Featured December 5, 2020 Fantasy Literary Fiction weird fiction small town family biography ghosts

We Love the Store

By Rebecca Campbell
Dec 4, 2020 · 3,191 words · 12 minutes


From the editor:

The Store is full of the odds and ends you can’t get at a suburban megamart, like creamed corn dating from the Bush era, spectral figures, and your long-lost hopes and dreams.

Rebecca Campbell writes weird fiction, often about the islands and woods on the west coast of Canada. Her work has appeared in F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Shimmer, among others, and has been shortlisted for the Sunburst Award.


From the author: There's a special kind of desolation you will only find in old, haunted shops in small, haunted towns.


We love the Store because it has one of everything, and though we might do most of our shopping in the suburban megamarts, we stop by the Store for little things: a packet of quilting pins, say, or vacuum bags for an old upright Eureka. Remaindered, antique, obsolete, discontinued, all have their place, and in our search for creamed corn—so cheap, with a Bush-era best-before date—we often remember earlier days when we were little girls buying liquorices, and we know that we will shop here until the end.

The Store appreciates our loyalty, as it loves the family who has run it for four generations. Today that’s Lottie. Lottie's the future, her father said when anyone asked. She’s got big plans for this place!

Poor Lottie, we said. Poor girl.

Lottie was forty before she learned what we had always known, that the Store possessed an irresistible inertia.

For a long time she only saw the regular kind of shadows. Then last winter she was locking up late and alone when the faint glow of January streetlights hardly illuminated the cash registers. It was so dark that Lottie found her way by memory to the door marked PRIVATE! Halfway to the back she saw a figure sketched in shadows. Lottie stopped. Her heart beat fast for the first time in months, a frisson like anger or desire.

It was gone, but it was not the last. At first she ignored them, but the shapes collected in ways she could not ignore, but which she would not mention for fear they were real ghosts, or—equally frightening—products of her own mind. We wish she had asked us about this infestation of shadows, because we could have told her it was best to respectfully ignore them, and drink in their strangeness only from the corner of one’s eye. Acknowledge them, we would have told her, but leave them their privacy.

The Store must have liked her, because we began to see them more often, too, clearer every time: a man in a stained fedora stealing matches; a woman with eyes like Eleanor Roosevelt, who wore a purple velour cloche. One day—we think, we hope—we will see a familiar face among them, and with it the sweet, distressing glance of the long lost.

Lottie kept an eye on the stock, on the employees, on her father. Mornings in the office.  Afternoons on the floor. She stood at the Main street entrance, glaring at shop-lifting teenagers, and sticky-fingered children. She spoke kindly to old women. "Where’s your father?" We asked her, coquettish, "I want him to wait on me!"

Lottie explained that Dad stayed in the back these days with his chocolate milk and his calculators. We nodded. We understood.

On the afternoon in question she leaned against a cash register and addressed her special glare—the one her grandfather had used, and her father—to Tracey, who was pricing calculators and avoiding Lottie’s eyes. We have never been fond of Tracey, though she has, we will admit, earned her place among us, and we appreciated how neatly she did her work, though the Store never revealed itself to her as it did to us, or to Lottie.

Tracey looked up. "You need something?" she asked.

"Just keeping an eye out," Lottie said.

Tracey shrugged. She'd been working there for thirty-six years, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. She had been sixteen when they hired her. We remember the brief, insufficient bloom of her girlhood, and how quickly she faded.

Sometimes in the evenings Lottie watched Tracey disappear into her husband's car and wondered what it would be like to go to a home far away, and watch television, and not think about the Store until twenty minutes before she had to leave.

Tracey turned back to the calculators, but then she stopped and said, "I need a day off. My niece is getting married. Rosie."

Lottie could not hide her shock. She remembered a little kid picking yellow runners out of the shoe section. "Rosie? She's younger than me!"

"She’s thirty-five. The first Saturday in August."

"That’s right in the middle of the before-school-rush. Maybe we can do that. But you should have asked sooner."

She left, unsettled by Rosie, now thirty-five years old, engaged. She did not think it was malice that she forgot, and the Store’s ancient schedule ground forward on its accustomed track.

When Lottie was a little girl all the lights over the lunch counter still worked, but now only one bulb lit when she yanked the string. In the very old times—the Store’s golden age—the lunch counter was its heart, where vacationing shop girls splurged on eggy milkshakes and flirted with bank clerks. In the resorts along the beach they learned new dances and wore fancy dress. They smelled of discontinued perfumes in elaborate bottles. Evening in Paris. Chypre.

In the half-light Lottie thought, I could revive it. Sometimes she thought, I could make it into something new, I could catalogue it on instagram, I could pin things. She thought, I just need to put it in order. But always once she left the half-light of the lunch counter she forgot her ambition and chewed her fingers bloody. She saw again the aging staff crawling like insects beneath the bare girders of the roof, the ceiling having been removed in her Grandfather’s terminal paranoia, because he was sure the Commies had bugged the joists. She looked at the customers—at us even—and wondered why they returned. Little old women with shapeless legs, their winter boots trimmed with fur, looking for party favours and old perfumes.

We could not explain to her—she did not ask—that we will always come back, that we have lost something we hope to find in the Store’s long aisles. One day she will understand this.

The lunch counter was the first project she undertook when she returned from university, twenty five, thirty pounds lighter, hopeful. She priced stainless steel counters and red enamel coffee pots. She cleaned, and though a silent inertia resisted even the disordering of its dust, the Store forgave her the trespass.

Even today she told us about it. How they’d hire a young man to wear a white shirt with a black bow-tie and make root beer floats. We agreed that it would be charming, and thought of stopping by for a float on a Saturday afternoon, and there returned to us slight memories of a day when we were small, and our father lifted us up onto the stool to share his ice cream.

Often—perhaps this is culpability?—we sought her out, and asked her to describe her plans so we could remember, again, the feeling of his hands under our arms, and how it was to sit beside him.

The deepest reaches of the store—behind the doorway marked PRIVATE!—were honeycombed with the corridors and rooms that had witnessed her Great Grandfather’s decline, and her Grandfather's, as it now awaited her father’s disintegration. After her Grandfather died, the newspapers (so highly coloured) reported from Vancouver without even visiting, describing his death as a vertiginous descent into madness. But that was exaggeration. Local reporters were gentler, and we preferred their stories about how long the Store had persisted, and how much it gave back in the form of sponsored little-league teams, and gift baskets for raffles. If the gift baskets were filled by the same logic as the store, it was to be expected, and we always found a use for the air filters and the vintage tins of Quality Street.

We suspected a new crisis as Lottie’s father descended into his accounts, plumbing the numerical depths of the Store’s history in search of something. It had been the same with Lottie’s grandfather. In his obsession with perfect alignment of stock he'd decreed the logic of the aisles, which was unchanged since his time. In the last months he had declined with alarming speed, and Lottie often stayed with him, taking notes in one of the windowless offices. His biography. Letters about the moon landing and fluoridation.

Lottie rubbed her eyes as though to grind the memories from her mind. (If she had asked we would have told her that it was already to late.) She thought of the before-school-rush, of pencil crayons. She thought of a woman who wore a purple velour cloche, whom she had seen, but who wasn’t there, not really. Protractors, too, plastic backpacks with cartoon characters on the pockets.

When nothing silenced her memory of the dust-woman, she sought out her father. He rarely spoke, and for a long time she had made the decisions alone while he sat at his desk spilling chocolate milk and popcorn down his front, so the floor was covered with dusty splash-marks and the squashed, grey kernels of corn. He was doing the books. He had been doing the books ever since she could remember: totals, subtotals, divided and recombined in arcane spreadsheets she did not understand.

The plywood around his desk had been polished smooth as parquet. Though she never saw him circle his cell, dragging one palm along the wall, she knew he did it because the oil of his hands had darkened the wood to walnut.

Often she joined her father in this tiny cell, and tell him about the plans. But he didn’t answer when she spoke, so she just watched the white paper emerge from his counting machine until it coiled on the floor at her feet. We all recognized what was happening, as we had known the first signs of her Grandfather’s collapse, when, as a little girl, he drew her inside the hidden lunch counter, lifted her up on the stools and told her about the good years that came before the bad years, when the Store was not yet this cavernous warehouse. She listened carefully to stories about work camps and vagrants, migrant fruit-pickers and hobos and girls in red lipstick. Her off-brand Barbis attentive under their bright hair.

Inevitably, he made her and Barbi eat an invisible banana split from a dirty glass. She had to pretend-eat it until her father emerged from the accounting office and took her home, leaving Grandpa behind.

To what? She thought, as an adult. If she had asked us we could have told her.

"When we have the nukular war," her Grandfather had said, "we could rebuild the town with what's in the store!"

And then: When the big one hits. When the Russkies attack.

And at the end: When the aliens invade. When the poles shift.

"You know where they'll come when the world goes to hell. You know, Lottie. They'll fight to get in, but you know what we'll do?" Here he stopped and stared at her, as though to make sure she understood what he said. "We'll close the fucking door!" He laughed with a sound like brick hitting concrete. His eyes enormous behind his glasses, and as pale as his night-dweller skin. He made prophecies. He dictated letters. He watched customers through holes he drilled in the plywood. He looked for bugs.

And then those weeks when he refused to wash, when he ate nothing but Wonder bread and gritty white margarine, stolen by night from the aisle devoted to ancient, shelf-stable products designed for fallout shelters. On the last day of her Grandfather’s life, he pulled Lottie close and said, "look after it. Don't let them in!" Then he released her, passing a damp hand across her forehead. He fell asleep. Then he was dead.

"So it's on Saturday?" Tracey said to Lottie.

"What?"

"It’s the wedding. I asked you." Tracy cleaned a fingernail with her thumb, then flicked the dirt on the floor. "I asked you."

"Well, I don't know if I can. If you'd reminded me I might have been able to do something about it. As it is we'll be short. I'm not feeling well. I should be home right now. I’ve had this headache for ages." They stood together another moment in silence. Tracey left, muttering as if she'd known it would happen all along. Lottie settled into her chair and knew, she should have reminded me.

After that she felt different, though not quite guilty. She tried. She cut her coffee breaks to twenty-five minutes. She avoided the lunch counter.  That troubled us, we will admit. We did not like to think what would happen if she neglected the Store.

We said to Tracey that summer, we said, you’re not happy here, dear, are you. Not a question, but an instruction, and soon she began to agree.  We aren’t proud of this, but it was necessary. She lacked the sensitivity we so cultivated in Lottie.

Lottie who dreamed--we suspect--of men, of cars that did not stop, of flight. The Store did not like her fantasies of escape, but it endured them with great and unassailable patience.

Then on a rare day in late summer the evening sunlight reached again to the back of the store and revealed dust motes so thick that they formed bodies nearly as substantial as our own. She was staring into one corner--at what might be dust, or the faint suggestion of a woman--when Tracey tapped her on the shoulder.

"What? " Lottie said, and then, "I've had this headache for three days now. Why are you all dressed up?"

"It's the wedding," she said.

“You can’t,” she said, "I told you I'd already made up the schedule so you can't.

We were shopping that day for peanuts to feed the squirrels. We heard what she thought, you don’t leave, you die. We stopped and thought, yes yes, it is happening. We could have danced, but we did want to disturb the moment, so instead we listened.

As though she also knew Lottie’s thoughts, Tracey said, "It can't go on." Her voice  almost gentle. "You didn't think it could go on, did you? You should come, too."

"You're leaving me short. I hope you know that. You're leaving the Store in the lurch."

Tracey was saying something more, but she no longer mattered, so Lotite returned to her office and shut the door sharply behind her. She reached into her desk for Tylenol. She took three and a swig from a bottle of warm Coke.

The floor beside her chair covered with the same one-litre bottles, lined up in sixes and twelves, meticulous, awaiting recycling. See, she thought, see how well I do things? How hard I try? Be good. Recycle. Work hard. Look ahead.

Sometimes we regret that we found her there, and think we might have behaved badly, but it is too late to change the past: the opportunity arrived, the moment presented its choice; we took it.

We gave her half an hour, then we breezed through the door marked PRIVATE!

Lottie, dear, we said to her, Lottie, there’s an old friend of ours. We think she might be a good replacement for Tracey.  We held our breaths, knowing that this was the chance. She looked up at the door where we stood, and nodded and we drifted away knowing, then, it was too late, too late for her. And we are grateful, though we pang sometimes, and think that we might have told her to run, now, this afternoon, while the sun reached the Store’s deep corners.

Out in the plywood hall she almost passed through her, the woman in the cloche. It was the first time Lottie had seen her in real sunlight, had seen through her eyes to her skull’s interior, and past the back of her head to the hallway beyond. She was no more than a collusion of dust motes, floating in formation down the hall.

It seemed natural to say, "I’ve lost one of my girls. I’m looking for someone new."

The dust-woman relaxed, reached into her pocket for a cigarette, also constituted in dust. "Sorry about Tracey, Ma'am, But she had to go.”

Lottie looked through the woman’s skull down the aisles where the sunlight--just on this day, of all days--glazed the long rows of plastic and tin, of paper and polyester and acrylic. The cloche-headed woman watched over the end of her cigarette with those sad, shrewd eyes.

"I need someone reliable, who won’t leave in a huff," she said. "My father isn’t well. He can’t help out the way he used to."

"I’m sorry to hear that, Ma’am. Really truly sorry. He was a good man, like all of them before. I can start right away." As though all she needed was permission, she brushed her spectral fingers across the shelf beside them, ever-so-slightly disordering the dust-rings that had settled around the antique tins full of butter-cookies.

"The thing is, Eleanor," the woman didn’t correct Lottie, "This place could be something unusual. But I need the right staff. I need people who understand how this place works."

The woman laughed dust clouds and said, "You always could count on us. We were just waiting for you to realize. We’ve always been on your side."

As she said it the dust that—temporarily—constituted Eleanor lost its transitory order and returned to what it had been: motes in a beam of sunlight, the sunlight that now slipped away.

Lottie walked the long aisle to the staircase, then up the staircase to the second storey, past plywood walls behind which crept the store’s spectral managers and employees. They were afraid of her. They needed her. She was in possession of a material body, and if she chose, she could walk through the door into the sunlight and never ever return. She did not choose. But she could.

Now when we visit we feel the Store is content. She has realized what we knew all along, that it possesses both magic with its inertia, in the alignment of its stock, and the routes we trace along the aisles, around and up and down and across, looking, always looking, for this or that, or the long-lost, or the wished-for.

It is not a magic without cost, and while we wish she were happier, poor girl, we need the Store, and it needs her. We visit on Saturday afternoons, or mid-week and mid-day, looking for toys for our grandchildren, or bottles of the perfume we wore when we were sixteen, now long discontinued, but which we think we will find one day, maybe soon. When she gets the lunch counter running again, we’ll have rootbeer floats, too, and a young man to make them, and feel for a moment Papa’s hands lifting us onto our seat.

Sometimes we see them, too, the woman in the orange smock who stamps the cans of tuna-fish has a face that is familiar to us, as though we saw her long ago when we were children, and if she is here, mightn’t there also be others?  We are eager to see them again, and to search the store for other familiar faces who may—one day—return to us.


1 Comment
  • James Van Pelt
    December 5, 7:25pm

    This is a beautiful piece. Thank you for posting it.

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