In the crowded supermarket, Pete snarled at a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a celebrity chef, briefly considering taking a ‘selfie’, getting behind it and acting like he was doing it doggy style. That would make his friends crack up. They’d love that. Then again, they were just as likely to respond with a series of profane reminders:
‘Stop dickin’ around and get to the barbeque.’
‘Where the hell is my Pepsi Max?’
‘You’re missing the football, dickhead!’
Maybe it was best to focus.
In and out. Easy as you like. Ten minutes, tops.
He’d imagined the kind of afternoon that might suit a Dean Martin tune—a whistle-worthy frolic through happy families and perhaps even a few smiles from attractive women—but he soon realised punk would be a more appropriate soundtrack. It was anarchy.
The aisles were littered with discarded trolleys, heavily laden with cans, packets and sweating milk cartons as drivers sauntered off, caring little about their contribution to the logjam. It was pushing Pete’s infamously short temper into the red zone. His trolley suffered a stroke, its left side refusing to roll correctly, pulling him toward the pasta section. With great persistence he managed to navigate the battlefield, taking barely a second to consider each purchase as he gritted his teeth and steered his awkward vehicle.
Turning the corner of the last aisle, he rolled his eyes as a demolition derby of oddly placed trolleys formed an obstacle course. He’d reached the end of his tether and began to shed courtesy in favour of efficiency, slamming the corners of a few trolleys on the way to his target.
At the ridiculously large tomato sauce section, he saw an old woman lingering in front of his favourite brand of sauce. Somehow she’d managed to completely obstruct his access. Using his last ounce of patience, he shut his eyes and breathed deeply.
Make up your mind, you stupid old bitch.
He couldn’t help noticing her gypsy garb, and the elongated fingers that stroked labels as though they were pets. At that moment she glanced over her bony shoulder at him. She was less than five foot tall, so she looked at his chest and followed the contours of it until her eyes flickered and stared into his. She looked ancient but her eyes were vivid.
Bright black. I hate it when people have eyes that dark. It’s freaky.
She smiled but it wasn’t friendly—it was condescending.
Desperate to interrupt the tense standoff, he vaguely pointed at the sauce.
‘Do you mind?’ he asked, his voice sounding like it was being squeezed out of a smaller person.
Slowly looking in the direction of the bottles, she languidly made a sweeping gesture with her skeletal fingers while shuffling begrudgingly to the side. By only moving one step, she forced Pete to reach further than he would have liked. His body pressed close to her tiny frame. Her hair was wrapped in a black cloth that whispered its absorbed scents: the mélange of burnt, musty odours garnished with the subtle yet distinct smell of iron.
When he was at full stretch, concentrating on retrieving the bottle of sauce without touching her, she whispered a melodic line that ended in a hiss:
‘I know how you’re going to die.’
Pete remained in the same awkward, bent posture. Many things were running through his mind: he wondered if he had misheard her; he asked himself why anyone would say such a thing; and he considered ignoring it, treating it as a random statement from a senile old woman. But he was sure he’d heard her correctly, and despite his tendency to be a sceptic, he thought it was true—he actually believed she knew the exact time and cause of his death.
He’d been frozen in the same position but the little old woman had not hesitated, slipping away quickly and about to reach the end of the aisle, cheerfully swinging her small red basket in rhythm with her neat steps, her tiny flat shoes clipping the tiles delicately.
Pete rushed after her and caught up as she carefully chose a checkout lane.
‘Excuse me,’ he asked, trying not to sound too agitated. ‘Did you just say’—and at this point he lowered his voice to a whisper—’you know how—’
She nodded without looking at him, frowning at the many lines of waiting patrons but still retaining that eerie smile, the one that seemed painted on.
Suddenly, Pete felt incensed.
‘Why would you say that?’ he shouted.
People within earshot suddenly stopped their conversations or daydreams to focus on the confrontation.
‘Even if you thought it was true,’ he continued, dropping the volume of his voice and sounding more hurt than angry. ‘Why would you say it?’
She shrugged her shoulders, flaming his anger before raising her eyebrows and deciding on checkout number twelve. Pete gritted his teeth, looked to one side and took a deep, calming breath before following her.
For a moment he hesitated.
Why would you want to know?
That was a good point. Does anyone really need to know the hour of their death? He answered his own question by lurching into motion again, hungry for an answer.
‘How would you know, anyway?’ he asked sceptically.
She seemed more interested in unpacking her basket. Each movement was graceful and carefree. It tortured Pete who attributed her playful mood to satisfaction. His fear had become her amusement.
From behind, Pete could see her ears change shape as she flashed a friendlier grin at the youngster behind the cash register. Then her ears drooped and she resumed her default smirk.
‘Can we talk?’ he whispered over her shoulder, quickly checking the reaction of the acne-scarred youngster who was methodically scanning the woman’s purchases—just two cans of peeled tomatoes and a bottle of sauce.
Pete saw the kid glance at him suspiciously and suddenly felt embarrassed, leaning back and deciding to wait. Soon they’d both be outside and he’d be able to confront her more candidly. The old woman paid cash, the exact amount down to the ninety-five cents of change required, which she plucked expertly from a tiny cloth purse, heavy with coins.
She moved toward the exit with small graceful steps that were deceptively quick.
‘Sir,’ said the kid at the cash register impatiently, pointing at a sign above. ‘It’s eight items or less.’
Since when do they enforce that rule?
Much to the dismay of all in sundry, he pushed eight items forward and left the rest on the conveyor belt.
‘I just want these.’
The kid begrudgingly passed the products under the sensor, which issued a ‘bleep’, another ‘bleep’ and then nothing.
Oh God no.
‘Price check aisle twelve. Gary, price check aisle twelve’.
Peter was panicking. ‘It costs 5.99, mate! It’s always been 5.99!’
‘Please be patient, Sir,’ said the increasingly impatient youngster.
Pete stared at his eight items and thought about the rapidly disappearing old woman. Then he looked deep into the apathetic eyes of the kid.
‘Fuck it,’ he said, rushing out the door, followed by a choir of moans from the queue of shoppers.
Peering through layers of crisscrossing shapes, he searched below armpits and over shoulders, between conversing mouths and under the hems of dresses.
Where are you, you spooky little bitch?
It should have been futile. There were so many ways to slip out of the cavernous hall, and so many shops to hide in. But she was in the most logical place he could imagine, growing smaller in his perspective view as she headed toward the escalators that descended down to the street.
She isn’t trying to lose me.
Instead of pursuing that observation, he chased her, sprinting in long strides, probably faster than anyone has seen a human moving in a mall. Mothers pressed their stray children to their skirts, reverse-parked prams closer to shop windows, held the hands of confused-looking teenagers. The large running man was like an awkward bullet punching through the scene with no intention of changing course, only stuttering to a halt at the escalator, which was gladly surrendered to him by anyone approaching it. His pounding steps on the steel warned its passengers who stepped to the left, hugging the rubber rail in fear.
Searching the street, he scanned the crawling traffic, parked cars and pedestrians. An old sedan lurched into motion, pulling from the curb and revealing the bent prophet shuffling along the opposite sidewalk. She seemed to be walking faster, rushing away.
‘Fucking bitch,’ he said slowly, amazed.
Sprinting across the road, he was barely conscious of the cruising vehicles that skidded to a halt as he disrupted the traffic. She’d taken a side road and he was lucky to turn the corner in time to see the hem of her black dress swish flirtatiously around a letterbox before disappearing. Her smile was like a lure that trailed behind her, gleaming in the bright sunshine.
Finally catching up to her, Pete decided to take a different approach, laughing as he sucked in a few laboured breaths.
‘Whoa, you’re pretty quick on your feet,’ he said.
She didn’t answer, intent on continuing her journey. Her eyes hinted at thoughts that her wooden, fixed expression veiled.
‘Hey, seriously, are you trying to scare me or do you really—’
He still wanted to believe that it was a joke—just a little jolt from an eccentric old lady. Perhaps he’d upset her with his mood in the shopping centre. Maybe she was just trying to teach him a lesson, to spook him.
‘Tell me how then. How’s it going to happen?’
He ran in front of her, turning to walk backwards, beginning to get flustered again, but when she angled to enter a small alley, he was obviously in her way. She looked slightly impatient and he backed off, apologising quickly and stepping to the side.
‘Please,’ he pleaded.
As she walked past a row of tall green rubbish bins, Pete’s mood was turning black again. At the end of the neatly arranged row, he was about to shout at her—to demand she stop—but that was the moment when the tall man emerged, suddenly looming above him.
Pete only had enough time to be startled. A large shape appeared before his eyes, covering him in shadow and he felt a powerful, blunt impact. His nose was crushed underneath it. He could feel a sharp pain, replaced by a sickening numbness that pushed tears from his eyes. That feeling distracted him from the obvious: he was falling. The sky’s colour was instantly desaturated, becoming a shining grey. He saw the lanky man in jeans and black t-shirt leaning over him, searching his eyes.
The tall stranger’s skin was olive and he wore the same smile as the old woman. His eyes shone with the same vivid darkness.
The young man disappeared and Pete felt two comfortable but tight vices closing around his ankles. Then his dulled head was scraping awkwardly along the cement, rolling over tiny balls of gravel. A course sound filled his ears and his spine was pulled straight.
His limp body was dragged until the bins appeared, obscuring the bright sky. Surrounded by glare, the woman’s face appeared, close and smiling. Over her shoulder the young man flipped through Pete’s wallet and counted the money. The youth stuffed the cash into his pocket and Pete heard the sound of the discarded wallet dropping to the bottom of an empty bin. The impact created a muffled echo just a few centimetres from his ear.
Reaching behind his back, the gypsy’s apprentice frowned, and when his hand returned, it held a knife. They descended, mother and son. Pete could see the close resemblance: the teeth, shining beyond rich crescent lips forming knowing smiles; the eyes so dark that the pupils seemed lighter than the hue surrounding them, set against the purest white, as though neither of them had ever consumed a single toxin. They were brilliantly pure.
What the smiles were hiding, the eyes communicated like some terrible hint that sent a chill through Pete’s body.
‘Yes,’ the old woman said. ‘I know how you’re going to die.’
As the young man descended with her, casting shadows across Pete’s face, the old woman began to laugh.
‘Can’t you tell?’ she asked. ‘I’m psychic.’