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Mark S Bailen lives in an orange cabin in the woods outside Flagstaff, AZ with his wife and teenage son. He earned an MFA from the University of Arizona, attended Taos Toolbox, and participated in the Storied Imaginarium. He is a member of Codex and the SFWA. He has published in Fantasy, Nature, and Little Blue Marble. He has also written and illustrated an award winning children’s book titled, Earf. His website is fakemountain.com.

They had only gone out a few times when Herk showed up naked at her work. Liza was working the register at Food Basket when she heard the commotion. She followed her manager, Mr. Vanik, to frozen foods where a figure huddled behind a fogged-up freezer door.
"Herk?" Liza asked.
He peeked out.
"You're naked."
"I know."
Mr. Vanik lifted his cellphone. "I'm calling the police."
"Wait." Liza's face reddened. "I know him."
Mr. Vanik was a bald man with rolled up sleeves.
"Then get him out of here." He snapped his fingers and walked off.
Rhonda from the deli brought over an apron for Herk to cover himself. Then Liza walked him to the parking lot. Their eyes met.
"What are you doing here?"
"Sorry." Herk's eyes were large. "One minute I was in my apartment eating a microwave dinner and then poof, I was at the grocery store. Naked."
"Your butt's showing."
Herk closed the apron. "Look, Liza. I'm not a creeper. And I'm not stalking you. I swear."
Liza folded her arms and glanced around. She felt like everyone was staring. "Maybe we should take a break, Herk?" She lowered her eyes. "This is just too weird."
The next time Liza saw Herk was at the DMV. She hadn't remembered that he worked there until her ticket was called and she stepped to his window. He wore blue-framed glasses and a button-down polo. He actually looked kind of cute.
She handed over her license. "Herk."
"Haven't seen you around Food Basket."
He cringed. "No."
"So tell me the truth. What happened that day?"
He vacillated. "Well, it turns out I have a condition called teleportitis. I recently got a diagnosis. It's pretty rare." Herk handed back her license.
"So you teleport? Out of the blue?"
"What triggers it?"
"No clue."
Liza bit her lip. "Maybe I can help you figure it out?" She smiled. It wasn't like she loved the guy; she was just curious.
Two weeks later, they were regularly seeing each other. Liza even slept over at Herk's place. He never acted weird or embarrassing and she started feeling happy. Maybe she finally found a good boyfriend? Then Herk teleported again.
"Your friend's here," said Rhonda. "The naked guy."
"Oh, no." Liza ran across the store.
Herk was back in frozen foods, sitting naked on the linoleum.
Liza smiled. "You're early. We're supposed to meet at seven."
She bent down. "Teleportitis?"
He nodded. "I was in my apartment cooking some pasta, thinking about you, and then poof."
"Thinking about me?"
An elderly couple with matching red sweatshirts poked their cart into the aisle. They gasped and retreated.
"What were you thinking about?"
"Nothing bad." Herk stood up. "Can you get me an apron? Chilly around here."
After Herk left, Rhonda approached, chewing gum. "He's a keeper."
"Really?" said Liza.
"Sure. He's so, I don't know, vulnerable?" Rhonda blew a bubble. "That's what you want, right? Somebody vulnerable?"
In the following week, Herk teleported four times, always ending up in frozen foods. Each time Liza snuck him out the back before Mr. Vanik noticed. She started patrolling the aisle and keeping extra clothes in her trunk. At Herk's apartment, they replayed each incident, trying to learn the trigger. Herk always teleported in the middle of the day, from the kitchen, leaving a pile of clothes behind. And he always ended up in frozen foods. Their only conclusion was that he teleported when he thought about Liza.
"What are you thinking about? Sex?"
"Then what?"
"Nothing weird." He paced. "Just about when I'm gonna see you next. About how I'm looking forward to it." He raised his eyes. "Don't you think about me?"
"Yeah, but." Liza sat at the kitchen table. She was afraid to tell Herk how much she thought about him, which was a lot. Instead she said, "Listen, Herk. It's sweet that you think about me. But you need to stop teleporting to Food Basket. It's embarrassing and I could lose my job. Or you could get in trouble. So, please. Stop."
But a few days later, it happened again. This time Mr. Vanik was mopping one aisle over and called the police. Liza tried not to scream as Herk was handcuffed.
"Sorry," he mouthed as he was dragged through the sliding doors.
After Liza picked up Herk from the police station, they had a fight.
"Everybody at work was laughing at me," she said. "They think I'm going out with a crazy person."
"I can't help it."
"Stop thinking about me."
"I tried."
She moaned. "Maybe you like me too much?"
His voice cracked. "What are you saying?"
"This is crazy." Liza turned. "I can't have a boyfriend who keeps showing up at my job naked. I just can't."
A week later, Liza wandered into frozen foods, searching for Herk. Her chest hurt and she wanted to cry. Why wasn't Herk thinking about her? Why did he stop teleporting? Had she been too mean? Liza wished she hadn't pushed him away. She grabbed her phone, but was afraid to say the wrong thing. If only she could explain to Herk how much she liked him. How much she thought about him.
Liza froze. Maybe she could?
During her lunch break, Liza drove to the DMV. She grabbed a ticket and stood in the back of the room. Liza's heart pounded when she saw Herk working busily behind the window. It was now or never. She took a deep breath, removed all her clothes, and waited for her number to be called.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 26th, 2022

Author Comments

I suppose, I should use this space to strip down my story to its bare essence? Expose what's underneath? And reveal the stark truth? But, why the frozen foods section? Honestly, I don't know. My intent was to capture some of those nervous, early-relationship jitters. Maybe I pulled this off?

- Mark S Bailen
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