Even half a decade after the news cycle washed its hands of the matter I could still recall details with ease. Though I preferred not to.

I wasn’t sure how long she had been standing there by the time I saw her; my eyes found her entirely by accident. It wasn’t as though she was calling attention to herself. No one else seemed to notice her. But my eyes brushed over her and then stuck, just a few moments after the mid-shift dread rose up in me.

I was afflicted by this dread every day, six days a week. It would happen a little while after I stuffed a stale sandwich into my mouth, quickly, while standing up in the back room—no windows, microwave splattered with yellow, chairs with ripped plush seats and cold, hard plastic backs. There was a sad little clock on the wall in the back room, and its hands weren’t settled in their right places but they still jogged along, and as they moved they ticked loudly. The back room was so quiet, so insulated from the unending optimism of the listless pop-country singles that the higher-ups on the board judged as blandly innocuous enough for the store, that the tick of the clock was unnervingly loud. Loud to the point that it glued itself to me, sticky residue coating the walls of my ear canal. I would hear the ticking after I left the room, and sometimes it would stay with me on my way home, too—I would find, all of a sudden, that my legs were slapping the pavement in that same rhythm: tick, tick, tick, tlock, tick, tick, tick, tlock, my exhausted legs smacking down stupidly onto the concrete-dressed earth. It always sounded as though every fourth tick was deeper and heavier, a water-logged tlock, but it could’ve been a trick of my mind and I never asked anyone else about it, for fear of sounding eccentric.

Usually, though, it wasn’t the clock’s movement that followed me home. It was the sound of the scanner, that bleep that encroached upon everything—I would wake up from a dream in the early hours of the morning and, in the confused and grappling anxiety of my vague, swirling recollections, my brain would fill the space with the sound of that bleep. It’s like my mind would fall back on that sound when it wasn’t sure what it should be giving me, when it was too tired or disoriented to show me a thought, a memory, an idea.

Midway through my shift, when I would lurch out of the back room after senselessly gorging on the ready-made sandwich that I purchased at a 15% discount, that’s when the sound of the scanner would really start to grate on me. That’s also when my feet would start to ache, the bottoms of the arches taut and strained—my brain, not yet so fatigued that it couldn’t dream, would start to imagine that on the inside, the feet looked like the thick strings of some unusual instrument. That if I made a neat slice through the skin and plunged my delicate fingers into the wound I could start to strum some melody. This was the difficult hour of the shift, the vertiginous halfway point where it began to seem impossible that I would make it to the end without crumbling under the endless repetition of those movements, without falling through the hole in my chest. A hole that was pierced and then gradually dilated by the innumerable hellos and how will you pays and the items moving over the scanner, bleep…bleep…bleep. Despite the nearly three years I had worked at the store, I still fell into this graceless state midway through every shift, the state that my coworkers referred to ominously as the corner—but it wasn’t as sharp as that, wasn’t an edge that would bruise your hip. It was more subtle.

On this particular day, the post-break fatigue had me in its talons as it usually did, and I started to peer around the store for something that could catch my attention and revitalize me. Occasionally I could find something interesting to study, like a pair of spouses quietly squabbling in the canned goods aisle, or an elderly man deeply engaged in the inscrutable task of examining every hothouse tomato one by one. I was hoping to see something domestic or bizarre, or both. I swept my gaze back and forth over the store like a broom. This was when I noticed the woman standing there between the aisles.

She was suspended, frozen, in the middle of the shop like she couldn’t remember what she had come in for, like the thing that had propelled her through the doors had clipped out of her mind once she passed through the entrance, and this evaporation of motive had slowed her to a stop as she recalibrated, as she searched desperately for the beginning of the trajectory—why have I created my present reality? She was dripping wet from the rain outside, which I couldn’t see in the windowless store but which I had been made aware of by the disheveled and murky state of the patrons that had been entering over the past couple hours, by the water they were sloshing all over the aisles, and by the growing awareness of how much more work it would be to mop the floors before leaving later that night.

The droplets cascaded off the woman as she stood there lightly heaving, jaw dropped and chin trembling a bit. She shivered quietly while the other shoppers pranced around her automatically, deer skipping around a tree in the woods, their baskets balanced in the crooks of their elbows and their umbrellas trailing behind them. Boots kicking off droplets like shaking wet dogs, water-logged sneakers squelching across the floor. At my cash there weren’t any bags of potatoes or boxes of instant rice puttering down the belt towards me, so I stayed looking at the woman out the corner of my eye, with bored half-attention, barely processing what I was looking at. But aware enough to recall that the woman’s name was Alice.

Alice used to sit demurely in the foyer of my parent’s house, coat still wrapped around her and shoes stuck on her feet. After my sister or I opened the door to let her in she would sit there timidly, her outerwear still cocooning her, looking like a swaddled babe on the verge of tears. Sometimes I would hover at the top of the stairs and look down at her from my perch, a lazy lizard on a tree branch. She sat so still that if I looked at her for a while, from the edges of her this thing beyond stillness would start to waft up towards me, a feeling that was like whatever was at the heart of stillness. Like if you peeled the idea of stillness back, layer by layer, until you got to the core of it: that’s what it felt like. It would rise off her like steam, all the way up to me at the top of the stairs, and that’s why I would stay there looking at her: because this thing-beyond-stillness frightened me. And because I wasn’t used to being frightened, I wanted to know what it meant—I wanted to stand there bathed in fear until I understood what being afraid was. But if my sister opened the door instead of me, she wouldn’t hover at the top of the stairs watching Alice—she’d bound up the steps two at a time and zip back into our shared room. One time I asked her why she didn’t stay there and look down at the strange woman: she just shook her head and plopped back onto her bed, magazines strewn around her like haphazard debris after a mine’s detonation.

During those short visits I never had enough time to pierce the matter of what it meant to be frightened, of where such an experience came from, of how it could breach the barriers of my body. After a few moments of my looking down at Alice my mother would stride down the hall. She would greet Alice and insist that she remove her coat and her shoes. They didn’t exchange many words when they met; my mother was a serious, tight-lipped person and these qualities were extended to their extremes in Alice’s presence, who didn’t talk very much either. After taking off her outerwear Alice would quietly be led by my mother into the dining room my parents had converted into a piano room, where she was taught to play the instrument once a week for a period of four months. I’m not sure what the extent of her education was—from up in my room all I could hear were scattered handfuls of staggered notes, jagged pieces of motifs broken by long stretches of quiet where I imagined my mother was explaining or advising. The sounds that rose up to me during these sessions were different from those of the other students’ lessons, which were generally louder and much more annoying for me to listen to, full of endlessly repeating groups of notes, keys mispressed over and over again. What I thought was that Alice was too timid to truly play the piano, too afraid of making a mistake to allow herself to learn. In any case, after those few months Alice never returned to our foyer with her coat wrapped around her, and I never heard anything else about her lessons from my mother. Despite the smallness of our neighbourhood, which typically made it impossible to avoid anyone, I also never saw Alice again after that. But I knew she hadn’t left when, a few years after her piano lessons had stopped, the district began to vibrate with incessant talk about her. This happened right after the local paper—never mentioning her by name, but our neighbourhood, dull enough to be conducive to an ever-flowing current of gossip, figured out her identity immediately—published a series of articles on the terrible thing that had happened to her.

I don’t remember under what circumstances I would have heard the details of the thing that happened to Alice. There’s no way my mother ever spoke to me about it, and I never paid attention to the news, and though I was aware enough to realize that everyone was talking about her, I wasn’t the kind of person to inquire about the details on my own. I remember our homeroom teacher announcing one day that if she caught one of us speaking about the matter she would have us sent home, which leads me to believe that exaggerations and rumours must have been breathlessly circulating among my peers, but I don’t remember any girlfriend whispering into my ear. My friend group was firmly disinterested, with an almost religious fervor, in anything that concerned our neighbourhood. If, while we were sitting on rocks by the murky creek and passing around a single cigarette or a little flask of liquor skimmed off the top of someone’s parents bottles, one of us were to mention a local matter—say, a new store being put in near such-and-such street, or so-and-so having been seen kissing so-and-so—the rest of us would have crossed our arms over our chests and frowned. We only wanted to speak of far-away matters, of things that took place in other, magical worlds—the distant future, mainly, a world in which we were living in LA or Paris with our magnanimous boyfriends and luxury skincare products. Judging by the way we expertly shirked anything that brought us back to our dismal local reality, it’s unlikely that we would have spent much time discussing the thing that happened to Alice. Nonetheless, I did hear about it somewhere, as the entire story has for many years been carved in my mind in all its gruesome colour. Even half a decade after the news cycle washed its hands of the matter I could still recall details with ease. Though I preferred not to.

I wasn’t sure what had become of Alice since that time, and I hadn’t dedicated much time to wondering, feverishly focused instead on the gradual crumbling of the adolescent dreams that increasingly seemed childish and naïve—leaving the neighbourhood, rising to the wealth and worldliness I was at one point wholly convinced I deserved, falling desperately in love with a perfect stranger who would rescue me from the monotony that pursued me relentlessly. A monotony that, it was becoming clear, I would likely never escape from. The crushing of my dreams under the vise-like realism of everyday life commanded my full attention, and I rarely thought of other things, especially not of a person like Alice, whose life I found dreadfully emblematic of all the things I wanted to leave behind. So when I saw her standing dripping wet in the grocery store, it took me a minute to place her. And besides that, it had been nearly a decade since I’d last seen her, though she looked practically unchanged—I might have been mistaken, but it seemed she was even wearing the same shoes and coat that she’d worn to her piano lessons. As I continued to look at her, though, I saw that she had indeed changed—though her skin was impressively unmarked by time and her features were the same, something in her face diverged from the shy, pursed mask that she had worn to her lessons. There was an energy beneath the face that twisted it, something dancing and fiery, a thing that made me wary enough to continue looking at her until I realized what it was. It was the part of her I’d noticed when I was a child hovering at the top of the stairs. That thing-beyond-stillness had, at some point, swallowed her whole. It was pouring off her like she was engulfed in blue flames. When I noticed this, the same fear I’d felt as a child jumped up in me, direct and immediate as though not a day had passed. It was sickening—I had to put out a hand against the counter to steady myself.  

No one else seemed to understand, or even remember, who Alice was—surely the residents of my neighbourhood, if they recalled her, wouldn’t have been able to help stealing horrified-pitying glances at her, wouldn’t have been able to do anything other than stop in their tracks to stare. But they continued to move around her without even a split-second look of compulsive curiosity, or cordial acknowledgement. Maybe they were too ruffled by the rain that had hammered down on them before they entered the store. But I couldn’t help staring—after I recognized her, and recognized that thing-beyond-stillness pouring off her, I couldn’t look anywhere else. Because of this, I didn’t notice when a customer presented himself in front of me, his items piled up on the conveyer waiting to be scanned. The customer, Jean-Paul, who I was on a first-name basis with because he did his shopping at the store three or four times a week—who I imagined, due to his choice of groceries, was single, childless, wealthy, and awful at cooking—bleated out a polite hey at me after I failed to turn my head and look at him.

When I did finally turn from the woman to meet Jean-Paul’s gaze, he must have noticed the distraction and unease in my face, since he peered over my shoulder to see what I’d been looking at, and saw Alice standing there between the aisles, dripping wet and quiet. He didn’t say anything after that, and I stood there waiting for him to frown, waiting for him to see the thing-beyond-stillness and realize what it meant to be frightened, to share in the vertigo with me. 

Instead his face broke out into a smile—a rich, full smile that reached all the way up to his eyes so that they shined, so that his whole face beamed brightly in a way I hadn’t seen it do before. I whipped my head around and looked back over at Alice, trying to see what Jean-Paul was seeing there. When I tried to adopt a different viewpoint, to break through the vertigo and the terror into whatever had made Jean-Paul smile, the thing-beyond-stillness took on a different quality. Now Alice’s was a friendly face floating towards me out of the black dark of night. Then I was smiling with my eyes and with my whole face, too, and Alice looked over and saw us both smiling at her with our eyes and our whole faces. She opened her mouth and, with a warm, far-off-sounding voice, said: do you want to see how to get to heaven?

When she opened her mouth and spoke, the people around her finally noticed her presence. A few others stopped what they were doing to turn towards her: an older woman with a box of overpriced cereal in her hand, a young man who had been anxiously searching the shelves for something or other, an exhausted-looking family with their sleeping baby wrapped in a warm blanket. Alice didn’t look towards them; she stayed with her eyes focused on me and Jean-Paul, and then she said it again—do you want to see how we go to heaven? I don’t think I moved my head at all, but maybe Jean-Paul nodded in assent, since Alice started nodding her head vigorously at us, like she was pleased and eager, shaking her head up and down. Then she broke out into a smile with her eyes and her whole face, too. Several more people paused their shopping to look at her—two school-aged children with junk food in their hands, a girl I knew who had just come back to town after flunking out of college out west—and everyone was smiling, we were all smiling back at Alice. We all wanted to see, or at least to see what would happen. This is how, Alice pronounced slowly, nodding up and down, this is how we go to heaven. There was a sense of proud unspoken unity in the room, a feeling that I hadn’t felt for a long while. It reminded me of being five years younger and out with a group of friends late at night, setting out to do something forbidden but generally harmless—crawling through a broken window into an abandoned apartment; scrounging our paltry change together to score some weed from an older boy by the creek. In such moments, despite the pettiness of what we were doing—which we were on some level aware of—we would become bound together in a way that felt empowering and energizing, not unlike the first moments of being in love: the risk, the rush, the togetherness. It was this same sense of unity that wove through the crowd in the store, zig-zagging through us as we kept our gazes on Alice and held our breaths in anticipation of what would happen.

Alice bent double over the floor with her arms and knees tucked into herself, hugging her chest, and the first odd thing I noticed was that her coat was beginning to tear at the back, but I wasn’t sure what it meant: the blood and flesh dribbling down her, the liquid pooling around her small figure. She didn’t say a word, only sighed or groaned lightly a few times, as though from surprise, or maybe relief. It felt like she was letting us in on a secret, that she was letting me, specifically, in on a secret. I later supposed that everyone else present also felt she was bringing them into something in their own unique ways, that what she showed us was for all of us as a crowd, but also as individuals—it resonated with everyone there in our own deeply private ways, ways that I wouldn’t like to speculate about and that I’m sure the others wouldn’t like me to speculate about either. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but after a few moments Alice’s coat, along with the rest of her clothes, was shredded to pieces, and the scraps lay shed around her among a puddle of fluids that was red and bright and vibrant, with spots of maroon and auburn. Alice crouched there naked atop the puddle with her limbs and head folded into herself. I was struck heavily by how beautiful she looked like that, perched on the edge of what would come next.

I, too, was perched on the edge of what would come next. She brought all of us along with her on her transformation, and we moved with her as one—though it was only her body that changed, seeing her change changed something in us as well. As her body cracked and hissed into its new form we became different, too—her change rippled out into everyone that saw it. I felt it physically and viscerally, felt things inside me shifting and clicking into place, expanding and pushing me higher, as I watched Alice change, as I watched the bones of her expand past their boundaries, as I watched her flesh split and shorten, as I watched her features fold into themselves. For the first time in my life, all of me was concentrated in the present moment, my whole being collapsed into a pin-point that was oriented towards her change, the pinpoint of me changing as it was set ablaze by her change. It all happened so fast, and when it was done she was perfect. She was like a flat stone on the floor: the hard shell of her back lined by notches like ribs packed tightly together, and at the top were the eyes, set darkly into recessions in the sides of the half-moon that was the head. Underneath the oval of her body were the innumerable legs, scratching against the floor, sharp and red. From the front of the head the antennas stretched themselves out, long and wiry and curious, searching the environment as Alice moved across the floor, streaking the puddle of red fluid, skin, hair, and scraps of fabric behind her, spreading the mess as she moved down the aisle, and even the thought that I would have to clean it up later wasn’t a burden on me. I tore my eyes from Alice so I could look around at the others who had been permitted to see, and they had tears falling from their eyes, smiles still stretching out their faces. We nodded tearfully at each other, and I could see that the rest of them, too, were flattened by the beauty of what we had seen.

We wanted to keep what we had seen to ourselves—we knew it wasn’t for the others, that they wouldn’t be able to understand what had passed between Alice and us. But, inevitably, word got around. Once the story gathered speed it became a massive entity, beyond our control, and then the police started coming around to the store wanting to know things. And then the federal departments, and, later, the biologists and entomologists, who published reports concluding that Alice was a kind of ancient and extinct arthropod called a trilobite. For months afterwards, my mother emailed me PDFs of those reports, along with links to the incessant news coverage, which I never read—I never had any interest in the news. The only thing that mattered to me was that, after nearly a year of fighting in the courts—luckily, Jean-Paul had access to a very expensive, and very good, lawyer—the biologists failed to successfully argue that Alice belonged to them, so she was allowed to remain with us. Since her transformation she’s been living in a large temperature-modulated aquarium by the back of the store, beside the tank with the elastic-handcuffed lobsters. Though I’ve seen her crawl back and forth slowly on her spindly legs, she mostly sits very still in the corner, even when I’m cleaning out the water or dropping in algae and plankton for her to eat. In the year that I’ve been tending to Alice, my coworkers have gradually begun to defer to me on other tasks as well, following my lead when we close the store, calling me over when there’s a dispute with a customer. Last week, in fact, I was told during my quarterly review that there’s a good chance I can become manager of my department sometime in the next year, if I continue to show initiative and responsibility. It seems like, finally, things are looking up for me.  

A portrait of the author in the desert

Nour is a Montreal-based writer and the associate editor of Maisonneuve Magazine. Her debut novel, Supplication, is out on Penguin Random House's Strange Light imprint May 7, 2024.