Context is everything. It’s the reason I was standing in a bodega, yelling at an old woman in a dead language and brandishing a jar of pickles. I suppose it would help to know the old lady was possessed by a Sumerian gluttony demon, and the language was Enochian. The pickles were because I was hungry for pickles, and I forgot to put them down, so I just rolled with it. Like I said – context.
Somewhere in the background, someone was talking on the phone, and in the city, a siren was wailing. I was more concerned with the old lady standing across from me, a French loaf in one hand, a bag of Fleet enemas in the other. She was wearing a sweater with an embroidered chicken on it. What can you say? Age lends wisdom, but dulls fashion sense. She blinked, and for a moment, I saw her irises turn red, like blood in water. I could see her tense to run, and I pulled back my arm to throw the pickles to stun her.
In the back of my head, I heard the bell over the door tinkle – an angel was getting his wings – and someone was shouting in Spanish. I started to throw the pickles as the old lady twitched to the right, but never made the throw. A hand, cool, with a grip like steel, grabbed my wrist, stopped the throw.
“That’s enough now, Angus.”
I spun to face the man who had stopped me, and caught the old lady walking to the register. She was wearing a smirk. I looked in to the face of a six-foot-four two-hundred and fifty pound cop. Shit. Murphy. He’s the only one that’d use my first name. He smiled.
“How’ve you been? Aside from harassing old ladies?”
He seemed unconcerned that a Sumerian demon was escaping. Probably didn’t even know. That’s what happens when you’re vanilla. Suit, tie, nine to five, and having a good cry in your car alone over a McDonald’s cheeseburger. I slid the pickles back onto the shelf as innocently as possible.
“Oh, you know. Fine. Just…exorcising a lot these days.”
Murphy looked around the bodega. The old lady was escaping through the front door. One of her support hose had fallen. The bell over the door tinkled again as she exited, and I cursed under my breath. The lady behind the counter, a middle-aged Spanish lady with long dark hair, was glaring at me, but at least was no longer calling me a puta over and over. Murphy looked back to me.
“You gonna leave nice?”
I nodded, and tried to look contrite.
“You gonna chase that old lady?” He asked.
I shook my head, and tried to look like I wasn’t lying. He eyeballed me for a moment, and seemed to decide I wasn’t worth the paperwork. He sighed.
“Okay. Out, then.”
I went, leaving Murphy behind, the bell over the door announcing my departure. The air outside was crisp, and smelled faintly of exhaust. The light was fading, and I spent a good minute looking both ways down the darkening street, trying to find my demon. After a minute, I looked behind me, through the glass door of the bodega. Murphy had just finished talking to the lady behind the counter, and was heading toward me. I decided to make like a pedestrian.
I was at the crosswalk when the door tinkled one last time behind me. The thought of that demonic old bag niggled at me. I didn’t look back.
I made a sandwich. Exorcism is hard work. Battle of wills, light versus dark, extreme personal danger – all that. I was starving. Bread, ham, pastrami, pepperoni – wait a damn minute. No pickles? I groaned inwardly. That was why I went to the bodega in the first place. Well, nothing to be done for it.
I put the sandwich in the fridge, grabbed my keys, and left. I was getting pickles. Luckily, I knew of a 24 hour store. More importantly, I knew they were a bit farther than the bodega, which was closed, and I knew they had pickles.
The door to my apartment closed behind me, latching with a soft click. I cursed the old lady under my breath all the way down the stairs, and daydreamed about a delicious sandwich, with pickles.
The grocery store was a great corporate behemoth, whitewashed brick walls and vast glass windows that reflected the parking lot and the tall lights with their bugs buzzing around them. The parking lot was nearly empty this time of night, most people done with their after-work shopping and dining, and now sipping coffee and beer in front of the TV where Sheldon Cooper or Gregory House entertained them.
The glass doors whooshed open on well-oiled tracks, and I could smell glass cleaner and an earthy aroma from the bin of watermelons in the entry. I walked past rows of carts and a hand sanitizer pump – pump pump – I scrubbed my hands – and walked into the store proper. Cool air and mingled food scents – cooling breads from the deli, and the tang of meat – hit me in the face and passed on.
I made a beeline for the pickled goods, and after a minute of walking, found them. I stood for a moment, dumbfounded by the sheer variety. Pickled okra, garlic, tiny ears of corn, Brussels sprouts – I suppressed a gag – and where the hell where the pickles? After a moment of panic, I looked to my left, and found them, glorious, tangy pickles. I grabbed a jar and wandered back to the meats, thinking I might add some salami to my near-perfect sandwich.
I was still in the aisle when I heard someone chewing. Not like you hear someone chewing when something’s crunchy, but that lip-smacking, wet and gooey, somebody’s-eating-something-raw-and-I’m-gonna-puke chewing. I stepped into the open, past the end cap of the aisle, where Stove-Top stuffing was hawking their new flavor. Mint sage, I think. I dunno – it’s gross.
The old lady was there, bent over the meat counter. She had a package of hamburger open, and was eating it by the handful. Thin runners of blood trickled down her chin and pattered on the floor. My stomach threatened to heave up the sandwich I hadn’t eaten yet.
“Hey.” I said. That’s me, master of witty repartee.
She looked up, and I saw her eyes flash red. A low growl rose in her throat, and for a moment, I thought she was going to speak. Instead, I chucked the pickles at her head.
They hit with a thud, and the pickles fell to the floor. The jar shattered, and the smell of vinegar and dill filled the air. I felt a pang of regret. I had really wanted those pickles. A moment later, the old woman’s eyes rolled up in her head, and she collapsed into the briny mess, still clutching a wad of meat. I looked around frantically and listened.
There were no shouts of alarm, no one running down the aisle. Aside from the sound of the meat cooler humming away, the store was quiet. I thanked whoever was watching over me, and weighed my options. One – run like hell, and hope nobody found the old lady before I was out. Two – my eyes fell on the service entrance to the stockroom, tucked between meat cases. Two – drag her in the back, block the door, and perform an exorcism. I looked around again, and grabbed the lady by her wrists, and dragged her through the doors.
The room was big and cold. I could see my breath in the air. I looked around. Against the far wall pallets of meat were stacked, with a pallet jack nearby. In the center of the wall was a deep freeze door, a dial next to it showing the temperature of the room beyond. A stainless steel counter with a sink stood against another wall, with a hook over it, and knives on a magnetic strip. The room had the distinct smell of coppery blood, old and new, floating through the air.
I pulled the old lady into the center of the room, and dropped her, then grabbed the pallet jack and shoved its prongs into a pallet. After a minute of trial and error, I got the pallet and the jack moving, and managed to drop the small mountain of meat in front of the door. That done, I turned back to the old lady.
I needed a circle, if I was going to get anything done. I looked around, and my brain lit up. There was salt on a small shelf over the cutting table. Probably for pre-seasoned steaks. I walked over, and sure enough, salt, Lawry’s, and a few other spices took up the shelf. I grabbed the salt, and opened the spout, then walked over to the old lady. Idly, I wondered what her name was. She was probably an Edna. They’re almost always Edna, or Bernice.
I poured the salt out in a line as I walked a circle around the lady, careful not to break or cross the line. When I was done, I set the salt to the side, and crouched next to Edna. I took a good look at her. She was lined – more wrinkled than a paper bag, and thin blue veins traced paths in her temples and across the backs of her hands. Her skin was like parchment, and nearly as white as snow, like her hair, which spiraled in wispy curls from the top of her head.
She stirred, and I spoke to her in Enochian.
“Who are you?” I asked.
Her eyes fluttered open, and she saw me. Her pale blue, rheumy eyes filled with tears, and she raised a hand to the swelling bruise on her forehead.
“What? Why’d you hit me? What am I doing here?” She asked.
I smirked at her. It was the demon, I knew. I’m no sucker. Well, that, and she sounded like Barry White with laryngitis.
“You’re free to go. You just need to leave the circle.”
She raised her head and looked around, but made no move to leave. A sneer snuck onto her lip, and her eyes flashed red.
“Look, cocksucker. Let an old lady go. Or, I can strip your skin, and eat you like beef jerky. I can fill your mother’s mouth with sh-”
I punched her in the head. I knew I’d feel bad later, but you know, Sumerian demon. Also, I have issues with impulse control. What can I say?
She slumped back onto the concrete floor, and I stood, shaking the ache out of my hand. I was pacing, trying to find a new tack, when someone passed by the meat department doors. I waited a minute, and he passed again. Shit. It was Murphy.
I ducked behind the meat pallet and waited. I saw his shadow pass again, and I prayed to whoever was listening that he was just having a hard time deciding on a flank steak. I waited another five minutes, the only sounds in the room my heartbeat and Edna’s breathing. When I was sure he was gone, I moved the meat pallet away from the door, and broke the salt circle. I hated to do it, but getting shot by an off-duty cop in Hamburgerville wasn’t my idea of fun.
I crept out of the double doors and left, my head down. Someone had cleaned up the pickle puddle. I hesitated for a moment, torn between wanting to get out clean, and wanting another jar of pickles. The pickles won out. I grabbed a jar, and headed for the checkouts, still looking at the floor.
That’s how I ran into Murphy’s wall-sized back.
I bounced off, nearly dropped the pickles, and cursed. Murphy turned, and just raised an eyebrow.
“Pickles okay?” He asked.
They were. I nodded and swallowed the horse-sized lump in my throat. I gestured at his basket.
He nodded. We stood in silence for a moment, then his turn at the register came up, and we were done talking. I breathed out a little. I started toward the line, to put my pickles down, when a sound – running feet – distracted me. I turned, and saw Edna, her hair completely wild, her eyes wide, dried meat blood on her chin, and spittle drooling from her open mouth. She was also making a noise, which doesn’t seem all that important, but it was really really annoying.
Murphy spun around just as Edna raised a ten-inch boning knife.
“Holy crap!” He yelled.
“Ack!” I agreed.
“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” Edna added.
Then, time slowed down, and three things happened at once. Murphy drew his gun. Edna got close enough to take a swipe with that small sword of hers, and I chucked my pickles at her. Again.
Time snapped back to normal. The pickles sailed wide, and shattered on the floor, I felt what seemed to be a fireplace poker rip its away into my arm, and there was a noise in my ear, like someone popping the world’s biggest paper bag, if it were filled with gunpowder, in my ear. The world went white for a minute, and then made a sound not unlike Edna’s wail. I staggered back from the knife, and red blossomed on Edna’s blouse, right above the embroidered chicken on her chest. She staggered as well; her eyes open in surprise, and then dropped the knife. She swayed for a moment, and then fell to the floor. She didn’t get back up.
I turned to Murphy, my arm burning, warmth running down the inside of my elbow. He looked at me, then at the old lady on the floor.
Well, he didn’t really say ‘question mark’, but you know. What else are you going to say after that?
It took the cops a couple of hours so sort us out, and another couple of my hours at the hospital, where they turned my arm into a cross-stitch project. There was no inquiry. The official report said the suspect was delusional, and combative, and Officer Murphy acted in the best interests of everyone involved.
You might ask whether I wrestle with some sort of moral dilemma after getting an old lady – God rest her wrinkled soul – killed. I’d like to tell you there was nothing to feel bad for, that the demon had delved so deep and taken over so completely, the original woman was gone. I’d like to tell you that good and evil are simple things that walk the world in suits of black and white. I’d like to tell you I don’t have dark moments. I’d like to tell you that lies are easy to come by for me, and I don’t turn to them sometimes. But I won’t.
What I will tell you is that I finally got my pickles, and it was worth it.