The next morning Nancy got out of bed with a determination to get things back to the way they were. She decided the first step necessary to accomplish this was to return the Halloween wreath to the store from whence it came. She couldn’t really put into words why she felt such determination to do this, so she didn’t try to explain it to Tom. She only knew that she needed to retrace her steps in some fashion in order to set things right again. She needed to walk into that store again, ask for a manager, offer the receipt for the wreath and get her money back, just as a normal customer would. She would be just a normal customer, conducting a normal transaction. Going about her day. Normal. Nothing was wrong with that store or the people in it. Nothing at all.
The wreath rode beside her in the passenger as she dropped Bea off at preschool and as she made her way to the shopping plaza where Interiors was located. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. Checked her mirrors. Dialed through the stations on the radio. But she didn’t look over at it, wrapped in its plastic bag, sitting beside her purse on the seat. In the light of day and surrounded by other drivers, Nancy felt strong. She still hadn’t liked handling the thing – shoving it in the bag, throwing it in the car seat, but somehow she knew she wouldn’t be serenaded on the way to the store. And she wasn’t.
She walked through the parking lot. The air was crisp and full of the rich smell of dying autumn leaves. The sky was a deep and brilliant blue, not a cloud in it, and the sun shone warmly on her back and shoulders. Nancy had her hand wrapped around the wreath only as tightly as needed to carry it, and she hummed lightly to herself. She began to think about things to do after this one small deed was finished. Maybe she would even buy something new for the house – at a different store, of course. Maybe Kirkland’s.
Her good mood vanished, however, upon entering Interiors. What was once an inviting place full of beautiful things had now changed. The soft lighting was replaced by blinking, buzzing fluorescents that cast a glum grayish-blue glare on everything. The elegantly scripted department signs were now neon orange and brown lettering set against yellowing backgrounds. The messy and disorganized aisles were only partially filled with what looked like rummage sale inventory. The furniture was the ugly, frayed stuff one found in cheap motels. Instead of cheesy yet pleasant soft rock, fifties and sixties love ballads played over the loudspeakers. The sound was hollow and haunting. But the smell. The smell was the worst. A wave of it washed over Nancy as she walked through the automatic sliding doors. It was warm, yeasty and sour, like the smell of the felt on a dive bar’s pool tables.
Nancy covered her mouth and nose with her hand to block the smell. She looked around the store and noticed she was the only shopper in it. In fact, she couldn’t see a single other soul.
“Screw this,” she thought, dropping the wreath on the floor and turning to go. New plan. She would just completely forget about this store. Erase it from her mind. She would throw away the coupons she received from them in the mail and drive past this shopping plaza all together forever and ever.
“Can I help you, m’am?” a voice said quietly from behind her. Nancy cringed and closed her eyes. She had almost made it. She turned around to see one of the furniture movers standing in front of her. He was dark-haired and slumped, his tan apron rumpling over his slight frame. He looked solemnly but intensely at Nancy, just as he had the day before. Then his gaze moved slowly down to the wreath she had dropped on the floor.
Nancy cleared her throat and picked up the wreath. “Yes, I…yes, you can,” she stammered, trying to gather herself back together. “I would like to see a manager. I need to return this wreath. That I bought. Yesterday.”
“You don’t need a manager for that. Customer service can do it,” he replied and raised an arm to the grotesque brown and orange Customer Service sign. His hand hung limp at the end of his raised arm.
Nancy stood firm, although her heart was pounding in her chest. “Still. I’d like to see a manager. Please. I’ll wait.”
The furniture mover shrugged and dropped his arm. “Whatever.” He slumped off towards the back of the store and a set of stainless steel swinging doors. He looked back at Nancy one more time before going through them, fixing her with a stony glare.
“It’s okay, Nancy,” Nancy whispered to herself. “Remember what Tom said. Nothing’s wrong. Just get through this. Never come back here again. Never, never, never.”
She waited for a few minutes at the front of the store near the registers for the manager. She tried not to hear Skeeter Davis wailing about the end of the world over the loudspeakers. She looked hopefully several times towards the swinging doors and glanced at her watch. Where was the manager? To the left of the doors was the Art section. Nancy remembered the painting from the day before. She wondered if it was still there. She imagined herself walking determinedly to the back of the store, unintimidated and fierce. Suddenly, part of her redemption plan included seeing that painting. She would prove to herself that it was still there and still just as beautiful and perfect for the spot on the wall to the right of their bed.
Slowly, and on the more frightened side of fierce, Nancy made her way to the Art section. Her footsteps echoed down the deserted aisles as did the chorus of “Johnny Angel”. She turned down the last aisle of the section, her determination and hope dying a little with every painting she saw that wasn’t hers. Finally, there it was, leaning against a stack of other paintings. She rushed to it, a smile of recognition crossing her face. In a wild moment, she actually considered buying it.
Standing before the painting, she felt cold inside. Her heart was a block of cement in her chest, and tears pricked at the corners of her eyes.
“No,” she whispered. “No. Why? What the hell is this place?”
The painting, like the store, had changed. Instead of a peaceful piece of swirling color, trees and water, the painting had taken on a sinister tone. The blue was so dark now as to be almost black, and the trees were angrily slashed across the water, which looked like oozing gray and blue lava. Nancy’s eyes darted over all of this and came to rest on a figure standing in the left-hand corner of the painting. She couldn’t look and spun around to face the other way.
Eyes tightly shut and hands clenched into fists at her side, Nancy muttered rapidly, “This is a landscape painting. There are no figures in landscapes. There is no figure in this painting. This is a landscape painting.”
She turned around again to face the painting and opened one eye, then the other. The figure was still there. As if in a dream, Nancy saw her arms reach out from her body and felt her knees bend down to pick it up from the stack of paintings. She didn’t want to look at the figure. Didn’t want to hold the painting. But she seemed to have lost control of her body. She couldn’t even shut her eyes anymore. She had to look.
The figure was that of an old woman, thin and stooped. The bones in her chest stood out in grotesque relief from her blotchy skin. Her back bore a large and distorted hump. Her black hair was gathered into a bun at the top of her head, the straggling grays standing out like crinkly wires around it. Her yellow, far-set eyes seemed to glitter against the canvas, and her long nose was hooked at the end and capped with a hair-covered wart. She smiled at Nancy, revealing rows of crooked, broken teeth. She wore a tan apron over a tattered and torn blue dress. She was holding the hand of a small child whose face had been smudged. Nancy didn’t want to look closer, didn’t want to make out any features on that child’s face. She tried to gather all the will she had in her to look away.
At that moment, the double doors at the back of the store swung open, and Nancy saw at the corner of her vision the noseless manager approaching her.
“Well, hi there. Weren’t you in here yesterday?”
Something let go of Nancy, and she dropped the painting to the floor with a crash. She whirled towards the manager, wild-eyed, breathing hard and her arms out in a defensive posture. She screamed.
The manager blanched and backed away a little from Nancy. Then she started coming towards her again, speaking quickly, her words like firing bullets. Nancy covered her ears with her hands.
“Oh, gosh. Scared you again, didn’t I? So sorry! Are we having fun yet? Hey, do you like that painting? It’s only eighty dollars! Do you like it? Are you having fun? Did I scare you? Oh, gosh! So sorry! Do you have eighty dollars? Do you like that painting?”
The manager was almost upon her now. Nancy stumbled backward and fell against the stack of paintings. She heard snapping wood and felt a bright pain shoot up her spine. The manager stood above her, her hands on her hips. Nancy could hear air whistling through the hole where the manager’s nose should have been.
“What is this place?” Nancy shouted. “Who are you? Leave me alone!”
The manager moved her hands from her hips to her knees as she bent down, putting her face right in front of Nancy’s. The she smiled. The smile spread across her face. And spread. And spread. Nancy’s eyes grew wider and her mouth opened as she watched the manager’s lips stretch like rubber bands across her face until the corners of her mouth reached all the way to her ears. Her enormous jaws fell open then like a hinged door, and a blackened tongue lolled out of her mouth, reaching almost to the ground.
Nancy screamed again and began kicking her legs, scrambling backward across the pile of fallen paintings. She finally reached the edge of the pile, flipped herself over and tried to make it to her feet while starting to run at the same time. She tripped and came down hard on her knees. She looked back then, certain the manager was right behind her. But she was still bent over in the same place, yellow cat’s eyes fixed on Nancy, a high-pitched giggle spilling over her horrible tongue.
Finally finding her balance, Nancy ran in hysterical terror to the front of the store. Other shoppers in the parking lot would later revel in telling the story of the wild-eyed, crazy lady they saw burst forth from the door of Interiors that day, running towards her car, screaming and seemingly oblivious of the cars that honked and swerved around her.
The manager’s footsteps echoed in the aisles as she walked slowly to the front of the store. She nodded to the furniture mover who stood by an olive-green recliner. He nodded back. She absently massaged her jaw and then pulled out a plastic bag that she had tucked under her arm. She peeked inside and saw the Halloween wreath. Over the loudspeakers, Frankie Valli’s eyes adored someone. The manager looked through the glass of the automatic doors and saw Nancy’s car speeding out of the parking lot, the tires screeching on the blacktop.
“Have a nice day,” she said.
The next day, Nancy received an emailed response from Interiors corporate office. It read,
Dear Mrs. Green:
We were very sorry to hear of your experience at one of our stores. At Interiors, we pride ourselves on excellent customer service. We have spoken to the manager of the store you visited, Diane, and have asked her to personally contact you with an additional apology. Diane also let us know that there was a painting in the store that you particularly admired. Please accept as our gift the attached electronic gift certificate in the amount of $80.00, which will allow you to purchase this painting with our compliments.
Burt Golding, VP
Interiors Corporate Headquarters
Nancy deleted the email.