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You’re only passing through town, but you’re hungry. It won’t hurt to stop for a minute, you tell yourself. You pull into the parking lot of the first store your eyes find. You see it’s called Jubilee Convenience. Underneath the name, the faded, rusty sign reads, “No one ever leaves here with a frown!” and under that, “Fresh treats baked daily!”
You walk into the store, the doorbell merrily announcing your arrival. The space is small, and you’re unsure whether to describe it as “cozy” or “too close for comfort.” Shelves full of snacks stretch to the back of the store. A table full of cookies, cupcakes, and pies sits to your right next to the register. A handful of patrons mill through the shelves. No one is talking, but you hear voices anyway.
You walk towards the shelves, looking for something, anything, to assuage your hunger, but you can't understand any of the symbols written on the packages. In fact, you can't even tell what are in the packages. Maybe I can wait until the next town to stop, you think as you turn to walk back out.
“Hello! Do you need any help?”
You jump when you see a woman standing behind the formerly vacant register. “No, I’m just on my way out,” you reply.
“No need to leave so soon! Would you like to try a slice of our fresh baked pie?” Her smile is wide and her voice is cheery, but her eyes are vacant.
“Sure,” you say apprehensively. Might as well, you’re already inside.
“I’ll warm it up for you then!” She turns and walks out of sight.
You rub your face with your hands, and the glow of a coffee dispenser in the back catches your attention. Yes, coffee, you think as you make your way towards it.
As you weave your way through the shelves, which seem to be changing slightly with each step you take, you notice the other customers walking down the aisles as well. To your left is a family. Two parents, two children. The children place snacks like nuts, dried fruit, and veggie chips daintily into a basket. The parents run up and down the aisle, pushing bags of chips off of the shelves, trying to sneak donuts and candy bars into the basket to the chagrin of the kids. Dark red stains are left on the packages they touch. In the next aisle, a man reads a trashy magazine from the magazine rack, but the words are in a language that you can’t understand, and when he lowers it to flip the page, you see that his eyes are scarred and scabbed over. At the refrigerators, two people stand at opposite ends. Well, you think they’re two different people. Yes, they are in different places, but they are identical in appearance and action. When one takes out a bottle of soda, so does the other. When one brushes their hair out of their face, so does the other. When one slams their hand in the door, then opens the door again with no sign of what just happened other than a red gash on their hand, so does the other.
By the time you’ve reached the coffee dispenser, your apprehension has evolved to paranoia. You rub your eyes, thinking that you spent too much time on the road, that you’re tired, that you’re just seeing these things. You take your hands away from your eyes, spots dancing in your vision.
They clear, and everything seems normal. No voices are echoing throughout the space. The parents fill the basket with healthy snacks while the children complain. The man reads a magazine written in a language that you understand while bright blue eyes scan the pages rapidly. Only one person stands at the refrigerators, no gash on their hand. You let out a sigh of relief and pour yourself a cup of coffee.
Something brushes your leg.
You jump, heart pounding in your chest, dropping your coffee, the inky black substance oozing onto the floor. You run toward the exit, weaving through the shelves as fast as you can, breathing rapidly in and out and in and out and in and out, but the floor is slightly warped, just enough that you stumble but don’t fall, and the exit doesn’t get any closer, in fact it seems to get further away with every step you take towards it, so you just keep running and staggering and breathing past growing multitudes of families of well-behaved children and unmannered parents, past more men with scarred eyes, missing eyes, empty eyes who keep reading magazines that you can’t understand, past a long line of identical people doing identical things at the refrigerators, and all the while the voices are growing louder and louder and louder and then you are surrounded by disembodied screams in languages long dead, until you finally trip, your body finally crashes onto the floor, and you’re at the door. You use the handle to pull yourself up and when you push it open the bell rings, one dark toll of a church bell.
“Going so soon?”
The cashier’s too-cheerful voice breaks through the screams and everything else goes silent. You turn to her, unsure what to say. Her grin stretches along the length of her face, but her eyes are still glazed over. “You haven’t gotten your pie yet.”
“I... don’t want it anymore,” you reply slowly.
“Why not? It was baked fresh this morning!”
You hesitate, then turn to step out the door. The cashier’s voice rings out again, “No one ever leaves here!”
You freeze and turn to her again. “What?”
“That’s our motto. No one ever leaves here!”
You think back to the sign that you saw on your way in. “I thought it was no one ever leaves here with a frown.”
The waitress’s smile widens, elongating over the expanse of her face. Her arm reaches out to you, wrapping around your wrist, circling up your arm, twining around your neck. The image of the sign flashes in your brain again. The phrase “with a frown” flickers, then disappears. The waitress’s arm pulls you back from the door, and the more you struggle the tighter her hold around your neck becomes.
“No one ever leaves here,” she snarls, her voice distorting into a deep growl, “and we bake our treats fresh daily.” With her other hand she picks up a knife and plunges it into a pie next to her. As your throat is crushed beneath her arm, the last thing you see before your vision goes dark are small black insects swarming out from the pie and a dark red liquid bubbling up from below the unbaked crust.


Image of The other side


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