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Drain Away: Prologue

“Six inches, my hairy wrinkled ass,” Eric scoffed. His lighter snicked a few times within the shelter of his cupped hands as he tried to light his smoke. “News didn’t get it right, they never do. Eighteen inches by mornin’, or I’ll shit a chicken. Power’ll be goin’ out all over town, it’s gonna be a shitshow. See if I’m wrong, babydoll. And your dumb ass is in here workin’ the overnight.”

From where Arianna stood behind the register, she could see Eric hunched over directly in the threshold of the store entrance, with the door open behind him, using the roof’s awning above as a shelter from the wind and snow. Oh, what a hardy breed were the people who smoked cigarettes, she thought, not for the first time as she observed him. Countless snowflakes swirled in the nor’easter wind outside the windows, and here he was, puffing away. It wasn’t exactly store policy to let the customers smoke at the doorway like this, but it was past midnight, and Eric was an exception.

It wasn’t uncommon for Eric to be here this late, and that was just fine. Eric never blew hundreds of dollars on scratch tickets and left them all over the store for her to clean up, Eric didn’t ask her if she had a boyfriend, or if her boyfriend minded that she was working this late. Eric, in fact, had told the after-midnight asshats who did ask her those questions to fuck off into the darkness and leave her alone on more than one occasion. Eric was cool people. All Eric ever wanted was a pack of cigarettes (Marlboro Red 100s, of course) and to shoot the bull for awhile before he had to drive off to work. He was very good at shooting the bull, too. He had juicy gossip about the people in town, usually, and he made her laugh. He always broke up the monotony of the graveyard shift, and Arianna was happy that he came in all the time.

“I told ‘em I’d come in today,” she answered, wandering over to the soda machines for a drink, “So I’m here. What am I gonna do, call out because of the snow?”

The storefront windows gave her a perfect view into the blizzard outside, and from the looks of things, he was right. As the weather channels predicted, the storm had picked up around one in the morning. Now, an hour or so later, the parking lot had been transformed into an unrecognizable hellscape full of ominous, hulking white lumps. A streetlight on the farside of the lot bravely flickered in the totality of January darkness, and the snowflakes danced in legion within its shaky yellow glow. She could hear the wind howling its wrath into the void of the night. Everything cold. Everything dark. She felt very small, and very grateful to be inside in the warm.

“Accountability is certainly a good trait to have, kiddo,” said Eric, “but this is your life. Is it worth it? Really worth it?”

“Dude, come on. Don’t be so dramatic,” she answered, as she filled a plastic cup with ice and poured soda into it. “It’s just an overnight. I do it all the time, sans blizzard, but I’m still chillin’, it hasn’t cost me my life yet. Who’s gonna sell the plow drivers their cowboy killers?” she asked. He turned around and frowned at her for that, but she only smiled. “Who’s gonna serve the cops their coffee at four in the goddamned morning tonight? Dunkies sure as hell ain’t open. They’re coming to see me.”

Eric coughed disapprovingly, pitched his butt into the white chaos, and strode back into the store. The door thudded shut behind him, sealing out the draft that had crept in. It was January, but he was still wearing his same beaten denim coat over his usual flannel. Given the snow, he’d this time opted to jam a brown hunter’s cap over his strawlike mess of blonde and gray. His Timberlands tracked wet prints over the linoleum she’d have to mop later. His wrinkle-wreathed eyes were cerulean with worry.

“I got a daughter, babydoll,” he said. “And if she were you, I’d tell her, fuck some job that pays you minimum wage. Stay home where it’s safe, if it’s snowing this bad. Why don’t you call your boss, and lock up. Let me drive you back to your place.”

Arianna blinked. “No.”

He shook his head. “Stubborn kid.”

“I don’t know you, man,” she answered, sipping her soda. It tasted sort of weird. She’d have to change the syrup.

Eric looked at her exasperated, but only for a moment before breaking into a chuckle.

“That’s right,” he said. “You don’t. And you’re a smart kid. Your mother raised you right. I don’t blame you a bit.”

He reached into his back pocket, and pulled out his wallet.

“If that snow looks too scary to walk in when you get off your shift, you call me, kiddo. I’ll come getcha.”

He handed her a business card with his towing service advertised on the front. “That’s my cell phone,” he told her, helpfully, as he placed his wallet back in his back pocket. “Just give me a call. I don’t give a shit what time it is. I’ll come getcha.”

“Okay,” she said. “Be careful out there.”

“Uh huh. Goodnight, babydoll.”

She watched him head back towards the door, and almost asked him to wait. When his headlights shone through the window, she thought about running outside and shouting for him to please wait, that she changed her mind. Yeah, he was just a customer, and yeah, she didn’t know him–but in that moment, watching him leave, she knew instinctively that he was exactly how he appeared to be–just a kind man who only wanted to make sure she would get home safely. But even so.

She couldn’t just leave in the middle of her shift.

There was some crunching and grinding as he backed his tow truck out of the parking lot. After that, he turned west on Waterman Avenue, and drove off into the night, with nothing but a few tire marks in the snow and the fading stink of his cigarette smoke to remind her that he was ever there at all.

All alone now.

Ari sipped on her terrible soda and stood there in silence.

The digital clock/radio combo next to the register told her it was 2:22 AM. Double numbers, make a wish, she thought, smiling to herself as she circled back behind the counter to see what needed to be done. Lottery couldn’t be tallied for another hour or so, and she’d done the cigarette count already, too. (Now minus Eric’s one pack.) There was mopping, but what was the point of that, now, if all the late night storm patrol workers were just gonna come in and stomp slush around all over the place? It could wait.

She drummed her nails on the countertop, took another sip of her soda, and remembered the syrup.

Of course! And boss man would be happy she did it, too.

Pleased that she thought of something to do, Arianna pulled her sweatshirt on over her uniform polo and headed out back to the stockroom.

It was much colder back here. The wind was louder, too, a persistent, tuneless wailing that made her somehow acutely aware of how by herself she was. All the hell by herself, even, and it was almost three AM. A whooshing shriek announced a particularly robust gale, and the light above her flickered. She wondered why the hell she hadn’t taken the ride.

Because you can’t, dumbass, she reminded herself, studying the shelf full of cardboard boxes in search of the cola syrup. This place is still open, so you still have to work. Them bills ain’t gonna get paid if you decide to dip off in the middle of your shift. It’s winter. Snow happens in the winter.

There was only one box of cola syrup left, and when she found it, she wrapped her fist in her sweater sleeve to punch the perforated cardboard out. Afterwards, she carefully slid it off the shelf and into her arms.

Four more hours, you’re almost done. Time to man up.

She’d put some music on, she decided, balancing the box on her knee to open the stockroom door. Hearing something other than that god-awful wailing wind would do her some good. Something happy, with a beat to keep her awake. Boss man didn’t really like people playing music that wasn’t 103 Pro FM, but boss man wasn’t the one working the graveyard through the middle of a goddamned nor’easter. He could kiss her ass on that one, he was lucky she was working.

The lights flickered again as she made her way towards the soda machines, and she wondered what would happen if the power went out. She’d have to close shop, if that happened. No power meant no lottery, no register. She didn’t have the key to lock up the place, though, and boss man sure as fuck wasn’t going to answer his phone this late. She frowned deeply as she contemplated this, pulling the hose out of the syrup carton. Maybe the assistant manager had a spare. She could look at the chart to find her number, and-

And there’s a woman in the store, Arianna.

Her eyes gave her the information, but for ten terror-filled seconds, her brain offered no input to dissect it. Visual details solidified gradually, one after the other. The woman’s legs, for some reason, despite the howling winter storm raging just a windowpane away, were bare. Her feet were, as well. She was wearing what looked like an oversized white t-shirt, and her long, cornsilk-blonde hair was tangled and greasy. A bar or a club wristband encircled her left wrist. She was standing right at the store entrance, gazing outwards into the storm.

Tequila Tuesdays at the Cabin? Ari thought, trying to think of some plausible explanation why there was a scantily clad female with a wristband on in her store this late at night. Lots of people partied on the weekdays, sure. The bare feet weren’t even that unusual, if one considered this possibility–she likely had been wearing high heels, earlier, and found them too difficult to wear in the snow. This chicky was probably drunk as hell, and probably asked her Uber driver to stop here on the way home so she could get some potato chips or cheese sticks or something. Ari didn’t see any car headlights through the storefront, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one out there.

She set the cola syrup box down first, making some noise to announce her presence.

“Hi!” she said, in her friendliest customer service voice. “Jeeeeeez, you must be freezing. I don’t even dress up when I go out anymore, you’re a lot braver than me!”

The woman’s head raised slightly, demonstrating that she’d heard her, but no response was given. She continued to stare out into the snowswept darkness. Ari plunged on ahead anyways.

“Are you looking for something?” she asked. “I can’t sell you any more booze this late, but if you want some chips, or some water–”

“No,” said the stranger.

One word, but spoken distinctly. It rang out like a funeral bell. Arianna shut her mouth. The fluorescents flickered. The snow beat against the windowpanes. The wind shrieked. Instinctively, she patted her back pockets in search of her cell phone, but then remembered that she’d left it by the register. Not quite knowing why, she took a subtle few steps backwards, towards its direction.

“What can I help you with?” she asked, still friendly.

The stranger’s hands opened and closed, closed and opened, fluttered at her sides like restless, pale birds. She turned around, revealing a nondescriptly pretty face. Little nose, little bow-shaped, reddish mouth. Cerulean blue eyes, crowned with golden eyelashes. She smiled wanly at Arianna, who smiled back, trying to feel reassured. Why work the graveyard, she wondered, if you’re going to be spooked by every single person who walks through the door after midnight? Sure, this was kind of weird, but it was almost three in the morning, and all circumstances aside, this was another woman. Girls had to look out for other girls.

“I hope you can help me, little lamb.”

The stranger’s voice, again, was loud and clear. She spoke like she was addressing a room full of people, yet her tone was gentle. It made Ari think of how pastors and priests addressed the faithful sitting in pews. Soft, unimposing, yet demanding of attention.

With the stranger now facing her, Arianna’s eyes gave her more information, but as before, her brain would not compute it. She saw what she saw, but could not process its meaning. At least at first. Her smile froze on her lips as she realized that it wasn’t some skimpy club outfit that the woman was wearing, but a standard-issue hospital johnnie. She hadn’t seen the ties in the back, because the stranger’s long hair had been covering them. That wasn’t a club wristband, either, she saw, her scalp prickling as she realized, but a hospital wristband. She could see words typed out on it, but couldn’t read what they said from where she stood. Her stomach knotted uncomfortably.

“Yeah, I’d be happy to! I’m sorry about the alcohol. It’s just…state law! Really shitty, I know. My friend came in here one time and wanted some, I even had to tell him no. I could get in trouble. With my boss, you know. He’s real strict.”

She was rambling as she took step after backwards step towards the register, reaching out behind her as she walked, and hating the hoarse, tinny, frightened quality of her own voice. As soon as her hand brushed the comforting solidarity of the countertop, she immediately maneuvered behind it, putting it between her and the woman in the hospital gown. As soon as she did, the lights flickered again, and this time, stayed off.

Arianna wanted to scream, but managed not to. As she fumbled her hands along the countertop for her phone, swallowing over her slamming heart, her eyes scanned the darkness. The pale stranger was nowhere, nowhere to be seen. The store was mostly pitch-dark, with the exception of the area closest to the windows, where the light from the lone streetlight was visible. It was right where the woman had been standing, but now, she was not there.

Where had she gone?

She could be anywhere in the dark, anywhere at all.

Ari’s blind, probing hands finally bumped into the comforting bulk of her cell phone. Her hands shook and shook, and she failed her passcode twice in her attempt to unlock it. She didn’t dare to lower her eyes, kept scanning the blackness around her over and over for any sign of movement.

“Power’s out!” she shouted, in a panic, fishing in her back pocket with one hand for a little square of cardboard she’d put in there, earlier. “Power’s out, I can’t run the register. You gotta get out of here, hon, I’m sorry.”

She entered the correct passcode, finally, and unlocked her phone . She swiped through her screens until she found the dialer icon, opened it, and with shaking fingers, typed in the number on Eric’s business card.

Eric would get here faster. Eric had a tow truck.

Eric would help her.

Arianna stared at the number on the screen, her finger hovering over the call icon. She was about to press it, when she realized.

The stranger was behind the counter, now. Right next to her.

“You can’t be back here behind the counter,” she said. “Get out of here.” Her darting eyes caught sight of the woman’s wristband, and the Grand Meadow Hospital typed onto it. “What are you doing in here? I’ll call for help. I’ll make you get out!”

She jammed her thumb onto the “dial” icon, all hesitation gone. She was wholly frightened, now. Her heart was hammering in her chest. This was wrong, and she needed help. Right now.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang.

The stranger looked at her sadly.

Ari could see the windows behind her, and the snow falling outside. She saw the flickering streetlight, too, but as she stared at it, it stopped flickering. The light outside that was yellow was fading to a sickly orange, an orange that made her head throb the more she looked at it.

A man-sized shadow seemed to melt out from the far corner of the store, float past the windows, and duck under one of the snack racks. Ari could hear it muttering. Or was it the orange light outside, making that sound? It could have been inside her head. She felt sick, suddenly. Confused.

The stranger was extending her hand.

Ring. Ring, from the speaker on her phone. Eric’s number, yet to be saved in her contacts, lit up its entire screen, and the handle time of the call had climbed to three minutes and thirty-three seconds. Double numbers, make a wish, she thought, crazily. Make a wish, make a wish.

But the wish evaporated into the suddenly foul, garbage-smelling air, and the stranger only looked at Arianna expectantly, with that sadness lurking in her blue eyes.

“My friend knows I’m here,” Ari whimpered. The tears sprung from her own eyes as the understanding settled upon her. “He’s on his way. He’ll be here. He’ll be here any minute.”

The stranger shook her head slowly back and forth.

The fluorescents began to flicker again, but the color was wrong. They too had changed to a sickly orange, and Ari could feel the light, baking hot on her arms and neck like it was emanating from some diseased, dying sun. She risked a glance outside the windows, and saw the mounds of snow in the parking lot shifting and ululating like waves in the ocean.

“What’s happening?” she cried, her eyes widening as they observed the impossibility outside. “What’s going on? Who are you?”

The stranger’s face was etched with sorrow, now, and she widened the fingers of her outstretched hand, invitingly.

“Come with me, lamb,” was all she said.

Ari wept uncontrollably as she reached for the stranger’s hand, and held it.

“He’s coming,” she sobbed, stumbling, as she helplessly obeyed. The stranger was leading Arianna by the wrist into a large, black, tunnel-like hole that had appeared in the wall. The darkness exhaled a breeze which lifted the stranger’s long, pale hair and blew it backwards into Arianna’s face. The breeze carried a scent, as well– a heavy, evil, woody smell. Ari could hear more muttering, deep inside of the hole. Muttering, and screaming.

“He’ll be here,” she babbled, through her tears. “He’ll save me.”

“He won’t,” said the stranger, very, very sadly.

Ari looked past her, deep into the tunnel, and finally, began to scream. 

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