‘Welcome to C-Mart. I hope you have a wonderful visit. My name is Cindy. If you need any assistance, you can just call my name and I will do my best to help out.’
Her voice was sing-song and floaty. She sounded genuinely pleased to serve your every whim. Cindy’s voice always made Matt’s heart feel dense, like a black hole. He avoided her semi-transparent eyes and stared resolutely at the floor. To acknowledge her was to submit to an endless barrage of adverts.
As Matt shuffled past, the hologram started speaking again.
‘It might interest you to know that we have a special offer on Milk-U-Like, the tasty milk lab substitute. Using historic research, our scientists have discovered a blend that is closest to how dairy used to be! It’s two for one in the chilled section!’
Matt sighed. Clearly, they had tweaked the algorithm to shout the adverts whether you wanted it or not. He hated going to C-Mart, everything about it was difficult and more complicated than it needed to be. But it was the only place to get food around here.
Sighing, he grabbed a basket and headed off down the aisle. At least it was quiet tonight. He was the only one there. The hypermarket echoed with his footsteps.
Mince for now, milk for tomorrow. Bin bags generally.
That was the other thing about the hypermarket. He always forgot something. That’s why he was here so late, he had got in after a long day at work, craving a spaghetti bolognese. It was only when he started cooking did he realise he had forgotten the mince. Nice work.
So now he was here, wasting another evening walking around the endless aisles. Sometimes Matt thought he was simply a rat in a maze.
Here was the meat aisle. Almost Mince was rubbish, but it was cheap. On the other hand, I Can’t Believe It’s Lab-Grown! was half price and that was usually better. It was fifty pence more though, and you got less. The bolognese was only going to be for him though. But he was going to have it a couple of times this week, dine out on the leftovers.
He realised he was staring into space, wasting precious seconds of his life on an inconsequential decision. This happened every time he went to the C-Mart. There was too much choice, that was the problem. He just needed to make a decision. Now.
Almost Mince it was. He didn’t care any more. They probably came from the same laboratory anyway. It was all the same.
Matt shoved the plastic box into his basket and shuffled off down the aisle. He turned into the next one and stopped. Cindy was there in front of him, floating in mid air. The hologram was unmoving. It was watching him. Then it spoke.
‘Welcome to C-mart. I hope your visit is a pleasant one. My name is-‘
‘I know! Cindy! I know!’ Matt shouted in frustration. He shuffled past the hologram. Of course, he could have just walked through it. But that felt weird. Especially when it was so life like.
Weird that it spoke to him again, Matt thought. It usually only offered that introduction speech at the start. Maybe the program was glitching. Great, just what he needed. As long as the payment system was up and running, then he could get out of here as soon as possible
Mince, milk, bin bags, he told himself under his breath. Mince, milk, bin bags. He already had the mince. Two more things. That was all. Two more.
As soon as he left the meat aisle it ceased to exist.
Matt turned into the dairy aisle. Infinite milk bottles stretched into the distance. What was the milk the hologram had said was on special? He couldn’t remember. They all tasted weird anyway. Like, they tasted like milk and had the texture of milk, but something about it made your brain go ‘Nope, this isn’t right.’
Again, there was the endless choice of options. How could there be this many companies making the same thing? He was sure other people didn’t have a minor existential crisis when forced to choose items. Other people probably just picked whatever was cheapest and moved on.
Milk-U-Like. That was it. That was on offer. He walked down the aisle, found the Milk-U-Like and yes, there was a red sticker underneath it, advertising the special promotion. Two for one. Fine. Thing is, Matt wasn’t sure he would actually use that much milk by himself. He struggled to get through one pint most weeks, let alone two. Still, an offer was an offer and he would find a way of using it. He stuck two green topped Milk-U-likes in his basket and walked on, turning into the next aisle.
The next aisle was also milk. Endless chiller sections of milk. Nothing else. He hurried down it and turned into the next aisle.
Milk. Again. Jesus, how many brands could one C-Mart have? He was starting to get sick of all the white bottles.
By the fourth aisle, Matt was starting to get suspicious. He checked the brands as he walked. There was Milk-U-Like again. There was the same red sticker. He checked his basket. The milk he had put in the basket had vanished. Maybe he had been distracted. Maybe he had only imagined picking up the milk. He got two more pints, made sure to put them in his basket and headed down the aisle.
The fifth aisle was filled with milk again. This was ridiculous. He ran down it, not wanting to see any more bloody bottles of milk.
At the end of the aisle. He stopped. Instead of turning right into the next aisle, Matt stopped and turned left. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t going mad. The previous aisle was now full of tinned goods without a fridge unit or bottle to be seen. He sighed, out of both relief and frustration. Glancing at his basket, he saw he now had four different bottles. He threw two of the bottles out onto a shelf, not caring that they weren’t refrigerated. The sooner he was out of this hell hole the better.
As he pushed into the depths of the C-mart, the lights in the previous aisles flickered off, plunging them into darkness.
Bin bags. That was all he had to get. Bin bags. He could do it. He just had to focus and push on through, get to the household aisle, then go pay. That was all. He wasn’t going to let any glitching hologram or endless milk put him off.
The household aisle was quite easy to find. There were cleaning sprays, washing up liquid and right down at the far end, a small sign that said bin bags. Matt hurried towards it. When he got there, there were only a couple of different types. This was more like it. He grabbed the slightly more expensive version.
So that was it. He was done. He could finally get out of this hell hole. Out of habit, Matt glanced down at his basket. Was there anything else he needed? His mind went blank as usual. He sighed. It would do. If there was anything else, he would just have to come back tomorrow.
For a company that was making ridiculous amounts of money, C-mart could invest in better lighting, Matt thought. It was all a bit dim in here. The strip lights were flickering above him. No wonder these places always gave him a migraine. He hurried to the checkout.
He knew this place was big, but he couldn’t seem to find the checkout. Every turn just brought him another aisle full of anonymous, irrelevant goods, stuff he didn’t need but was on special offer.
This was useless. He was going nowhere. Turning around, he was confronted by a terrible darkness. The whole of the aisle was swallowed by it. It was more than the lights off. It was a complete absence of light, of matter. Everything had been consumed and vanished. It lapped and swayed like water. Shelves and tiles flickered and were gone. There was a faint crackle of static electricity. The hairs on Matt’s arm stood on end.
This was too much. The hologram, the milk, then this. He turned and ran down the aisle, away from the darkness, away from half of the C-mart that had apparently been deleted. He didn’t want to turn back, as he knew if he did, he would see the darkness in pursuit. Instead, he skittered and skidded on the polished floor, instinctually heading for the light. His basket clattered onto the floor, plastic milk carton splitting and the white water flowing out. It didn’t matter any more. Nothing mattered.
He stopped, stuck in a corner. Every nerve in his body was on edge, wanting to run and flee but there was nowhere to go. He turned around. Before him, the darkness sat waiting.
Where would he go? What would he do? He was trapped, there was no way out. Matt knew that the darkness would mean death or worse. This corner of the C-Mart was all that existed and the darkness was advancing fast. A solitary fluorescent strip light flickered above him. He didn’t have long.
‘Help!’ He screamed at the top of his voice. ‘Help! Anyone! Cindy! Help!’
To his right, a hologram shimmered into life. The safe features of Cindy appeared in mid air. He turned. Thank god.
‘Welcome to C-Mart. I hope your visit is a pleasant one. My name is Cindy and I-‘
‘Help me. Help. Turn the lights on.’
The hologram frowned. ‘I’m sorry, I do not understand the question.’
‘Turn the lights on!’
The same expression, the same inflections. The same loop, repeating again. ‘I’m sorry, I do not under-‘
Matt screamed. The darkness was lapping at his feet now. He could feel all his hair on edge, feel the static buzz deep in his teeth.
‘For fuck’s sake, just help’
Cindy frowned. ‘Foul language is not tolerated at C-mart. Have a nice day.’
With that, the hologram flickered and disappeared. Matt tried to scream, tried to see a way out, but the darkness was already halfway up his legs. It consumed him in one swift move.
For a heartbeat or maybe an eternity, there was nothing.
Matt opened his eyes. He was at the entrance to C-Mart. He grabbed a basket. What did he need? Why was he here? Oh yes, that was right. Mince, milk and bin bags.
He walked into the C-mart.