Once a month we’re swapping stories and articles with Vancouver literary magazine PRISM international to share our writers with a wider audience.
He’s waiting for me. He’s just sitting there, in his car in the parking lot outside the store, biding his time. The windows are rolled down, even though it’s a cold night. The red tip of his cigarette is all I see of him from here at the front counter. One single glowing eye that never closes. There’ll be frost on everything by dawn: the blades of grass, the grey husks of cornstalks still standing in the fields, coating the windows of trucks stopped on country roads. I reach down and pull my skirt down over my knees. I am not dressed for the cold. Everything is quiet and still, like we’ve been locked away in a deep freeze. Right now it doesn’t matter that we are not the only two people in the world.
There’s no moon tonight. You can barely make out the tips of the tree line across the road. The only light comes from a single street lamp, and the faint blue-and-white neon sign in our front window, the one that says Glorious Kingdom. It burns all the time, day and night. From its dim light, you can just make out the three tiny white crosses there on the side of the road. They pick up that blue glow real nice. That’s where those boys from my school drove right into the great oak at the bend, drunk and hollering up until the first twist of metal, the first snap of the glass folding in on itself. Lucas, Mark, and that big George Carson, sinners and bullies all of them, and still the kids at school put on ties and dresses and cried at the funeral, and talked into the news cameras about how nice those boys had been and what a tragedy it was, even Steven who still had bruises fading from his cheek from Mark’s fist. Funny how in death everything gets transformed. Almost like it cleans you right up. Just like the Lord showed us.
I saw the first two policemen on the scene because I’m the one who called them. I was sitting right there. I heard the crash. Got out of their cars, shook their heads, might of felt a little sick, to tell you the honest truth, knew it was too late. Those boys were beyond saving, though I swear I still heard noises. Older policeman gave a little laugh, almost like a cough. And that, he said, is the only way anyone gets out of this town.
I’ve been killing time tonight since closing, since the man pulled up in his car and shut off the headlights. I’ve restocked the shelves with conditioner and our good stiff hairbrushes and the mudpacks from the Dead Sea that suck the filth right out of you. I’ve aligned each and every lipstick according to color and gloss, counted the cash slowly into the cash register, the oily bills smooth under my fingers, the Presidents all face up, slick in their compartments. I’ve smoothed out the receipts, labelled the envelopes. Now I’ve put on my coat, buttoned it halfway, turned off the lights. It’s a nice white pea coat, polyester. Used to be real proud of it. Now there’s a stain on it, the stain from once when I drank red wine with that sinner Lacey Collins at her graduation party, the only time I strayed. She said she wanted to be my friend, but I see now that she was just trying to break me. It spilled down this coat, my one nice coat, and the stain has never come out, a constant reminder, like blood that won’t rinse away. I’d be a fool to think there was no purpose to that. When my mother saw that stain, she turned away like I wasn’t even there. A new coat is out of the question. I’m to look at it, and remember how I strayed, how I was punished. It feels good to know there’s a purpose, that there is a purpose to everything. If there was not, who could even imagine.
We’re both waiting now, he in his car and me in my store. The door is not locked, but he will discover that on his own soon enough. My shift is long over. No one will come until morning. No one will notice I am missing until long past when all that frost melts in the light of tomorrow’s sun. We are all alone, but for He who watches.
I work here at the Glorious Kingdom Beauty Supply House. We provide a wide selection of beauty products to enhance a true believer’s glory in this world. As part of God’s creation, we are part of His glory. That’s what my mother has always said, and that is why she started this establishment. We help women to see their own inner beauty and reveal it right on the outside, where anyone can see. Thus God’s glory expands, like a soft slow exhale out into the world.
The Bible talks about the Lord suffering for our sins, we hear it every Sunday. And I’ve seen the paintings, the blood flowing down like rose petals dancing in the wind. I’ve dreamed of the arrows that pierce the hearts of true believers, so pure and ready. I could do it too, I know I could. I could prove the fire inside of me, just like them. I could burn like an angel, roll in wheels of blades, my flesh pierced right through, blood like silk flowing behind. The Lord paid a price, he sacrificed, he was redeemed and glorified, made whole again even as the blood came from him, rivers of it washing him clean.
He’s been coming into the store lately, this man who waits for me. He has his hair shaved down to nothing and his scalp shines like the sun under the bright lights of Glorious Kingdom. I can see the curve of the serpent’s tail just at the base of his neck, black thick ink seeping in his skin, the lines new and precise like he was marked only yesterday. His shirt is tight; his muscles swell like ropes, straining to keep a ship in harbor under the onslaught of storm winds, his arms thick. I think of dogs and bulls and horses when I look at him. I imagine him posing shirtless for self-portraits in mirrors, hands firm around the black barrel of his weapon, fingers aching and ready. I know what it’s like to be unfulfilled, to have desires that cannot be met. In my heart, I have strayed. But that is ordinary. Everyone strays.
No one will notice I am missing until long past when all that frost melts in the light of tomorrow’s sun. We are all alone, but for He who watches.
Most nights, at closing time, I roam the aisles of Glorious Kingdom and take my penance. I find the very things I need the most. The curling iron burns the skin of my ribcage, the soft skin beneath my arms, the curve behind my knee. The peroxide burns when you leave it too long, leaves scabs on your scalp where no one else can see, no one can know. I melt down the blocks of wax in the kit—a glorious burst of pain, then the slow welts rise on angry skin, splotchy and swollen, smooth, clear, pure, waiting, hidden. The aisles of Glorious Kingdom are my deliverance, my supplication; my practice for greater things, things that are not ordinary.
It was only a few days ago that the man came in for the first time. He wore a long black leather coat, a thick chain around his neck, sunglasses covering his eyes, though I am certain he looked straight at me the whole time. He might have been the devil came to earth to claim his own, surprise the Lord with his own kind of dark Rapture, suck up the dying and the damned, leave their shoes smoking and empty all through the land, took them all down below, leaving all the saved ones all shocked and staring, their eyes flashing I knew you all along.
He looks at the bows, all pink and delicate, like he wants to take them in his hands and crush them. We don’t sell many men’s products, though there is a small corner of brown and blue bottles, to enhance the glory of freshly shaven skin and combed hair. But he doesn’t even look at that, he walks right on by. He looks at the perfume, the barrettes, the skin creams that smell like tea roses. He walks the aisles slowly, examining things, as though imagining giving it to someone, imagining running his hands over it, though he touches nothing. He is purposeful, he takes his time. Whatever he is looking for, it must be perfect, without flaw. That is what I thought, at first.
But he does not buy anything. Instead he spends twenty minutes in the aisles. I watch. At Glorious Kingdom we do have security mirrors installed at the end of each aisle. It is not that we don’t think all of God’s children are not perfect and do not deserve forgiveness; it is only that we must acknowledge that our garden of praise is also a garden of temptation, for some turn a blind eye to the glorification of our Lord and see only the earthly manifestations. We forgive, but we do not turn a blind eye. And so I can watch him striding down aisles. And looking up into those mirrors. More than he looks at what is on our shelves, he watches me.
Through the dark glasses I cannot see his eyes, but I know he is looking at me. I wonder if he is also thinking of weighing me in his arms, imagining the way I’d feel to the touch. Whatever he was looking for, he did not find. He left without turning his head, without saying a word of thanks.
Our regular clientele is predictable, reliable even. Church ladies, shy teenage girls who come in alone. We talk sometimes, about the Bible, about lipstick, about what color flatters the palest skin. It’s not that I know so much, but I know more than them. It feels like my way of serving. You can’t try and deny a calling when it comes, that is what my mother has always told me. Until recently I believed it was my only gift, the only service I could offer. I can tell what shade of lipstick a woman should be wearing the moment she walks through that door. I know when a shy girl really wants to wear scarlet; I can see the shine in the old school teacher’s eyes when I pull the box of peroxide off the shelf. It’s a gift, a God-given one, and as such it is not mine to refuse. Still, some of them don’t seem to remember me the next time. Some of them don’t even look at me when they pay, don’t say a thing when I tell them to have a nice day.
He came back yesterday. Again, he walked the aisles, but this time he did not pretend to look at anything, not one thing. He watched me. He stood in the aisle, stared up at the security mirror, and watched me watch him. I could see the reflection of the mirrors in the shine of his sunglasses. This time I noticed the black curls of hair coming from his chest, the tightness of his jeans against his thighs, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his long coat, clenched and unseen.
He left without saying a word, but he paused at the door, stared at me, locked eyes, though I could only see myself. Staring, afraid, clutching at my arms. He nodded. I couldn’t help myself, I nodded back. That’s when I knew.
Through the dark glasses I cannot see his eyes, but I know he is looking at me. I wonder if he is also thinking of weighing me in his arms, imagining the way I’d feel to the touch.
This morning when I arose, I cleaned myself thoroughly, bandaged my wounds. I put on my best garments, the coat with its eternal stain. All through my shift, I waited, patient. And just as closing time came, he arrived, just as I knew he would, just as it came to me he would. Pulled up in his car, the only one in the lot.
Lately, the papers have said that sometimes girls go missing from around here, girls with long blonde hair like mine, young girls my age. Plenty of girls run away, I know that. Sometimes they find them, piles of clothes half-sunk in mud a few feet from their naked bodies all folded up like birds, gone half to dust in some field no one uses anymore. They say maybe there’s a pattern. I surely hope not, I hope it’s not him. Sometimes girls get lost in the numbers, their faces and names, if one man does so much. But no, that’s not the way it is going to be. I know I have been chosen. I am special.
He’s putting out his cigarette. I look over at the phone, think of the people I could call before it is too late—my mother, those fine young policemen who know just where to go. But instead I stand, ready to face him. This town is a small one, so small and so quiet. I could have spent a life wandering the aisles of Glorious Kingdom, I would have. But bigger things wait for me. Just outside this door, in that cold night, stillness and calm that seem to spread all over the earth.
Annie Reid is a double expat American, currently residing in Sweden after a decade in Canada. She writes apocalyptic video games for a living and fiction for her sanity. She has published stories in American Short Fiction, Alaska Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Another Chicago Magazine, Prism International, The Baltimore Review, Ergo! and on the CBC Canada Writes website as a finalist for the CBC Short Fiction Prize. She is currently working on a novel.
‘Glorious Kingdom’ was first published in Prism 54:2 (Winter, 2016).
Photo used under Creative Commons by Kurt Bauschardt (via Flickr)