Dale Bridges- “Welcome to Omni-Mart”

Barry wants me to terminate the babies in the morning before the customers arrive, and he’s the District Manager, so that’s what I do.  I wake up at 5 AM and I go to the Family Education Department and I remove all the InstaBabies from the shelves.  I open each package from the top, as per the instructions on the back of the box, and I pull the cords marked “Bring Me to Life.”  In less than five minutes, there are two dozen fat, multi-racial babies crying on the floor in front of me.  They are very loud and I am afraid someone will report the disturbance to the national office and I will receive a negative comment on my bi-quarterly performance evaluation.  I run around in a panic, making silly faces and cooing noises to distract them, but it doesn’t do any good.  Finally, I give up.  Inside every box there is a small, silver key and on the back of every baby’s head there is a keyhole.  To terminate an InstaBaby, all you have to do is put the key in the hole and turn it to the right.  The product immediately disintegrates into a fine, white powder that can be swept up and thrown away.  It’s a simple procedure.

The InstaBaby was created by the Nuclear Family Corporation, which specializes in merchandise that “encourages good, old-fashioned American values.”  The target market for the InstaBaby is white mothers in their early forties who have a pathological fear that their teenage daughters will become impregnated out of wedlock by black men.  This is a surprisingly large market.  InstaBabies are designed to show these teenage daughters how difficult it is for a single mother to raise a multi-racial child in our society.  After their Bring-Me-to-Life cords have been pulled, InstaBabies grow from infants to adults in the span of a single day.  They bond with their caregivers and will not leave their side during that period.  The teenage girl is forced to look after the InstaBaby during this time, and the experience is supposed to teach her valuable lessons about sexual promiscuity and social norms.

But there have been setbacks.

Apparently, instead of discovering that raising a multi-racial child is difficult, some teenage girls don’t mind it all that much.  Others even enjoy the experience.  In Connecticut, a customer reported that her daughter never even considered dating an African-American male until she spent time with an InstaBaby.  Now she is going steady with a black classmate and the mother has filed a 261-P Customer Grievance Report.

There have also been accounts of sexual deviants purchasing InstaBabies and using them for God knows what.  Ex-convicts were taking out loans and buying them by the hundreds.  Snuff films were circulated on the Internet.  Dungeons were uncovered by local news stations.  Charges were filed, but the courts were powerless to do anything to stop it.  After all, InstaBabies aren’t human.  They are commercial items, pieces of property, like bicycles or frying pans.  New regulations were created, but the PR damage had already been done.

Of course, the Nuclear Family Corporation quickly recalled the defective product, which is why I am standing here at this unreasonable hour, trying to figure out which key goes to which head.  Destroying babies is not exactly in my job description, but Barry likes to assign me demeaning tasks.  He enjoys reminding me that I belong to Omni-Mart, Inc. and am therefore legally obligated to follow his orders.  I have known Barry since he was a pimple-faced bagboy, a sad wisp of hair on his upper lip, so skinny he could barely push an empty shopping cart down the aisle.  I once caught him smoking pot and looking at dirty magazines in the Adult Fantasy Department, and he literally pissed himself when I said I was going to file a 560-G Employee Incident Report.  But in the end, I couldn’t do it.  He looked so pathetic standing there in his urine-stained khakis; I didn’t have the heart.  Instead I gave him a lecture on proper work-place conduct.  I quoted from the Omni-Mart Code of Employee Ethics and reminded him that he was an Omni-Man and should behave accordingly.  I don’t think he liked being reprimanded that way by a lowly Lifetime Service Associate, but I had him by the short hairs and he knew it.

That was eight years ago.  Perhaps I went a little overboard with my admonishments.  Soon after, Barry started taking weight gainer and attending night classes in the managerial program.  He purchased a body-building kit from the Male Fitness Department.  His muscles began to stretch the cotton fibers of his official company smock, and he memorized every paragraph in the Omni-Mart Manual of Conduct and Procedures.  If I’d known then that he was going to grow up to be the size of a truck and become District Manager, I probably would have filed the 560-G and had his scrawny sixteen-year-old butt fired on the spot.  But foresight has never been my strong suit.

Barry has never mentioned the peeing-in-his-pants incident, but I know he resents me for it and enjoys making me grovel.  I have learned to live with the humiliation because, quite honestly, what other choice do I have?  It’s either this or The Outside, and no one wants to be on The Outside these days.  So I deal with it the best way I know how.  Barry says clean the toilets and I clean the toilets.  Barry says destroy the babies and I destroy the babies.

#

By the time Omni-Mart officially opens, I have terminated all the InstaBabies except one, a quiet, moon-faced child who is now approximately three years old.  The label on the box says his name is Peter.  When I approach Peter with the key, he does not run or cry.  Instead, he reaches for me with pudgy hands and says, “Daddy.”

Now, I am not a sentimental fool.  I know this is not a real human child; this is just an extremely sophisticated toy that will turn to dust in less than eighteen hours.  On the other hand, I am a very lonely man.  I am forty-two years old and I do not have a family.  My parents were poor and, as is often the case in these types of situations, I was officially adopted by Omni-Mart, Inc. shortly after I was born.  I have spent my entire life inside these walls.  I am not complaining.  These are tough times and I am lucky to have this kind of job security.  I sleep in the Linens & Beddings Department and I have a substantial 401(k) plan.  I sweep, I dust, I stock shelves.  But sometimes I feel there should be more to life than this.  I do not know what “more” would involve.  After all, I have food, shelter, and satellite television.  Omni-Mart carries every man-made product on the planet.  I want for nothing.  And yet, there is a yearning deep down in my chest late at night, like a fist squeezing my heart, and sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat.

I don’t know what all of this has to do with a lifelike facsimile of a young, multi-racial boy, but I cannot bring myself to turn the final key.  I decide that I am going to stand up to Barry, which is something I have not done since he became District Manager.  I will look him straight in his bulging, bloodshot eyes and tell him that I have disobeyed his orders.  I will say that he can go ahead and write a negative comment in my bi-quarterly performance evaluation and send it to the national office if he wants to, but I will not budge.  Omni-Mart may be my legal guardian but they do not own my soul.  I am a human being.

But when Barry finally arrives, I chicken out and hide Peter inside a rubber trashcan and tell him to keep quiet if he knows what’s good for him.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” says Barry.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” I say.

He leans in close.  I can smell his musky cologne and the protein shake he drank for breakfast.  “Did you take care of that little problem?” he asks.

“Of course,” I say.

When Barry nods his Rottweiler head, the ropey muscles in his neck contract like metal cables on a suspension bridge.  “Very good. So the problem is taken care of?”

“Taken care of.”

Completely taken care of?”

“Completely.”

He stabs me in the chest with a meaty finger.  “For your sake I hope so, big guy.  Don’t forget that you’re an official member of the Omni-Mart family, and you know what happens to family members who don’t follow procedure.  You don’t want to end up like Terrance Omni.”

Terrance Omni was a Lifetime Service Associate who worked in the Wicker Furniture Department, and two weeks before his retirement Barry caught him taking an unauthorized cigarette break in the Sanitation Room.  Following an emergency performance evaluation, Terrance was stripped of his nametag and ejected into the back parking lot, where he lived inside a cardboard box for three weeks before he was anally violated and then kidnapped by a roving gang of teenage psychotics.  We watched it all happen on the security cameras.  No one has heard from Terrance since.

I give Barry my very best customer-service smile and tell him that he has nothing to worry about, all the InstaBabies have been terminated.  He glares at me and says I had better be telling him the truth.  He says he’s going to keep an eye on me.  He says there’s a clearance special in the Elderly Hygiene Department and I should get my ass down there pronto to demonstrate how to use our new line of adult diapers.

After Barry leaves, I lift Peter out of the trashcan and give him a lecture on how to treat his fellow man.  I tell him that all humans are created equal and should be handled with dignity and respect.  Just because you’re a large, muscular supervisor doesn’t give you the right to be an asshole.  I tell Peter that when dealing with someone like Barry, humility is important.  And patience.  And kindness.  And if that doesn’t work, you can always spit in their coffee.

Peter nods and says, “Always spit in their coffee.”

As part of the parental simulation experience, InstaBabies are designed to mimic the behaviors and speech patterns of their caregiver.  Eventually, Peter will adopt as much of my exterior personality as the hard drive in his little head can hold.  I am not accustomed to anyone paying attention to what I say, and even though I know it’s just a recording device triggered by a computer chip, hearing Peter repeat my words is sort of shocking to me.  All day long, I take orders from customers and employers.  I am told what to say and how to act.  No one ever listens to my problems.  No one actually cares how I feel about my job, my life.  Do you have vegan dog food?  That’s what people want to know.  Does this remote-control espresso machine come with a warranty?  Can I use this steak knife to cut burlap?  These are the type of questions I get.  Where is the Romantic Gestures Department?

#

The Romantic Gestures Department is on the forty-fourth floor, section H-197B.  It is where Cynthia Omni works, who is the woman I have been in love with since she was transferred here from Orlando five years ago.  I spend all of my personal activity minutes in the Romantic Gestures Department.  Like me, Cynthia is a Lifetime Service Associate, but unlike me, she once lived on The Outside.  Her parents were successful orchid growers in Florida until the synthetic flower industry put them out of business and they were forced to sell their children to corporate buyers to prevent the family from starving to death.  Cynthia’s parents then starved to death.  She’s still bitter about it.  She speaks often of her childhood on the farm, the fresh air, the sunshine.  It sounds terrifying to me, but Cynthia assures me that it was all quite pleasant.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” I say.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” says Peter.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says Cynthia.

Cynthia is wearing the emerald-green vest that designates her as a female LSA.  Her chaotic red hair has been tamed into a tight bun in accordance with the Omni-Mart Dress Code Manual, but her blue eyes still snap with cold fire.  She looks at Peter, who is standing beside me holding on to my shirt sleeve.  “And who is this?” she says.

“No one,” I say.  “Just a lost little boy looking for his parents.”  I look at Peter and nod my head vigorously.  “Isn’t that right?”

He doesn’t miss a beat.  “Just a lost little boy looking for his parents,” Peter says.

Cynthia laughs, causing my heart to flip-flop in my chest.  I have never told Cynthia that I love her.  Romantic relationships between employees are forbidden according to Section 85:6 of the Omni-Mart Code of Employee Ethics.  Section 85:7 forbids romantic relationships between employees and customers.  This is not such a burden for most workers, but it is practically unbearable for Lifetime Service Associates, who are not allowed to leave the facility.  It means that, essentially, all romantic relationships are forbidden.  If Barry ever gets proof that I have an unauthorized emotional attachment to Cynthia, you can bet I’ll be out of a job faster than you can say “Please don’t violate my anus.”

Instead of telling Cynthia I love her, I buy orchids.  Lots and lots of orchids.

Cynthia’s job is to arrange synthetic flowers.  She makes the most beautiful bouquets.  Her tiny hands move amongst the blooms like hummingbirds searching for nectar.  The walls of her work station are decorated with giant murals depicting idyllic mountain scenes complete with babbling brooks and majestic evergreens and happy chipmunks foraging for acorns, etc., etc.  Whenever I visit, I can’t look at the murals.  I have to keep my attention focused very hard on Cynthia or I will start to hyperventilate and pass out.  Dr. Peterson in the Pharmaceutical Solutions Department says I have the worst case of agoraphobia he has ever seen.  He says that even the thought of The Outside is enough to put me in a psychological coma.  I can’t handle open spaces.  Green meadows cause me to break out in hives.  Blue skies make me nauseous.  To alleviate this problem, Doc prescribes various drugs and frequent sessions in his Isolation Chamber, which is a small, black box with a breathing tube that shuts out all light and sound.  As Dr. Peterson says, The world can’t hurt you if it can’t find you.  The only time I feel completely safe outside of the Isolation Chamber is when I’m watching Cynthia arrange flowers, but even then I have to be careful not to look at the murals.

To say that Cynthia hates the synthetic flower industry would be a gross understatement.  She blames them for the death of her parents.  But Omni-Mart does not acknowledge personal preferences when considering employee assignments; they simply look at your skills chart and match you with the most appropriate department.  Cynthia got the Romantic Gestures Department.  I got the Miscellaneous Assignments Department.

As we walk down the aisle, Cynthia identifies certain species of synthetic orchids and recites the prescribed customer information data for each one.  I pick one of every species she identifies.  Peter—now almost twelve years old—walks next to me, smiling and repeating every word Cynthia says.  Soon Cynthia becomes annoyed with this and tells Peter to shut up.  Which he does.  However, this also seems to annoy her.

“What’s wrong with that kid?” she whispers to me.

I shrug.  “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.  He just seems far too obedient for a boy his age.  Is he…slow?”

By slow, of course, she means retarded.  I tell her Peter is definitely not retarded.  I tell her that he is just polite and accommodating.  What’s wrong with doing what you’re told?  What’s wrong with being a compliant young boy?

Cynthia shakes her head.  “Okay, okay.  Don’t get your panties in a bunch, Mr. Omni.  I just think the kid is kind of creepy, that’s all.”

At the end of our walk, I have an armful of synthetic orchids, which Cynthia makes into a bouquet.  I pay for the flowers with my monthly credit allowance.  Cynthia informs her supervisor that she is going to take fifteen personal activity minutes, and we all go down to the Sanitation Room.  The Sanitation Room is pretty much what it sounds like: a room where trash is disposed of in giant incinerators.  I place the flowers inside one of the dormant incinerators and shut the door.  I show Peter how to press the POWER button, and we all watch through the viewing window as the orange-blue flames ignite, turning the fake orchids into a heap of black ash in just a few short seconds.  Cynthia smiles and my heart flip-flops once again.  We do this at least three times a week, but I’d do it every day if I could afford it.

Without saying a word, Cynthia reaches over and slips her hand into mine.  Her skin is dry and cool and flawless.  I am ecstatic.  And yet, I can’t help glancing repeatedly at the door.  This is a clear violation of company policy.  If one of Barry’s cronies were to walk in right now, I would definitely be terminated on the spot.  Cynthia doesn’t believe it, but Barry has a crush on her.  Every time Cynthia walks into the room, Barry finds an excuse to flex his muscles.  Sometimes he lifts heavy objects for no particular reason and then sets them back on the ground, like a bored gorilla in the zoo.  It’s kind of funny but also kind of scary, because I am afraid that someday Cynthia will look at Barry’s giant muscles and then look at my scrawny muscles and say to herself, What have I been thinking?

I hold on to Cynthia’s hand for as long as I can stand it, and then I let go, sick to my stomach at my own cowardice.

Cynthia sighs and leans in close, her breath tickling the graying hairs in my ear.  “I want to leave,” she says for the millionth time.  “I can’t stand it here.”

I can’t look at her, so I stare at the orchid ashes in the incinerator instead.

“It’s just not a good time right now,” I say.

“It’s never a good time.  That’s the point.  You just have to take a chance, cowboy.”

“We’ll go soon, I promise.  I just need to get organized.  I want to be prepared.”

Cynthia sighs.  She steps in front of me, grabs the back of my head, and forces my mouth onto hers.  She is much stronger than she looks.  Our teeth sound like tiny tap shoes when they click together.  I can smell the apple-scented shampoo from the Hair Supplies Department and taste the cherry-flavored lipstick from the Facial Cosmetics Department.  “I love you, Leonard,” she says fiercely.

My heart pounds in my chest, and I want to take her in my arms and return her kiss and tell her I love her over and over again.  Instead, I give her all the usual excuses why it’s a bad time to leave.  I tell her we have no money.  I tell her it’s the rainy season.  I remind her of all the dangers on The Outside that have been reported in the news.  War.  Poverty.  Famine.  Violence.  Besides, our life here isn’t so bad.  Why risk everything on an uncertain future?  We should be thankful for what we have, right?

When I finish my little spiel, Cynthia kisses me on the cheek and says, “You are a good man, Leonard.  But you are weak.  I can’t wait forever, you know.”  She looks at Peter, who is obsessively pressing the POWER button on the incinerator.  “And I don’t know who this strange boy really is, but you’d better take him to the Lost & Found Department before Barry figures out what you’re up to.”

“I’m not afraid of Barry,” I say.

“I’m not afraid of Barry,” says Peter.

Cynthia rolls her eyes and then leaves without saying goodbye.  I take a white handkerchief from my pocket and carefully wipe her lipstick from my cheek.  I fold the handkerchief into a perfect square, and place it in the incinerator.  Peter pushes the POWER button.  The flames leap high.

#

Sometimes I see a nice, elderly couple shopping in the facility and I imagine they are my parents returning to claim me.  I imagine them holding me in their arms.  I imagine tears of joy.  I imagine Barry’s reaction when they tell him I was stolen as a baby and sold to Omni-Mart illegally.  I imagine Barry’s large, red face turning even redder and his stuttering apology.

I wonder what they were like, my parents.  Were they loveable, incompetent hippies with long hair and glassy eyes?  Were they girthy, sincere small-town conservatives?  Did they love me?  Did my mother cry when they made the final decision?  Did my father hold her and tell her it was all for the best?

My personnel file says I was discovered in the Office Supplies Department chewing on a stapler.  I was wearing a diaper with a note attached to it.  The note said, “His name is Leonard.  We’re so sorry.”

Every year, hundreds of babies are lost or abandoned in Omni-Mart.  Of course, every effort is made to locate the parents, but after six months, the courts allow the corporation to adopt the children instead of turning them over to a Family Replacement Facility.  I was raised in the Lost & Found Department until the age of fifteen, and then I became a Lifetime Service Associate.  I could always resign of course.  Cynthia keeps suggesting that we run away together.  It’s a simple procedure—all we have to do is walk out the front door.  But how do you quit the only family you’ve ever known?  How do you quit your life?

#

All morning, Barry thinks of embarrassing tasks for me to perform and then he assigns them via the intercom so everyone can hear.

“Leonard Omni, please report to the Large Pets Department for a fecal-matter clean-up project.  Thank you.” 

“Leonard Omni, please report to the Plus-Size Women’s Department for a price check on a plus-size brassiere.  Thank you.” 

The other employees used to snicker behind my back about the way Barry treats me.  Now they do it right to my face.  I have absolutely zero credibility as an authority figure.  This is what the memo from the national office said when I applied for the managerial program last month.  The word “ZERO” was in all caps, which I thought was unnecessary.  I wrote a long, impassioned response memo stating that leadership is not just about authority.  There’s also sympathy and communication and developing a genuine connection to the people you’re working with.  Isn’t there more to life than productivity?  What about respect for the individual?  What about basic human decency?

In response, the national office sent me a fifteen-dollar gift certificate and told me to apply again next year.

#

At noon, Cynthia and I meet in the Frozen Foods Department, as usual, and select our meals from the endless aisles of rectangular freezers.  Peter is now in his mid thirties and slightly taller than I am.  His skin is the color of milky coffee and he has a beautiful head of springy, black hair.  I have given him a company uniform to wear and he is happy following me around the store learning every detail about my life.  Obviously Cynthia knows there’s something odd about the situation, but she has decided stay out of it.  The hard drive in Peter’s head has absorbed my words, my facial features, my gestures, and he now predicts what I am going to say and do with disturbing accuracy.  At times, I think Peter’s impersonation of me is better than the real thing.

While we eat, news reports about The Outside flash across the video-dome above our heads, each one sponsored by an advertiser.  TEXAS AND CALIFORNIA AT WAR AGAIN.  Enjoy Coke!  WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION FOUND IN BROOKLYN.  You’re in good hands with All-State.  GORILLA ESCAPES FROM ZOO, STRANGLES CHILD.  Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.

I am halfway through my frozen chicken-fried chicken substitute when Barry shows up with his usual smirk.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” says Barry.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” I say.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” says Peter.

Cynthia stuffs a forkful of ravioli in her mouth.

“So, Cynthia, still hanging out with the non-managerial losers, eh?” Barry says.  He laughs too loudly and slaps me on the back, practically crushing my vertebrae.  “Just kidding, big guy.  You know I like to pal around with my employees.”

“Ha ha,” I say.  “That’s a good one, Barry.”

Barry nods and leans against a display rack in a way that makes his triceps bulge.

“Technically, we’re not your employees,” says Cynthia, ignoring Barry’s bulgy triceps.  “We are employed by the Omni-Mart Corporation.”

Barry forces a smile and leans harder against the display rack.  “Of course, of course. But I am the Manager.”

District Manager,” says Cynthia.  “Omni-Mart is a global operation, and there are literally thousands of managerial positions.”  Barry’s face reddens as Cynthia begins to list all the supervisors who have authority over him in the facility.  “There’s the Area Manager and the Section Manager and the Regional Manager and the Locality Manager and the Province Manager and the Operations Manager and the Utilities Manager and the Custodial Manager—”

“And the Lifetime Service Associates,” Barry interrupts.  He folds his arms across his massive chest and begins to bounce his pectorals up and down one after the other.  Right, left, right, left, right, left…  It looks like there are two nippled pistons firing away under his shirt.  “You know, some people say the Lifers are expendable, but not me.  No, siree-bob.  We couldn’t function without someone to perform the menial labor.  It’s the common people—like you two—that keep this company running.”

“I am also a Lifetime Service Associate,” says Peter.

Barry turns his attention to Peter for the first time.  My heart drumrolls in my chest.

“So you are,” says Barry.  “And how’s that working out for you?”

“Very well,” says Peter.  “It is an honor to be a member of the Omni-Mart family.  Omni-Mart is more than a corporation; it is a community.  We hope to make the world a better place one customer at a time.”

Cynthia sticks her index finger down her throat and pretends to gag.  I pray that Barry doesn’t move to the other side of the table and see the keyhole on the back of Peter’s head.

“I like your attitude,” says Barry.  “What’d you say your name was?”

“Peter Omni.”

“Right.  You’ve got gumption, Peter.  How long have you been working for us?”

“My whole life.”

“Well, don’t give up.  If you work hard, maybe you’ll follow in my footsteps one day.”

“That’s my goal,” says Peter.

“That’s bullshit.”

The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.  I freeze, horrified.  Cynthia smiles.

“Excuse me, Leonard,” says Barry.  “Was anyone talking to you?”

“No, they were not,” I say.  “I’m very sorry.  I apologize.  I’m sorry.”

“Do you have a problem with Peter wanting to follow in my footsteps?”

“No.  It’s a worthy ambition. I’m sorry.”

“Is there something funny about an employee who wants to make something out of his career instead of pissing it away sweeping floors and stocking shelves?”

“Not at all.  I’m sorry.”

“Then why did you interrupt our conversation?”

Barry stares at me.  Peter stares at me.  Cynthia stares at me.  What can I say?  I can’t tell them the truth.  I can’t say that Peter is a high-tech product designed to emulate me in every way.  I can’t say that Peter is probably the closest thing I will ever have to a son.  I can’t tell them that Peter’s desire to become Barry insinuates my own desire to become Barry, a thought so repugnant it made me blurt out two inappropriate words.  I can’t tell them that I fear Omni-Mart does not just own the rights to my life; they own the rights to my character as well.  I can’t tell them that every night I pray to a God I don’t believe in that I will suddenly find the courage to burn this whole place to the ground and salt the earth it sits upon.  I can’t tell them that.  Can I?  No, I cannot.  And I don’t.

“I’m so very sorry,” I say instead.

Barry smiles in a way that makes my stomach drop.

“That’s okay, big guy,” he says.  He clamps a giant paw on my shoulder and squeezes until I’m sure I feel a few ligaments pop.  “Hey, I just remembered.  I have another job for you.  How do you feel about windows?”

#

The older kids in the Lost & Found Department used to tell stories about The Outside.  One of them was about a wolf that ate little girls dressed in red hoods.  Another was about a witch who lived in a house made of gingerbread.  I didn’t believe the stories, of course, but they frightened me anyhow.  The Outside was so big, so unknowable, that every type of imaginable horror seemed possible.

One night, the bigger kids came to my bed while I was sleeping and kidnapped me.  They tied me up and threw me into the parking lot behind the facility.  I was trapped on The Outside for almost eight hours before one of the Pre-Employee Caretakers discovered I was missing.  This happens all the time.  Call it an initiation if you want.  Call it hazing, call it torture, call it boys will be boys.  Whatever.  It happens.

It was the middle of August, and there was a lightning storm.  The sky was pitch black and every couple of seconds a giant bolt of electricity would snake out of the clouds, followed by a loud roar.  I had never experienced lightning or thunder or a pitch-black sky, and I guess I had a small break down.  I’m not exactly sure what happened next.  When I woke up, I was tied to a bed and I was screaming at the top of my lungs.  The other kids said customers could hear me all the way over in the Ethnic Shoes Department, although that seems unlikely.  The Caretakers tried to make me explain what happened, but I told them I couldn’t remember.  I said I blacked out.

But that’s a lie.  I remember.  There was something out there in the darkness.  I can’t say what it was exactly, but it was there.  A wolf?  A witch?  It had wings and teeth and claws shaped like sharpened question marks.  It came up behind me and sniffed my hair.  It licked my neck with a long, pink tongue.  I shut my eyes tight and started to cry.  At first, I thought it was all just my imagination.  Then I realized it was definitely my imagination.  That’s when I went berserk.  If The Outside was actually inside my head, it was even more dangerous than I thought.  It was everywhere and it was nowhere.  It was infinite.

I knew right then that I would never leave Omni-Mart.  I screamed and screamed.

#

Barry takes me to the Observation Room, which is a room at the very top of the facility where customers go to look at The Outside.  Every wall is made of double-plated glass.  I have heard about the Observation Room but I have never been there.  Even the thought of it turns my legs to noodles.  As soon as we step off the elevator, I catch a glimpse of the sunlight gleaming through the giant windows, and I close my eyes tight.  I fall to my knees.  Vomit rises in my throat.

Barry puts a wet rag in my hand and says “Clean.”  I try to talk him out of it.  I tell him I’m not feeling well.  He says “Clean.”  I tell him I have a bad back.  He says “Clean.”  I tell him I am frightened, I am lonely, I am desperate, oh God, I’m scared to death.  He says “Clean.”

I take the rag and crawl forward with my eyes still shut.  I reach a slick, smooth surface and I start to wipe it with the rag.  I am shaking uncontrollably.

“You can’t clean like that,” says Barry.  “Open your eyes, big guy.  You have to open your eyes.”

I do.  I open my eyes and look at The Outside.  I am surrounded by an endless city filled with terror at every turn.  I see metal vehicles hurtling through the streets and possible death on every corner.  I see a dirty, unconscious man on the ground below.  I see another man kick the unconscious man and take his wallet.  I see a woman begging for money.  Next to the woman there is a baby in a stroller.  I see poverty.  I see violence.  I see death.  Off in the distance, I do see the outlines of mountains, but they are hopelessly far away.  I don’t see trees or rivers or playful chipmunks.  There is only the city, with its labyrinthine buildings and factories, and beyond that, more city, more buildings and factories, more Omni-Marts.  This is the result of human progress.  This is what people working together towards a common goal can accomplish.  I feel a warm chill in the crotch of my pants and I look down to see a puddle of urine accumulating on the floor beneath me.

“Oh, my.  What is this?” says Barry.  “It looks like Leonard Omni has pissed his pants.  I don’t think that’s how an Omni-Man should behave, Leonard, do you?  Clean it up.”

Barry puts his hand on the back of my neck and shoves my face toward the puddle, as if I am an incontinent dog that has had an accident in the house.  I choke back a sob and start to mop up my bodily fluids, but I don’t get far.  Spots dance before my eyes and I begin to hyperventilate.  The room shrinks.  My vision blurs.  I pass out.

#

When I wake up, I’m in a hospital bed again, but at least I’m not screaming this time.  Peter is standing next to me.  I must have been out for a long time because Peter looks ancient.  He is almost completely bald and his skin is brittle and wrinkled like tissue paper.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” says Peter.

“Welcome to Omni-Mart,” I say. “Where’s Cynthia?”

“She is gone.”

I sit up.  There are dozens of plastic tubes sticking out of me.  “Gone where?”

“She has been sent to The Outside.  She has been terminated.”

I start to pull out the tubes.  “Terminated?  For what?”

“Section 85:6 of the Omni Code of Employee Ethics.  Romantic relationships between employees are forbidden.”

I am stunned.  “But we didn’t do anything.  I followed procedure.  How could they know?”

“She was disloyal,” says Peter.  “This is what you wanted.  It is all for the best.”

For the first time, I look deep into Peter’s eyes and notice how shiny and lifeless they are.  They are like two polished, alabaster marbles encased in wax.  I stare into them intently and see my own disfigured, convex reflection looking back at me.  In that moment, something small yet important snaps inside me.

“What have you done?” I say.

Peter cocks his head.  “I did what you would have done if you were me.”

I grab Peter by the throat and tell him to explain.  He looks vaguely surprised, and he talks quickly.  Peter says that after I passed out, he told the national office what happened in the Sanitation Room.  How Cynthia kissed me and I ignored her.  How Cynthia said she loved me and I soundly rejected her.  How I remained loyal to Omni-Mart at all costs.  How I followed procedure.  He tells me that Barry called Cynthia in for an emergency performance evaluation and asked her if she loved me.  Cynthia said “Yes.”  Barry called in the Regulations Manager from the national office and asked Cynthia again if she loved me.  Cynthia said “Yes.”  Barry fired her immediately with the Regulations Manager’s approval.  She was stripped of her nametag and ejected into the back parking lot.

When he finishes, I notice that my fingers have broken through the plastic skin on Peter’s neck.  If he had been human, I would have murdered him.  I take the silver key from my pocket and tell Peter that I’m going to terminate him once and for all.  “I regret your existence,” I say, although this is not entirely true.  “I regret your existence,” Peter repeats.  He turns around so I have access to the keyhole.  My hand is shaking, but I manage to perform the deed anyhow.  I insert the key and turn it to the right.  The product immediately disintegrates into a fine, white powder that can be swept up and thrown away.

I put on my clothes and run to the Barry’s office.  Of course, I am too late.  Cynthia is gone.  There is only Barry and the Regulations Manager.  The Regulations Manager is a bald man wearing a suit that costs more than I make in a year.  I know this because he says, “This suit costs more than you make in a year.”  He commends me on following procedure.  Turning away Cynthia’s advances demonstrates where my ultimate loyalties lie.  He says that he likes my gumption.  He says that I’m exactly the type of guy he wants to see in the managerial program.  Barry protests, but the Regulations Manager cuts him off.  “What do you say?” he asks me.  “If you work hard, maybe you’ll follow in my footsteps one day.”

I should tell him to go to hell.  I know I should.  I should spit in his face and run out the front door screaming Cynthia’s name.  I should confront my fear of The Outside and find Cynthia and tell the world that I love her.

Sadly, I do not.  A lifetime of following orders has taken its toll.  Instead, I accept the offer to enroll in the managerial program without much hesitation.  I promise to become the best supervisor Omni-Mart, Inc. has ever seen.  I even shake the Regulation Manager’s hand and shed a tear.  An honest-to-God tear.  The look in Barry’s eyes while all this is happening gives me more pleasure than I want to admit.  No one should feel this much joy over a petty vindication, but I do.  This is the greatest moment of my life.

#

I study hard and eventually become the Miscellaneous Assignments Manager at my franchise location.  I am not an abusive supervisor like Barry.  I treat my coworkers with dignity and patience, and I am well-loved by my staff.  I earn the respect and admiration of my superiors in the national office, and I receive commendations for my efforts.  I purchase numerous expensive suits that cost more than I used to make in a year.  Since I am now a member of management, I am allowed to date whomever I want.  Eventually, I marry a pretty, young clerk from the Paper Supplies Department and we have a child named Leslie.  Leslie has her father’s nose and her mother’s delicate chin.  I am allowed to leave the facility whenever I desire, but I choose to live in Omni-Mart.  Management applauds my decision and walls off a substantial section of the Linens & Beddings Department.  We have a splendid apartment stocked entirely with state-of-the-art Omni-Mart products.  I work hard all day and come home to a loving family and a home-cooked meal.  My wife and daughter think I’m a swell guy.  Leslie adores her father and she wants to grow up and be just like me.  Often, Leslie will follow me around repeating every word I say.  Sometimes when my wife and daughter are sound asleep, I slip out of the apartment and take the elevator to the Observation Room.  With the help of several new products from the Pharmaceutical Solutions Department, I have overcome my agoraphobia, and I can now look at the outside without much fear.  At night, the city does not seem so hostile.  All of the poverty, the filth, the violence is covered up by darkness and the trash fires resemble tiny Christmas lights blinking off and on.  I stare at the streets below and wonder if one of those lights belongs to Cynthia.  Is she waiting for me out there?  Does she still have faith that I will become the type of man she can respect?

I ride the elevator back down to my apartment.  I kiss my beautiful daughter and slip into bed with my beautiful wife.  There is no longer a yearning deep down in my chest late at night, like a fist squeezing my heart, and I do not wake up in a cold sweat.  I am not haunted by the desire to find my parents or risk my life for love.  Those aspirations are gone and now there is nothing inside of me.  Absolutely nothing.  When I close my eyes, I feel the exact opposite of passion.  I feel hopeless.  I feel infinite.  I feel like an Omni-Man.