I glanced up from the paperback sci-fi novel held just below the counter as the bell over the front door jangled. As soon as my eyes focused in on the man’s face, I sighed. I put the paperback away, bracing myself and taking a deep breath, trying to prep for the confrontation I was sure to begin momentarily.
In my head, I whispered a silent but fervent curse to UPS for delaying the recent clothing shipment to our store. Didn’t they know that we had regular customers?
Extremely regular, a few of them.
“Hey, Albert,” I called out, leaning over the counter a little and giving a wave of my hand to get the man’s attention as he shuffled in. “Listen, buddy, little problem…”
The man glanced over at me, pausing in his usual pattern that he followed. I could see confusion pass briefly across his face, accompanied by some other emotion that I couldn’t quite place. Was it fear? “Yeah?” he grunted, looking at me from beneath lowered brows.
“Listen, I know you’re in here every day to pick up a pack of socks,” I said, trying to sound as apologetic as possible. “But our restocking shipment hasn’t arrived yet, even though it was supposed to be here by Tuesday – and we’re all out, buddy.”
The man blinked, and I braced myself for some sort of assault or tirade. I really had no clue what was going to come out of this strange little man, but I really just hoped that he wouldn’t start knocking down displays when he freaked out.
I mean, the man has to be some sort of crazy, doesn’t he? He’s been in every day for the last six months – every single day I’ve worked here – and he’s always buying the same thing. He strolls in, picks out a single six-pack of white athletic socks, and pays for it in cash.
When I first started working here, I used to imagine that maybe he was some sort of alien, and he was trying to study humanity through socks – or maybe I just read too many dollar store science fiction paperbacks. All of us employees had our own guesses. Mary thought that he used them instead of toilet paper. Carl insisted that the man jerked off into them and then threw them away. My boss, Tom, swore that he’d once seen the guy eat one.
I really didn’t know what Albert did with these socks, or why he needed a new pair every day – but this day was going to definitely throw a wrench in the works.
I was expecting him to get angry, maybe yell a bit.
But I wasn’t expecting him to stare at me with wide eyes, his whole face going pale with shock.
“No, no,” he gasped out in strangled tones, staggering forward towards my counter. I leaned back a little, concerned that this might be a ploy to get close so he could take a swing, but the man’s hands just landed on the counter, as if he had to struggle to stay upright. “No, you can’t be out!”
“I’m really sorry, man,” I offered, not sure how to handle this outburst of sheer panic.
The man stared up at me, his eyes so wide that the irises were fully visible. “But you don’t understand,” he insisted. “Now I can’t feed it – and it’s going to spread!“
What the hell? I just stared back at him in confusion. “What?” I managed.
“The plant! Oh god, the plant! If I don’t feed it, it’s going to grow out, searching for food – and once it learns that there’s more, well, it will explode!” the man hissed, waving his arms at me as if this would somehow make things clearer.
I just shook my head at him. “Plant? Albert, slow down. Are you telling me that you feed these socks to a plant?”
For a moment, the man affixed me with one wide eye, glaring at me as if wondering how I could be so dense. “Yes,” he snarled at me. “When it crashed into my back yard, I did as ordered. I was a good little servant. And I convinced it that only I could bring it the food it wanted.”
I nodded, certain that this guy had to be off his meds for something.
But Albert saw my expression, somehow read my thoughts, and shook his head furiously at me. “You don’t believe me – not yet,” he accused me. His hand reached down for his left sleeve, unbuttoning the cuff and hauling it up. “But just wait! It will grow, and you’ll see!”
This time, as the man shook his left forearm at me, I felt my mouth drop open as I stared.
All up the man’s arm ran a line of round, puckered scars. It looked almost like the tentacle of some giant octopus creature had wrapped around him, burning marks into his skin. I couldn’t think of anything else that could cause such a pattern.
“And now, it will grow!” he continued, shaking his scarred arm at me. “It only stopped before because I convinced it! Now, now it will know that I cannot be trusted, and we won’t be able to hold it!”
Inside my head, I felt myself lurching, reality sliding off at an angle. Albert couldn’t be talking truth, right? This had to all be some sort of crazy self-delusion. But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from those scars wrapping around his arm.
“Albert, wait,” I said, my voice sounding to me like it was coming from somewhere far away. “What if we fight it?”
The man just stared at me, but I was already moving, ducking out from behind the counter. Fortunately, the store was empty aside from the pair of us and Tom was in back. My replacement was due in at any minute, and I’d be off duty.
I hurried down the aisles of the store, Albert tagging along behind me. Finally, I found what I was looking for, and skidded to a stop. Behind me, I heard the other man suck in a breath.
“It might work,” he said doubtfully. “There’s a chance.”
I nodded. “You know, I’ve always wanted to fight an alien,” I remarked, staring up at our store’s selection of weed killer, shears, and other trimming implements.
I reached up and lifted down one of the big pairs of hedge trimmers, feeling its comforting weight in my hands. “What do you say?” I asked, giving the pair of oversized scissors a test snick together.
For a minute, Albert just stood there, looking at the wall of weaponry. And then, suddenly, he reached forward and picked up a bottle of poison.
“Let’s do it,” he said fervently.
The two of us loaded up, getting ready for battle…