Most of us knew the main points of the unsettling thing that happened to Sarita Pench within eight hours of it happening to her. Sarita traditionally wasted no time broadcasting her trials and tribulations to the rest of us through social networking, the incident in question definitely falling under the heading of tribulation – not because of what actually happened (uncanny as it was), but because of what Sarita thought had actually happened (fact + fear).

In brief, Sarita had found herself with an extra two hours on her hands one autumn afternoon in between two of her various part-time and ad hoc occupations (standardized patient in the morning, tour guide in the afternoon, Tae Bo instructor in the evening, et al.) and decided to use the wide (for her) gap of personal time to do a marathon round of shopping at Omphalos, the superstore branch of which was within ten minutes of her apartment.

In her electronic post to all of us – her friends, family, marginal acquaintances and silent hangers-on – she began near the end of her encounter before going back to an acceptable beginning and working her way forward again to her tale’s not-a-conclusion. We looked at the conclusion as a not-a-conclusion for reasons that will become apparent in the following reprint of her post:

Weird. Was shopping at Omphalos and a woman behind me was buying the same things I bought. 

Most of us – the ones who didn’t make smart, funny comments – pressed her for details, which she provided in a new post:

I’d gone in because I needed to get a few things and I had time because of the rain so I didn’t have to take a group out, but I took a cart instead of a basket because you never know. So I just did a big circle of the place and after I’d put like the fourth thing in my cart I started to wheel away and that’s when I noticed this woman out of the corner of my eye reach out and take the very thing I’d just bought (TP, if you must know) into her own cart. So I went down another isle and decided to pick up one of those dustless mops for ceilings with the reachy-thingy, and three seconds later out of the corner of my eye I saw the same woman put the same thing in her cart. Then I went to get food and as far as I know she wasn’t following me because I looked back once and she wasn’t there, but when I put the oatmeal in my cart and moved onto the pasta I heard somebody behind me and sure enough it was her dropping oatmeal into her cart and then the pasta. Exact same brand. I mean, after a while I wondered if I should be rude or stare at her, but she wasn’t bothering me, but at the same time I wondered if I knew her or if she was just playing a game with me or what the deal was, but I was a little shaken by it.

Our responses, as always, were numerous and varied. Those of use who were really and truly good friends of Sarita typed in some detailed responses; others who were her acquaintances for some brief reason or other volunteered a few comments, such as “creepy” and “weird” (although it was alarming how many of us spelled it “wierd”), and most of us hangers-on contented ourselves with liking the post.

Later, at the bar, Sarita told us that she had become mildly concerned for her personal safety when the silent, bland woman behind her was glimpsed pulling the same pink hoodie from the rack from which she had just plucked a pink hoodie after much deliberation. GSG asked if the woman had then been behind her at checkout, but no, Sarita reported, she hadn’t seen the woman after that.

KLH wanted a description of the woman, but Sarita could only offer vague, basic, toolkit parts to assemble: the woman was maybe a little older than her, maybe a little bunchier in the middle, maybe a little more horizontal in the hips; her hair was dullish and maybe darker than her own; her face was merely eyes, nose, and mouth.

We drank and listened and wrote the episode off as unusual, although FVB said to me, privately, when Sarita had left, that she suspected the story was fabricated because “…you know how [Sarita] loves attention and maybe she felt she wasn’t getting enough attention.” I nodded.

The Omphalos superstore is patronized by many of us who live in the neighborhood. It is a dark, rambling monstrosity that had been cobbled together out of the remnants of an ugly strip mall that none of us had ever visited because of its shadiness and suggestion of poverty and convenience: a nail salon, a liquor store, a Chinese take-out, a thrifty shoe mart; you’ve seen them. The strip mall, in turn, had sprung up on a large tract of land that had once been the site of a sprawling, elaborate amusement park built in the 1920’s and demolished in 1972 secondary to changing tastes in entertainment, urban sprawl, and dwindling profit margins. The park had been called Waterside Park to acknowledge its proximity to the choked-off straggle of river that snaked through that part of the city, and old postcards and advertisements still turn up in resale shops and used bookstores, or as mementoes found in stale trunks and brittle keepsake albums raided upon the deaths of elderly loved ones. Waterside Park had everything: fun houses, midway games and attractions, water chutes, rollercoasters, parachute drops, eateries, photo booths, miniature golf, band concerts, hourly amateur entertainments, lagoon of love, midget railway: the works. None of us had any recollection of its bright and shrieking glory as none of us (except DRT, who tried hard to hide his age) had even been born when the place was torn down and its bits and piece carted away to a myriad of dumps. Residents of the area, who had moved into the fierce, contemporary condominiums that muscled their way into the expanded and desirable neighborhood, would report every now and then that they could hear echoes of the vast throngs of yesteryear merrymakers whenever they went out to grill their grass-fed beef on certain summer evenings. The sounds of ghostly pleasure, they have said, are unsettling and easily confused with zoo animals imitating a passing ambulance.

Two days later, those of us who suspected the validity of Sarita Pench’s experience were given a fresh chance at belief when Keela Jardiner posted the following to Sarita Pench:

Same thing just happened to me. Don’t think it was the same woman. Still, creeped out. WTF?

This, of course, was underscored by a flurry of commentary from those of us who couldn’t help ourselves. Pieced together, Keela had gone into Omphalos on a whim for a cake and wound up pressing on through the maze of aisles, putting things in her cart that she didn’t know she needed: a cute little emerald-colored bath mat, a decorative sunburst foyer mirror (even though she didn’t have a foyer in her 1-bedroom garden apartment), a wedge of exotic cheese, a box of sesame water crackers, a Genoa salami, a cheap bottle of sparkling wine, a new brand of nectarine-tinted mouth rinse; the list went on. After the foyer mirror, she described what she thought was a tallish older woman in a droopy floral skirt and short denim jacket a few paces behind her with cake, bath mat, and mirror in her cart, and as Keela continued on her consuming way she saw that the woman picked up everything she had picked up moments before; however, as was Sarita’s experience, the woman was nowhere to be seen once Keela hit checkout.

“It’s some kind of marketing stunt,” FVB said to me when she stopped by my place for wine that evening. “It’s a variation on the secret shopper gimmick.”

“I thought secret shoppers were people who worked for a store’s headquarters and went around buying things and asking for help and judging the effectiveness of displays,” I said. “Am I wrong?”

“What I mean is,” FVB said, draining her first glass of white, “these women are paid to trail random shoppers and whatever the shopper buys they put in their own cart, and the reason why they’re not seen at checkout is because they’re not actually buying the stuff but have taken the load back to a room somewhere where it can be logged and evaluated.”

“Oh,” I said. “Like corporate wants to know what people are buying.”

“Yeah. Brands, quantities. Styles.”

“And the food?”

“They want to know what sort of buyers they’ve got coming in the joint. Upscale shoppers buy the wasabi-seared gruyere cutlets. Middle Class Mary buys the Cheez Whiz.”

“Are there really wasabi-seared gruyere cutlets?”

“No clue,” FVB said, wiping her mouth. “I buy the Cheez-Whiz.”

Omphalos – be it the superstore version or plain old Omphalos – is laid out in such a manner as to encourage counterclockwise shopping regardless of which door you enter. The carts (of three sizes: petite, typical, and motorized) are kept regimented between entrances, and once past the mounds of fruits and vegetables constantly tended and spritzed by a squad of college kids in black-and-white striped aprons, shoppers naturally gravitate to their right, leisurely up and around past delicatessens and oyster bars, fresh seafood in glass cases of transparent ice chips, shelves of spirits and liquors, a sprawling butchery, on to prepackaged and processed foods, standing refrigeration units of perishables and breakfast items suitable for toasting; thus follows offshoots of mazes stocked with apothecarial and tonsorial products, greeting cards, candy, exotic foods from around the world, barrels of cheeses and dried meats, snacks, beverages, paper goods, plastic goods, products for the dog, cat, bird or goldfish, hygienic and coital aids and enhancers, candy, novelties, and finally a somber oasis of freezers and refrigerators for dairy and frozen goods; this area, for some reason, is not kept constantly lit, but rather brightens whenever a shopper enters the area.

Many of us find the entire layout to be repellant and seductive at the same time, not unlike being swallowed whole by a gargantuan sea creature and left to wander down slimy gullet to cavernous innards, the all-encompassing, bone-vibrating totem of a great unseen heart measuring every slick, bewildered, doomed step.

Once Millie Durward chimed in with a report of her nearly identical encounter with a copycat shopper, the jokey commentary (SWE could always be counted on to reply, “That was me gurrl just trine to be awesome like you” [sic]) ceased and several schools of thought were founded:

  1. If Sarita’s original post had indeed been a fabrication just for the sake of having something to post that would generate widespread attention and commentary, others (Keela, Millie) were getting in on the act to either create some new kind of urban legend or a similar amount of attention for themselves and, in the process, were attempting to turn something unreal into reality. This theory, however, was shot down because, as Millie herself pointed out, she had not known about Sarita and Keela’s experience prior to it happening to herself. We believed this because, as FVB observed, Millie took periodic, petulant “breaks” from social networking on an erratic basis, and she had only broken a two-month stint of holier-than-thou silence to post her unsettling experience the very day it happened.
  2. Some sociopath or psychopath (the terms were interchangeable amongst us, as we had no clear idea what either meant) was playing a ballsy game with random customers that lacked clear motive or schedule (Sarita had been mimicked in the afternoon, Keela at dusk, and Millie slightly before closing). This theory was questioned because none of the creeped-out trio described the same woman; in fact, Millie reported her follower was a “woman of color,” which led to is own sidebar of commentary that sought clarification of the term and offered schooling of how Millie expressed herself). With that in mind, the theory developed to assign the instances to a group of sociopaths, psychopaths, or pranksters. Most of us found it hard to believe that there was perhaps a secret society of shopper imitators in the city but, then again, most of us agreed that crazier things had happened and would no doubt continue to happen.
  3. Omphalos itself was behind the incidents, orchestrating them as some sort of consumer poll or survey that favored silence over the commonly avoided teen at the exit with clipboard and a request for a minute of one’s time. This school of thought led FVB to say “I told you so” to me over and over again. This theory, however, seemed not only farfetched but unsavory, as the results of this survey (if indeed it was a marketing thing) wouldn’t be known until some undisclosed time, if at all.
  4. The ghosts of Waterside Park were now shopping at Omphalos. This was the dumbest theory, and the most popular.

The Omphalos carts are voluminous and silent. Constructed of marble-pattered plastic wrapped around a light aluminum frame and carried on soft wheels that never lock or go wonky, the carts (modestly called “baskets” by Omphalos employees) are rotated on a tri-hourly basis and maintained by an unseen staff. We never have to play an awkward game of tug o’ war to separate one from the other; they never veer off into other carts (baskets) with a peace-shattering clang. If they resemble anything in shape and size, they resemble the heavy iron gondolas used in strip mining and coal mines in the late 19th Century, and as such they are deep and sturdy. They hold everything and anything you both want and didn’t know you wanted. Regardless, their silent glide would make it easy for anyone wishing to shadow another shopper to do so with discretion.

The day after Millie’s encounter, the neighborhood-centric web news site ran a two-paragraph story on the sudden onset of unsettling copycat shoppers at Omphalos; no less than eight incidents had been reported to Omphalos manager. Naturally, this was seen as both good and bad for Omphalos business: the management didn’t want to see anything that would suggest that their glorious store, where all needs are met, offered a haven for tricksters or worse and an unsafe environment for unescorted female shoppers; at the same time, so many more of us were drawn to the store.

We went in pairs and groups, on the lookout for suspicious women trailing behind other, unsuspecting women. We watched for duplicate goods being taken from the shelves and racks and bins and freezers by two different people a few seconds apart. We masqueraded as shoppers, pushed the silent carts. To avoid suspicion, we filled our own carts with goods.

“And now we’ve got to pay for all this shit,” FVB said. She and I had formed our own vigilant team, and after nearly ninety minutes of spying our cart was loaded with goods.

“Not necessarily,” I said, looking around. “It’s no trouble at all to just wheel this thing into an unpopulated corner and leave it there.”

I showed her by parking our laden cart in front of the fresh cut flowers and walking away, as if I’d remembered something I’d forgotten. Instead, I took a sharp right, appeared at the other side of the flowers, turned, and exited the store. FVB followed me.

“And that,” I said, “is also how these copycat shoppers are leaving without the stuff.”

“But nobody said they’re leaving without the stuff. They’ve said that their followers are nowhere to be seen at checkout time.”

Further reports tumbled in. Omphalos employed three more staff members to watch the security cameras to account for every customer: each person who entered must, at some point, also exit. This proved a difficult task to coordinate, because the cameras were placed at such an angle as to only capture the black-and-white haziness of a person’s face upon leaving the store, not entering. The watchers decided to focus on articles of clothing, but this was felt to be inadequate, too, as clothing can be changed. Ultimately, they couldn’t confirm if everyone who had entered the store had also left. At closing time, there were never any people in the store except Omphalos employees.

Which led to a deeper scrutiny of Omphalos employees. Perhaps one of them was the copycat shopper, even though it mentioned that not just one person but several were acting in that unsettling fashion, and any employee seen out of uniform (marble-pattern apron and visor, white shirt, black pants) by another employee would be singled out and questioned.

Cashiers were encouraged to pay more attention to the items they swiped. If total or even somewhat partial individual purchases bore similarities to others, a manager was to be notified; likewise, if a customer alerted a cashier about being followed by a furtive, silent shopper who chose exactly the same goods as their own, the cashier would send an alert to the other cashiers that such a situation was in progress. Each cashier would then signal a manager who, along with several assistant managers, would descend upon the cashier banks and stand next to a cashier, reading off the goods purchased and transmitting their lists via closed circuit headsets.

It was all extraordinarily planned and executed and completely inefficient and cumbersome.

As for the rest of us, if we wanted to go to Omphalos, we inveigled our normally recalcitrant husbands, boyfriends, and partners to shop with us, as it was noted that the copycats only mirrored the female and unattached.

Meanwhile, sales at Omphalos increased.

Many of us felt invigorated and challenged by the situation; we had been called upon to protect our unprotected, even though no one had ever come to any physical harm. The promise of physical harm lingered, however, and our blood quickened.

Some of us wondered what it was these copycats wanted to show us. We floated more ideas at each other, either when posting or visiting or chatting:

  1. We were buying the wrong things, as the mirroring of purchases might be serving as a wordless, subtle way to get us to look at what we were buying. If so, what were we supposed to consider? Were we buying out of want or need? Were we taking our time and choosing quality or dreck? Were we buying too much of one thing, or too much altogether?
  2. What happens when someone buys the last of something, takes the last jar of peanut-free peanut butter off the shelf or the last gluten-free gluten sticks from the bin? What does the copycat do then? Ah, but this never happens at Omphalos. There is never the last of anything.
  3. We were being studied. A group of aliens were trying to assimilate themselves into our culture, and to do so they followed us and bought what we bought. This chilling thought made us speculate as to what these aliens would do with us once they learned our consumption habits; however, as the incidents were limited to women, well…no, the possibilities were terrifying.

This went on until George Squanant reported in:

Totally stalked at Omphalos. Went in for snacks and stuff for my party and noticed a dude put three big bags of tortilla chips into his cart like five seconds after I’d done the same. I turned the corner, doubled back to get another six-pack of the summer ale, and I shit you not the guy was there five seconds after I’d bought the ale, which I hadn’t needed. Turned around to confront him and he was gone. 

Naturally, the comedians among us heckled George for his appearance: George boasted a Crow lineage and wore his black hair down to his pelvis; he was lean and slender-hipped. George responded with a few choice but ill-worded retorts regarding the weakness of the feminine gender, retorts lobbed back with equally insensitive remarks about perceived sexuality and other sad stereotypes. Quite a number of us ended our tenacious friendship with George and his pseudo-humorous detractors.

But the fact remained that George had been mimicked, and not “accidentally” by a woman, but “a dude.” As it turned out, George wasn’t an anomaly, as days later a follow-up article reported further Omphalos encounters involving both sexes.

“It’s aliens,” FVB said. “Only explanation.”

I argued with her about that for quite some time, noting that of all the places on Earth for aliens to establish a petri dish (if you will) of behavior experimentation, the monolithic and heavily populated Omphalos would probably not be their target.

“Whatever,” she said, drinking the last of the chardonnay. “On the other hand, it might be exactly what they want. Regardless, I’m shopping at Stryve from now on.”

Within a week’s time, however, the number of reports began to lessen, and soon there were no reports at all. We couldn’t tell who had been the last to be copied – one of us or a total stranger? We only noticed there hadn’t been any reports in a while because we had stopped thinking about it; we had stopped thinking about it because we were reading posts about other things: pets that needed to be put to sleep, children who had just started pre-school; political rants, civil indignation, personal sorrow; dinners consumed, drinks drunk; faces and sunsets.

Our schools of thought lingered, however, during the fleeting moments when the Omphalos incidents leapt up from our buried thoughts, particularly when we passed Omphalos, the management and running of which had settled down to its pre-incident level of bustle and commerce. The specially hired staff of watchers was dismissed, and they were grateful to no longer be hunched over the crappy monitors looking for something that couldn’t be anticipated.

Yesterday, I stopped in at Omphalos after a long absence, as I had a sudden taste for a special brand of aspartame-free Italian-Egyptian blood orange-kiwi non-carbonated sparkling triple-distilled water they carry. As you know, yesterday was fine and wistful, one of those early October days when autumn has just begun to realize it has no reason to pretend to be summer anymore, and as I had nowhere particular to be, I wheeled a silent cart counterclockwise through the store, though I knew where the beverages were. I picked up toothpaste, as I was sure to need toothpaste again sometime soon; I liked the look of a door wedge-sized portion of cheese riddled with dried cranberries and encrusted with pistachios; I asked for a pound of the fresh squid salad because there was a special; I loaded up on the little party sausages drowned in barbeque sauce.

After that last addition to my cart, I noticed that the woman who had been behind me at the seafood counter had also shuttled the little sausages into her cart. I paused, a deluxe jar of pickled onions in my hand, caught her eye, and arched an eyebrow at her. She blushed, shook her head. No, she was saying, I’m not doing this on purpose. I put the onions into my cart, moved aside, and waited.

The woman sidled up, took a jar of onions, regarded it for a moment, looked at me, smiled, and put it back on the shelf.

Wheeling past, she said, “You’re safe today.”

About the author:

Jon Steinhagen is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists and published author (print and online) of fiction, recently in Midwestern Gothic and Jet Fuel Review. A collection of his short stories, The Big Book of Sounds, was recently published by Black Lawrence Press.

Twitter: @JonSteinhagen