The first night it happened, Pearl thought Suebee was just acting strangely. Her barking woke up her just before 2 a.m., and when Pearl went downstairs to see if she needed to go outside, Suebee was just staring at the wall opposite the fireplace in the living room with the fur on her shoulders raised. “Go back to bed, Suebs,” she remembered she said before dragging herself up the stairs and burying herself back under the covers.
On the second night Suebee’s growling interrupted her beauty rest, Pearl stomped downstairs expecting to find Suebee up to the same mysterious nighttime antics, but this time, “YOU WILL DIE” was written in red on the same wall where Suebee was barking just the night before. Pearl had once considered buying some shabby chic letters from Marshall’s that spelled out, “Home” when she first moved in, but never “YOU WILL DIE.” It was cold in the living room, and Suebee’s panting echoed to the high ceilings. Pearl had the distinct feeling she and Suebee weren’t alone. Over her shoulder, Pearl noticed something floating as gently as particles of dust in the narrow ray of sunlight peeking through the curtains. Standing in the doorway between the living room in the kitchen was some kind of demon.
It looked like it had skin, but it was gray and disfigured with black soot in the deep wrinkles that made it neither human nor beast. The cloak it wore was gray and tattered and frayed at the bottom, as if its previous owner was a teenager who didn’t care it dragged the ground and “liked it like that.” Its mouth was open, but it had no tongue and no teeth, none of the biological accessories of life we take for granted.
Pearl sighed and grabbed Suebee’s leash from where it hung by the front door and headed back upstairs to pack a bag. She had learned to live with the spiders in this house, but a demon? Not a chance. A few dozen hair ties, socks, and several outfit options were thrown into her old weekend bag. The demon was shaking the walls, and it sounded like pots and pans were being thrown around downstairs. Pearl paused a moment. That cooking set had been a housewarming gift from her mother from Williams-Sonoma. Oh well, she’d simply have to explain the haunting.
“We’re leaving,” Pearl announced, grabbing her keys. “Enjoy the empty house I’m sure you have some great personal connection to.”
She was leaving a lot behind, but she’d send movers back for her things. How much of a tip do you give to movers in a haunted house, Pearl wondered?
Her sister’s house wasn’t home, but she was one the few people who would be unconditionally willing to host the pair, even on such short notice. “This haunting couldn’t have happened at worse time,” Pearl sighed, rolling onto her stomach. “I have so much to do tomorrow.”
And she did. The wind chime alarm sang dutifully at 8 a.m., and Pearl was headed into the city by 8:45 to make her dental appointment at 9 a.m. Sometime in the six months since her last appointment, the office had been redecorated in a nautical theme. The seascape oil painting behind the receptionist’s desk was done with heavy strokes of navy and cerulean, and she was wondering if it was commissioned to look like a large scale glob of toothpaste when she heard her name.
“Ready to come back?”
Pearl grabbed her purse and followed the blonde wearing tooth-printed scrubs. It seemed that having blonde hair was a prerequisite for working in the dental field, but this dental hygienist didn’t look familiar.
“So how have you been?! I was just thinking about you the other day. What have you been up to?”
On the unavoidable small talk scale, dental appointments were the worst. There was half of a year’s worth of stuff to rehash while someone uses a metal hook to poke your molars. This new employee was entirely too eager to hear about her life. She hated having to be the patient to break the new employees’ spirit and teach them to lower their conversational expectations.
“Oh you know, just working. Last night there was a demon in my living room, so I had to abandon my home. Just the usual stuff, heh.” She closed her eyes and opened her mouth expecting the pressure of rubber-gloved fingers.
“Don’t you remember? Pearl, it’s me!”
Pearl closed her mouth and reopened her eyes. A chill ran down her spine. She had no idea who this person was. This room, the entire office and the world outside, suddenly felt too small to inhabit. She was petrified.
“Pearl!” She spun backward in her rolling chair and opened a drawer behind her and recovered a purple leather-bound book. It wasn’t until Pearl saw the shrunken Cougar logo on the spine that she recoiled in horror: It was her seventh grade yearbook. But what was it doing here at her dentist’s office? Why did this hygienist have it? She shook her head a few times thinking she was just having a bad dream.
“You remember now?! It’s me, Emily! We were best friends! I’m Let’s see here…” The yearbook’s front cover was open, and she was looking for something on the inside. “Aha!” She pointed to the lower left corner and flipped the book so Pearl could see:
emily (aka emem, emmo, ilyem):
your my BFF4EVR! I luv you like a sister + I can’t imagine life w.o. you. c u this summer. LUV YA MUCHO!
~ya gurl PeArL~
Her hands flew up to cover her mouth as if all the color that had draining from her face would pour from her lips. The letter I’s were all dotted with hearts, a fleeting handwriting choice she had purged from her memory much like the typewriter style “a” she forced herself to write most of freshman year of high school. “Ya gurl” Pearl? The muscles in her legs were twitchy, ready to spring into action and carry her back to the car as soon as her brain settled on fight or flight.
“I moved away that summer, remember? And you promised you were going to keep in touch. But you didn’t. Why did you lie in your yearbook note?”
Pearl couldn’t understand why this was happening. How was this possible? She had forgotten Emily had even existed; she was just the little blonde girl from middle school in some old photo albums. Pearl left her purse on the chair when she came in, roughly four feet away. If she could lunge forward with enough force, the momentum would propel her out of the examination chair and onto her feet. There was no time to think. She had to escape before it was too late.
Pearl pushed the yearbook into Emily’s face and rolled forward toward the foot of the chair, ripping the protectant paper. Her purse hula-hooped around her body when she flung the strap over her shoulder and sprinted past the receptionist desk, nimbly avoiding the aquarium just outside. They were still calling after her when the key erratically pinballed its way into the ignition. She didn’t need to check the rearview mirror to know Emily was heading her way with the yearbook in one hand and a soft bristle toothbrush in the other. Before Emily had to the chance to cover any more ground, Pearl jumped the curb into the Chinese restaurant’s parking lot next door and maneuvered her way back onto the main road.
She didn’t stop to wipe the sweat from her forehead until she had put four miles between her and her now former dentist. How could that have happened? The yearbook, the confrontation at a place where she was at her most vulnerable! It had been a nightmare. Pearl pulled over to collect herself, and after a few minutes and a well-timed En Vogue song, she was able to carry on to her car insurance agent’s office.
It took passing three sets of golden arches for Pearl to remember she hadn’t eaten breakfast in anticipation of working up an appetite after a blood-letting flossing session. After that fright at that dentist, she needed something to steady her nerves. Oatmeal should do the trick. It was the cement of breakfast foods, after all.
Waiting in line, she stared idly a picture of a cinnamon bun on the menu board and rehearsed her order. “Can I just get a cup of the oatmeal with strawberries?” the voice in her head repeated. She wondered if she should omit the “just.” Did that make her seem too eager to prove she wasn’t ordering much?
“Are you ready to order?” the man behind the register asked, adjusting his visor. Pearl took a step forward and rested her wallet on the counter.
“Yes, could I just,” she paused. “Can I get a cup of oatmeal with strawberries?”
The worst part was over. All that remained was giving her name and handing over some cash. Easy stuff. She smiled to herself, letting out a deep breath.
“Do you want rolled oats or steel cut?”
A chill ran down her spine like a drop of melting ice cream in your blind spot sliding down the cone. Her palms suddenly felt hot, and what was once the quiet hum of morning chatter and to-go coffee cups tapping tabletops became a thunderous roar that made it hard to breathe, let alone think. Pearl pressed her palms into the cold countertop, trying to ignore her panic. She thought she had prepared for every question. She knew she wanted a cup, not a bowl. She knew she wanted her order to-go. She didn’t even know the difference between rolled oats and steel cut! It was all mushy slop you ate when you want to eat healthy and pretend you’re a nineteenth century orphan. Why did it matter? Why was this happening to her? She thought she heard the woman behind her click her tongue.
“Steel cut!” she cried, turning behind her. “I’m sorry I’m taking so long. I didn’t know he was going to ask me that.” The woman behind her was on the phone and simply shrugged and shook her head, speaking quietly to the person listening on the other end. “I’m always in line behind the person who doesn’t know what they want…”
Her heart was still pounding as she shoveled oatmeal into her mouth in the car. She had planned on eating inside, but she was too afraid to stay there any longer than necessary.
Pearl is sitting on one side of her insurance agent’s desk. It’s where she was told to wait until he gets back from “the little boy’s room.” She wants to change her coverage, something she’d never done before, and she called last week to find out if she needed to make an appointment, but she got the office voicemail. There was more to it than that. She thought she had hung up when she was done, but she hadn’t, and she didn’t realize her phone was still connected to the answering machine until about three minutes later. The audio that was captured in those three minutes was quite possibly the most mortifying message ever captured.
The voicemail had unwittingly recorded her singing the suppertime song she sings to Suebee. The suppertime song was a secret jingle Pearl invented back when Suebee was just a puppy. The first time she sang it she was just joking around, but it stuck, and it became their nightly ritual. The voicemail taped Pearl singing the song in its entirety.
If she had left the message on anyone’s voicemail other than her car insurance agent, she would’ve promptly scheduled an appointment with a reconstructive plastic surgeon and started the process of changing her name in preparation for her new life off the grid, but the people working here were all but cloistered from the rest of the world with their claims and premiums. She was still humiliated, but she figured her embarrassment was quarantined in this office full of Baby Boomers and insurance drones.
“Pearl! How’s it going?”
“Oh, good, thanks. How about you?”
“Not too bad, not too bad,” her agent took his glasses off and set them down on the desk. “You know, I have to tell you, we all really got a kick out of your message the other day.”
She blushed, but tried to grin her way through it. It was bound to come up. Tom had been her insurance agent since she hit that fire hydrant her senior year of high school. He was a nice man with gray hair poking out of nose and ears. He couldn’t mean any harm if he tried.
“I’m so sorry that ended up on your machine. I just had no idea. I’m sure I’m famous in the office now,” she forced a laugh.
“We’ve heard much worse, trust me. We loved it. How does it start again? Suppertime, suppertime… Something.”
“Oh I don’t even know what I was saying that day. Just being silly, you know. Anyway, I wanted to stop in to talk about my rate. I’m not driving as much anymore, and I was hoping–”
Tom got up and went over to a laptop at the adjacent desk. With a few pokes on the trackpad, something started playing.
“Hi, um, this message is for Tom…”
Pearl’s eyes widened, her mouth suddenly getting dry. It was her voice she heard. It couldn’t be.
“This is Pearl Averley. I was calling to make an appointment with you but it looks like you’re not in, obviously, because this is your voicemail. Ahem. Anyway! I was just trying to schedule some time with you to talk about my insurance, so if can give me a call back that would be great! Okay, bye! Oh, wait. Do you need my phone number? No, that’s probably on the account. Okay, never mind. Thank you! Bye!”
Pearl stood up from her seat as if it would help her understand what was going on. The receptionist noticed her movement and blocked the exit, motioning for her to sit down like they were all at a restaurant and the waiters were organizing to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. Could she break through the window? Was there an emergency exit somewhere?
“Suebee! Ready to eat?! Yeah? Suppertime, suppertime, ding, dang, dine, this bowl’s for you, then I’ll make mine!”
The other employees had gathered in the waiting area now. Some of them were wearing dog ears and pin-on tails. They had all formed a line and were doing some kind of line dance to the suppertime song. Pearl’s left wrist was red from being pinched, because surely this had to be a dream. Why would the insurance office staff do a flash mob with her accidental voicemail?
“Stop!” she yelled. “Turn it off! Enough!” But they couldn’t hear her pleas. She covered her ears.
“A little kibble for you and a nibble for me, we’re the best friends that friends can be. P – E – A – R – L and Sue-bee.”
A long silence. The employees had linked arms in preparation for a kick line.
“Let’s see now. What’s this? Hello? Did I not hang up? Hello? Tom? Oh my god. Oh my god. Please ignore that message. I thought I hung up. I’ll call back. Just delete this. I’ve been drugged, okay? This isn’t a good time. I have to go.”
“See, Pearl!” Tom bellowed. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. We really loved it! We’ve been listening to it here all week.”
Pearl pushed through the crowd, calling to Tom, “I have to go!” and soon only the ringing of the bell on the door was the only proof she had been there at all.
Back in the safety of her car, Pearl wiped the tears from her eyes. She’d never been so terrified her in her life. As if it was bad enough hearing a recording of her voice, did they have to wear dog ears and dance? She had no idea what would happen next.
Pearl took sanctuary in the one place where she knew she could be safe and collect her thoughts: Target. Even if something horrible happened here, it would be okay, because this was Target, not WalMart. If worse came to worst, she would die as she lived among the quirky home goods and the economically-priced basic tee shirts. With her hands full of items – some on her shopping list, most not – the checkout line was in chaos. It was busy enough that they’d beckoned some manager to stand in the middle of the pandemonium, directing red carts like an air traffic controller.
She eenie-meenie’d her way to a line and took out her phone as a distraction, but with only two percent battery left, she knew she was better off conserving her power in case of a true emergency. Pearl sighed, locking her screen and slipping her phone back into her pocket. Time stood still as diapers, nail polish, and board games moved along the conveyor belt. The items were being bagged and scanned, but the line wasn’t moving.
Pearl was balancing on the tips of her toes for a better look, but there was nothing out of the ordinary up ahead. Just a chatty cashier doing her job too well. When her heels came back to solid ground she was suffocated by the scent of perfume, the kind you sniff in a magazine that makes you wish your nose had a reset button. It smelled like a candle store had been put into a time capsule in 1960 and disinterred just now, at this very moment in the Target checkout line. Where was it coming from?
“They really need to get more people working here,” a cigarette-scratched voice said.
Pearl swallowed, gripping her items close. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to keep her breathing steady as she counted to ten. I do not exist. You can’t see me. Please don’t pick me.
A red nail-polished hand appeared on her shoulder. “Us girls have got to stick together in this line!”
Pearl had no choice now. She knew who was behind her. She turned, and there she was: a familiar figure in the posture of impatience with her hand on her hip. A sheer, leopard printed scarf was draped around her neck and a pair of heavy green earrings weighed down her ear lobes as if to answer to the question, “Do your ears hang low?” Her lipstick was a few shades too dark, and she had probably spent more time on her hair than you’d ever guess based on its finished appearance. It was the Woman Who Complains in the Checkout Line, and Pearl was without the crucifix of technology to scare the demon back.
“It’s been moving pretty fast,” she lied before facing forward again. Maybe this could be it, she hoped.
“Well, you know that one up there is going to want a price check on everything.”
Her arms were trembling now, from heaviness and from fear. Where was this conversation headed? A racist tirade? A demand to have the CEO’s contact information? She didn’t feel safe. This creature was tireless in her pursuit to make waiting even worse than it already was.
“Shouldn’t your kids or husband be here to help you with all that, hon? I’m sure there’s a cart boy around here somewhere. Cart boy! Here, cart boy!”
“Thank you so much, but I’m really fine,” Pearl insisted.
They took a few steps forward. There were still two more people ahead, and one of them was buying baby clothes that the cashier was undoubtedly going to coo over for a solid four minutes.
“You know they have those reusable shopping bags right? They don’t make them like they used to, but they’re not bad.”
Another half step.
“You know who you remind me of? This girl my Danny used to go with a few years ago. She was a nice girl. Not like those little tarts he brings around now.”
Three steps. It’s a game of “Mother May I?” controlled by how fast a seasonal employee can scan cat food. Pearl swore should be feel every blessed millimeter of receipt paper tearing when the cashier pulled the receipt for the last customer ahead of her. Finally, it was time.
The woman behind her had chosen a new victim now that Pearl had joined the ranks of the chosen shoppers who had reached the point of sale. She had her card in her hand, ready to swipe at a moment’s notice.
“Can I get your email four coupons?”
“No thank you, that’s okay,” Pearl said. “Can I go ahead and swipe?”
“They’re free! They just go right to your email.”
“You know what it is?” It’s the Woman Who Complains again. “These kids today they just don’t know the value of money. Who would turn down saving money? You’d have to be crazy. The whole world is going to pot.”
Pearl thought she heard a scream from behind her. Was it the little girl in the next line being denied a Snickers, or was it all in her mind?
“I’m already getting the coupons, and I’m just in a bit of a hurry, that’s all. I really appreciate it.”
Pearl swiped her card anxiously. Let me go, she silently begged. Please let me go. The screen didn’t change.
“Now, wait a second,” the cashier scolded. “Let me just look you up in the system. Can I just have a look at your ID?”
There was nothing for it. She couldn’t get away. Pearl pried her license free from where it was displayed in her wallet and handed it the cashier who looked over her glasses to record the information in the computer.
“Alright now hang on a minute. Okay, the email I have on file here is email@example.com. Are you cheeky chica?”
A few people within earshot chuckled. No, Pearl actually was not firstname.lastname@example.org. As it happens, she had never been any kind of email chica, cheeky or otherwise. This was not and had never been her email.
“You sure don’t look like a Latina to me!” the woman in line behind her offered as proof of her ancestry expertise.
Everyone in a five-foot radius was watching Pearl, jeering. They wanted her to confirm what they all believed: That was she was indeed cheeky chica. There weren’t many options at this point. She could give these monsters what they want, or continue the madness with this overzealous cashier. Pearl took the pen from the card swipe terminal and tapped it on the counter like a gavel.
“Attention, people of Target. Yes! It is I, email@example.com. That’s my email, okay! Can I pay now? Please?”
“Excuse me,” a voice called. A woman with dark hair carrying pair of bags in each hand was headed her way. “Who do you think you are screaming my email address to everyone in here?”
“I—What?” Pearl was confused.
It couldn’t be, could it? Was this in fact firstname.lastname@example.org. Pearl heard someone calling, “Boo!” from behind her. The awful woman in line behind her slammed another divider on the conveyor belt separating her items from where Pearl’s once were. She had been caught in the worst kind of lie: the lie that didn’t ever matter in the first place. Pearl couldn’t take it anymore. She told the cashier to void the transaction and bolted for the door.
“Well, it was nice having you here, even just for one night.” Pearl’s sister told the back of her head mid-hug. “I’m glad they were able to clear that ghost or whatever out of your house so quickly.”
Pearl feigned a smile, squeezing her sister tighter. “Me too, sis. Me too.”
When the two of them returned, it looked like the house had aged a hundred years. The windows were dark and the grass and flowers that once created a lush lawn had all died in their momentary absence. Pearl had to drag Suebee all the way up the front walkway. The appearance inside wasn’t much better. This creature, this demon, had made their little home unrecognizable. The floor was covered with glass from picture frames and pieces of torn wall paper. It looked like some very lazy vandals or a herd of toddlers had run rampant. Suebee was sent outside to the yard while Pearl found a broom and dust pan. She had finished sweeping the third pile of debris when it appeared.
The creature was taller than she remembered, but less imposing. It swirled around her, stinging her skin with the cool mist that followed it around like a shadow. It paused in front of her face and from its mouth came a tortured sound like nothing she’d ever heard. It was the cry of a thousand centuries, of a ruined existence and a broken future. It chilled her to the bone, and for a second she faltered in her decision.
She thought back to the dentist, how terrified she was when she saw that yearbook. And what about the oatmeal inquiry? Or the impromptu performance of her voicemail at the insurance agent’s office? The Target debacle! This creature was terrifying indeed, but no scarier than the world in which she already lived. She acknowledged its howl with a polite nod and got back to the work of restoring some order to her home.
It was cold most nights now – the demon likes to pull Pearl’s blankets off of her while she sleeps no matter how many times she tells it there’s no hidden camera – but other than that, life had settled into a comfortable routine. The threat of death was all but implied, but Pearl was optimistic. She had found a new dentist and a new insurance agent, sworn off oatmeal, and realized the Target ten miles outside of town was actually a lot nicer.
But most importantly, Pearl didn’t have to live in fear anymore.