybody. So why us?”
“I’m curious, what made you think to ask me if I’d seen the preacher?”
“I could see it in your face. You changed quite a bit after the accident, it’s expected, but you’re face isn’t as peaceful as it once was. Today though, you look downright terrified. You walked in and immediately looked for me, for comfort I assumed. So I asked.”
“You’re right, I am here for comfort, for normalcy. I don’t even need anything.” I felt dazed. I looked around the bright, well organized store half expecting the shelving to erupt into flames while Satan himself sauntered out from the meat department with a toothpick in his teeth. Instead, I saw the black brim of the preacher’s hat disappear around a corner.
“Are you,” Millie paused, “Hearing things?” I turned slowly back towards her and noticed she was tugging at her apron strings again, twisting them in knots. I nodded and noted her uncertain relief. Hearing was an understatement. I had awoken that morning to find my wife cooking breakfast for me. When I turned away from sizzling bacon to investigate the childish giggling behind me, everything had disappeared. No wife, no breakfast. That’s when I had decided to get out of the house for a while.
“Millie, excuse me for a second.” I walked toward the aisle where I had seen the preacher’s hat. He wasn’t there. I had Millie to take care of now. That made me feel better. I had purpose, I wasn’t just some nut hallucinating in my prolonged sorrow. I walked along the front of the store, looking down every aisle. It wasn’t a big market and there wasn’t anywhere he could go without being seen. Millie had caught on and left her post to talk to the girls in the deli and the meat department. I ran to the back of the store and looked down all the aisles again, mentally noting the futility of that action.
As I turned to look for Millie, I spotted the men’s room. I pushed the heavy swinging door open and stepped inside. I don’t know what I expected. Would an envoy of the devil really be hiding in the men’s room of a small town market? It was quiet. The buzzing of the fluorescent light was the only sound. The faint smell of urine hovered underneath the smell of bleach. Under the door of the last stall were shiny black shoes. He’s real, was all I could think. Flesh and blood, had to be. That meant I could hit him. I walked quietly in my sneakers up to the stall. I thought I heard quiet laughing behind the door and I could see that it wasn’t latched. Standing to the side, I shoved the door open.
“I saw her Stuart, I saw my Rose,” Mr. Hendersen, an elderly man who lived on my street stood in the stall, tissue pressed against his wrinkled cheek and tears falling from his eyes. My heart sank. Whoever he was, why was he doing this to us? I led Mr. Hendersen out of the men’s room where Millie was waiting with a meat fork. Millie took Mr. Hendersen from me and looked into my eyes.
“It’s only seven days until Halloween,” she said.