In the beginning were all the right smells: Lysol, stale coffee, hot dogs rolling in their case, pizza slices drying under lamps. Over all, the gasoline vapor that filled the store with every chime of the bell on the door and blast of cold outside air.
Owl unlocked the door before the sun rose, started the coffee, hot dog roller, and pizza lamp, mopped the floor, flipped the sign, stood behind the register in a cocoon of cigarette cartons, sweet tobacco behind its barrier of cellophane, a cold plastic spike through the nose.
The early men were the same: blunt fingers, chapped skin, wearing proudly their mantle of grease, buying coffee and cigarettes and dip, a breakfast hot dog. Nods for Owl, sometimes a “have a good day, brother,” and they were gone, their atoms trailing behind them down the road.
The baker came in after the first rush of men and before the mothers with their SUVs and bottled teas; she got coffee, smokes, sometimes a fashion magazine whose tips she never heeded. Owl expected her to smell warm, like bread rising under a clean towel, but her uniform held mostly sweat and the high, rough grate of flour, rubbed into her pores, streaked on her pants.
“Flour gets everywhere,” she said to Owl when he pointed out a handprint on her thigh. “Like blood.”
A week later he noticed a new smell on her: a deep, syrupy funk, a hidden rot lurking within a stagnant marsh.
“Do you have any hazelnut brewed up?” she asked, and Owl answered her from across the store, reluctant to approach her, to bathe in her new miasma.
She paid in all coins, neatly stacked on the counter, and Owl saw the tattoo on the nape of her neck as she bent close to recount them. A monkey’s paw, a small hairy first, just beneath her low hairline, where the curls snarled into burrs.
That smell haunted him, leeched its way into his dreams, pushed him awake in the small hours of the night, swathed in damp sheets strong with his own salty odor. But at the edge of his mind, the whisper of old meat, the baker’s monkey paw, the primordial fog that seeped into the folds of his brain whenever he visited the zoo.
After many nights disturbed, he blamed his imagination when he saw her next and cringed at the simian twist to her face.
She smiled at him, held out her credit card, had said something, but he was trying to decide if the deep lines around her mouth truly did form a snout, whether her teeth had sharpened in reality, if her canines had always been so pronounced.
“Pack of Marlboro Reds?” she said again, and her breath hit him with the foulness of a summer-baked alleyway collecting city-wide refuse.
Were her pupils taking over, colonizing her irises?
He ran her card, avoided her small talk, eagerly watched her leave and then heaved a breath through his nose, grateful for the old hot dogs, the stale coffee, the gasoline.
Owl worked his next three shifts in dread of her, wary of any taupe Chevrolet that drove up to the pumps, flinching at every similar silhouette wavering on the other side of the door. When she finally did come in he had his back to the counter, restocking cigarettes, unaware anyone was waiting for him until an animal shriek whirled him around as if he’d been clocked behind the ear.
The smell enveloped him, wormed fingers down his throat; her pale skin had taken on a leathery sheen, her mouth, crammed with talon-like teeth, chittered and wailed with whooping calls. A rushing sound in his ears; he swayed on his feet, watching her alien eyes narrow. Her hand reached for him: it was coated with thick blond curls, thumb long as her fingers, nails thick and yellow.
Another figure came from behind her, cocked its neck inquisitively, issued its own series of chitters and calls, and Owl went down, head cracking on the worn linoleum.
The duct-taped ceiling swam above him, the whirr of the closest refrigerator motor overtook his ears, and three heads bent above him now, shrieking, screaming, bellows and howls of terror, a language his own ancestors once spoke, back when the world smelled of cold water and earth, the deep, fungal breath of the forest floor.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rebecca Orchard is a writer and classical musician with a degree in French horn performance from the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. She is currently an MFA student at Bowling Green State University, and between the two has been a professional baker, a New Yorker, and an all-around obsessive about obscure topics. Her work has been published in The Quotable (forthcoming), Cobalt Review, and The Baltimore Review.
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