The First Chapter
It started on New Year’s. I was working at my new job, The Corner Shop. It wasn’t as though I had anything going on: no boyfriend, no family, and no friends, which is how I liked it. No one to tie me down, no one to complicate my life, and I was happy. Really, I was. Who needs people anyway? So if anyone tells you I was miserable, they would be wrong.
The Shop, as most of the regulars affectionately called it, held an odd array of items. There were the usual things, such as milk, a few grocery items, beer, which was in high demand that night, and cleaning supplies. There were also a few unusual items. Earlier that evening I had come across a shrunken head in the back room, which would have seemed out of place, except I knew my grandmother had owned a shrunken head at one time. I wondered if this is where she had found it. I would never know for sure. She had passed away a month ago, two days after my 19th birthday.
I missed her. A lot. She had raised me after my parents died in a car accident. I was three at the time and I barely remembered them. She spoiled me too. Until she was gone, I never gave a thought to how the bills were paid. So now, I had a job and a small apartment a few blocks away.
Some of my fellow employees tried to pull me into the festivities. They were celebrating in the back room, waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. I was up front in case a customer came in.
“Francine, the store is empty, no one is going to come walking in while we’re in the back, and, even if they do, there’s a bell.”
I looked up to find Joseph standing next to me. He might have been good looking if not for his one fatal flaw. He was gorgeous in a way a lot of girls liked - blah. And blond. Yech. Maybe if he grew his hair a little … tried the bad boy look. As it was, he looked like he was fresh out of high school, and I looked like a high school dropout.
Joseph wiggled his eyebrows at me. I stared at him, unmoving. He had a crush on me. Why, I don’t know. I’d done everything I could to discourage him, but still he persisted. I could see the disappointment in his eyes when I refused; I think he was honestly hoping I would kiss him at the stroke of midnight. Blah!
“Leave her be,” Debbie said, pulling Joseph to the back.
Speaking of the type of girl Joseph appealed to, Debbie was blond, with long hair that fell just past her shoulders. I’m sure she spent hours getting it to shine like it did. She was wearing a pink shirt which went against company policy, but who was going to tell? The only manager assigned to work that night was Carl and he was already drunk in the back. How he still had a job was a mystery, since he was always drunk, but Penny, the owner of The Corner Shop, seemed protective of him. I could understand why—there was something about him that made even me want to protect him. He was seven years older than I was, but he seemed more innocent than even Joseph. I was drawn to him, but in a sisterly way. He had tight curls and nerd glasses. I was sure he had once been the kid on the playground everyone picked on.
Debbie shook her head, letting me know she didn’t approve of me. She’d disapprove even more if she knew I’d been spitting in her coffee. Behind her, Carl yelled, “It’s almost midnight. If you want to see it, get in here.” Debbie took Joseph’s hand and pulled him to the back. I went back to work - or I tried to. The ball was dropping. I could hear them counting down … ten, nine, eight, and I was doing my level best to ignore them while I straightened up the aisles, making them look presentable for when the drunken idiots came in - and they would. Seven, six, five, four … a chill went through my body. My grandmother would say someone had walked over my grave. A silly thought, but I was suddenly filled with a sense of dread. I looked around. No one was in the store, but . . . three, two, one!
Everyone was cheering and clapping, which is why I didn’t hear the bell, or at least that’s what I told myself. There was a mirror in the corner, angled so you could see the back of the store from the front and I glanced up in time to see Joseph and Debbie kissing. Okay, it was more like Debbie kissing Joseph while he flailed around trying to get away. Why did I feel jealous? No, it wasn’t jealousy, but I was uncomfortable with it. Turning back to the shelf I’d been straightening, I was startled to see someone else in the store.
He stood watching me and I watched him back. His eyes were dark, brooding. His hair hung in his eyes so they were hard to see, but what I did see I liked in a morbid sort of way. Images of making love to him on a bed of black roses in the middle of a graveyard came to mind. Like I said: morbid. There’s a reason people steer clear of me.
The world stood still in those few moments. My heart was beating loudly, blood rushed to my head, and the room spun. I thought I heard someone call my name. The sound of glass breaking brought me back to the room. I shook my head to clear it. Mr. Gorgeous still stood across the aisle, but now he was looking at the ground. I’d dropped the packet of glass Christmas ornaments I’d been dusting off.
“Francine, for Pete’s sake, look at what you’ve done!” Debbie had her hands on her hips and looked like she was about to scold me. Joseph was standing behind her, a horrified look on his face.
“That’s coming out of your paycheck,” Carl hiccuped.
“Fine, they’re marked down to 25 cents anyway.” I bent to pick the package up, nearly bumping my head with tall, dark, and gruesome. He’d dropped to his knees to help me and I found myself staring into those dark orbs of his again. Dismayed, Debbie rushed to help him up.
“Francine can clean it,” she said, taking hold of his arm. A puzzled look crossed her face and she let go. Stepping back she looked at her hand and then at him. “Can … can we help you find anything?”
“I’ve found what I need,” he said. He was still looking at me and a small thrill rushed through my body. Leaning forward, his face came close to mine as he reached past me and lifted a plastic goblet off the shelf of discounted items. It was tacky. I liked it.
“Nice choice,” I said, sarcastically.
“I’ll ring you up.” Joseph’s voice was stiff. The customer smiled at me. God, his teeth were blinding. He stood and followed Joseph to the register.
The rest of the night was a nightmare. Like I said, all the idiots came in, stumbling over each other in the mad rush to buy more alcohol before closing. There were more than a few weirdos too. Some looked like they’d only stopped on Earth for a quick visit. I think I sold a few shrunken heads. Finally, the store was closed and the till locked away.
“Leave it all ‘til morning,” Carl said as I started to put the returned items away.
“Penny hates it when we leave things for the morning crew.”
“I know, but I’m tired and all I want is to go home.” He glanced out the door, looking skittish. “Joseph, will you drive me?”
“Sure, Carl. Francine, would you like a ride too?” Joseph looked at me like a lost puppy dog, begging me to take him home with me.
“I’ll walk,” I said. “It’s not very far and it’s a nice night.
Joseph put out his arm to stop me. “Francine, you shouldn’t be walking. There was another attack a few nights ago.”
He was right; it was all over the news, some kind of an animal. At least that’s what the police thought. Two women were already dead.
“I’ve got mace. I’ll be okay.”
“You can give me a ride,” Debbie said.
“What’s wrong with your car?”
“Well … nothing. I just thought, maybe …” She looked at him suggestively and I almost felt sorry for Joseph.
“My car’s crowded. I don’t think there’s room for you,” Joseph said, his face reddening as he looked away.
“But you were going to give Francine a ride.”
“Have a little dignity,” I whispered as I walked past her and out the door.
He was waiting for me a few blocks from my apartment. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I walk the same path every day and if someone were watching me, they would know. Alarms should have been going off when I saw him sitting on the bench outside of the park. Instead my heart began to pound again and not in the “run for your life, this guy is a wacko” type of way. I was pulled into his eyes again. Hell, I was drowning in them.
“Hello,” I said, stopping in front of Mr. Dreamy. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I keep my eyes off him?
He smiled. “Hello.” His voice was smooth.
We stood there staring at each other. Then his arms were around me. I’m not one to fall into a man’s arms, but there I was… and enjoying it. The world fell away. Cliché, I know. It came rushing back when I felt his teeth chomp into my neck. I could hear a voice yelling my name. A roar sounded in my ear and then I was falling backwards.
“Francine. Francine, are you alright?”
“We’ve got to get her out of here.
“She’s lost a lot of blood.”
Someone lifted me off the ground. I opened my eyes. Joseph was staring back.
“You’re going to be okay.” He was trying to sound reassuring, but it wasn’t working. Maybe it’s because he was shimmering … no, he was glowing. Then I passed out.
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