WINTER STOCK • by Martha J Allard

At the Health and Human Services office, we stand in a long, narrow hallway waiting for our chance to make our cases, get our food stamps straightened out or turn in paperwork to keep them. We are strangers, but the same in this fly-in-amber waiting. The wall I lean against is yellowed, like one giant nicotine stain. The floor is elderly linoleum, patterned in orange and green, but faded under the weight of a million idle feet and the disinfectant swipe of as many mops. The other side is a wall of bullet-proof windows, mostly vacant. One lone woman darts back and forth from her window to the phone behind her.  

We cram together, winter coat sweaty.

We’re alike, a troop of old ladies without computers or smart phones. We deal in paper.

So, we wait.

My eyes droop, I fight to keep them open. Can I fall asleep on my feet?

“Evelyn Shultz.”

“Yes.” I answer at the same time the woman behind the plexiglass calls me again.

“Gonna have you step down to the door to your left.”

“Uh.” I’m right up to the little counter in front of her now. I look to my left, and don’t see a door. I’ve never seen a door here. “I just need to talk to somebody about my food stamps. I have bank statements.”

“She needs to see you.” There is no inflection in the clerk’s tone. No expression on her face. “Step down.”

I try to protest, but she calls someone else’s name. A murmur of unquiet start behind me. Don’t hold up the line.

I move away from the window, look for a door I can’t see.

Yet one opens, at the dead-end of the hallway. A woman beckons me. “Evelyn?” She says my name like we’re friends, or she’s my mother, or my lover.

“Yes.” I shake myself again.

“Come in.” She leads me over the threshold.

Into in a quiet office with a clean desk and a window. The view is all trees. Like a forest. Not the  parking lot I came from. It can’t be real.

But then again, it can’t not be real.

She motions to the wooden bench in front of her desk. It is long and narrow, like it had been trash picked from some abandoned church. But when I sit, the wood is smooth.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” She smiles. “I know how it feels to be forgotten. When we hit fifty, we become invisible, don’t we?”

I frown before I can stop. “What?”

“I know you know what I mean.” She shrugs. “It happens to us all.”

“I can see you.” I protest. “You’re the opposite of invisible.”

She really is. She wears jeans and a tee shirt that are neither loose fitting, nor tight. Her hair is white, with a single streak of black at her left temple. Her black eyes collect light, crow’s feet crinkle with each smile.

She is not invisible. Yet she does look close to my age. I think all at once, I’d be happy to drown in those starlight eyes. Where in hell did that come from?

“This takes work.” She laughs. “And I only appear to those that I wish to see me.”

I feel a blush at that. She wants me to see her. Something changes in the air around us. There is a smell, sweet, like rotten leaves. Is there? She moves around the desk to sit next to me, and it’s stronger now. Not unpleasant. A comfort, but wrong. I should get up.

She touches my hand, and her fingers are silk smooth.

She’s cold, and the chill transfers to me. Then I remember why I’m here.

 “Look.” I swallow. “I just wanna know about my benefits. Why was my food cut last month?”

I pull my hand back, but the cold stays in me. Her smile widens. Her teeth are long. The black in her hair bleeds out, swallows the white up.

“I told you. We are invisible. In ancient times old women got less meat because they couldn’t work for it anymore. Maybe that’s it.”

“I’m not that old.” Yet, I think. “And that’s not how things are supposed to work.”

Probably. Maybe that’s the secret no one tells you.

She pats my hand again. “Hush,” she says. “I know. It’s so much harder, isn’t it? You’re so tired, and you never were before.”

“No, it’s not…” But I can’t finish. She touches me again, and I am lost in her night-and-star eyes, drowning, thinning, becoming as thin as window glass. She is more beautiful, shining hair, crow’s feet insisting back into her smooth face. Then that woman peels away completely. Her eyes shrink to hard black buttons and the stars are pinprick reflections from the fluorescent lights above us. Her face sharpens to a hatchet. The iridescent dark of her hair burns out and leaves it dull steel, stringy. But her teeth are still long, and sharp, like in a fairy tale.

And I am so tired. Too tired to fight off her dagger teeth. She opens her wide mouth. And I float in the stars of that glint in her black eyes.

Now I am invisible. I have no skin, no meat. My face is only a tattered memory that dangles in the hollow of my yellowed skull. My bones hang in the rafters of her house, for stock, when the winter comes. I sway in my bag, as her house stomps its way from here to there. I am nothing but the waiting. I sense other bags brush against me, all that’s left of an army of invisible women. I imagine her timeless face drifting above me, crow’s feet crinkling with black, black humor. She whispers, “It takes so many of you to make a good stock.”

Martha J Allard writes about demons and angels and people that live in shadow. They dabble in flash fiction, steampunk, space opera, and crochet while sharing space with a big black cat. Their first collection of short stories is called Psychic Surgery, and their second, filled with flash fiction, “Fairy Tale Logic,” will be out in spring 2022. Find them at their website,

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