The store was cold and dark with figures appearing out of the minimal light offered by the piercing fluorescent bulbs — a less than ideal situation for someone with no recollection of where they were. Or what they were doing there. Or how they got there in the first place.
I frantically searched for signs of anything that might answer any, if not all, of my questions. All I saw was a long, narrow hallway that seemed never-ending. The only image protruding out of the ongoing horizon was a faint neon sign that read “GROCERY.”
Figures. A minuscule supermarket.
I looked to my left and then to my right. Five rows of metal shelves lined the edges of both sides. There appeared to be indistinct products organized in a tight, tidy fashion. Nothing was out of place, and each product was in perfect alignment with the next. The arrangement was ultra-functional, yet the sense of order felt militaristic.
I needed to know more.
I began to walk down the aisle, one foot apprehensively placed in front of the next, directing my eyes to any image that caught my attention. As I began treading forward, the visuals surrounding me became progressively clearer. The once indistinguishable objects that sat on chilling, lifeless counters began morphing into unfamiliar products — ones that would not be in a standard grocery store.
The first thing I could identify was a seemingly endless supply of machinery, including a plethora of interchangeable parts. Each item resembled one another, with identical ridges and nooks. As I peered my head in closer to read the item description, the advertisement’s words jumped out at me: “Why buy multiple parts when you could have one that does it all? SAVE TIME AND MONEY! MAXIMIZE EFFICIENCY!”
Though I had seen similar marketing techniques before, this product’s plea for productivity and cost-effective shopping felt strangely out of the ordinary. Why did interchangeable parts — a staple invention of the industrial revolution — need to manipulate consumers into purchasing?
I felt an unstoppable urge to continue moving forward. I didn’t see anyone behind me, yet I couldn’t ignore the feeling that people were waiting for me to continue. I felt I had no choice but to proceed.
As I kept moving forward, the light in the store grew marginally brighter, yet all the more piercing. Its power illuminated the advertised items, making it significantly easier for me to distinguish what they were. Yet as these products became clearer, they simultaneously grew more foreign and bizarre.
The department began with a section of over-the-counter “study drugs,” pharmaceuticals like Adderall, Vyvanse and Ritalin — medicine I was almost positive you needed a prescription for. Study drugs contorted into the store’s book department, filled it with “must-read” literature such as “Productivity for Dummies,” “The Grass Is Always Greener: How to Compete With Your Neighbor” and an unnecessary amount of text dedicated to the “pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” theory. The sales section offered “UNBEATABLE DEALS!” — discounted prices of “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital,” both published and distributed by Amazon. Though these products were on sale, the inventory seemed virtually untouched, with dust collecting on the crevices of every copy.
As I moved past the publication department, I stumbled into a segment titled “Games and Gimmicks.” Right off the bat, the region was dominated by an inordinate amount of Monopoly boxes, offering all themes and variations imaginable. Strangely enough, it appeared that Monopoly was the only board game the store sold, besides a one-off row of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Go figure.
Unlike the game section’s lack of diverse offerings, the gimmicks this mysterious store offered felt right out of a fever dream. Suddenly, I was surrounded by products I couldn’t have dreamt up on even the most outlandish of nights.
Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. A brand of lollipops known as Boot Lickers. Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin bobbleheads. Globalization Globes, levied by an export tax. Tortoiseshells with Mitch McConnell’s head. X Æ A-12 baby dolls. Apple products with expiration dates. A life-sized idol of Jordan Belfort, with a voice box that declares “Sell me this pen” upon the pull of a string.
Where did these items come from? Who could’ve manufactured them? And better yet, who’s actually purchasing them? I looked around with an eerie sense of amazement, racking my brain for answers.
Suddenly, a ubiquitous female voice protruded through the walls: “Please proceed forward to maximize customer experience.” I recognized the robotic, yet comforting feminine rhythm from somewhere, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I looked to the top of the walls for speakers, evidence of familiarity, and realized the store’s sound system consisted of rows of Echo Dots — the all-encompassing voice was none other than Alexa. I listened dutifully, motivated by an unshakable sense of fear, and continued on through the shop floor.
Next came the health and food departments, kicked off by an abundance of Mark Zuckerberg-sponsored sunscreen, babyface anti-aging cream and Kardashian-endorsed diet pills. “LOSE WEIGHT FAST!” the bottles screamed out, leading me to question my body shape in a store devoid of critical onlookers. The supplements dwindled into top-shelf meats and produce. I marveled at the beauty of the shining kale, spinach and arugula, all supplied by Monsanto. The greens were regularly upkept by a misting sprinkler, set off every five minutes on the dot. The gorgeous array of vegetables was halted by the magnificence of wagyu beef and wild-caught salmon, all leading up to dry-aged ribeye garnished with gold flakes. I had never seen such stunning and nutritious food in one congregate area. Yet my amazement quickly dwindled as I read a small sign conveniently placed at the end of the section, preaching “PRODUCE AND MEATS RESERVED FOR THE 1% INCOME BRACKET. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”
I let out a large sigh, characterized both by disgust and exhaustion, yet continued down the aisle hoping only to avoid trouble. Thank god I didn’t touch anything. The coldness of the store almost instantaneously morphed into a hot, desert-like climate, leaving me begging for sustenance. Unfortunately, the only products this area sold were White Castle’s cheeseburger sliders and Arby’s Roast Beef.
I had to get out of here. I was uneasy, uncertain, uncomfortable and unwelcome. I no longer wanted to explore my surroundings — I needed to locate an exit. The only way through is through. I picked up my pace, catalyzing an unprovocative yet steady jog, desperate to find the end of the perpetual grocery store.
As I ran without an end in sight, I shuffled by the “exclusive items” department.
Stock options. Financial loopholes. Congressional votes. Government access codes. Buy one, get one free TV networks. Jeff Bezos’ business blueprints. Donald Trump’s tax returns.
All items were available only to those in .1% income bracket.
And even with these high-profile, ever-desired options, the most concerning was yet to come. The sign described them as exploited Workers. “LOW STOCK — ACT FAST! CAPABLE HUMAN LABOR! AVAILABLE FOR MAXIMUM HOURS NEEDED AND MINIMUM PAY.”
My jaw dropped and my lower lip quivered with fear. How was this possible? How was this allowed? My body was shaking, eyes widened with terror.
“Need any help?” I heard as a man touched my shoulder, and I was startled by the fact that someone else had been here the entire time. I turned around. It was the University of Michigan’s President, Mark Schlissel.
I shook my head softly, attempting to disguise my frantic state of mind. I didn’t want to cause a scene. I didn’t want to be noticed. I had to escape.
“Find what you’re looking for?” he asked with an off-putting cheeriness in his tone. He appeared to be a store employee, one that was particularly unbothered by the apocalyptic surroundings. I worked up the courage not only to speak, but lie my way out.
“Actually, I’d love to be directed toward the exit. I have an emergency at home I have to tend to,” I explained weakly.
“You’re in the right place then! The cash register is right ahead,” he gestured forward.
I proceeded onward and was astounded by the sight of three identical, late-aged white men, each wearing black jackets, white shirts and red ties. Their wrinkles all tattooed the same areas of their faces and hands. The men appeared to be copy-and-pasted, with robotic body languages similar to that of the Agents in “The Matrix.”
“How can we help you today?” they said with a monotone, yet somehow condescending voice.
“Can you please point me in the direction of the exit?” I asked politely, fronting a carefully constructed smile to hide my panic.
“You have to purchase your items before you can leave,” the men explained in unison.
I was perplexed. I had no items in hand to purchase. I didn’t even know why I was there. Or how I got there. Or where I was.
“I’m sorry sir, I will not be purchasing anything today,” I explained, trying to maintain an illusion of innocence to fend off their growing distrust. “I’m not exactly sure how I ended up here. I’m lost, and have an emergency that I need to tend to at home.” I synced my body language with my pleading tone — I needed to appear genuine.
“We understand.” I unclenched my fist with relief.
“That will be $6 million.”
“Sorry?” I responded with shock. They must have misheard me. What could I be paying for?
“Miss, we have a store-experience fee designated for those who come to the store without purchasing any items. We aim to provide the best customer service experience possible, with top-notch inventory and an unparalleled atmosphere. The store-experience fee helps us maintain this luxury.”
“That’s an absurd amount of money,” I blurted out. I couldn’t help but lose myself in emotion.
“Miss, as we explained, it is what helps us maintain the luxury of the store.”
I frantically looked down to my pockets, praying to find my wallet, relying on my ability to scavenge spare change while hopefully convincing the men to let me go. An immutable voice started echoing through my thoughts: you’re never going to get out of here.
I couldn’t find anything. Not a single bargaining chip. I began to stutter.
“Sir, I understand the reasoning behind the fee, but I don’t have a wallet on me, and I also didn’t intend on coming here, though it is a lovely store, and I don’t really know how I got here. I don’t even know where I am if I’m being completely honest. Could you please bend the policy, just this once?”
I felt myself begging. I was desperate for a miracle.
“You are at Mega Corps grocery store. Everything is owned and sold by the three of us — together, we are Mega Corps. And unfortunately, we cannot eliminate your dues,” the three men explained, completely in sync. Subtle smiles started forming on their faces, expressed as if the action was conducted muscle by muscle. “But this situation is not unfamiliar to us. Many before you have found themselves in the exact situation as you are in now, and there is a solution to mitigate your debt.”
They took a pause before explaining. It seemed as if they were reveling in my distress.
“Anyone who cannot pay what they owe becomes a part of our inventory. Honestly, we are grateful that you cannot pay. We were starting to worry about running low in stock for our most popular item,” they articulated sinisterly.
Just as I began to respond, the floor below me split open. I fell straight down, losing all control, plummeting through the perpetual dark abyss. And as I was falling, a thought couldn’t leave my mind:
I didn’t ask to be here, I didn’t ask to participate. Yet I know now that no matter what I do, I cannot, and will never be able to leave.
Statement Managing Editor Andie Horowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.