“Founded in 2007, Jeb’s Lodge is America’s premiere membership-only retail warehouse. Enjoy exclusive discounts on bulk goods ranging from groceries to athleticwear to household appliances like toasters and waffle irons. You simply won’t believe our prices! VIP members receive premium benefits like curbside pickup, Jebcash rewards, and daily deals on a host of goods and services. Get Lodged in Savings!”
* * *
“You’d think he would just leave,” Karl said, dipping his hand into the tiny bag of cheddar triangles he snagged from the free-sample kiosk. “He must be full by now.”
They were crouched behind a canned tuna pyramid at the back of the store, the lone survivors of a mid-afternoon monster massacre. Dave’s head was bowed in prayer, his hands clasped together as though they held rosary beads. He was asking God to save him and, if possible, to fix that issue with his car insurance since it had been almost a month and he wasn’t too keen on taking the bus or bumming a ride from a co-worker, especially if that co-worker was Adam.
“Maybe he has two stomachs,” Karl suggested. “Like a cow?”
“Tell you what,” Dave said, clapping Karl on the shoulder. “If we make it out of here, I’ll gladly discuss vampire anatomy with you over beer and brats—my treat. But right now, I’d really like to confer with the Lord.”
“Vampire?” Karl looked at Dave askance. “Don’t you mean zombie?”
“I know a vampire when I see one, bub. And that bloodsuckin’ creep over there is a vampire.”
“I don’t know,” Karl said, doubtfully. “I’m getting strong zombie vibes. You sure he isn’t some kind of pale ghoul?”
The monster was tall, slender, and mostly hairless, except for a few jet-black bristles growing out of his ears. His sharp cheekbones and long pointed chin made him look like his head had been hewn from a block of wood. As he glanced left and right, his mouth snapped at the air and his eyes pinballed around in their sockets. All about his feet lay the mangled bodies of his victims—all Jeb’s Lodge employees, all members of the retail revolution.
“Will you put those away,” Dave raged, slapping the small bag of chips out of Karl’s hand. “This is no time for snacks. People are dead.”
Karl’s cheese-stained mouth hung open with shock. “I’m hypoglycemic. I need food; otherwise—”
“Save it,” Dave said. “I’m not interested in your make-believe allergies. It isn’t enough I’m being hunted by Dracula; I also have to babysit a grown man.”
“Babysit?” Karl gritted his neon-orange teeth. “What are you, like, three years older than me?”
Though he didn’t look it, Dave was, in fact, nine years Karl’s senior. To Dave’s horror, some of their co-workers insisted there was a family resemblance. Both had brown hair—though Karl had a tad more of it—and both wore glasses with thick tortoise shell frames that bore the Jeb’s Lodge Optical brand. Whereas Karl’s eyes were friendly and unassuming, Dave’s were like the tips of two icicles. It was generally agreed that Dave, despite his thinning hair, was the handsomer of the two.
“Damn it. Where’d he go? He was just there.” Dave swiveled his head and then sank down into a low crouch. “See what happens when you distract me. I knew you were going to be a nuisance. Knew it since Day One. I told Sam—”
Dave couldn’t believe his ears. “Sam Gronsky. Store Manager?”
“I thought you were the Store Manager?”
“What? No.” Dave tapped the blood-splattered ID badge hanging from his neck. “I’m Head of Grocery.”
“The Grocery Czar,” Karl teased.
“Don’t call me that. I hate it when people call me that.”
“There he is! Get down!”
The two men darted behind a pallet of drinking water: 30 bottles for $2.99. Purified via reverse-osmosis. Refreshing taste! Refreshing price!
“Clearly a zombie,” Karl said, drawing Dave’s attention to the creature’s peculiar gait. “See how he’s shambling. Vampires don’t shamble.”
“It’s that plastic wrap he’s dragging. Doesn’t seem to notice it.”
Trailing behind the monster, like a parachute, was a long, tangled plastic sheath that had attached itself to his right ankle and made a gentle swishing sound as he walked. Karl swallowed audibly as the monster passed by, panting and making phlegmy vocalizations. “What do we do?”
“Hang on a second,” Dave said. “I’m thinking.”
While Dave cogitated, Karl removed his car keys from his pocket and made a long vertical incision in one of the plastic cases, helping himself to a bottle of water.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I sweat when I’m nervous,” Karl said, raising the bottle to his lips.
“You can’t do that! Those are sold as a set.”
“We can’t sell it if one’s missing.”
“Call me un-American, but I just don’t get this whole quantity over quality thing,” Karl griped. “It’s dumb. Does a person really need two gallons of ketchup?”
“It saves money,” Dave said. “Most of our customers have big families. You got kids, Karl?”
“I have a gerbil.”
“Didn’t think so.”
“I don’t like it,” Karl said. “As a minimalist, it offends me.”
The two duck-walked backwards until they found new cover behind a couple of mannequins outfitted in heavy winter coats and denim jeans. Karl wedged his face into the female mannequin’s thigh gap and watched the creature shuffle along the breakfast food aisle, sniffing the air and pawing at the packages of oats and instant coffee. “Looks like Mr. Ghoul over there got into the Colombian Supreme.” Turning to Dave, he said, “I can smell it from here. It’s probably masking our scent. Ghouls can smell human flesh, you know.”
“For the last time,” Dave replied. “It’s not a ghoul.”
“Why don’t we mosey over to Sports & Sundry and see what weapons we can scrounge up?”
“I’m giving the orders here.”
“Because I’m Head of Grocery,” Dave said, pompously.
“Grocery is back that way. We’re technically in Apparel now. You have no jurisdiction here.”
“Do I have to remind you that your thirty-day review isn’t up yet?” Dave jabbed a bony finger at Karl’s breast. “You have a week to convince me to keep you on.”
“I thought that was Sam’s call?”
“You didn’t know who Sam was ten seconds ago!”
“Well, I do now,” Karl said. “And I don’t appreciate being treated like a dumb sheep.”
Dave groaned. “OK, fine. I’m sorry. It’s just a stressful situation.”
“You’re telling me.”
Dave went back to cogitating. After a couple seconds, he blurted out, “I’ve got it!”
“Garlic. We can use garlic to ward away the vampire.” He craned his neck around the mannequin’s hip, checking that the coast was clear. “We’re doing a two-for-one on diced garlic right now. I just put the jars out this morning.”
“In water or olive oil?”
Dave made a face. “What difference does it make?”
“No difference,” Karl said. “I just prefer them in water. Olive oil upsets my stomach.”
“You’re not eating it. You’re smearing it on your clothes. That reminds me.” Dave reached over and grabbed the edge of Karl’s apron. “Take this off. I don’t want to have to wash it later.”
“I’m not smearing anything on my clothes,” Karl protested. “Besides, look around you. Look at the floor. Look at the walls. Dirty uniforms are the least of it.”
Dave didn’t have to look. He could smell the reek of slaughter in the air, a foulness that infested every pore and made him retch and his eyes turn red and watery. The reinforced steel shelves were decorated with gore, the products likewise glistened with freshly spilt blood. With every careful step he took, Dave’s shoes squelched in the offal of his former Jeb’s Lodge compatriots. The sound was like feet mashing grapes in a cedar tub.
He started rubbing his temples. “Think, damn it. Think!”
“Hang on,” Karl said, holding an idea between the tiny pincers of his mind. “We sell bibles, don’t we?”
“Naturally. We all love Jesus here.”
“Could prove useful,” Karl suggested. “As a sort of protective talisman, you know?”
“So you admit it’s a vampire!”
“I’m just humoring you long enough to figure out my own escape plan.” He shook his head. “I wish Sam was here.”
“He is here,” Dave bawled. “His leg is in the frozen food aisle. His torso, I believe, is still in Home & Garden, and his head is sitting on top of checkout lane six. You want to go ask him for advice? Be my guest.”
Karl visibly wilted. “Now who’s gonna approve my vacation days?”
“Zip it. He’s going for the sausage links.”
The monster was loitering around the deli counter, his nostrils flaring. With a flick of his fingernail, he razored open one of the packages and began unspooling sausages, letting them fall to the ground and coiling them around his fist until they resembled an old boxing glove.
“Pork sausage,” Karl said. “He probably thinks they’re human intestines. Classic ghoul behavior.”
“No, no, you’re wrong.” Dave pointed out the rust-red color of the casing. “It’s blood sausage. He is a vampire!”
“I don’t see why we can’t just hide out in the break room till help arrives. You need a door code to get in, don’t you?”
“And I’m guessing Mr. Zombie-Vampire over there doesn’t know the code?”
“So what are we waiting for?”
“It’s the fourteenth,” Dave said, matter-of-factly.
“You know what the fourteenth is, don’t you?”
Karl’s eyes glazed over. “Pie Day?”
“It’s the day the door codes get refreshed. Sam had me do it last night before I clocked out.”
“I’m still struggling to see the problem.”
“I can’t remember the code,” Dave confessed.
“Did you write it down somewhere?”
“No. But I texted it to Sam when I got home.”
“Perfect,” Karl said, rubbing his hands together. “No problem. Just check your phone.”
“I left it in the car.”
Karl shook his head in disgust. “How did you become Head of Grocery?”
“Sam probably has his phone on him.”
“Which part of him, specifically? Like you said, he’s a bit scattered right now.”
Dave scratched himself and clicked his tongue a couple of times. “Yeah, I’ve got nothing.”
“OK,” Karl said. “This is the play. One of us creates a diversion while the other sneaks up behind him with the Good Book. Who’s it gonna be?”
“You got any?”
“Fine,” Karl said, rolling up his sleeves. “I’ll do it. But you better not leave me high and dry.”
There was a stirring behind them. A twelve-pack of extra-absorbent paper towels toppled off the shelf onto the floor.
“Where’d he go?” Dave whispered. “He was just there.”
It became eerily quiet all of a sudden. Only the sound of Dave’s and Karl’s labored breathing could be heard. Karl poked his head out of cover and stared across the great expanse of Jeb’s Lodge, his eyes flitting from Grocery to Electronics to the towering storage racks filled with fat, black car tires that was Auto Services. The Head of Auto Services, Eli Green, lay dismembered a few yards away, his rib bones sticking out of his chest at incomprehensible angles.
Dave was about to issue a word of caution to the new team member when he noticed something had latched onto his collarbone and was attempting to drag him down to the floor. He wobbled a bit, coughed, and then let out a piercing cry that startled Karl and sent him sprinting in the opposite direction. Looking over his shoulder, Karl saw Dave struggle free of the monster, then drop it with a swift kick to the sternum before taking off running.
They fled to Bath & Body and hid behind boxes of floor tile stacked waist-high in a long row. The wound in Dave’s neck was superficial but gnarly-looking, and blood was everywhere.
“Oh, God! He bit me!” Dave shouted. “The mother heifer bit me! I’m going to turn. Don’t let me turn into one of those things,” he pleaded.
“Calm down. It’s just a scratch. Here,” Karl reached behind his back and grabbed a bag of 100 cotton rounds and offered them to Dave. “Use this to staunch the wound.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Dave ripped open the bag and held a wad of rounds to the small gash on his shoulder, took a series of deep breaths.
“Did you get a good look at him?” Karl asked. “Did he look more like a vampire, or a ghoul?”
“Hard to say.”
“Hey, hey,” Karl motioned towards the creature. “He’s snagged on something again. Can’t seem to shed that piece of plastic.”
Dave swooned. “I feel faint.”
“All right. New plan. One of Sam’s legs is just over there. I’m gonna see if I can find his phone in one of the pockets.”
“Wait,” Dave whimpered. “Neither of us know his passcode.”
“He doesn’t have one. He uses his fingerprint to unlock his phone. I’ve seen him do it dozens of times. Right hand index finger.”
“You’ve been spying?”
“You gonna write me up for espionage? I’ll grab the phone, bring it back and then we’ll go looking for that right hand together. Deal?”
“Here,” Dave said, removing his employee badge. “Take this. If I don’t make it out of here, I want you to give it to my fiancée, Debra.”
“Debra?” Karl furrowed his brow. “As in Debra from Vitamins?”
“She has the day off today. We’ve been going steady for almost a year now.” Dave’s voice suddenly softened. “I really want to marry her.”
“‘Going steady’? You are old! In that case…” Karl detached his employee badge from the nylon lanyard around his neck and handed it to Dave. “You can take mine.”
“Good luck,” Dave said.
“Thanks. I’ll need it.”
Keeping a close eye on the monster, Karl stealthed his way across Bath & Body, his cheap sneakers squishing in the congealed pools of blood, viscera, and Dove Fast-Acting Hand Lotion. Picking his moment carefully, he dashed into the aisle where Sam’s gooey stump of a leg had landed. He dug through the pants pockets with as much respect and care as could be afforded in the moment and nearly let out a victorious yawp when he found the cellphone.
The lock screen background was a picture of Sam’s Doberman pinscher, Scamp, fitted with a set of plastic antlers, a juicy ham bone between his teeth. Karl recalled fondly his own childhood pet, Dmitri—a freakishly smart iguana who died tragically after drinking from a hot tub at a cheap hotel in Miami.
“I got the phone,” Karl said, after he’d returned to Dave’s side. “Now, where did you say his right arm was?”
Dave jerked his head to the left. “Electronics, I think. Want to lead the way?”
“Sure. And on the way, I’m gonna to stop in Lawn & Patio and grab myself a shovel.”
“Perfect for bashing a ghoul’s brains in,” Dave said.
Karl was stunned. “I don’t believe it.”
“You called it a ghoul.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did,” Karl insisted. “I heard you loud and clear. You said—”
“Forget what I said.” Dave’s mouth contracted into an angry pucker. “It’s not important. We better get moving while I’m still semi-conscious.”
The path to Lawn & Patio was strewn with cheap goods and human carrion. They had to step over Head of Bakery, Dianne Akers, as well as a couple teenage boys from Receiving whose chests were splayed open, their hearts and other vital organs conspicuously missing. The smell of charcoal and butane lighter fluid told them they’d arrived long before the first kettle grills and campsite pellet smokers loomed in their vision.
From an assortment of keen-edged garden tools, enticingly laid out in wooden stalls lined with astroturf, Karl selected the sharpest and heaviest shovel of the lot. He half-expected Dave to veto his choice—this was high-end hardware, after all, with a price tag to match—but Dave didn’t say a word. Instead, he reached for a trowel and something called a cultivator hand rake. After a few practice swipes, he looked at Karl and said, “Let’s find that arm and get out of here.”
They found it over by the flatscreen TVs. A grisly appendage with a cheap Casio still strapped to the wrist. Dave doubled over at the first sight of the thing. “I think I’m gonna barf,” he said.
“Take it easy. We’re nearly scot-free.” Karl dug the phone out of his pocket and laid the dead man’s finger on the home button. “Success!”
Dave gave a feeble thumbs up. “Great. Now, go to his messages. The new code should be there.”
For several seconds, Karl held a stern expression while he scrolled through Sam’s contacts. “I’m not seeing it,” he said.
“What do you mean ‘you’re not seeing it’?” Karl could hear the panic in Dave’s voice. “It has to be there. I distinctly remember sending it to him before I got in the shower.”
“Well, it’s not here. Are you sure you remembered to hit ‘send’?”
“I know how to use a cell phone, Karl.”
“Oh, wait.” Karl stopped scrolling. “Never mind. I found it. You’re in his contacts under a different name.”
This struck Dave as odd. “I am?”
“Must be a nickname.”
Karl hesitated. “Yeah, like… uh… term of endearment.”
“Is it ‘Grocery Czar?’”
Dave did a double-take. “What?!”
“That’s not all,” Karl said, continuing to scroll.
“There’s more? How can there be more?”
Karl suddenly became very uncomfortable. He shifted his gaze from the phone to a set of stereo speakers and cleared his throat audibly. “I don’t know if I should say.”
“Spit it out!”
“Here,” Karl said, handing Dave the phone. “Have a look for yourself.”
Dave put down his trowel and hand rake and began poring over his boss’s private messages. His eyes were riveted to the screen and held a look of slowly mounting fury.
Karl watched him in suspense, afraid that the thread of sanity might snap at any moment, and he took a couple well-advised steps backwards until he was out of striking/spittle range. “It’s OK,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything. Not a thing.”
“Debra?” The word was like poison in Dave’s mouth. “Debra and Sam? Sam and Debra? Debra and Sam? Sam and Debra?”
He went on repeating their names for several more seconds, as if in a trance, while Karl stood by, wondering how he might salvage the situation. He knew it was no good to counsel restraint at this point; he could see they were past that. “Come on,” he said. “We have the code. Let’s go to the break room before we—”
The words caught in his throat. Panic hit him like a jet of cold champagne to the face. His heart beat in his ears and his mouth went as dry as a sandpit. Standing there at Dave’s side, its fangs mere inches from his jugular, was the monster. It seized him and flung him to the floor with such force that his shoulder socket popped and he let out an excruciating howl. It took a step towards its wounded prey, its talon-like nails poised for murder. Recovering quickly from the shock, Dave spun around on his tailbone, kicked the monster’s legs out from under him and pounced on him, dual-wielding garden implements.
The tussle that followed was loud, bloody, and over in a matter of seconds. Karl, immobilized by fear, could only stand-by and watch as Dave Casterbridge, aka, the Grocery Czar, gave vent to his consuming rage, stabbing and sawing and staking and mincing until the monster was well and truly dead. When it was over, there was scarcely anything left to identify the creature. So extensive was the mutilation that the vampire/ghoul debate would seemingly never be settled.
Dave’s flailing arms suddenly went limp and his makeshift weapons rang sharply as they hit the ground. Adrenaline caused his hands to tremble and his face and clothes were painted with blood-spray from the corpse beneath him. It took him a moment to realize he was being spoken to.
“Dave, are you alright? You need to take a second?”
After a few seconds, Dave looked up and said, “Fine. Never better.”
“Great,” Karl replied. “Glad to hear it. Now, what do you say we get the hell out of here? Unless you feel like stabbing him one more time for good measure?”
Dave cracked a smile. “I think I’m good.”
“After you,” Karl said, stepping aside.
Dave stood up and started limping towards the door. Karl turned to follow but found himself snared on something. It was the plastic wrapper the monster had been dragging. It was tarnished and twisted under the monster’s shoulders, acting as his de facto death shroud. Karl knelt down and gave the corner a tug, freeing himself. “Hang on one second,” he said, locating a white label plastered on one side of the sheath. “What do we have here?”
There was a barcode with numbers underneath it and a set of dimensions in the upper lefthand corner. Dave wiped away some dirt with his thumb and read the label:
Vampires, Carpathian (10-PK)
Leaning over, he inspected the bottom of the vampire’s foot and found another smaller barcode seared into the waxen flesh, alongside which was printed the words: “Not to be sold separately.”
His stomach muscles tightened and his eyes went as wide as frisbees. He felt the violent movement of blood through his veins and his heart’s panicked exertions as the room tilted on its axis.
“Uh, Karl…” Dave stood a couple yards from the entrance, his feet anchored to the floor. “I think we have a problem.”
Standing in a long phalanx, blocking the entrance were nine vampires of identical description. Dave withered under their collective glare as they licked their fangs and picked at them with their long, nasty fingernails. The one in the middle took a step forward, raised an accusing finger at either Karl or Dave—it was unclear which—and let out a chilling growl.
“I guess you were right,” Karl said. “It is a vampire.”
“Told you,” Dave squeaked.
“Yup,” said Karl. “You told me.”
Andreas J. Britz is a writer whose work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Horror Zine, Dark Dossier, Mystery Tribune, Black Sheep: Unique Tales of Terror & Wonder, Blood Moon Rising, Altered Reality, The Chamber Magazine, The Honest Ulsterman and several other digital and print publications. He is a Truman Capote Fellowship recipient and won the 2012 University of Chicago Emerging Writer Award. He lives in West Cork, Ireland with his wife Sarah.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Never Have Too Many”:
Much to our delight this year, we received not one, but two great Halloween-worthy stories. And author Andreas J. Britz’s title is therefore doubly appropriate. This excellent piece is filled with great humor. It sets the scene, quickly engages the reader, then is capped by a solid, unexpected and satisfyingly humorous ending that’s totally appropriate for the setting.