The Competition

10/16/23

With her wooden cane, Susie scatters away the stones in front of her and gingerly takes a step. Inhaling a shaky breath, she looks around. Concrete rubble. Broken steel rods. Ruins.

She closes her eyes. She can still remember those majestic columns, guiding shoppers through that bustling California department store six decades ago. Hard to believe something once so proud could meet such a devastating end.

But that’s the thing about earthquakes. No one ever knows how much damage they’re capable of. Or when they’ll strike. Susie certainly hadn’t expected two to hit the same building sixty years apart.

Opening her eyes, she glances around. Not a soul in sight, just like that day shortly after the first quake.

Susie reaches out a frail, veined hand, resting it on the crumbling column base next to her. That had been her pillar. There she had stood, every day for years, spritzing delicate perfume on wrist after wrist.

She had never misted herself. That was against the rules. And she couldn’t afford to buy her own bottle. But the fine droplets dancing in the air inevitably settled into the fabric of her dresses. On the evenings she went out with Tom after work, the lingering scent never failed to mesmerize him. She had loved her job.

Until the store hired JoAnn.

With a shake of her head, Susie turns and picks her way through the debris, arriving at the next fractured base. That one had been JoAnn’s pillar.

JoAnn had always treated everything as a competition—and JoAnn usually won. Nabbing the first woman patron through the door every morning. Luring away customers from Susie’s line. Scoring each day’s highest perfume sales.

Stealing Tom.

Simply walking into the department store used to lift Susie’s spirits. She had felt special, glamorous, lucky. But once JoAnn set her sights on Tom and he started swinging by to walk JoAnn—not Susie—home in the evenings, the store felt somehow darker. Hostile. Cruel.

But then that first earthquake hit. The store closed while crews repaired the cracked floor and damaged foundation. Susie stopped by the construction site on occasion and marveled at the deep holes that dotted the ground in between the pillars. She also noticed the workers disappeared each afternoon for lunch. One day, she invited JoAnn to join her there while the crews were gone so the two of them could examine the floorplan alterations taking shape. After all, they would need to adapt their sales strategies to remain competitive.

Some weeks later, when the holes were filled in and the store finally reopened its doors, JoAnn never came back. Susie had been the last one to see her, but that day at the deserted construction site, JoAnn hadn’t mentioned any plans to leave. So everyone assumed JoAnn had grown bored during the downtime and moved on to a new challenge—and new rivals.

The store slowly began to feel welcoming to Susie once again. Customers sought her out for their favorite fragrances. Management praised her sales numbers. Tom proposed. The joy had returned to her life—and stayed. She and Tom became parents, then grandparents. The store promoted her, and she led the entire perfume department until she retired.

Over her bifocals, Susie’s eyes sweep over the grimy, tattered shards of the flooring that once gleamed under her high heels. She finds the spot she’s looking for. With her toe, she nudges away a jagged piece of tile and sinks her cane into the wreckage. It hits something hard. Using the tip of the cane, she swipes at the debris, uncovering part of a round, yellowed object.

Two large, side-by-side holes in the top of the object stare blankly up at her. Underneath those is a smaller, more triangular cavity. Below that, two unmistakable rows of teeth.

As Susie pulls her cane out of the hole, the rubble fills it back in, burying the past once more.

The corner of Susie’s mouth turns up in a half smile.

“I win, JoAnn.”

~ fin ~

Kathryn Prater Bomey headshot fall 2023

Kathryn Prater Bomey’s short fiction has appeared in Black Cat Weekly and is forthcoming in the 2024 anthology, Three Strikes—You’re Dead. She is pursuing publication of her first mystery novel and has served as president and secretary of Sisters in Crime’s Chesapeake Chapter. As a communications manager for a global nonprofit and a former journalist, her nonfiction writing has appeared in daily newspapers, magazines, blogs, and newsletters. Follow her at facebook.com/KathrynPraterBomey.