Behold! From the twisted mind of the marvellous Mai Kil comes 'Essential', the tale of a struggling cashier during a pandemic. The anxieties Mai illustrates here have been all too real for many during 2020, and her piece taps into one important function of horror: catharsis. Brilliant as always.


Ten hours left. Raffi’s mouth hung open, the bathroom so thick with steam he could hardly breathe. He had planned to relax in a hot shower and then go straight to bed. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t relax. He couldn’t stop thinking about his new job and how he’d messed up. Already.

It’s not like this was Raffi’s first time working a cash register. He had once spent an entire summer single-handedly running the only fish and chips stand at Grand Bend Beach. That line-up never ended. And working alone meant handling the cash register and everything else. It meant juggling several orders at once, strategizing what should go in the deep fryer when, stocking all the supplies, prepping the batter and potatoes and salads and sauces. And sure, that was years ago, but he’d done it all and worked the cash register just fine. That job was a million times harder than his new job as a cashier at WM Foodmart. All he had to do now was check people out, one at a time.

Scan, bag, cash.
Scan, bag, cash.

So how could he possibly mess that up? How could his till have been short $4.37? Had he given someone the wrong change? He must have. But who? He clearly remembered his last transaction of the day. The man had refused to wear a mask. “Asthma,” he said, cutting Raffi off mid-request. The total was $3.40 for three cans of Blue-Raz Rockstar, a 3-FOR-3 sale. The man paid with a five, and $3.40 from $5 equals $1.60. And Raffi gave him back one loonie, two quarters, and one dime. So that’s right. Or did he give him toonies instead of quarters? But toonies are so much bigger and heavier. Surely he would have noticed the difference in size and weight. If that were the case, though, then his till would have been off by $3.50, so it must have been a different transaction altogether, or maybe he’d messed up more than once?

Raffi tried the faucet handle again, but it was already cranked. That was one benefit of living alone, not having to worry about using all the hot water. He dropped his head, letting the water drill into his skull, waiting for it to wash away the itch. But he could still feel the eyes of his new co-worker Marge, who was less than two years away from retirement and “can’t wait to get out of this shithole.” The way Marge had rolled her eyes when Raffi introduced himself. The way she’d stood there, picking at her disgusting talons—sparkly red paint on the top, tobacco-brown crust on the bottom—glamorous conglomerates of dirt and bacteria. Marge obviously wasn’t worried about the virus. She didn’t even care if the customers wore their masks properly, or at all. She didn’t seem to care about anything other than when her next smoke break was. And ridiculing Raffi.

The water turned to ice. Time’s up. Let it go down the drain. Everyone makes mistakes. How could it be short?


Raffi had spent all weekend stressing about the mistake he’d made at some point on Friday, about Marge shaking her head and rolling her eyes. And now it was Sunday, and tomorrow Monday, and he’d never know how he’d messed up. And what if he did it again?

Had it really been his fault though? That was his first day, after all, and they just threw him on cash and left him to fend for himself after having shadowed Marge for only three transactions. Three transactions! And not even cash transactions; all three had paid with debit.

Maybe they’d just figured he’d be fine because of that summer he’d worked the fish and chips stand. He regretted mentioning that in his interview.

Or maybe they’d thought he’d catch on fast because of all his recent work experience—job after job, factory after factory, cleaning company after delivery service. The employment agency had kept him busy all year, since the pandemic hit, since he lost his job at the library. But none of those jobs had involved a cash register.

Maybe he shouldn’t have included his university education on his resume. What a joke. All that time and money spent on school and he can’t even perform basic math calculations. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as they’d thought. Pathetic.


But he couldn’t.


Naked, Raffi sat on the edge of the tub, trying to focus on the leaky faucet, on the slow drip… drip… drip…

Nine hours left.

He waved the sharp edge of a razor blade over the flame of a candle. A white candle infused with basil and white sage to “rid the mind and spirit of negative energy,” his mom used to say. He didn’t believe in such things anymore. The candle’s only purpose now was to rid the blade of any negative bacteria that may cause infection.

He ran his fingers over the linear keloid on his upper left thigh, then positioned the blade.

A quick flick of the wrist and it was done.

And now it made sense, the itch, the pain. Now he could see it. A tangible thing, here and now—no, not here. There. He took a deep breath as he watched the thoughts drip down his inner thigh.


He slept that night, not a full eight but more than the previous two nights. It was something.

The cool morning breeze on his walk to work helped remind him to breathe. He worked at filling his lungs with fresh air, but his chest was beginning to tighten again.

He arrived with five minutes to settle, to prepare. Five minutes left. Then the store would open, and the herd would come to collect their essentials.

And there was Marge, standing at the next till, staring, clicking her dirty nails on the counter.

“Good morning, Marge,” Raffi said, hearing the shakiness in his own voice.

Marge rolled her eyes. “Is it?”

Raffi ran his fingers down his thigh, locating the ridge in his black polyester work pants. Pressing the tips of his fingers into the pain, he took a deep breath and then turned back to Marge and smiled. “Yeah, Mondays.”

Keep up with Mai:
Sign up to the Gavin Gardiner Horror newsletter!

Share via: