Midnight Midnight by Aliya Whiteley [sci-fi]

Midnight Midnight by Aliya Whiteley

I kiss his photo, like a line in a song, and put it back under the cash register.

The door is pushed open, and the small brass bell above it tinkles; “How quaint!” says the woman, “I didn’t expect that,” and “They’ve got Chakka, get a basket,” to the man who trails after her. He glances at me and I point to the stack of wire baskets next to the counter. He approaches with small steps and wrestles one basket free; he has to tug hard. Then, he returns to his lady and she stacks the Chakka into it—eight pieces, the maximum allowed.

She rubs her hands on her skirt and wanders down the farthest aisle. I watch her on the monitor under the counter as she fingers the confectionery, then picks up some multicolored sweets and pops them in the basket. She flips her hands at her man, a shooing gesture in my direction. His shoulders slumped, he returns to me. I can read fear in his fleshy, trembling mouth. I’m getting better at reading their expressions, although at first, they all looked the same to me.

He puts the basket on the counter and I ring up the items.

“Eighty-seven,” I tell him, struggling with the s as usual, and he frowns, but takes out his wallet and produces his card. I reach for it and he flinches, but stands his ground; I fumble it into the reader, and a moment later, the transaction is complete.

They link arms and take their purchases home. They’ll gorge on them tonight, and they’ll feel sick and sorry tomorrow. But, they’ll come back for more, and become regulars, losing a little more of their fear of me every time they step into my shop, but none of their revulsion. I may have learned that they don’t all look the same, but they all seem to feel the same. They hate me for giving them what they want.

I restock the shelf with Chakka.

***

It must be night out there. The packs of young men have descended, swaggering into the shop and asking for alcohol along with their Chakka. Sometimes they pick up crisps and instant meals as well; I keep a few of the local products for this kind of customer.

The leaders of these packs have become easy to pick out by their glare, their stance. This one has a small beard on a long chin. Facial hair fascinates me. It looks so itchy. When he puts both hands on my counter and leans in, I’m too busy thinking about that beard, and the waft of grain-based alcohol that comes out of his mouth, to hear what he says. I have to ask him to repeat himself.

“Have you got any ciggies?”

I turn around and sort through the shelves behind me; I hear him slip a packet of crisps into the pocket of his hooded top. When I turn back, cigarettes in hand, he is smirking at his three friends, who have come up behind him holding their Chakka. I put the cigarettes on the counter and ring up everything, including the crisps. He doesn’t notice. He’s too busy staring at the cigarettes.

“What’s these?”

It’s too difficult to explain that it’s a chemically produced tobacco derivative, complete with nicotine, apricot extract, and Akan-I, one of the relaxants found in Chakka. Instead, I shrug and say, “That’s all we’ve got.”

He swears at me. Words to do with genitalia, as usual.

“All right, how much?”

“Hundred and fifty two,” I tell him, expecting him to make a scene, and he doesn’t disappoint me.

How much? You money-grabbers, coming here, putting people out of jobs, you ugly little yellow baldie, out for all you can get…”

His friends put their hands on him and pull him back from the counter. One of them produces a card. “Here, put it on this, all right? He don’t mean nothing. He’s just had a few, that’s all.”

I complete the transaction and return the card. Just another swipe at what should be the end of a long day. But this isn’t a long day; it is the endless day. And I am lost in it, like my lover, so many millions of miles away. As I am left alone again, I permit myself to take out his photo and stroke the lines of his face with my claws. Studying his expression at that moment—when I turned the camera upon him and said “Smile!”—takes up so much of my time. When we are together again, I will have become an excellent judge of what every grimace and grin means.

Fascinating faces. Everyone has such a fascinating face.

***

Remembrance of Things Past says the cracked spine of the book. She’s a little over halfway through, and getting slower every day. Today, she’s only pretending to read. I can tell from the way she holds the book low so she can glance over the top at me, so I call to her.

“You want tea?”

“Yes, please,” she says, “if it’s no bother.”

I heat up two instant teas in the microwave and take them over, balancing the tray on the backs of my hands. She is sitting on a rung of the ladder that leads up to the top shelves, where the electronics are kept. She puts the book down on the floor and takes the tea, sipping it, wrinkling up her face. It’s an old face, with deep folds in the papery skin. I find the older faces easier to look at.

“It’s very kind of you,” she says. She never had any real fear of me, not even when she first came into the shop and asked me if it was true that time stopped inside it. Then she asked if she could stay, just for a little while every day, in order to finish her book. Her fear of her tumor blotted out her fear of me. Her fear of not getting to finish the book.

“You shouldn’t break the rules for me,” she says.

If I’m caught letting her stay, they’ll never let me come home again. But how would they find out? They’re all so far away. When I get back home and time restarts for me and my love, we’ll be rich and happy and still young. Although it occurs to me now that maybe being young isn’t to do with what age you are, but what you see in the time that passes.

I don’t know why, but I fetch the photo from under the till and show it to her. She looks at it with interest, craning her neck, and she says, “How lovely, is that a relative?”

“My…” I touch my chest. Surely, she will understand that; our hearts are all in the same place.

“Your other half? You must miss him.”

“When the Chakka is gone, I can go home. And the same for him. Then we can be together.”

“Is that going to take long?”

The back room of the shop is filled with Chakka. The back room does not obey the laws of space, just as the front does not obey the laws of time. I don’t know how long it will take to empty that room, but at least I know humans will want to buy as much as I can sell.

“No time here,” I tell her. “No day, no night, no sleeping, no waking up.

“No,” she says, “that’s right. You never close, do you? When I was young, we used to have Seven-Elevens. I suppose that makes you a Midnight-Midnight. I don’t know how you do it.”

“No,” I say. “But it’s okay.”

There are many things I’d like to say to this woman for whom time moves far too quickly. But, she is thinking about something else. When she does this, her eyes slide away and she purses her lips, and I know she is not listening any more. I take my photo back to the counter.

She puts down her tea and returns to her book.

***

It must be morning, for the businesspeople are arriving and the shop is filled with them, picking up their newspapers and croissants and, of course, their supply of Chakka for the day. There is a river of cards to be swiped; it dries up to a trickle, and the rush is over.

The shop is empty apart from one man in a suit. He is sweating; I can smell it. He approaches the counter with armfuls of Chakka, more than is legally allowed for one purchase. I look into his face and see desperation.

“I’ll pay for it,” he says. “I need it for my family.”

“No.”

“My mum and dad aren’t well, they can’t get down here. I need all this for them, they’ve asked me to get it for them.”

“No. No,” I tell him, and I see the moment he decides to take it. He turns for the door and I jump over the counter and reach for him, my claws extended. As usual, I’ve miscalculated the pressure; my claws puncture his suit and sink into his body, and he arches his back, then slumps forward. I try to remove my claws and instead rip holes in him. The material comes away and he oozes. I’ve created his pain. I use my other hand to decapitate him, to put him out of his misery. Then, I pick up his head and his body and move them to the back room.

The Chakka he was trying to take is spoiled. I have to throw that away too. And I clean the floor, with a packet of wipes I keep under the counter for these incidents.

His face, frozen, as I held his head in my hands, was not of fear, but of surprise, as if he hadn’t expected this to happen. And yet, he had to know the risks. But we tell ourselves, no matter where we come from and what we look like, that we are somehow immune to the dangers of the paths we choose to take.

I hope I will see my beloved again and we will be young again, and happy. I hope that we will be some of the lucky shopkeepers that survive the attentions of our customers. But I know that one night they will come with a plan to take the Chakka, and I will not be fast enough to deal with them all. It has already happened on many other planets. It will happen here.

I wonder what their faces will look like. If I study them hard enough, maybe I will be able to read their intentions in their expressions and I will have gained an advantage. Maybe enough of an advantage to keep me alive.

After I’ve finished cleaning up, I retreat to the counter and take out my photo. I stare at it until the next customer comes.

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