I had started living in Aisle Five at the Big Bear grocery store at the Northern Lights strip mall, burrowing out a hole on the bottom shelf behind twenty-five pounds bags of American Dog food. It was a blind spot for the store’s security cameras, which made egress possible. Most of the day I lay on the shelf listening to the squeaking wheels of the shopping carts, the joyful cries of kids when they discovered their favorite food, the soft words of the adult shoppers who carried on their disembodied phone conversations. The early morning aroma of baked goods drifted as they were made fresh in the back, the exciting smells of free food samples handed out by enthusiastic employees–the exotic spicy mustard, the new pepperoni Pizza Squares. The part-time employees ignored me, and, even better, the restrooms were unlocked. I found that the thin ten-pound bags of Mighty Chow were quite comfortable and used one as a mattress to shield my body from the hard-metal shelving.
But the manager, Hal, suspected. Hal always smiled. He smiled whether customers complained, congratulated or asked him which aisle contained the spaghetti. But he never smiled at me when he saw me in the store. The week before, he’d almost caught me as I was slipping back into my den, just sliding the rough bag in place before he turned down the aisle.
It was my home. It felt like home, my childhood more so than any other apartment or house I’d lived in. Shelf after shelf, items perfectly aligned, some even color coordinated, endcaps with cans of Happy Soup stacked from the floor like a majestic mountain. Each aisle identified, defined, items grouped together sometimes in mysterious combinations, but welcoming. The post-punk Muzak soundtrack played over the store’s loudspeakers catering to the aging demographic. I had to make sure that I didn’t sing along with the catchier songs so I didn’t give myself away. On my other side, in Aisle 4, were canned vegetables, luckily, an item that didn’t sell much and gave me added protection behind the flimsy backing of the wall between the shelving.
Hal’s big black boots tromped down the aisle. I could always hear him coming because of those steel-toes, and they stopped right in front of my display. Come out of there, he said. Hal had finally found me. I was caught between pretending I wasn’t there and surrender when there was a crash across Aisle Five. I folded down the end of the bag and saw the newest resident of our aisle tumble off the middle shelf of housewares, bringing pots and pans and the expensive NoBurn! skillet crashing to the black and white tile floor. Hal grabbed the man, a guy in his early 30s with a chest-long beard who was dressed in survival gear, and hauled him out of there. Hal threw the guy out of the store and threatened to have him arrested if he returned. Eventually, the store quieted and I calmed down, counting the small drilled holes in the shelving above me, a ritual that helped me sleep.
Then came a small knocking on the wall of Aisle 4. At first, I thought maybe it was a kid entertaining himself in the aisle–sometimes they take the housewares and play–but the knocking came again: three quiet taps.
Hello? I whispered.
So it wasn’t you? a woman asked from the other side of the wall.
Who are you? I asked.
I live behind the canned vegetables, she whispered, right next to you. I expressed my surprise and she told me that she’d been here longer than me, at least three years and a couple months.
Since it was dangerous to leave our homes, especially at night when they turned on the surveillance cameras that were supervised by an outside security agency, we started whispering through the wall. Denise was from Ohio and I had a cousin there and we just hit it off. We would talk through the wall all night and fall asleep together.
When I first suggested meeting in person, there was silence. She didn’t even return my taps at first. After I gifted her with a free Nancy’s Cookie sample without giving away her location, we had our first date in the freezer section with Chunky Monkeys.
She moved into my place when we removed the wall between us. We had the whole bottom shelf to ourselves and actually made a comfortable home from it. However, the shelf above us became the home of a quiet three-person family and the surrounding shelves began to fill with others from outside, we knew that soon, we would have to face the cold world beyond the quiet sliding doors again.
Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including South Dakota Review, Fiction International, Mississippi Review, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles.