Ross ran a tight ship. As Hard Goods 3rd Shift Manager, he felt he was the unsung hero of store operations. Who made sure the shelves were stocked? 3rd shift. Who made sure the store was cleaned and prepped for the following day? 3rd shift. Who picked up the slack when the other shifts didn’t get the job done? 3rd shift, and their mighty manager, Ross.
There was one threat to the efficiency of Ross’s shift, and that was the employees. They were often unruly, surly creatures who rolled their eyes or tried to pass work off on each other. They left their zones to talk to one another, or took long breaks and lunches. It was a delicate balance, ruling them, because he had to come across as affable and approachable, so that they liked him, yet firm enough so that they did not rebel. Sometimes his blue shirt felt like a target; the hourly employees wore red polos while management wore blue. He could imagine being swarmed by red shirts, pummeling him with their fists and disposing of him like they were overthrowing a monarchy.
The key was unwavering confidence. And to Ross, that came down to appearance. His black hair was gelled up and slicked back. His black work boots were shined. They made his footfalls sound heavier, giving him more authority. His khaki pants were pressed and crisp. He smelled always of Old Spice; musky and masculine. He took to always holding a clipboard, often with nothing written down, just the weekly ad clipped to it. He carried a store cell phone, and wouldn’t hesitate to call over the PA system, his voice demanding they all look upwards toward his authority.
Their biggest threat to him was a union. He’d been explicitly told by upper management to find and eliminate potential unionization efforts before they could begin.
In the backroom, he found evidence of a union. One of the potential signs was “regular meetings of three or more individuals in secretive locations.” About five or six employees regularly met near the compactor. He spotted them again on the security cameras in his office, and stomped off to confront them.
When he got close, he crept behind the huge shelves that held pallets of products and peered through. The group gathered around the grey metal door where they shoved food waste and other garbage that could not be put in the cardboard bailer.
The employees stood in a line, facing the compactor. They were all wearing the yellow hooded rain slickers that the cart-pushers wore. Their heads tilted towards the compactor, and they all took each other’s hands.
“Com-pack-tor. Com-pack-tor. Com-pack-tor.” They spoke in a low, guttural chant, like they were praising an ancient god. One of them stepped forward and opened the compactor. Ross glimpsed his face. Chris from Dairy.
The rest of the worshippers sank to their knees before the groaning, growling mouth of the compactor. Chris from Dairy raised his arms to the sky, and cried out: “Behold! Our God! Our hero! The mighty Com! Pack! Tor! Hear his growl, feel his pain. He has been cursed to this place! Cast from the underworld where he rules, tied to this mortal coil! We must give him strength to break free from this store! Break free from this mundane form!
The worshippers moaned. Their chant changed, turned high pitched, into a wail. “Free! Free-eee!”
“Yes, yes,” Chris from Dairy said, nodding vigorously. He grabbed the pitchfork they used to shovel the rotting food into the compactor, and brandished it. “We must feed him! Feed him and we shall be rewarded! But who? Who shall we sacrifice? Who shall we bestow this great honor?”
Ross’s phone rang. Its loud, metallic jangle echoed in the hollows of the cavernous back room, slithering between pallets of cereal, snaking around stacks of pillows, bouncing off the assembled bicycles. He snapped to answer it, but the people around the compactor had already noticed.
He decided to bluff. “Ross here, what is it?” he said into the phone.
“Hey Ross, it’s TJ down in Hardware, uh, Greg and Dane made a mess over by me, wanted to let you know I took care of it, uh, I don’t know if I should get the blood kit or-,”
“Thanks. Good job. I’ll get back to you on that.” He hung up. The group had surrounded him in a tight circle. They gazed at him with cold eyes.
The clipboard! Ross seized on the idea, holding it above his head like a mighty crucifix to ward off the evil vampires. “I just came back here to remind y’all about the union policy! Super-Mart is not a place that needs a useless union here, stirring up trouble. We have an open door policy, so if any of you folks have an issue, feel free to talk to me or any of the other managers-,
Chris from Dairy stepped forward. He was much taller than Ross. His shoulders were broad, his arms hefty. He had tattoos on his hands and wrists. He was still holding the pitchfork. Without a word, he reached out and tore the clipboard away from Ross, and let it fall to the floor. It landed with a subdued clack. To Ross, it fell in slow motion. A terrifying sense of inevitable overwhelmed him. It clutched his chest, ripped his breath away like taking a dive into icy water.
They didn’t care.
They did not care he was manager.
The group converged wordlessly, hands springing out to grab him from every direction. Chris raised the pitchfork, but someone said: “No, we don’t want to clean that up.” Instead they all hoisted Ross onto their shoulders, and began carrying him to the compactor.
As if he was their hero.
Ross whined. He scraped at them. He was a trapped cat, hissing and mewling at faceless abductors. He promised them promotions. He threatened to fire them. He laughed and called it a good joke, ha ha guys, put me down now, I almost thought you were serious.
Finally, with his arms clutching against the metal sides of the hole, he begged them.
Chris from Dairy appeared out of the crowd with a small mallet.
“Fuck you, Chris, you suck at your job,” Ross said. The fear that had been clawing at him disappeared into rage. This fucking neckbeard who smelled like sour cheese and Axe body spray was going to kill him? Kill Ross the Manager?
“Fuck all of you. Useless, each and every last one of you–,”
They didn’t even let him finish. Chris slammed the mallet against Ross’s fingers. Electric bolts of pain shot up his arm, and his brain said: “Broken! Broken!” He reacted, pulling his hand up for the briefest second, but it was enough for the hands to shove him deeper in the hole, his heavy work boots sinking into the slick, sticky trash bags.
Panting, he clawed his way over the bags and back towards the light, towards Chris’ large, circular, blank face. But the little door closed. The light switched off. And Ross was left alone in the darkness of the compactor.
He tried to crawl out, but the piles and piles of trash and debris seemed to tighten around him, holding his hands back, grabbing his feet, constricting. A cardboard box was jammed against his neck. Tangled knots of zip-ties slid over his hands, like reaching into a box of electronics cords. Trash Bags seemed to grab his waist.
And through it all, that smell.
Nauseatingly sweet, everything in your fridge rotten, milk and cheese and eggs all baked by the hot sun for days. The sick tang of garbage trucks, the thick gag of spoiled vegetables. It was all here, shoving itself down his nostrils, down his throat, making him choke and gasp. His vision blurred, his eardrums pounded. The darkness grew darker. And underneath those suffocating smells was the true one.
The smell of something Other. The smell unlike anything he could fathom, something that slid into the reptilian, instinctive survival parts of his brain and began ringing every alarm bell. Fear struck Ross like never before. Deepest fear. The complete and utter terror of the dark, of everything that could be, of every horrid face he’d imagined as a kid under his bed, every dripping hand that could have reached out of his closet, it was all true, they were all real and they were coming for him.
The compactor clanged to life and the foul mixed sludge Ross was encased in shifted as the machine began to growl. Outside the door, the chants resumed.
Ross was holding onto the edge of the cliff that was his sanity with one hand. Below, a huge drop into teeming madness. His fingers were beginning to slip.
One by one each finger popped off. The cloying darkness threatened.
A low moan escapes Ross’s throat.
Ross is gone. He is simply a creature who reacts to light and dark.
light is good dark is bad bad bad bad–
One finger left and he feels it ache. Weakening. It is about to let go. Ross resurfaces and begins to scream. He screams as loud as he can, and for a brief moment, the throat of the compactor seems to have a voice box.
The compactor shrieks, and the entire store assumes it is a bit of metal, crushed and defeated like all the rest.