A mysterious gift shop appears overnight in a city known for weird, paranormal, and sometimes apocalyptic activities.
But it's probably no big deal.
It's just a gift shop.
By all accounts, Greenville was a weird place.
For starters, the weather was always perfect. Mid-70s, optimistically sunny, and always a gentle breeze no matter how isolated you might have thought you were from the breeze. On its face, this might not seem very weird, but if you found yourself alone in a dark alley, a ray of that weirdly optimistic sun illuminating a sickly green hyper-intelligent blob of undulating goop the relative size of a commercial refrigerator, and all of your clothes suddenly decided to leap two feet to your left through a process of molecular destabilization and general telekinetic absurdity courtesy of the sickly green hyper-intelligent blob of undulating goop … trust me when I say that a gentle breeze across your exposed rear in the middle of an otherwise walled-off alley would be inarguably weird.
In the annals of Greenville weirdness, a Tyrannosaurus Rex rampaged through the suburbs, a morose zombie who couldn’t stand being undead was the key to undoing an apocalypse, a local library was infested with vampires, irrationally malevolent mole men from Mars chose a local office building basement as the teleportation entry point for an ill-advised invasion, and the local burger joint featured a talking trash can that got a binary gender greeting correct at least fifty-percent of the time.
By all accounts, Greenville was a very weird place.
One of the weirdest spots in this idyllic American city was a short strip--no more than a mile in length—of one of the main roads that cut straight through the city. The strip was densely packed with all flavors of tourist traps from the infamous never-escape-game room (really, you won’t), extreme putt-putt (you have to sign a waiver but you don’t have to pay extra for the hazard insurance), a Triassic Encounter (located adjacent the putt-putt course and you get a 10-percent discount if you buy tickets to both attractions at once; also, keep your fingers away from the cages), and everything along the strip was anchored by the Greenville Visitor Center, a small shanty manned by a crazy old man with a long white beard who did his best to convince visitors that the Never Escape Game was actually, absolutely escapable. It might have taken six years, but the crazy old man had escaped.
Or did he? Was the shanty and the strip just some kind of existential, cosmic extension of the escape game?
If you ever visit Greenville, try not to get into a philosophical discussion about reality, escapism, and ten-percent discounts with the crazy old man at the at the visitor center.
Aside from the world’s only Weirdatorium (“Uncle Al’s Weirdatorium Emporium: half-priced Tuesdays and complimentary wheat grass sno-cones for groups of eight or more!”) the really weird thing about the Greenville tourism district were the gift shops.
While most people are familiar with the exit-through-the-gift-shop trope, wherein the gift shop naturally grew from the local attraction and existed to support said attraction (example: Uncle Al’s Weirdatorium Harmonium, a Greenville exclusive) the weirdness of Greenville caused a new strain of gift shop to evolve. These new gift shops no longer required a host attraction and in some places, you could even find gift shops that were located at the exit of other gift shops.
There were only three total scientific experts who had spent any time studying the gift shop epidemic and two of three traced its roots to the Greenville tourism district. (The third scientific expert traced the epidemic to Orlando, but his research was later dismissed as thinly-veiled propaganda for a certain rodent-based entertainment empire.)
In short order, the Greenville gift shop epidemic escalated to the absolutely terrifying point where one of these weird, monstrous, free-standing garish gift shops mysteriously appeared on a lot that had been completely empty just the day before.
Greenville was a very weird place, indeed.
Doors slid open and a series of melodic notes played underneath a generic, cheery song that almost sounded poppy, but every third and seventh note seemed to be off. Three figures stood inside the entrance of the gift shop. The one in the middle wore brown slacks with a matching buttoned dress vest. He pushed a pair of black-framed glasses up his nose as he surveyed the first floor of the gift shop.
An overly cheery gift shop employee: “Hello, welcome!”
The employee drifted away leaving the three people to themselves.
“Let’s try and keep this clean, boys,” Jordan said. “Recon only. Assess the situation, establish any paranormal parameters, keep a low profile, and get out. It’s probably just a gift shop, but I see no reason we can’t collect our minimum fee on this.”
On Jordan’s right was his brother, Jason. Jeans, t-shirt, leather jacket. Strong features and a stronger chin. He wore his hair long and in a ponytail because manly men have pony tails.
“First of all, you literally just repeated everything you said in the parking lot, like, thirty seconds ago,” Jason said, eyeballing a display of Greenville, USA! shot glasses with custom names. “Secondly, it’s called standard operating procedure for a reason. You don’t have to treat us like children.”
Jordan was temporarily impressed with Jason’s grasp of ‘standard operating procedures’ not because his brother was particularly stupid (although it was well-established that Jordan was the brains and Jason was the brawn of this operation) but because Jason usually lacked the patience to grasp anything of substance.
“I think it’s safe to say we know what we’re doing,” Jason said with a smirk. His eyes darted to one of the shot glasses. “Ooh! This one has my name but they spelled it wrong!”
Jason grabbed the glass that had ‘Jayson’ printed on it. The glass came from the lower end of the display and dozens of shot glasses promptly collapsed and shattered on the floor. Jason shifted awkwardly, looking up from his misspelled shot glass.
To Jordan’s right: “My money’s on a government conspiracy,” Chris said while rubbing his chin, eyebrow arched. He was tall, lanky, and had short-cropped platinum blonde hair. Chris wore athletic shorts and a form-fitting t-shirt, an outfit designed to allow for a maximum range of flexibility. “My guess is that the government probably setup the shop overnight as an economic stimulus.”
Jordan was confused. “An economic--”
Chris shrugged. “Hey, it’s not like everything we do has to involve the end of the world,” referring to the countless times the world had ended during one of their paranormal investigations. It was a trope.
Jason squinted, not unlike Clint Eastwood. “Sometime’s a gift shop is just that …” Jason paused dramatically.
The three paranormal investigators silently looked at each other as Jason squinted and wiggled his eyebrows in a fashion he no doubt assumed was suspenseful.
Another long moment passed and Jordan decided Jason was finished.
“Let’s spread out--”
“--a gift shop,” Jason finally said through gritted teeth. In his normal voice, and quickly: “Sometime’s a gift shop is just that, a gift shop.”
“You done now?”
“Yeah, that’ll do.” Jason tossed the misspelled shot glass in the air and caught it, placing it daintily on the shattered display. “So we’re clear, though, my money is on this being a waste of time.”
“Waste of time or not, Milton Cranstead is still paying our minimum fee.”
“I’m not sure I’d trust the crazy old man at the visitor center to pay for a free lunch, much less our fee,” Chris said.
“Also, serious question,” Jason said gravely before his tone shifted completely, face scrunched like he just sucked a lemon wedge. “Can’t we do something a little more fun?” he whined.
“Your idea of fun is punching things,” Jordan replied.
“Your point is?”
Jordan sighed and mentally reset. “Chris, see if you can’t poke around the second floor. Jason, you’re on perimeter. I’ll run the spectroscopic analysis for trace ectoplasmic particles and we’ll meet back here in ten. Easy money, fellas.”
“Can I say one thing?” Chris asked.
“No.” Jordan pulled a smartphone-sized gadget with a large antenna from his back pocket.
“Guys?” Jason asked flatly. His attention had been pulled to the interior of the gift shop.
A new voice from behind the boys. It was deep and mesmerizing, not unlike Patrick Warburton. “I can categorically deny that this is not a government operation. Not even a secret one. Yeah. I would know.”
Jordan and Chris spun on their heels (Jason still transfixed on something else). A tall man, broad shoulders, dressed in a black suit stood behind them at the entrance of the gift shop. The man’s appearance was not unlike Patrick Warburton.
“Agent Bob!” Chris exclaimed and promptly enveloped the man in a hug that was all arms and a little leg. “Holy popsicles, dude, the last time we saw you—”
Agent Bob attempted to extricate himself from Chris’ embrace. “Mongolian army. Viscous ooze. Some really bad female character development.”
Jordan shrugged. “We learn, we grow.”
Agent Bob eyeballed the three very male paranormal investigators. “Mmh.”
Chris unwound himself and grabbed Agent Bob’s shoulders. “Wait a sec--you’re saying this whole gift shop thing isn’t one of yours?”
“Nope. I’m here same as you,” Agent Bob said. “My guys need to know how this place just showed up overnight.”
Chris’ eyes went wide. “Well, this just got interesting!”
Jordan’s handheld ectoplasmic spectrometer pinged a worrisome note.
“Guys!” Jason yelled.
Two paranormal investigators and one secret government agent turned to look at what Jason was fixated on.
What appeared to be the entire staff of the gift shop had gathered at the front of the store. They looked normal enough, wearing a standard uniform of green slacks, white polo, and a green vest with a shiny white badge pinned to the breast that simply read ‘Hello!’.
The greetings echoed eerily across the gathered staff and that was when Jordan noticed the first really weird thing about the people who worked at the gift shop.
Both their eyes and their grins were a little too wide.
Agent Bob squinted. Less Clint Eastwood and more distressed Patrick Warburton. “… I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Chris nodded. “Yeah. Maybe the crazy old guy at the visitor center isn’t so crazy after all.”
Jordan gulped. He had noticed the second really weird thing about the gift shop employees.
The didn’t have feet. It was hard to notice at first, as if something inside him was refusing to acknowledge the abnormality, blurring it out in the periphery of his vision. But when he focused, Jordan could look down and see that none of the employees had feet. Their legs tapered down into a single, sinuous, green and yellow-veined protrusion that rolled backwards to an unseen location.
The gift shop staff shifted--nope, strike that, they straight up undulated—and Jordan noticed the final really weird thing: there was no individual gift shop employee--they were all tentacles of a much, much larger creature.
The handheld ectoplasmic spectrometer buzzed and then began issuing a series of alarm bells.
Chris pulled at his arm to stretch his shoulder. “So much for it not being the end of the world.”
“Hey now, we don’t know--”
Agent Bob reached into his inside coat pocket. “Definitely not government.”
“Hello, welcome, hi.”
Jason grinned. He was going to get to punch something after all.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jordan Krumbine is a professional video editor, digital artist, and creative wizard currently quarantined in Kissimmee, Florida. When not producing content for the likes of Visit Orlando, Orlando Sentinel, or AAA National, Jordan is probably yelling at a stubbornly defective Macbook keyboard, tracking creative projects in Trello, and animating quirky videos with LEGO and other various toys.