From the author: Eli's stuck in a dead-end job managing the parking lot at the local big box department store. Wrangling shopping carts is not the safest job in the world when the carts seem to have a mind of their own, not to mention a taste for blood. But it's better than nothing.
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Eli had never seen so many out hunting so early, plastic frames blood spatter red against the radiating blacktop. There we so many they had broken into packs, propped haphazardly onto planters, grouped in neat lines just outside the cart returns, facing outward from each other in small, defensive circles. Some hunted alone, hiding behind cars or rolling slowly along the lot’s near imperceptible incline or simply waiting in plain sight, loose wheels spiraling slowly in the breeze. Such a dire arrangement only had the appearance of random chance. From end to end Eli could identify no safe quarter.
He had only been 15 minutes late to his shift. They couldn’t have done this in the short time between opening and his arrival.
Could they have?
Eli’s manager shoved a remote control into his hands and gave him a push off the curb. He stumbled into the carnage, the remote a security blanket, thumbs resting on the dual analog controls and working them with a familiar, pacifying ease. His friend, little more than an aluminum box on wheels with a catch in front to grip the base of his enemy, moved obediently to his command.
The shopping carts had still been made of metal back when Eli got the job retrieving them in the local Arrowpoint Department Store parking lot. It would have been hard to get a better job with his experience and, with the economy the way it was, even harder to get a safer one. He’d put in an application to operate rides at the city fair, even interviewed for a barista position at Billy Budd’s Coffee, and counted his blessings when Arrowpoint hired him first. Back then, he was the fresh meat and Daniel had been there to show him the ropes, punctuating every lesson with the reveal of a different hard-won, white-hot scar. Daniel had hoped to convince Eli to learn those same hard lessons the easy way, and his hopes had been rewarded. All these years later, Eli’s skin, which itched whenever he thought about Daniel’s cross-hatching of pale welts, remained nigh untouched, his blood untasted. This accomplishment had, of late, netted him six straight Employee of the Month plaques, each hung with more care than the last on the wall just behind customer service.
Like most, Eli had been relieved when cart design began to change. The heavy metal carts of old were no insignificant threat to the unsuspecting bumper or a careless passerby, but they were also inconvenient. They rattled, they jammed, they listed obnoxiously left or right. The lots themselves were no better. It used to be that to return a cart, a customer had to walk it all the way back to the front of the store. In those days, people used carts for lack of options, but avoided them when they could.
Carts today were light, easy to steer. Returns littered the lot, four per aisle, all the way into its deepest corners. It seemed a blessing.
Customers casually used the new carts for express lane purchases, unconcerned at the absurdity of walking a nearly empty cart the full length of a packed lot. Those who would have, in the past, balked at the responsibility of walking the same distance back again to return the cart to the front of the store now simply pushed them into a nearby cart return.
This new customer behavior combined profitably with that of those who had never given a shit in the first place, who had always been more than happy to leave a cart resting against the coupe in the next space over or propped over a parking bumper. The shoppers kept the carts well scattered across their feeding grounds. In return, the carts mostly left the shoppers alone.
Even Eli, who was intimately familiar with cart behavior in a way most customers would never be, had been taken in by the habits of convenience. There was something rational in every customer that knew it was absurd to grab an entire cart for a carton of cookie dough, in the same way they knew that propelling their bodies 80 miles per hour in a metal box every day was insane, but it was all too easy to ignore that part of the brain. After all, they had to shop.
Now, looking across the lot so full of the predators waiting for his slightest misstep, Eli thought, not for the first time, that it had never been about convenience. No, it had always been about distribution.
“Kid,” Daniel had said the day Arrowpoint added its first batch of new in-lot cart returns, eyes scanning the unexpected sea of abandoned carts that met them after their lunch break.
“What?” Eli prompted when the sage advice or motivational comment he knew must be coming hung, unspoken, a few seconds too long.
Daniel put his hand on Eli’s shoulder and inhaled sharply, through his mouth. “Just,” he said, the air escaping as quickly as he had taken it in, “just watch your back.” And then, turning to the new trainee, Taliana: “Fresh Meat, you’re with me. Stay close.”
Composing himself, Daniel rolled his sleeves up, revealing the scars on his arms, and winked at Taliana.
It was tentative work. Eli made his way slowly to the southwest corner of the lot while Daniel and Taliana inched their way to the northwest. From there, they would work east toward the store, deposit the carts they collected along the way in the main store return, repeat the process one aisle closer to center, and repeat until they met somewhere in the middle. As they worked and customers shopped, the landscape changed, so what worked on one pass could be deadly the next.
Eli slid his first line of carts, collected neatly one into the next, back into the main store return. He was careful to keep his hands safely on the handlebar, well away from the inviting circular holes that lined the plastic frames, the mouths. As his lead cart eased its way into the back of the last available cart in the row he was finishing, he heard it. Or, rather, he sensed it, that sub-audible moan that came from them whenever they were forced into each other like this, more energy than sound, more pain than energy, more pleasure than pain. He tried to ignore the feeling. He tried to ignore the fact that he was the one giving it to them.
When there were a lot of them around the lot, on the bad days, he could sometimes feel a different energy coming from the carts, pitched high and almost childish, prayerful, incomplete. The more he worked, the more he thinned them out, the less he felt it, and so he worked harder on those days.
Staring back across the lot, his plan was to take his time preparing for the next pass, to evaluate the changes in the landscape before braving it again, but a flash of movement stopped him. One of the carts was being led away from the lot, a thick, tangled beard matted to the bundled form attached to its handlebar. Away from the lots and the herd, a cart might imprint on an individual, and that protection could be a priceless asset for the homeless. Eli would have just as soon allowed the man his new prize, except it would mean letting one of them out in the wild.
“Stop!” he yelled, foolishly, and the man broke into a shuffling sprint.
Eli’s pursuit was reckless, unplanned, but he wouldn’t think about that until much later. The man stumbled, ran the cart into a parking bumper, and fell. He wrapped his fingers into those inviting circular holes to pull himself up before Eli could reach him, and the blood sprayed outward in bright, thin streams. The man didn’t even scream. He just pulled his hand away, three fingers missing, and stood to meet Eli.
The man swung his bloody hand at Eli, who ducked from the blow. Drops of blood rained on his face. He grabbed the man’s wrist and they fell into a desperate struggle. Eli was stronger and younger, but the man had purpose. He was not going to lose his fingers and the cart both, would not allow himself a total loss.
Eli’s foot swung dangerously close to the cart, and he yanked it away, narrowly avoiding a mouth. The man’s own teeth gnashed in Eli’s direction, and the rest of his focus went to avoiding these.
Then Taliana screamed.
Eli froze. The man disentangled himself, took one look in the direction of the scream, and ran, leaving the cart behind.
Daniel was gone, a splash of red on the pavement.
Eli did not move at first and when he did he felt slow. He walked past Taliana and grabbed the cart that had gotten Daniel by its handlebar. The red plastic made the thin coating of blood hard to see, another reason the old metal carts had proven inferior. It would still need to be cleaned before the blood browned and stained, though. He walked it carefully to a special entrance at the side of the store where that would happen.
“Oh, God,” Taliana whispered when he found his way back to her, still dazed. “Oh, God, the eyes.”
Tenderly, he wiped the remains of what might have been a fingernail from her cheek. That was the day Eli became shift lead.
That day after lunch, so long ago, had been nothing compared to this. Every cart in the herd must have gotten out. After his manager pushed him from the curb, Eli decided his best course of action would be to work his way to back of the lot, survey the carnage, and plan his cleanup from there. That had been almost an hour ago, and he was hardly halfway there. It would have been one thing tiptoeing past the danger on his own, but he had to maneuver his friend along the way with him.
The electric cart retriever, itself Arrowpoint red, rolled up beside him and stopped at the exact moment his fingers released the analog controls. Always reliable, he thought. Always there for me. Getting the remote controlled version had been a stroke of luck. All the other lots he knew of used the manual versions. But after he won the appeal to purchase his friend, Eli wrote the more expensive model into the order form assuming it would be changed when it reached the owner’s hands. As far as Eli knew, she never realized the oversight.
Eli kneeled for a moment and placed his hand on the hot aluminum, where he felt his friend’s shoulder would have been if it were a person. “It’s going to be a long day,” he said. Before standing back up, he used the bottom of his shirt to carefully wipe away the handprint.
He turned back toward his goal, coming face-to-face with the bed of a stupidly oversized black pickup truck that was parked at a sharp angle across two spaces. On the opposite side of the aisle was a decorative planter that had five — five — carts propped haphazardly onto it. Three additional carts blocked the adjacent parking spots, all despite the empty cart return not ten yards away.
Eli stayed close to the truck, keeping his distance from the scene across the aisle. He was so focused on not attracting their attention that he nearly did not hear the rattle of small wheels on pavement.
“Shit!” he cried, jumping back from a cart as it shot out from behind the truck, where it had been waiting for him patiently. Something clattered to the asphalt with a cracking sound. Eli breathed heavily. He looked down at his red standard-issue work polo. There was a fresh three-inch gash in the cloth that opened up to show his belly button. That was disappointing. Employees had to replace their uniforms with their own money.
“Stupid. Stupid,” he castigated himself. It was the oldest trick in the book, and he’d nearly walked right into it. The cart pulled to a stop in the middle of the aisle, wheels turning on a pebble so it seemed be trying to face him. The gap between the cart bed and the lower frame stared back at him like a smile.
Eli looked back at his empty hands, and then to the pavement where the remote control lay in pieces. There was no way he could get the cart retriever working without it. There was no way his manager would let him back in the store while things were this bad. His empty hands flexed as though trying to work the controls that were no longer there. “Stupid,” he said again.
The cart stayed where it was, appearing to smile.
After the incident with Daniel, Taliana was reassigned to bagging. This was no safer for her than cart wrangling, where a careful employee would never be caught reaching into a cart bed, but she was happier to be away from the lot itself. Try as he might, Eli could not get a clear picture of exactly what had happened that day. He knew Daniel was too good, too careful, to go down in one bite like that, but Taliana was the only witness and she steadfastly refused to talk about it. Eli had his theories. Taliana’s inexperience or her carelessness or her stupidity was at the center of nearly every one of them.
In the meanwhile, Eli could not lead a shift of one. At the time, company policy still required no fewer than two employees on carts at all times. Eli could not bring himself to call Alejandro, who had been only too happy to switch roles with Taliana, Fresh Meat, so he just called him by his name.
“Listen, Alejandro,” Eli said. Alejandro was green. He was going to have to learn on the run during peak hours, and Eli did not have any scars to frighten him with. “We’re just going to take this slow to start.”
“Call me Alex, man,” Alejandro said.
Eli’s skin itched, and he tried to remember what Daniel had said to him back on his first day. Daniel hadn’t said a lot. He hadn’t needed to. It was clear from the start that Daniel was in charge, and why, but this responsibility had just fallen into Eli’s lap. He almost didn’t take himself seriously as an authority. In the end, he just shook his head. “We’re not friends here, Alejandro.”
“I didn’t say we were, man,” Alejandro said.
It would not take long for Alejandro to go from green to yellow. They worked together, slowly, like Eli instructed, starting way out in the far corner of the lot and working methodically back down, one aisle at a time. Alejandro wanted to work faster.
“I get it, man,” he said after three hours of work had netted them only two clear aisles. “I get it, Daniel fucked up and you’re scared.”
“Daniel did not ‘fuck up,’” Eli said. “And I am not scared. I’m careful.”
“Oh, yeah? When was the last time it took you this long to collect a dozen carts?”
“I—” Eli started, unwilling to say never. Even when he’d just gotten the job, it never took this long. When he was the trainee, Daniel just scared him straight, then showed him the ropes, and then sent him off to start the opposite corner. Maybe that’s what Alejandro needed, too. “Fine. Start out in the other corner. We’ll meet in the middle.”
Eli worked angry for the rest of his shift, hating that he could not be more like his mentor had been, and had all but finished his half when he heard Alejandro call out from a couple of aisles away, “Hey, man. Some kid must have left his action figure by accident. I’m gonna get this to Lost and Found.”
Eli recognized the trap, but he had forgotten to train Alejandro to spot it. The trainee reached down into the cart bed to grab the toy in question, too fast for Eli to stop him. In a flash, with a horrible snapping, squelching sound, Alejandro’s hand was gone, his blood bathing the plastic on its way to the blacktop.
In a minute flat, Eli had pushed the cart away, forgetting it needed to be cleaned, and dragged Alejandro through the nondescript medical entrance where he cauterized the gaping wrist and called for an ambulance.
He held his hands up in front of Alejandro’s face. “Do you know why I still have both of these?” he screamed.
He rolled his sleeves up over his shoulders to display the smooth lengths of his arms. “Do you know why I don’t have any scars?” His voice was cracking through his screams. “Do you?”
Alejandro did not respond. In that moment, regardless of anything Eli said, he changed. From that point on, he would never work quickly, never try to retrieve a tricky cart. He would leave any retrieval that was not straightforward for Eli, or for the next shift. He would, like Captain Hook and his ticking clock, look always for the brown stain that had once been his hand, that no number of passes through cleaning had managed to remove, and avoid it at all costs.
“It’s because I’m careful, Alejandro,” Eli said.
They never did grow to be friends after that.
Remembering his old trainee, Eli stepped reluctantly away from his aluminum friend. He regretted leaving it behind but without the remote it would never move, and if he didn’t get some work done soon any chance of either of them getting back to safety would evaporate.
Three years, Eli thought. The cart retriever had been with him three years. That was longer than either Daniel or Alejandro, to say nothing of Taliana, had.
His stomach growled. It was coming up on lunch, though he would not be able to take the break. He felt a sub-audible growl of hunger coming from all around him, of which his own stomach’s exclamations were a hollow imitation. He needed to move faster.
For all his care, Alejandro still disappeared one day. Arrowpoint had been splitting shifts more and more, moving away from the mandatory two-man crews because, they said, the overall safety numbers did not support the need for that kind of redundancy. Eli would see Alejandro coming on for the evening shift every day just as he was leaving work at the end of his own, until one day he didn’t. They never spoke, but Eli took comfort knowing that his old trainee was safe.
He never found out what happened to Alejandro.
The disappearance did inspire him to petition for the cart retriever. To his surprise, after months of fighting with his bosses, it was Taliana who won the battle for him. While he waited anxiously outside the owner’s office, unable to hear anything meaningful, she made her case. When she stepped out of the office, her eyes were red but her face was cold, and her cheeks were dry. She handed him the order form.
“She says fill it out and she’ll write the check,” Taliana said, not wasting a word.
Eli took the form dumbly.
“Taliana, wait,” he said as she began to step away. “I just want to know about Daniel. Please. Tell me what happened to him.”
Taliana kept her back to him, and for a long time she did not speak. She breathed in and out heavily through her nose, a small whistle accompanying each breath.
“Please,” he said.
“Daniel was an asshole,” she spun. “He spent the whole shift trying to impress his way into my pants. He showed off too much, and it cost him. Are you happy now? Is that what you wanted to hear about your little hero, all this time?”
Eli took a step back. Taliana’s nose whistled. He remembered all of his theories, how Taliana must have stumbled into the middle of a small pack and Daniel had pushed her to safety just in time, or how she had started to reach into a cart bed the way Alejandro had and Daniel, distracted by the need to stop her, had been taken from behind. He remembered how he had told these theories to Alejandro, to his manager, to his parents, very nearly to her own face.
Taliana turned again, and started to walk back to her post.
“Wait,” Eli said. “Listen. Thank you. I was thinking, we’ve been through a lot together. Maybe we could be friends.”
“No, we can’t,” she said. “Go fill out your paper.”
Well after the time he would have normally eaten lunch, Eli stepped up onto the curb at the back of the lot, turning as he did so to fully assess the challenge ahead of him.
He considered starting in the corner like he normally would, but this was not a normal situation. He looked instead for pockets in the crowd, places where the density would not overwhelm him as he worked. Quickly, he identified three clearings that seemed the fit the bill perfectly.
That is, until he looked closer.
A clearing off to his left had what looked like a reasonable entry point, a fair gap he could enter without much danger, but it was a classic pinch. Rows of carts were set up in ranks to each side of the clearing. Once inside, he’d be a goner. The second clearing, directly in front, had no clear sense of organization among the carts at its perimeter, which should have been a good sign. What it did have was a long line of badly parked trucks and SUVs. In other words: hiding spots. A third clearing, to his right, had a planter in the center, four carts propped into it by their rear wheels, one for every side. They would have to be his first targets in the area, and to clear them he would need to face them jaws-first. He considered again simply starting in the corner.
The sound of an explosion rocked the air around him, and he looked frantically around the lot. He could not see anything that had changed until he raised his eyes from the asphalt and looked across the horizon. A pillar of thick smoke rose high in the air less than a block away, dark, noxious. Where was that?
His heart skipped beats in his chest. That was the parking lot at the Shop and Save.
And there was something moving in the smoke.
Another explosion rang out, striking Eli’s eardrums so hard they rang, and another pillar of smoke billowed into the air. Eli picked himself off the ground, unsure how he’d gotten there, and then he saw it, the pillar of smoke rising from the very center of his own parking lot, and the massive hole at its base. Inside the hole, obscured by smoke, something writhed. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the carts moved to surround it. He felt their chant, the one he only felt on bad days, that sub-audible summoning, now directed at whatever was trying to come out of the hole. And then he actually heard it.
“Mommy,” the carts said, in children’s voices, in unison, in a language Eli had never heard, but which he nonetheless understood. “We’re lost. Mommy, we need you. Find us, Mommy. Come back to us.”
This they repeated, together, without end.
Then there was another explosion, and another, and more besides. That was Electronics 4 All. And that was definitely the OmegaMart. And that… no. No chain in the country had better cart management than Bits and Baubles. It couldn’t be.
Wherever the smoke had been, huge, incomprehensible creatures were rising.
A thick, wet tentacle — no, not a tentacle: a gigantic, pointed tongue — rose into the air to disturb the smoke over the OmegaMart. It slapped hard across the length of a city block, raising thick clouds of dirt into the air. People tried to run, but globs of the thing’s saliva sprayed out in the impact, coated their bodies. As they struggled against it, the tongue rolled back and forth. Wherever it passed, bodies stuck. Some were lucky, had been crushed against the street and died quickly. Others hung suspended and broken against the slimy flesh, still breathing but praying that, soon, they would stop.
From another pillar of smoke, long spider legs stretched out. Eli counted one leg at first, then eight, then twelve, and then he lost count. From the way they were moving, they seemed to all be attached to the same body, but that body, whatever it looked like, was still deep underground. The legs continued to stretch upward, toward the heavens, and continued to multiply. He watched them rise until he could watch no more.
Finally, he looked back to his own lot.
The hole that had opened up there was glowing from beneath with a pale fire. The edges crumbled inch by inch, making more and more room for whatever was down there to crawl through. From where he stood, Eli could only see the eyes.
Oh, God, the eyes.
They were eyes that did not look, but only looked back, eyes that knew nothing but the fire from which they came. They shone with the same deep, bright red of the carts, which now surrounded the hole in dense rows. Their chant continued, calling the creature, their mother, to them.
The light from the fire beneath the city grew, and though it was still the middle of the day the light from the sun dimmed. In the fire’s light, the true forms of the carts became visible. Their plastic artifice seemed to melt before Eli’s gaze, the circular holes now unmistakably mouths and eyes, all tiny, sharp teeth and long, swollen purple tongues, all bloodshot red and thick, oozing tears, nothing but gnashing and crying.
Eli told himself to run.
It would be easy. It would be good. It would be smart. Get away, his brain said. Run, run to a smaller town, a place without such large parking lots. They still exist, and you can find them. You can survive, but first you need to run.
His legs twitched, but a series of images flashed through his mind. There was Daniel, covered in the scars that showing off had won him, but who had never shown off for Eli. There was Taliana, whose silence he had misjudged as weakness. There was Alejandro, careful, frightened, spiteful Alejandro, who for all his care still could not save his own life. In those brief moments before he had the chance to run, Eli saw the faces of his co-workers.
His breath caught, and his eyes darted across the lot until he found it. There. The cart retriever. Its rigid aluminum frame stood out at odds with the writhing masses of teeth and tongues that surrounded it. Eli saw those tongues, slick with phlegm, slowly wrap themselves around the old piece of machinery, heard its shell begin to buckle like cracking bones. There was a part of his brain that was rational and knew the machine did not feel this, was not in pain, would need to be replaced even if he did save it, but there was another part of his brain that heard the crunching and imagined bones, which after all they had been through simply did not care that he was looking at a shiny metal box and not at a person.
“Stupid,” he said, and then again: “Stupid.”
He gathered his courage and, breathing deeply once, in and out, through his nose like the last person he had seen win a meaningful fight, stepped off the curb in the direction of his friend.
This story originally appeared in Pseudopod.