Q. Hưng Phạm

A Man Died In Front Of My Store And Strange Things Have Been Happening Ever Since

It’s funny how some of the most formative, traumatic experiences tend to happen on what would have otherwise been the most boring day of the week. It was supposed to be just another Thursday in late June. I was working at my retail job, sorting the new line of hideous nail polish and making fun of the pretentious names of each shade, when my manager appeared. 

“What are all of those cop cars doing in front of the store?” She gestured to the obnoxious flashing lights streaming in through the glass doors. “Oh god, and an ambulance!” 

My first instinct was to roll my eyes and ignore her, because I initially wanted to assume this was just another one of the stupid pranks that we would sometimes play on each other to entertain ourselves during long, slow shifts. Unfortunately, the lights and the sirens were too authentic for even her to have replicated. I quickly realized it wasn’t a joke. Something really was wrong. 

 “There must have been an accident,” a customer chimed in, craning her neck over the shelves in the aisle next to us for a better view. 

I put down the bottle of nail polish called Angel Kiss, which looked a whole lot more like Angel Barf, and made my way to the sliding glass door at the front of the store.  

I will never forget the sirens, helicopter, and broken glass on the pavement. I remember the passing cars slowing down and the drivers inside gawking at someone else’s tragedy, undoubtedly collecting ammunition to use in future arguments against their husbands going through a midlife crisis, their sons dreaming of popping wheelies on the freeway, or their daughters insisting on dating the boy with the bike. I remember customers and coworkers talking excitedly, welcoming the drama that came with the collision to break up the monotony of their mundane lives. 

Among the chaos of the aftermath of the collision, I witnessed a woman walking away from the crash site holding a pair of shoes. The way she delicately cradled them in her arms like a baby, it was as if they were her most valued possession in the whole world. They were all she had left of her husband, the man who had been riding the motorcycle that was struck by the car that ran the red light. Now, he was the lifeless body under the sheet being wheeled into the back of the ambulance. Words cannot capture the vacancy in her eyes when she put those shoes into the trunk of her car. To so many people, the biker’s death was just a story. Just a headline. Something to gossip about over a few beers that night, only to forget about by morning. It was easy for them because they had no idea how much those shoes weighed. But I did. 

The entire situation reminded me of another tragedy that had occurred in early spring of 2010, the night a high school friend died. He was only 14 years old and had been hit by a car while rollerblading to a friend’s house after school. I was friends with his sibling at the time, and we went to their house after leaving the hospital. I remember standing in the middle of the hallway, scared to get too close to my deceased friend’s bedroom. I will never forget his father walking down that hallway toward me in slow motion, cradling his son’s rollerblades in his arms like a baby. I will never forget the vacancy in his father’s eyes when he reached out and took my hand. I was only 16 years old at the time, but that man’s eyes will haunt me for the rest of my life. 

After watching the woman put the shoes into the trunk of her car, I told my coworker I was going to take my lunch break and ran to the back of the store. I sat at the table in the break room and fought back tears as I forced myself to eat a handful of Cheez Itz: a well-known meal in the diet of a modern-day retail worker. After I finished my food, I found myself talking aloud to the empty room, hoping that just maybe, the man who had just died in front of our store could hear me. 

“Hey,” I whispered to no one, “I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can, I am so sorry that this happened to you. I just wanted you to know that I’m here. You are not alone. If there is anything I can do for you, or if there is anything you want me to tell your family, maybe I can help you. I know it sounds crazy, but I have dreams sometimes. I feel like people who are gone often visit and try to communicate with me while I’m asleep. I don’t know how it works, but maybe you could try it. Come to me in a dream and maybe I can help you. I don’t know. I hope you don’t need anything. I hope you are at peace, but if you’re not, you know where to find me.” 

I sat in the break room in silence for a few more minutes, trying to clear my head. I still had four hours left of my shift, and I needed to make sure I was emotionally stable before going back out on the floor and dealing with the needy, self-entitled customers. I said a quick prayer for the dead guy, then threw away my trash and headed back to the front of the store to finish my shift.  

* * *

A few days went by since the man’s passing and I hadn’t had any dreams all week. I was mostly relieved that nothing out of the ordinary had happened while I was asleep, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor biker who had lost his life. I was a bit surprised how heavily the stranger still weighed on my mind days after the accident when all of my coworkers seemed to have completely forgotten that anything had happened. Part of me was disgusted by their ability to just go on about their daily lives, but mostly, I envied them. I was thankful to have had a few days off after the shift during which the tragedy had occurred. It gave the town a couple of days to clean up the broken glass in front of our store from the collision. 

My first shift back after the Biker’s accident was slow and boring as usual. I tried my best to stay busy and avoid looking out the glass door onto the parking lot and street where it had all happened. A couple of customers made comments about the tragedy that had occurred, mostly to make sure I was informed that someone died in front of my place of employment, as if I wouldn’t have already known. The minutes slowly turned into hours, and finally, I found myself locking the doors to the store and getting ready to perform my nightly cleaning duties. I was relieved that it was almost time to go home. 

I took out the trash, wiped down the counter, cleaned the bathrooms, and quickly straightened the shelves. I collected all of the carts from the parking lot and collected a couple of hand-held baskets from the pharmacy counter where some lazy customers had left them. I counted them to make sure they were all there. I grabbed the giant push broom from the back of the store and finished my last task for the night. I made sure to hit every aisle and get every corner of the floor with the broom. I knew I was the only one who actually swept the floor like I was supposed to during my shifts, and seeing as I had just had the last couple of days off, I knew the floor would be dirtier than usual. Satisfied with the cleanliness of the floor after sweeping, I glanced at the clock and saw I had five minutes left before it was time to clock out, so I ran to the back of the store and put the broom away. 

As I was coming back out onto the floor to wait for my manager to finish counting drawers so we could clock out, I grabbed my phone out of my back pocket to check my social media. I wasn’t really looking where I was walking—I didn’t really need to because I knew the layout of the store by heart and I was the only person on the floor, so it wasn’t like I was going to run into anybody. I was halfway through reading a Facebook friend’s engagement announcement when my foot got caught on something as I was walking, tripping me and sending me crashing onto my hands and knees in the middle of the store.  

“What the fuck?” I mumbled angrily to myself as I reached for my phone, which had flown out of my hand as I fell. I looked behind me and saw a grocery basket sitting in the middle of the floor. “What the fuck?” I repeated, as I pulled myself back onto my feet, holding onto the beauty counter for leverage as I assessed the damage to my left knee. No blood, but there was definitely going to be a bruise. I picked up the basket and limped to the phone by the front register. 

“You’re an asshole,” I said over the speaker in the empty store, knowing my manager would hear it from the office. “I know you got that shit on camera and everything, I hope you enjoyed yourself. That was the lamest stunt you have pulled. I’m sure you’ll understand if I call off tomorrow because I can’t walk.” I slammed the phone back down on the receiver. Two seconds later, it rang. My manager was calling me from the office. 

“You’re such an asshole,” I repeated when I picked up the phone. 

“Hey, I’m sorry, I’m trying to hurry up and finish counting the drawers. We might get out a couple minutes late, I accidentally dropped one of them in the office when I first started counting it. That shit took forever to clean up.” 

“I’m sure it didn’t take any longer than that shitty prank you just pulled on me. Did you see me fall?” 

“What are you talking about?” I heard the coins clinking together in the background as she counted them. “I’ve been in the office. You fell? Are you okay?” The genuine confusion and concern in her voice caught me off guard. 

“Oh. Well, yeah, I’m okay, I just tripped over a basket. I thought you put it in the middle of the floor when I ran in the back to put the broom away. I—” 

My manager sighed, “No, it wasn’t me. I’m a little busy back here. I don’t have time to injure coworkers tonight.” I could hear the irritation starting to creep through in her voice, so I decided to drop it. I knew I was distracting her from finishing what she needed to do in order for us to go home, so I sighed in defeat and hung up the phone. 

I knew I had just swept that very same spot on the floor a few minutes earlier, and there definitely wasn’t a basket there. I had also just counted all of the baskets as I stacked them by the front door. They were all accounted for. Irritated, I put the basket I had just tripped over back where it belonged. I recounted the baskets to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and confirmed that with the one I just replaced, they were all there. Someone had definitely grabbed the basket and set it on the floor while I was putting the broom away. Seeing as my manager and I were the only ones in the store, I knew it had to have been her. 

We played pranks on each other all of the time, but nobody ever got hurt. I reminded myself that last week I had paid a customer to convince her that he had just witnessed a cart be slammed into her car by someone in the parking lot. She spilled her coffee in the process of running through the store to get to the parking lot. As hilarious as the entire situation had been for me, I did feel a little bad that she had spilled her coffee. I bought her a new one during my lunch break that day, but I told myself I had this one coming. I just didn’t understand why my manager pretended she hadn’t done it, when usually, she would have been gloating about having successfully pulled one over on me.  

 * * *

The following day, I showed up to work despite having previously threatened to call off over my knee injury that I had acquired the night before. The bruise was impressive, but the residual pain from my fall wasn’t really that bad. I made sure to throw in an extra limp whenever I had to walk past my manager, though, for good measure. 

During the middle of my shift, a customer bought a box of jelly beans. Her brilliance shined through as she stood in front of my register and tried to open them after paying for them. 

“How do you open these damn things?” She grunted, fumbling with the box. “I swear, it’s like they don’t want you to eat them. What kind of glue—” she was interrupted midsentence by the box of candy breaking open in her careless, clumsy hands, sending jellybeans flying in every direction. 

You would be surprised how far those nasty little candies can travel. I spent the rest of my shift picking them up all across the store. That night, after closing, I ran the broom through all of the aisles and made sure to get every damn piece I could find. I went over some aisles twice, just to make sure. Once I was finished, I put the broom back in the supply closet at the back of the store, and made my way back up to the front register to wait for my manager so we could clock out and go home. As I walked through the center of the store on my way back, something caught my eye, stopping me in my tracks. 

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I mumbled to myself as I stared in amusement at the floor. There, in front of me, was a small, neat pile of jelly beans. They looked as though someone had taken a perfect handful, and then intentionally placed them there. They were in the exact same spot where the basket had been placed the night before, right in the dead center of the store. In the spot that I had already swept over at least three times while making my way around the store. 

I knew for sure that my manager was fucking with me this time. I chuckled to myself as I walked to the front register and picked up the phone. She was so immature. 

“Were you saving a snack for later?” I asked over the pager in the store. “Rumor has it that there is a new flavor of jelly bean called ‘Retail floor’. It tastes like dirt and regret.” I hung up the phone, and it rang instantly. 

“What are you blabbing about now?” my manager laughed on the other line. 

“Why do you hate me?” I joked. “Why must you torment me with jelly beans?” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“Oh, come on, the joke’s over. I know you just saw me obsessively sweeping the floor and trying to clean up the stupid jellybeans that the ding bat from earlier spilled everywhere. What did you do, pull them out of the trash and put them on the floor like that? That takes a whole new level of commitment, to dig through a trash can like that.” 

My manager laughed again. “I genuinely have no idea what you are talking about. You sound like a crazy person.” 

“You are a crazy person!” I was only half joking. “Why would you put the jellybeans back on the floor like that? That’s gross. I understood the whole basket thing and you wanting to get back at me for the last prank I pulled on you, but this is just petty.” 

“Okay, I need you to hear me.” My manager started speaking slowly, as if I was incompetent. “I did not put the basket on the floor the other night, and I did not put jelly beans on the floor tonight. I am definitely going to get you back for the stunt you pulled with convincing me my car was hit by a customer’s cart, but I promise you it will be better than that dumb stuff you are trying to accuse me of. Also, I would never intentionally try to hurt you by tripping you with a basket. That would be a conflict of interest, don’t you think? If you are injured and can’t work, who am I supposed to annoy and talk shit about customers with all day? I promise you. I didn’t do anything. If I had, you know I would not only admit it but make sure I was able to see your reaction in person.” 

Everything she said made perfect sense, and I knew she was telling the truth, but I didn’t want to let myself believe her. If I believed her, that would mean that I would have to admit to myself that someone (or something) else was fucking with me. I wasn’t ready to accept that, because that version of the truth made me feel like I was going crazy. However, I also didn’t want to keep pushing my manager, so I eased up a bit. 

“Fine. I will let it go. But I’m watching you,” I joked. 

“Seriously though, are you okay?” 

“Yeah,” I sighed, “I’m probably just tired. I think I cleared the floor or swept it properly, then find a random basket or pile of candy that I missed. It has been a long week. Thankfully, I have the rest of this week off because my request for paid time off went through. I’m just burned out and need a break from this place.” 

“Yeah, retail does have a way of crushing one’s soul and sanity,” my manager joked. “Enjoy your time off, because I will be waiting for you when you get back.” She fake-cackled into my ear before continuing. “Alright, I gotta finish counting these stupid drawers so we can go home. Be out in 5 minutes.” Then she hung up. 

 * * *

That night when I got home, I couldn’t sleep. Once again, I felt my mind wandering to the man who had died in front of our store. For some reason, every time I closed my eyes, all I saw was those flashing lights and that body being wheeled into the ambulance. I wondered why I was having such a hard time letting it go when everyone else at work and in town seemed to have already forgotten all about it. I tossed and turned for hours before finally dozing off. My dreams were as fragmented as the shards of glass that had littered the pavement that Thursday. When I woke up the following morning, I couldn’t recall any of them. 

I was home alone because one of my roommates had gone on an overnight road trip with the neighbor and the other roommate was out of town visiting her mom for her birthday. It wasn’t often that I had the house to myself, and it was actually really nice. All I wanted to do was sprawl out on the couch and binge watch my favorite shows while shoving ungodly amounts of food in my face, but I decided to be an adult and do a couple chores around the house before becoming one with the furniture. I grabbed my giant pile of dirty clothes that I had been neglecting and went down stairs to throw them in the washer. As soon as I stepped off the bottom of the staircase and entered the basement, I felt the energy of the environment completely shift. Upstairs, I had been happy-go-lucky, dancing around the house to my playlist as I tidied things up. Downstairs, I felt immediate anxiety. Despite being in an empty house, I did not feel alone at all. I felt like someone was watching me from the other side of the basement, where my roommate had set up her bedroom. I was so weirded out by the feeling that I even turned on the flashlight of my phone and shined the light to the other side of the room just to make sure my roommate wasn’t actually home. I didn’t feel like walking over to the light switch on the other side of the basement, so I just stood there, shining my flashlight for a moment. 

Once I had confirmed the vacancy of the other side of the basement, I quickly turned back to face the washer and loaded my laundry inside. I heard myself breathing hard and could feel my heart beating out of my chest. I just desperately wanted to get out of there for some reason. 

After tossing in a Tide Pod and closing the door to the washer, I quickly made my way back to the stairs. As badly as I wanted to run up the steps, something made me hesitate. I felt a presence of someone on the other side of the basement so strongly now, I was certain I wasn’t alone. I quickly grabbed my phone, but couldn’t find the flashlight button, so out of sheer panic, I frantically took a photo of my roommate’s side of the basement with the flash on. In the light of the flash, I could have sworn I saw a figure in the corner. Suddenly, I felt like a little kid again with the way I desperately scrambled up the steps to get away from the basement. I shut the door to the basement stairs and locked it behind me. I ran to the living room and huddled beneath a blanket on the couch. I suddenly wasn’t so thrilled to be home alone anymore.  

I spent the next hour calming myself down, talking myself out of what I thought I saw in the corner. I reminded myself that I had shined the flashlight over everything on that side of the basement and had seen no one. I told myself that the flash of my camera probably just cast a weird shadow onto the wall in the corner. My roommate’s bedroom was a disaster, after all. Eventually, I was able to distract myself with junk food and Jensen Ackles’ jawline in a marathon of old episodes of Supernatural. I slept on the couch that night. 

I was awakened the following morning by one of my roommates coming home. 

“Oh, shit. Hey, sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up. I didn’t realize you would be sleeping on the couch. I wanted to go in the backdoor, but there was a bee. I didn’t want him to follow me in,” my roommate whispered as she walked through the house and toward the basement. 

Everything came rushing back to me all at once from the day before. “Oh, wait!” I stumbled off of the couch and almost fell over because the blanket was wrapped around my leg. “Don’t go downstairs yet, please?” 

My roommate set her stuff down in the hallway, then came back into the living room. “You okay?” she asked. “What’s going on?” 

I sighed. “It’s probably nothing, but yesterday was a little weird. I probably just creeped myself out with being home alone for the first time in forever.” 

“What happened?” My roommate sat down in the chair across from the couch. 

“Well, I feel kind of stupid even bringing it up now,” I laughed nervously, “but last night, I was in the basement doing laundry and I felt really uncomfortable. Like, I felt like I wasn’t alone. I thought maybe you didn’t go see your mom and were in bed sleeping or something. I just felt a really strong presence, like someone else was down there with me. I don’t know. It’s stupid. It’s just, I had never felt that way downstairs before.” 

“That doesn’t sound stupid,” my roommate said, looking at the floor. “I’m actually kind of relieved to hear you say that, in a weird way.” 

“What? Why?” 

“Well,” my roommate shifted her weight nervously in the chair, “the other night, I couldn’t sleep. I felt the exact same thing. I felt like someone was in my room just watching me. I ended up keeping the lights on. I fell asleep eventually, but it was really weird. I never felt uncomfortable down there before. I thought I was going crazy.” 

My jaw dropped and I just stared at her for a moment before regaining my composure. “Oh! I ended up taking a picture of your side of the basement yesterday, before I chickened out and ran back up the stairs! In the light of the flash of the camera, I thought I saw a shadow of a figure in the corner of your room!” 

“Are you serious?” My roommate got up and ran over to the couch to sit beside me. “Did you get it? In the picture?” 

I realized I never checked the picture after I took it. I grabbed my phone off of the coffee table. “I didn’t even look at it, I was too scared,” I admitted. My hand was already shaking as I attempted to type in my password to gain access into my phone. After the fourth try, I finally got it right. When I got to my home screen, I clicked the gallery icon, then let my finger hover over the most recent photo in the album but didn’t tap it. 

“Well, what are you waiting for?” my roommate asked, staring impatiently at my phone. 

“I’m sorry, I’m just scared there is actually going to be someone there.” 

My roommate rolled her eyes and snatched my phone from me. She tapped the photo and zoomed in. I was actually a little relieved that she took the plunge so I wouldn’t have to. I studied her face while she stared intently at my phone screen, her eyes moving back and forth as she rapidly scanned the photo in front of her. Only a few seconds passed before her eyes widened and her jaw dropped as she stared in awe at something she had found in the photo. Without saying a word, she shoved the phone in my face. “Look! Look in the corner, in the mirror on my dresser! Zoom in!” 

I didn’t need to zoom in on the photo. I saw the face in the mirror right away. It was a face of a man. He had a long, narrow nose and a handlebar mustache. I could see his cheekbones. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could see the contours of his face where they were supposed to be. 

“I-is he anyone you know? D-does he look f-familiar?” I struggled to get the words out. 

My roommate just stared at me with the same look of horror on her face and shook her head. She couldn’t speak. 

I immediately thought of the biker who had died in front of my store earlier that week. I still didn’t even know the man’s name. “I wonder…” I mumbled to myself as I opened Google on my phone and typed “Motorcycle accident in South Lyon, Michigan” into the search bar. A couple of articles popped up immediately, and I tapped the first one that was listed. 

“What are you doing?” my roommate whispered as she stared over my shoulder at my phone. 

I didn’t answer her. I simply skimmed through the article and scrolled down. My stomach dropped as a photo appeared on my phone screen at the bottom of the article. It was a picture of a man with a long, narrow nose and a white handlebar mustache. In the photo, he was leaning against his motorcycle and staring into the camera of whoever had taken the picture. My suspicions were validated and reconfirmed as I heard my roommate gasp next to me as soon as she made the connection. 

“Oh my god! That’s him! That’s the man in the mirror!” She jumped to her feet and pointed at my phone. “That’s the man I saw on the news earlier this week! The one who died in front of your work!” 

“Oh god,” I moaned as I dropped my phone on the floor in front of me and covered my face with my hands, “This is all my fault,” I whispered to myself. 

“What?” My roommate kneeled at my feet and pulled my hands away from my face. “What’s your fault? How could a dead guy in my bedroom possibly be your fault?” 

Fighting back tears, I explained everything that had happened that week. I told her about the day the man had died and how I had talked to him in the breakroom. I told her about the dreams I sometimes have, and how I offered to help him find peace in any way that I possibly could. I told her about the couple of strange occurrences that had happened at work, with the basket and then the jellybeans, and how I thought it was my manager messing with me.  

“Oh my god,” my roommate repeated. “You invited him to come home with you! He attached himself to you and followed you to and from work.” 

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “I didn’t mean for this to affect you or anyone else. I told him to try to come to me in a dream.” 

She laughed. “I’m sorry, I just think it’s funny. When I got home, I was worried about letting a bee into the house by going in the back door, which was why I came in the front and woke you up. Meanwhile, you’re just over here inviting dead people to come on in.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Maybe he got confused.” 

“What? How?” I grabbed a tissue off of the table beside me in case any of the tears welling up in my eyes decided to make their great escape down my face. 

“Well, maybe he saw me sleeping and he thought I was you,” she explained. “He could have gotten us confused. Maybe he saw the way my room was decorated with all of my crystals and he assumed I was the spooky bitch who dreams of dead people,” she joked. “Hell, I don’t know how it works.” 

I thought about it for a moment, then nodded my head. “Yeah, I guess that could make sense. I mean, we do kind of look alike. People ask us if we are sisters all of the time.” 

My roommate nodded her head in agreement. “Yeah, that guy at the gas station made a comment the last time we were in there, remember?” 

“Yeah, and you sleep a lot more than I do, so maybe he just lingered around you hoping something would happen. Maybe he thought you were me.” 

“This is crazy,” my roommate whispered, grabbing a tissue of her own. 

“I know you said you felt his presence in your room for a while, but did you ever have any dreams?” 

“No. I just felt creeped out, like I wasn’t alone at night when I would try to sleep. I never felt threatened or endangered. I just knew there was someone else there. I thought I was crazy, though.” 

“I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to put you through all of that,” I assured her. 

“I know.” My roommate put her hand on my shoulder. “I get it, but since we are both uncomfortable, and your request for him to reach out to you hasn’t been successful, would you be okay with helping me tell him to leave?” 

“Oh, of course! I have some sage in my bedroom. We can open the windows and burn it while telling him to go. That usually works with unwelcome spirits.” 

My roommate laughed. “If you say so. Definitely worth a shot.” 

* * * 

A few minutes later, we found ourselves in the basement. I held the burning bundle of sage in my left hand and guided the smoke into every corner of the room. I had been the one who invited him into our house, so I felt that I needed to be the one to tell him to leave. My roommate lingered closely behind me, staying silent the entire time. 

“I am so sorry that this happened to you,” I said aloud, speaking to the spirit of the man I had captured in the picture. “My intentions were pure when I asked you to come to me if you needed anything. I never meant to confuse you. I only wanted to help. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out in the way that I had hoped, and I don’t think there is anything I can do for you now. I am so sorry I brought you here. You shouldn’t be here.” 

I had already made my way around the rest of the basement with the sage. The only corner that was left was the one with my roommate’s dresser and mirror where I had caught the man’s face in the photo. I took a deep breath, and stood in front of the mirror in silence for a moment, before speaking directly into it. “You are loved, but you don’t belong here anymore. You need to move on and go to where you are supposed to be.” This time, I couldn’t even fight the tears. They just fell freely as I waved the bundle of burning sage over the surface of the mirror. “I am so sorry for everything that happened to you, but you need to leave this house and move on to where you are supposed to be.” 

In that exact moment, I felt a strange pressure on my right hand, which had been empty, hanging by my side. I looked down at it, and watched my fingers gently close around something that was not there. It looked and felt as if someone was holding my hand. A few seconds later, the pressure resided, and my fingers uncurled.  

“He’s gone,” my roommate stated while taking a deep breath and stretching. “The room feels lighter, emptier. He isn’t here anymore. You did it!” 

“I know,” I said, still staring at my hand. “He let go.”