Martha wondered where the kittens had gone. She had prayed for a sign that her mother had reached the spirit plane safely, and had been unsure whether the kittens were the harbingers of good news or a consolation prize. Nevertheless, she looked forward to any time she could spend with them. Since discovering the little kindle behind the dumpster the week before, she'd never missed an opportunity to sneak away from her post at the backdoor of her uncle's grocery to spy on them, trying to divine the purpose behind their purrs and mewling.
Hoping to distract Martha from her preoccupation with her mother's death, her father had insisted she take the job at the grocery, but Martha continued to see her mother everywhere. Despite the pills they made her take, and the insistence of a multitude of doctors that she should ignore her visions, she knew her mother really was trying to reach her. Day after day she checked in vendors, helping them unload their wares, counting hundreds of cans and bottles, each one a potential sign from her mother. Her mother had practiced numerology, and Martha was sure the message would come through numbers, though she was never quite sure how to decipher the messages after she had added up the number of products brought in each day. The kittens, her kittens, had been the only real sign she had encountered in six months since her mother left her. Now the cats were gone, their home usurped by the flies feasting on the tuna Martha had left for them the day before.
Remembering the overnight stock crew manager sometimes lingered in the store after his shift, Martha deputized a girl from the deli to guard the backdoor, and set off to quiz him about the cats. She knew the stock crew manager could usually be found in the tiny room, jokingly referred to as the employee lounge, at the other end of the corridor that served as the store's warehouse.
Thinking only of her missing kittens, she was halfway down the hall before she noticed the cold. A chill that seeped deeper into her bones the closer she came to the silver door of the ice cream freezer. Martha usually went out of her way to avoid the silver door. Glistening with icy perspiration, it reeked of evil spirits.
She started to turn back, and then paused, remembering how Mr. Murry, the manager of the frozen food department, had looked at the kittens the day before. It had been the only time she had seen him venture beyond the walls of the store. All of the other men were required to fetch carts from the parking lot, and help with the seasonal items, logs in winter, pumpkins in autumn, that were located in the lot. Murry never participated, a fact that did not go unnoticed by his fellow workers who often spoke of him with resentment. She had never seen him clock in, and couldn't even guess which car in the employee section of the parking lot was his. On that day, however, the ice cream truck had arrived early, so Murry had been forced to go out to help the driver unload it. She recalled how he had seemed out of place in the noonday sun, not unlike an animal usually found slithering under rocks, or in the bottom of some brackish pool, dragged forcibly into the light. His body had seemed to squirm under his sweat soaked shirt as he struggled against the ice cream pallet's bulk, his muscles seeming to flow into one another like melting wax. Had she really seen him shrink in his clothes, wilting as he pressed himself against the pallet of ice cream, as though desperately trying to draw the cold from it into himself? And the way he had looked at her kittens! She had never seen his face animated by any emotion that had looked remotely genuine until she had seen him looking at those cats. He had sought her in order to get her signature on the paperwork for the shipment he had just received, had started to say as much, but had stopped in mid-sentence upon hearing the clang of an empty can batted by a tiny paw. For an instant he forgot his apparent allergy to sunlight, and had allowed his eyes to widen. For just one instant his thin lips had parted to reveal teeth that seemed to sink into his gums as he clenched his jaws together. She later decided it had been a shadow that had made his teeth seem as though they were made of sponge, but she was certain the hunger in his eyes had been no illusion. Before Martha had been able to react it was over. Murry's face quickly assumed the rigidness that, combined with his wan complexion, had caused him to be compared to a corpse on more than one occasion, and he shambled off, never finishing his sentence.
Martha put her hand on the freezer door. While the rest of the warehouse was dingy and cluttered, this one door was spotless. Murry would not tolerate a single smudge or fingerprint on its gleaming surface. He reminded Martha of the boys in her neighborhood, polishing their cars in daily ritual. No matter what she wore or how long she lingered she could never grab the attention of those boys away from their precious machines. Thinking about it, her apprehension vanished, replaced by anger, and she dragged her palm down the surface of the door, defacing it with a greasy smear.
The latch moved. Martha leaped back, clutching her hand as though it had been stung. The door hissed as it swung open. As the freezer belched cold in Martha's face, something squealed in the mist, and a wall of ice moved toward her. She wanted to run, to escape the pale figure emerging from behind the ice, but she knew it was too late. She did not move as she watched Murry steer the cart, piled high with bags of ice for the machine in the store's lobby. As soon as the cart was far enough out, Murry slammed the door shut and locked it. Then he paused. He had seen the smudges on the silver surface above the latch. Martha tried to think of something to say, anything to disassociate herself from her crime, but she could only stare, her trembling hands hidden behind her back, as Murry rubbed his shirt sleeve over the smears. Finally, her mark erased, he turned his expressionless face toward her. She searched for some hint of anger or accusation but found nothing. He just stared at her, as though in a trance, until she managed to force a weak smile. Then he too smiled. The corners of his mouth quivered, spread upwards across his otherwise immobile face, and froze. He was still grinning as he pushed his cart down the corridor. Martha shuddered.
"Sure, Ed Murry is a little weird, but he's one hell of a worker," Martha's uncle said, barely glancing up at her.
"But I'm sure he did something to those kittens. He's not --right," Martha said, her voice squeaking despite her efforts to maintain her composure. "I sense an aura of evil around him."
"Look," said her uncle, tapping his desk with his pen, "I don't have time for your mystical gobble gook. I've got a thief in the meat market who is robbing me blind. I've got problems with the night stock crew disappearing on me. I've got more problems than you can dream of. As far as I'm concerned, Murry isn't one of them. He can take all the cats in the state and make chili out of them for all I care."
Martha wanted to say more, to make her uncle understand that Murry was dangerous, but she knew there was no point in continuing the conversation. She had to find proof that Murry was a monster if she expected to be heard. She resolved to consult her tarot deck as soon as her shift ended.
Once home, Martha discovered her cards were gone, as were her astrological charts, her Ouija board, her amulets, and her paperback treatises on the paranormal. In place of her books was a note from her father, who was, as usual, not home, explaining it had been decided such material was detrimental to her well-being. Martha rushed out to search the trash cans at the curb, but finding them empty, knew her books were gone for good. She spent the rest of the night cursing her father, her uncle, and most of all Murry. Somehow Murry had influenced her father. Because she could see Murry for what he was, he was afraid of her, and had taken steps to protect himself. Now her books, like her kittens, were gone.
The next morning there were police in her uncle's office. Martha listened outside the door as they questioned her uncle about a boy on the stock crew who had been missing since leaving in the middle of his shift several nights before. She heard her uncle tell them the boy had not clocked out and that he had not announced his departure. He had simply walked off the job, leaving the shelves on aisle ten empty.
As she made her way back to her post, she tried to remember the boy who was missing. She was certain she had seen him, had possibly even gone to school with him. Perhaps he was one of the boys who had taunted her with catcalls of "Witch" or "Voodoo Freak." Even without being sure of his identity, she hoped he was dead.
She was still trying to picture the boy when the warehouse echoed with the sound of the backdoor buzzer. The buzzer repeated its obnoxious wail again and again, as Martha, cursing the impatient visitor, dug her keys out of her pocket and unlocked the door. She barely had time to leap aside as the door was flung open, and Murry tumbled in, clutching a bundle of clothes to his chest. He staggered into the warehouse, nearly falling head first into the cardboard compactor and, without a word of explanation, rushed down the hallway to the freezer. Assuming Murry was being chased, Martha cautiously peered outside. Seeing no one, she was about to close the door when something on the ground by the trash bin caught her attention. She walked out to examine the object, which turned out to be a red tennis shoe, sunlight glinting off of the black, oil-like pool in which it rested. Had Murry dropped it? Had he come out to retrieve it from the trash when the door closed behind him, trapping him outside? She picked the shoe up by the string, being careful not to touch the black goo, and suddenly remembered. She remembered the missing boy and his red shoes.
Martha considered turning the shoe over to her uncle, but decided instead to hide it behind the boxes of invoices by her desk. The black smears on the door and sticky residue on the buzzer proved Murry had touched the shoe, confirming her suspicions. Murry was a monster, an ice elemental, or perhaps even a frost giant. She had read about such creatures just a few weeks before in a magazine devoted to occult phenomena. The article had reported that hundreds of these monsters had been sighted in Canada and in Greenland where they were known to feed on cattle, pets and the occasional human. Like Murry they were unusually pale when in human form and, like Murry, they could not tolerate high temperatures for more than short periods of time. Yes, Murry was a monster, and she was going to be the one who exposed him. She imagined herself on the cover of Weird Worlds magazine. She saw herself as the subject of countless television documentaries. Perhaps, she would have her own series of best sellers, all with garish paintings of monsters on the front, and her picture on the back. Yes, she decided, after that night she would no longer be ignored.
* * *
It was a little past midnight when Martha returned to the store. It was the stock crew's night off, and she had made sure the back door alarm was off before going home to check her horoscope. She was sure everything was going to go as planned. Armed with a flashlight, a mojo bag to protect her from evil, and a camera to record her victory, she let herself in the back door and tiptoed toward the freezer. The moisture on the door sparkled and seemed to crawl in the beam of her flashlight, and the warehouse echoed with the hum of the freezer blowers.
"Please be in there," she prayed as she slid the forks of a floor jack under a pallet stacked high with canned goods. The pallet was heavy, and for a moment she was afraid she would be unable to move it, but the taunts of her schoolmates reverberated through her mind, spurring her on. She managed to drag the pallet, then another, which she placed behind it, in front of the silver door. Then she went to the fuse box, and shut down the freezer.
For two hours there was silence. Martha wondered if Murry was in the freezer. He certainly wouldn't have left the store on such a hot night. If he were in the freezer wouldn't he have tried to escape? He had to have noticed the blowers were off.
"I know you're in there," she shouted. "Tell me your secrets and I might turn the freezer back on."
Hearing nothing, she decided to move the pallets. She leaned into them, pushing them just far enough out of the way to be able to open the freezer door, and then stood panting, her flashlight pointed at the door latch. She wondered if it was warm enough in the freezer to have reduced Murry to a puddle. She reached for the latch and then paused. From beneath the door there oozed a pool of dark liquid. The beam of her flashlight colored the liquid red, causing her to remember the day she found her mother in the bath tub. The liquid in that tub had also been red. Memories assaulted her, but she shook them off. She had to see this through. There was vindication behind that freezer door. There she would find what had eluded her mother, proof that her beliefs, and her life, were valid. She would not have to empty her veins into a tub when the taunts became too much to bear. After this night there would be no more taunts. She grabbed the latch and pulled open the door.
Immediately, a cloud of pungent vapor engulfed her, Martha gagging as she staggered back. She half expected something to rush out at her, and almost ran, but regained her courage when she saw that nothing stumbled out of the freezer to pursue her. Covering her mouth and nose with her free hand, she pointed the beam of her flashlight into the darkness. Aside from the steady drip of melting ice cream upon the concrete floor, there was no sound. Cautiously she ventured into the freezer. Could she have been wrong, she wondered? Had she destroyed an entire freezer full of food over a delusion? She was about to cry, when something cold dripped onto her wrist. She looked up just as a black tendril whipped down from the ceiling knocking the flashlight from her hand. Another tendril, cold and sticky, wound itself around her neck, pulling her upward until her feet no longer touched the ground. As she struggled for breath something gurgled, mere inches from her face.
"You -- should not have -- done this. Needed cold to -- maintain form. Just wanted -- to be human -- to be somebody," said a voice, the tendrils vibrating in unison with the garbled syllables.
Martha tried to apologize, but it was too late. The cold blackness enveloped her, consuming her before slithering off toward the fuse box.