“Outta the way, girl!”
I felt a sharp push from behind, and the next thing I knew I was sprawled face-first on the floor. A throng of shoppers bounded over me and burst through the entrance of the high-end department store, with no one bothering to ask if I was okay. I peered up into the eyes of my older sister, hovering over me with her arms crossed in front of her chest.
“Odessa, be careful! Remember what I told you: stay close to us and don’t wander off on your own. May think you know everything now that you’re 14, but you’re in our world now. Best you listen to us.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet. As I wiped the dirt from my face, I realized how right she was…
This was nothing like the stuff I’d seen on YouTube; it was much worse. A horde of frenzied bargain hunters weaved through the glowing shoe displays. Excitement grew in their eyes. Each paused to scan a discounted pair of shoes with their cell before zipping off to the next display. Some worked in teams and bumped their phones together to share the codes. Others were more competitive, knocking other shoppers aside and deactivating barcodes as soon as they got their fix.
A group of them were huddled at the end of an aisle as a giant ticker counted down to a minute-deal. When the timer hit zero and the deal was set, two of them broke away and raced down the aisle, hungry for the deal. Those that remained kept their eyes glued to the ticker, bobbing up and down with unbridled anticipation.
A series of ear-splitting announcements blasted from the speakers above:
“Dooooooooooor Crashers in Aisle 6!”
“Buy-one-get-seven-free megadeal on men’s dress shoes!”
“Weeeeeee got some limited-time coupon codes here! Good for twenty customers and only during the next hour!”
One group seemed super coordinated. They wore bright-yellow jumpsuits, moved through the aisles in patterns, and communicated through hand signals and headsets. Instead of splitting off and spreading throughout the store, they ran straight to the array of shopping carts near the escalators. Each ‘Yellow’ unlocked a cart and lined up beside the next. The last Yellow skipped the carts. Instead, he marched in front of them, barking orders. He was at least a foot taller than the rest, and wore a thin purple visor that flashed as it processed the deals. He shouted something into his headset and each of the Yellows nodded eagerly. Then they fanned out in each and every direction.
Glancing back at the commotion in the shoe department, I squeezed my older sister’s hand even tighter. Two clusters were forming on either side of a massive just-reduced clearance rack. On one side, a trio of old men was scaling it like a cliff. They each scanned a shoebox with one hand. Then they tossed them down to the others waiting below. Suddenly, a woman on the other side squealed and dove out of the way. The clearance rack buckled, swayed, and went crashing to the floor, missing her by inches.
I stood there, frozen, staring at the pandemonium around me. It was a few minutes after midnight on December 26th, Boxing Day, and it was the final, exclusive flash sale of the year. It was time for my initiation. That night, I would finally get to join the Guild.
But that was before I saw the ring. I’d only glimpsed it for a second, and yet I immediately recognized it. It was the exact same ring my mother had promised to buy me for Christmas the day before she died. The ring wasn’t overly-expensive. But it was one that we’d picked out together, hand-in-hand. A tear ran down my cheek as I remembered the moment when we’d both spotted it. We had looked back at one other at the same time before we each broke into a smile. My sisters wouldn’t understand. All they cared about was deals. But that ring meant more to me than anything. I knew I had to have it.
“Odessa, what are you staring at?” my sister hissed as she dragged me away from the case displaying the ring. “That section’s not on sale, can’t you read?”
At once, three impossibly-groomed salesmen dressed in sleek black suits and golden bowties slithered up to us. Before any of them could open their mouths, however, my sister hit a button on her cell. A low chime sounded around us and they instantly backed off, murmuring angrily as they went.
“Don’t slip away like that again,” she scolded as she marched me away from the department.
“Don’t argue with me, Odessa.” She held me by the shoulders and looked me right in the eyes. “You’ll soon be a Lotus Eater like the rest of us, so from now on, you play by our rules.”
Eryl was in charge of my initiation into my sisters’ deal-hunting Guild, the Lotus Eaters. White coveralls marked the members of our group, an all-female posse of purchasing power. Only luddites shopped alone, she used to tell me. ‘One little consumer’s got nothing on the Guilds! You get with us, and you’ll be clearing shelves ‘til your arms fall outta their sockets.’
I jumped as she urged me down the aisle, dodging shoes hurled at us by a rival Guild. She mumbled something about Laestrygonians.
“Never mind them,” she continued, “just listen up. You ready? Rule Number One: never buy anything without first checking with the other members of our Guild.” She motioned to her white get up. I looked her up and down before nodding. “Rule Number Two: never scan anything that isn’t on deal, or that we don’t have a coupon code for.” I nodded again. Her grip on my hand tightened even more. “And finally, Rule Number Three, the most important rule of them all.” She squinted her eyes for a few seconds while shaking her head. “Stay away from the other Guilds.”
“Found you!” It was my second-oldest sister, Parim, and she held two shopping baskets in her hands, teeming with kitchen gear. “There’s a big, incredible, no, epic, sale happening over in housewares! You would not believe the prices. Need more Guild members down there to help’em out. We gotta go!”
Together, we sprinted through the maze of aisles, dodging carts and salespeople alike. When we arrived, it was total chaos. Saleswomen dressed in red aprons had formed a row in the middle of the department. Closing in on them were hordes of shoppers, each clutching several overflowing baskets. They howled at them, begged them, for what would come next. The saleswomen glanced at each other before they each let out a primal scream. One-by-one, they held up a long-nosed cannon. Then, at the same time, they fired. Rolls of coupons shot into the air like fireworks, and the crowd went berserk. As I gazed at the mayhem, one of the coupons floated to the floor at my feet. I quickly kneeled down and slipped it into my pocket.
“This way! This way!”
My sister Nora was gesturing to us from the far end of an aisle. We jogged over to her and she guided us into the appliances section. Surrounded by microwaves, I saw a group of at least twenty Lotus Eaters scanning the barcodes in unison.
“Well, what’re you waiting for?” Eryl grumbled as she dug into my purse and shoved my cell into my hand. “You’re with us now, Odessa, so buy, buy, buy!”
She darted ahead with my two other sisters to join the others. As I stood there with my eyes fixed on my phone’s display—Kitchen Aid Mixer, 95% off with Group Purchase of 25 or more: Buy?—all I could think about was the ring. My mother’s gift. That’s when I felt a cold hand gripping my shoulder, and I spun around, surprised.
“Hello there, young shopper,” the man looming over me sneered, revealing a row of glistening silver teeth. My body tensed up. It was the man in the yellow jumpsuit, wearing the purple visor: the leader of the Yellow Guild. Behind him were at least thirty other Yellows, each pushing a shopping cart. Lightning struck through me and I turned to make a run for it, but the man jerked me back by my collar. He smothered my mouth with his gloved hand. I could barely breathe.
“My name is Polyphemus, and you are now my prisoner.”
I woke up in a daze. Wiping the confusion from my eyes, I checked my watch. Five o’clock, an hour to go before the sale would be over. Four walls closed in around me. I was in a dressing room in the women’s changing quarters. But when the door didn’t budge, I quickly realized that it was actually a prison.
It was eerily quiet, a world away from the madness of my first few moments in the store. Flattening my ear against the jammed door, I heard the rolling wheels of a shopping cart that was being brought into the changing quarters. Peeking through the tiny gap in the door, I saw the yellow jumpsuit of a shopper from the rival Guild. He was shouting something into his headset about another shipment of bedding that was ready for checkout.
I crouched down and eyed the legs in the dressing room beside me. Green. It was just as I’d thought. They were imprisoning members from the other Guilds, picking us off, one-by-one, and weakening each group for the duration of the sale.
I checked my watch again. 5:20. Time was running out. Something told me that by the time the store re-opened in the new year, the ring would be gone. I banged my fists on the dressing room door, suddenly feeling a wave of anxiety.
Then I caught the sound of another cart being wheeled into the changing quarters, right in front of my room, and I was struck with an idea…
“Hey, Yellow,” I whispered through the door. The cart immediately stopped. “How would you like to buy a shiny new fridge at 98% off?” I whipped out the coupon I’d nabbed earlier that morning and held it underneath the door. “All I want is for you to open this door…”
“But, I…” a voice quivered on the other side, “I must run it by the Guild.”
“No, no,” I insisted, “this deal is just for you…”
A trembling hand reached under the door and snatched the coupon greedily. I made out a muted cry of joy before the door unlatched and footsteps dashed away. Nudging the door open an inch, I peered through. The activity here was picking up. My breathing picked up as well: I’d lost another five minutes. I watched a Yellow hurry into the changing quarters, seize one of the filled-up shopping carts, and run straight back out with it in a huff. The store would soon be closing, and the Yellow Guild was ready to leave. My mind raced. I had to get to that ring!
Minutes later, I was holding my breath. I could feel the wheels of the shopping cart rushing along the floor beneath me, racing to the nearest group of customer service desks. I was curled up into a ball, wrapped in a nest of comforters. The buzz of the crowd grew louder as we approached it, and I knew that this would be my only chance. I tossed aside the bedding and jumped out of the moving cart, rolling onto the floor. Ignoring the shocked face of the Yellow who was pushing it, I sprinted towards the escalators.
5:42. I sped down the steps, two at a time, heading for the floor where the ring was displayed.
“Odessa! Where on earth have you been?”
I scanned the line of shoppers going up the opposite way and saw the fuming faces of my three sisters, who were each juggling shopping bags. Turning away from them, I lunged forward—right into the back of a giant man in a yellow jumpsuit. He whirled around and my heart stopped. It was Polyphemus, and he looked enraged.
“You think you can escape me, my dear?”
I twisted around him and ran as fast as I could. Everything went by in a blur. I stopped short at another lineup of customer service desks, and saw Polyphemus vaulting towards me. He was smiling at me with his silver teeth, with a look of victory on his visor-covered face. As I backed into the desk, I felt something long and metal behind me. The coupon cannon! I drew it up and aimed it directly at him.
He stopped in his tracks. His mouth hung open and terror crossed his face. “No, don’t… you can’t do this… no!”
A cloud of coupons exploded right into him, sending everyone in the department into a craze. A huge mob of shoppers dove towards him, tackling him to the floor.
5:52. I rushed to the entrance of the jewelry department and saw the ring at the opposite end of the aisle. My eyes lit up and I raced towards it, but a dark figure suddenly slid in front of me, blocking my way.
“How are you this morning, my sweet, may I interest you in some bracelets, 80% off?”
I gawked at the black-suited salesman in disgust, “No, I…”
“Hello, hello, Miss!” another identical-looking salesman crept up from behind. “Have I got a deal for you! Follow me, follow me!” He grabbed at my hand but I pushed him away, panicking. Sidestepping the two of them, I came face-to-face with the third salesman, with his golden bowtie. He carried a tray of sparkling jewelry and shoved it into my view.
“Only the finest jewelry for you, Madame, buy-one-get-twenty-free!”
“Noooooooooooo!” I screamed, before a memory flashed before my eyes. I yanked out my cell and searched frantically for the app that my sister had used just hours before. All three of the salesmen were moving in on me, hawking bundles of promos and baskets of deals. Finally, I found it, and that haunting chime filled the air. The salesmen stopped on a dime and promptly backed away, hissing with revulsion. At last I was free.
The ring was beautiful. As I held it, I remembered the beaming face of my mother, and my heart filled with joy. The Guild didn’t get it. My sisters didn’t either. It wasn’t a discount that made the ring special, it was the memory that came with it.
I took out my cell and scanned the barcode. The screen flashed a confirmation message: Item not on sale: Buy? I paused for a moment, thinking of Eryl, Perim, Nora, and the other Lotus Eaters. I shook the thought off. They would expel me for this, but I no longer cared. I clicked ‘Yes’ and then smiled contently. It was the perfect sale.