“Clean up on Aisle 4.” The voice over the tannoy sounded bored. It was the middle of the evening shift, descending into the lull before closing time. Only two of us were working that night: me and Tanner, the voice on the tannoy. He preferred not to leave the back office if he could avoid it, which suited me just fine; looking at his face too long made me want to punch it. He just had one of those faces.
The wheel on the mop bucket squeaked as I pushed it over to Aisle 4. It was a refrigerated aisle, so I figured it was probably spilt juice or milk, or maybe one of those sticky iced coffees.
I was not prepared for the scene in the aisle. This was no dairy catastrophe or escaped orange juice: it was the juice of a person, who was lying face-down in the middle of the aisle. From the sprawl of her limbs and the unnatural angle of her head, it looked like she had slipped, bashed her head on the lower edge of the fridge, and rolled across the polished floor. There was a dark pool of blood under her and she didn't appear to be moving.
I stopped at the end of the aisle and stared, then ran for the nearest staff phone.
“Tanner, we gotta close the store,” I said when he picked up.
“I think she’s…” I trailed off when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. Not dead after all: the woman was on her feet and heading for the door. “Uh, I think you should call someone.”
“Someone? Like, just anyone? Are you playing a game and trying to phone a friend, because you gotta have friends for that.”
“An ambulance, okay! Call an ambulance.”
I hung up the phone and ran after her. She was covered in blood, dark and sticky all over her front and down the side of her face.
“Ma’am? Ma’am!” I had to dance half in front of her before she noticed me and stopped. I didn’t quite dare to put a hand on her. “Are you all right?”
She blinked at me with wide eyes. “I’m fine. A little stumble, nothing serious.”
“Uh, ma’am, you’re bleeding, and…”
“This? Oh, this isn’t blood.” She smiled at me. “I spilled a drink, that’s all. Nothing to worry about at all. I just need to head home and clean up.”
If it wasn’t for that fearful look in her eye and the way she was sidling towards the door, I might have bought her story. But it just didn’t add up. I could smell the blood, that distinctive coppery tang, and I couldn’t get the way her head had been twisted out of my mind. That was no ‘little stumble’.
“I really think you should stay while we call someone for you,” I said.
She smiled again. “You’re very kind. I’ll be all right.” Then she was out through the automatic doors, which moved so fast it was like they were in on it, and gone.
I wanted to go after her. She was probably in shock and didn’t realise how badly she was hurt. There was no way she was ‘fine’ after making a pool of blood like that in the aisle. But if I left the store to chase her down, the boss would fire me; Tanner was a bit of a brown-nose and wouldn’t hesitate in reporting me.Not even if I left for a good reason.
She said she was fine. I should respect that, right? I sighed and returned to Aisle 4. I hadn’t been dreaming: there was a large pool of viscous liquid extending from the butter past the milk and cream to the yoghurt. It looked like blood. It smelled like blood. I honestly wasn’t sure how she was still walking around with all that on the floor. As I put out the Wet Floor signs and dunked my mop, I wanted to go after her again because surely she needed help.
After all, how much blood could a person lose before it got dangerous?
“What the—” Tanner had arrived at the end of the aisle and wrinkled his nose at the mess I was mopping up. The blood was gloopy and drying already.
“Yeah, it’s a lot. Did you call the ambulance?”
“I came down to see what the hell was going on. Who needs the ambulance?”
I tried not to stare at him like he was an idiot. He was technically my supervisor and he got touchy about that stuff. I focussed on the mopping instead, carefully dunking the mop and wringing it out again.
“The lady who fell and bled here.”
“Bled? Wait, there’s blood?” Tanner took a step forward and peered at the puddle I was working on like it was a mystery.
“What do you think this is?”
“I, uh… you sure she didn’t throw up?”
“This looks like vomit to you?”
“Sure. After, I dunno, eating something green? Maybe pureed, because, no lumps.”
"Yeah, it's all green."
I looked at the puddle again. Sure, I was colourblind, but it was clearly blood. Wasn’t it? It even had the consistency of blood. And the way it had been dripping down the side of her face…
I tried to remember the woman’s face or the colour of her hair, but the details were slippery and I couldn’t quite get hold of them. She had been roughly my height and dressed plainly. Hadn’t she? What had she looked like, beyond smeared in her own blood? I couldn’t remember.
“Where is she, anyway?” Tanner asked. He was keeping a distinct distance between him and the puddle, even though I was taming the mess with the mop. No danger of getting any on him, that’s for sure.
“She just left. You didn’t see her on the monitors?”
“No, just the puddle. And you running around like a lunatic.”
My stomach knotted up when he said that and I slowly stopped mopping. “I went after her. I spoke to her.”
“Yeah, whatever you say. There was nothing on the monitors. We haven’t had a customer in here for at least an hour.”
“I spoke to her,” I repeated in a small voice.
I was too busy going over the incident in my mind. Tanner had called for a cleanup, not to attend an accident, but she had been lying right in the middle of it when I got there. How he he failed to see her through the security cameras? He didn’t even recognise the mess as blood, but the color of her blood was the least of my worries.
I looked down at the swirls of liquid getting sticky on the floor. I needed to check those tapes. I needed to know if I was crazy or if Tanner was messing with me for some reason, but even Tanner wasn’t the sort of person to endanger someone just to put one over on me.
I kinda wanted to lick the liquid to see if it tasted like blood, too, but I also very much didn’t want to do that. It was bound to be a bad idea.
Tanner sighed. “Look, whatever happened, she’s gone and we gotta close up soon. Get this cleaned up, okay?”
“Sure,” I said numbly. I was still trying to remember what her face looked like. Her eyes had been scared but I couldn’t remember what colour they were. She had definitely had a face, though, and eyes, and a mouth she used to speak to me. She had definitely been there. I hadn’t imagined her, had I?
I cleaned up the mess in Aisle 4 and then went about the usual store-closing routine. As soon as I could, I slipped into the back corridor and waited for Tanner to go to the bathroom like he always did before we shut off the lights and locked up. I used that time to get into the office and rewind the security tapes.
They showed just what he’d said: a puddle had grown in Aisle 4, apparently from nowhere, and I had chased after nothing to the doors, bobbed about there for a little while, and then returned to the puddle. There was no woman. I watched it four times and there was not a single sign of her.
Looking closely, there was the faintest tremor in the fridge unit just before the puddle started to grow, as if something heavy had hit it. But nothing had fallen out of the fridge, nothing had spilt, nothing could explain how the puddle grew or the odd shape it seemed to grow around.
I was staring at the screens with my hands shaking when Tanner got back from his bathroom break. He gave me an odd look.
“What’s wrong with you? Come on, I gotta lock up. Move it unless you want to stay the night.”
I nodded and hurried to grab my stuff; there was no way I was getting locked into the store overnight. I followed him out and hovered around behind him while he locked the doors behind us. I wasn’t watching him, though: I was looking around for signs of a face I couldn’t remember: frightened eyes and a blood-smeared cheek. I was looking for a body that cameras couldn’t see. I was looking for something impossible and when I realised that, I decided that I should probably try looking for my own sanity instead.
I wracked my brain for an explanation, anything to make what had happened make sense. Could she be a ghost? Was that why the camera didn't pick her up? Wasn't the ghostly ectoplasm green in those movies? (That's what people had told me.)
But I didn't believe in ghosts. They weren't real. I couldn't possibly have met a ghost.
So what did that leave? Was she some kind of... other creature? She had looked like a woman. A human woman. Could she be an alien? They might have green blood and be able to mess with technology.
That was it: that was the end of my list. Ghost or alien, both equally ridiculous. Embracing just how silly the whole thing was, as I walked home, I decided that ghosts were confined to buildings, so if I saw her outside the store, she was definitely an alien. It was as good a set of criteria as any, right?
I got my answer when I got home to find a woman standing on my doorstep, smeared with blood in a colour I couldn't see.
"Alien," I blurted at her.
"I'm so sorry," she said, smiling sadly, just before everything went dark.
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