Linus died on Black Friday, head crushed while reaching for a Nintendo Switch. After death, his soul did not descend to Hell, nor did he learn to play the harp. It wandered Walmart waiting for the next life to appear.
On August 30th, a little over nine months into his new life, he lumbered through the magazine aisle. Since his rebirth, he’d putzed about the store, attempting to persuade the clientele into making better life choices. He figured it was the only way out of purgatory. Since he never did anything great in his last life, then this must be the time to do it. Today, he’d already fallen short in his attempt to stop an elderly woman from swapping out the price tags on a pack of batteries. He could not afford another failure. He borrowed Mr. Rogers’ cadence to dissuade a young boy from ripping out pictures of women from various magazines. This teenager’s intentions seemed obvious. The boy would soon disappear into the bathroom. Once inside, nothing would stop him from completing the act. Another sin, another missed opportunity.
“Um, ah, little boy,” he stammered. “I mean, young man. Perhaps we could put down the magazine? Yes, Jennifer Aniston does look attractive in those yoga pants, but think about the purpose of said pants. Those are for an athletic and spiritual practice, not your pleasure.”
The preteen sauntered toward the bathroom with his stash. In a few short moments, the boy would defile the sanctity of the handicap restroom. Linus already pictured the discarded tissues littering, but not inside, the toilet. He would have picked them up, if only his corporeal form would come back. To forget about his many inadequacies, he meandered back to the warehouse where someone always seemed to be a little worse off.
A lone member of the loading crew tossed cardboard boxes into the trash compactor. When the pile became too lopsided, she reached inside the machine headfirst, digging about like a bear scrounging around for honey.
Before Linus could formulate a plan to help her, the woman became tangled in the machine. Linus rushed over. Near the back, he saw her sleeve caught between metal grooves. Instinctually, he reached for her. To his dismay, the plan actually worked. His hands wrapped around hers. He’d never been able to breach the material plane before, and now here he was, pressing down on her. Despite his efforts to let go, his now corporeal form pushed her further into the machine, bodies intertwined.
In the confusion, the machine ran its compacting sequence. The engine hummed an aggressive tune, purring like a buzzsaw. She screamed and thrashed to no avail. The machine closed down on her arm. Bone split from flesh. Blood poured onto the floor below. In the end, the machine took her entire arm off from the shoulder down, then she collapsed.
He could only watch.
After the recovery, the lawsuits bubbled up to the surface, and once they were settled, Hannah returned back to work, no longer in blue-collar clothing. She’d been promoted to Customer Acquisitions, which meant she now collected emails and phone numbers from the patrons of Walmart. An envoy of suits followed her about the store, pointing out all the changes that had taken place since the accident, such as the new grippy floor near the water fountain and hand sanitizer stations.
The suits left her at the wedding and baby registry department near the McDonald’s. Babies and happy couples surrounded her, but much like Linus, they were not alive. To the right of her desk, the suits situated a large cardboard cutout of a baby in diapers; it even cooed when you pressed its belly. Next to the baby stood a multicultural couple. She locked eyes with the cardboard pair, unsure how to stop smiling.
A bottle of champagne appeared. The suits encouraged her to hold it like a trophy. She held it aloft, grinning like the fake couple to her left.
Everyone seemed to smile that way here.
Hannah sat at her desk, unable to type, head pounding from the fluorescent lights above. She poured cup after cup of coffee, adding an additional sugar packet with each refill, but no amount of caffeine dulled the pain.
From a distance, Linus narrated her every move, though he stood alone.
“That email has been on her screen for over an hour. She’s only got a subject line at this point. Hasn’t bothered to type anything. Won’t even try.”
Linus shuffled closer toward her desk, still muttering about the details of her new job. He spoke to the large cardboard cutouts now. It made the words seem more important to him when they were directed at another, even if those other people were nothing more than cardboard.
“How many emails or phone numbers does she need to find for the registry? They said a hundred, a hundred per week. No training. No real help. I should help again, right? It’s not like I can make things worse.”
Linus pivoted toward the cardboard cutouts once again. He paused, waiting for their reply. None, of course, appeared. He shifted toward Hannah and the silence accumulated. When he turned around to say his goodbyes, though, she waved. It was a small wave, hardly a flick of the wrist. He dismissed the action, thinking her response might have been directed at someone else. When he searched the area, though, he could find no one.
Linus lingered in the women’s bathroom. All morning he had, unsuccessfully, stalked Walmart, attempting to persuade folks into signing up for Hannah’s program. In his mind, this seemed like a better plan than waiting in the formula aisle, which appeared to be populated with only frantic parents. He didn’t even bother with the children’s clothing section. All the parents seemed desperate, saddled by the weight of having to coax kids into a brightly colored outfit adorned with some manic cartoon. He didn’t even bother finding engaged couples. They were a group camouflaged by the monotony that follows all in a relationship.
Someone new threw open the door. With her entrance, the dent in the drywall became a little bigger and the mirrors rattled. Once she settled in a stall, he went into collection protocol outside the partition.
His aura burned a bright yellow.
“Having a child is a huge responsibility,” he said, hands cupped to extend his voice. “Walmart is here to help. By registering your baby in our system, you can receive a tailored set of coupons each month, which could save you hundreds of dollars. All for you and your baby.”
The woman exited the stall, expression unchanged. She used the mirror to adjust her hair, never even glancing at him. A week into his plan to fix Hannah’s life and he hadn’t made an inch of progress. He thought of pleading, but only the hand dryers would hear his cries. After the woman left, Linus positioned himself at the entrance again, back crooked like the limb of a tree searching for sun.
He gave up an hour later.
Linus wandered about the store, eyes trained on the ground below. He soon found himself at the checkout line. Before the cashier completed the transaction, he asked a myriad of questions. Did the customer bring her own bag? Did she need help getting out to the car? Did she want to donate money to a third world country that this company helped keep impoverished? Did she have an email or phone number rewards card? Only that last question caught his attention. The woman rattled off her email without a hint of apprehension, and then the cashier dutifully input it into the system. The woman vanished, but was followed by a man, a mother, an elderly couple, a father, and a young couple, who all gave up their information freely. He began memorizing each number, email, even the cadence of the consumer’s voice.
Once he had memorized over a dozen emails, Linus scurried over to Customer Acquisitions. Hannah, on yet another break, was not there, but her screen blinked, spreadsheet empty. He placed his hands on the keyboard. His digits broke apart like smoke when he attempted to type. After a half-hour of repeating the same actions, he gave up, and then lurched over to the corner of the office, near the cardboard cutouts of the couple.
“I would offer you both a drink,” he said, “though I think it would do little for the both of us. Especially the two of you, am I right?”
The couple did not respond. Again. The sound of distant chatter mimicked conversation, though it did not belong to him. Linus now hated their ever-present smile. It felt like the two had an inside joke, one he couldn’t understand but was also prevented from knowing. He wandered toward the electronics section alone, hands folded in prayer.
Since his death, Linus never slept. Instead he’d visit the wall of televisions in electronics. Though he could not change the channels, the cacophony of sound provided a way to feel numb. The voices rose higher, until he could no longer think about this life or the last.
The garden department only felt peaceful at dawn. Customers had yet to leave behind merchandise or discard their soda cups inside the planters. He listened to the lone fountain babble. The plastic rocks and recycled water felt fixed there, natural, whereas the wall of televisions that populated the electronics department seemed endlessly replaceable.
He shifted his vision toward a small gnome nearby with a bright red cap.
“All of these names and emails, but nowhere to store them,” he said, looking at the gnome. “Even if she was near me, I wouldn’t know how to give them to her. I can only breach your world by accident, I suppose. Does that say something about me, David the Gnome, or us as a whole?”
The sun broke on the horizon. Its shimmering redness once lingered on the edges, but now stretched over the ridge in the distance. The scene reminded him of waking, of stretching out his arms and yawning.
Two men lumbered through his area, armed with brooms and cleaning supplies. One paused near the trash can to empty it. In the process, he dislodged a flyer stuck in the flaps of the trash can. It fluttered near his position. While Linus couldn’t touch the paper, he inspected the flyer. It detailed the horrific working conditions of the Arby’s near him. Unsanitary working conditions, overtime not being paid, the whole gamut. The one thing that caught his attention was just a throwaway phrase. It said “a haunting” in the middle of all the other grievances. Before he could read it again, one of the workers picked up the flyer, and then placed it with all the other refuse he’d collected.
The two men began chattering but the words soon faded. Linus found himself trailing them for a bit, meandering, really. Soon, he broke from their gait and wandered the store at his own rhythm. The hum of the electronics department put him in a meditative state, one where he did not even bother attempting to smell the fries at the McDonald’s when he sauntered by the restaurant. He didn’t even bother to stop at Hannah’s workstation. The words of the flyer now echoed about the canyon of his consciousness. It felt as if that echo wouldn’t disappear.
Linus found himself at the edge of Walmart, where the shopping carts were kept. He surveyed the parking lot, noting the Arby’s off in the distance, a speck, really. He cupped his hand to his head, though it did little to stop the newborn sun from blinding his eyes. He began to walk forward, though he knew the repercussions for leaving the place of his death.
On the trek to Arby’s, a homesickness overtook him, a longing that caused him to wretch. His aura dissolved, albeit slowly. Wisps of the blue faded. It reminded him of the exhaust from a car, tentacles trailing upward. Memories, even of deeply ingrained moments, seemed to disappear. He attempted to corral his aura at the door to Arby’s. The now-light blue aura kept fading, though. Soon, he thought it might be nothing.
Unlike the Arby’s guests, Linus could perceive the haunt. In his mind’s eye, he pictured a skeleton wrapped in tattered clothing, but he was left with a blue orb, hanging in the air like a disco ball. Despite the fact that it was far too early for a roast beef, almost a dozen people ate in silence. More sauntered through the door. All scrolled their phones, some had headphones, but none of them looked about.
The entity surveyed all of this.
“Welcome, Linus,” the entity said, speaking in a monotone baritone. “Please come toward us now. We have waited for your arrival.”
He nodded and ambled over, hand outstretched as if searching for the bathroom in the dark. When he arrived at the orb, Linus held out his palm, but pulled back before the two connected. Energy flowed and transferred all the same. He clutched his hand like an animal had snapped at it.
“What are you?”
“We are many, together.”
“How many people make up this orb?”
“Nineteen, now, but it began as one, of course,” the orb replied. “Dave died of a massive coronary at the booth next to the Pepsi machine. Given his location of death, Dave had a unique opportunity to witness the world of mortals and their goings-on. That insight caused him to discover this form, and this form led others to him. Then we came into being.”
“Huh, oh. Well, this is Arby’s,” Linus said, smiling. “Imagine if you died in a CPK or something, you might still be a spirit, just like me. A ghost?”
The blue orb didn’t have the ability to utilize facial expressions, but Linus thought he could discern a smirk forming near the bottom.
“Some who die find madness, others find peace,” the orb replied. “You can find both anywhere, Linus. It’s about what you choose to look at.”
“Only the living change.”
“What about your experience thus far has proven that to be true, Linus?” the orb asked, increasing in size. “This world mimics the one we left behind. The only difference is the isolation and the confinement. Both seem like ingredients, though. For what, that is up to the looker.”
An Arby’s parishioner punctured their conversation. A man, holding a large Mountain Dew and seasoned curlies and a roast beef sandwich, lumbered through Linus. His aura dispersed for a moment, the blue cloud breaking apart, then reforming into its original shape. As his aura stitched himself together, Linus focused on the usual list of attractive men that came to mind, hoping he’d morph into one. No such luck. Every part came back, including the extra twenty pounds he’d carried.
“I need to learn how to have physical contact with the world and to control it.”
“The more contact with that world, the higher the likelihood you end up a haunt,” the orb replied. “Those spirits think they are still a part of the world.”
“It’s just temporary.”
“Everything is just temporary.”
“Well, fine, how about I know the risk then?” he replied. “That cover you?”
“What you choose cannot impact me, Linus,” the orb replied. “But I sense hesitation in you, the inability to own the decision you’re about to make.”
“No, no. This is what I need,” Linus said. “I really want to help her.”
“Even in death you confuse like and need. Maybe another path would suit you?”
“This has to be the way.”
“As you wish.”
While the orb above him maintained its white coloring with a hint of morning blue, Linus noted how his own had morphed into a royal purple, one that bordered on crimson. He attempted to shift the color by rocking himself, yet the shade conditioned to morph to the red spectrum.
“I can teach you,” the orb replied, “though that path is folly, Linus. We are here to pass enlightenment to others. It is our mission. We must warn some, however, that not all information is beneficial in the end.”
When Linus examined his hands, they fluctuated from fire engine red to cobalt.
“This, this,” he said, attempting to discover the words, “is what I need now.”
“Understood,” the orb said, still speaking in its monotone voice. “Now we can begin.”
Before he could reply, the orb above took over the conversation by increasing its brilliance. It reminded Linus of the time he peered into the sun during an eclipse. The whiteness from the orb above reflected across the Arby’s dining room as well. Even the humans turned away.
Linus shuffled over, his hand outstretched as if he was greeting an angry dog. When he touched the orb, it seemed to explode. The world disappeared, shifting into a blackness. He found himself in the orb itself, face to face with a woman dressed in white, gown flowing, a wreath of green about her crown. She gave her hand to Linus, and the two strolled into the darkness, another world, a universe within the one he knew.
Nights were spent inputting data into her computer. Days were spent collecting information for the nights. Weeks went by, then months. Hannah smiled more, worked less, and drank more coffee. This could’ve lasted for years, but ended abruptly one Thursday afternoon when the armada arrived again.
Linus watched from the checkout lane as the men and women in suits appeared. Last time they’d distributed bottles of champagne, now they passed around various forms, each a different shade of yellow. Some used their palms to cup their whispers, others making direct eye contact.
A rather portly man in a suit loomed over her now. His brows furrowed as he read the reports. Each graph increased the knit on his forehead.
“The sheer amount of emails and other contact information sent the algorithms into a tizzy, Hannah,” the man said. “It was almost as if they were too good to be true. Do you see where we’re going with this?”
“The names, they, they just kept appearing,” she said, hardly more than a whisper. “People must have used the link on the store homepage, right? I wasn’t the one who input all of this information, though.”
“The data was input from inside the store.”
“That could be anyone, though?”
“Please sign the forms before we continue,” he replied, voice heavy. “I’ll give you a few moments to examine them. Then we’ll proceed.”
The man waved the congregation away. Some shifted their attention to their phones. Others began scrutinizing the official Walmart Greeter’s posture.
Linus disappeared, choosing to follow the man in the suit instead. He refused to look back at Hannah, sure he’d turn to salt if he did.
The man fumbled with the knob to the managerial bathroom, while Linus marched through the door. Once near the stall, the ghost paused. He saw the man’s phone resting on the sink. He batted it onto the floor, and then kicked the air like a child. After a minute of pacing, he positioned his belly on the bathroom tile in order to better read the man’s phone.
Nothing in his phone seemed interesting or useful, not even the text messages. Linus thought about dirty things to text his coworkers and family, but each response only felt as if it might damage him personally. None of it would help shovel her out of the mess he’d created.
The bowel movement ended. Linus could hear the man grunting inside the stall, hunched over the toilet as he searched for toilet paper. When Linus lifted his head, he could see underneath the gap in the toilet. He cringed at the sight of the manager’s old testicles slapping against his inner thighs, penis obscured by pubic hair. The man spun about in circles, semi-nude, searching for more toilet paper. Linus snickered at what this sight might do for his reputation. While shame felt like part of the equation, when seen in a different context, his inexpressive manhood could elicit scorn, especially if it was sent to Hannah. The phone still rested nearby. The screen glowed, waiting to be used.
When his hand reached through the ether and latched onto the phone, he felt his soul split. He saw himself taking the picture of the penis, then sending it to Hannah with an off-color remark. The manager in the stall would lose his job and she’d keep hers. This would continue, though, indefinitely. He saw himself performing intervention after intervention. When Hannah needed help dealing with the woman in human resources who took her handicap spot, he slashed her tires and left a menacing note. After Hannah’s boyfriend cheated on her, he spammed his roofing business on Yelp. He’d even dealt with the McDonald’s employee who always forgot to give extra ketchup. He handled it all.
In this alternate future, a little black orb appeared in his chest. It reminded him of cancer, metastasizing throughout his body once it settled in.
Suddenly, the manager exited the stall. He noticed his phone resting on the bathroom tile, along with a blue hand hovering above it. A haunting, right there in the Walmart bathroom. Pain overwhelmed his left arm. The emotion soon settled into his breastplate like a clenched fist in his chest. Before he hit the ground, a yelp squirmed out of his mouth.
Linus knew what would happen if this man died in the bathroom. Another houseguest, another soul to save. He focused on dialing 911. As the operator repeated the script she’d been given, the manager wiggled like a fish, yet made no discernible sounds. Linus’ voice crossed over for the first time. Even though he could only bark out their location, the woman on the other line heard him. After hearing himself speak, Linus felt as if his voice had changed since he died. It was like listening to a recording of himself. He replayed the sound instead of listening to the operator give frantic instructions. While Linus didn’t follow one of them, he eventually did hold the man’s hand. His blue hand still breached the veil, disembodied from his spirit.
Linus waited until the paramedics arrived before completely disappearing.
On Hannah’s last day, the manager gave up red meat and Linus wandered to the edge of where he could travel, past the Arby’s, so far his aura ached, as if it might disappear altogether. The parking lot felt serene at this time of day. No longer littered with rubbish, the morning sun cascaded off the asphalt, creating a glow upon the horizon.
Linus cupped his hand to his brow, though it did nothing to stop the glare. Instead of pushing forward to the unknown, he turned back. He cocked his shoulders, then walked toward the entrance in the distance.
Linus went back into Walmart, his head and body now a bit straighter. He ended up back in the electronics department where he had died. The title was still there, though any trace of his blood had long since been removed. Linus began massaging his fingertips together, marveling at how they were free of the blood that once defined him.
Linus wandered back to the entrance. Once he arrived, he crossed his legs and folded both hands in contemplation. His chest expanded and deflated despite the fact it took in no oxygen. It moved like the tide. He felt it seesaw up and down, never wavering. There was beauty in it. He was not an orb hovering in an Arby’s, nor some lackey. He was Linus. He repeated that phrase to himself until the words felt like they were his own.
William Lemon teaches creative writing and composition at Los Angeles City College. He has been published at BlazeVOX, Bartleby Snopes, Drunk Monkeys, and Menacing Hedge.