by Jo Szewczyk, first appears in Hell is For Children charity anthology
Sara came from the check-out lane. Between her fingers, a slight roll of olive-green stickers labelled ‘paid for’ struggled to maintain gravity while two large crates of what looked like a canned goods sales stack, tucked to up under her chin. Another night of pre-holiday rush. The store was packed, and the stink of anger hung off the air. The energy flickered. One more bump. One more elbow bruise. One more glare. One more. One more. One more.
‘Hey, ever feel like running away?’ the voice came from a regular. His eyes shone sapphires in a surf of tangled brown locks.
Sara forced a gesture with her head towards the expanse of customers bashing carts and teeth. A froth of holiday madness. ‘I wish. I’ve got closing tonight…’
‘Here, let me carry these for you.’ he took the sticker roll first and pocketed it.
‘Hey, don’t put those there…’
‘Shhh…don’t worry. It’s paid for. Promise’. He winked and took the two bigger boxes. Definitely canned somethings. She didn’t let on how much they weighed until her spine adjusted to the lifted burden. A blotch of gravy mixed with sweat adorned her black smock.
‘Thank you. They have me closing and it’s been like this all day. Someone called in so we’re short….’
‘I feel bad just for coming in. But you know…’
‘You never shop more than for the night, right?’ her smile accented the question.
He blew the hair out of his eyes. ‘Something like that.’
Her brow turned inward, slightly. She liked his hair in his eyes. ‘So, what was the meal for the day?’
‘I hadn’t gotten that far, to be honest. The crowd sorta shifted a bit; all lines pointed to madness. Maybe takeout is a good idea tonight. Want me to bring you something, Sara?’ One box shifted, and he caught it with his ribs and elbow.
‘I wish. I don’t think I’ll even get a break tonight.’ Her glasses reflected his face that trapped between eye lens and the temporal slowness of melted sand; his gaze mirrored – return to sender.
‘So, you would want something if you had a break?’
‘Maybe I can work with. You realize, I don’t really shop for one meal a day.’ A sticker came loose from his pocket and started a chain down his leg.
‘Then why would you show up here every night? It can’t be that exciting.’ She said but hoped the answer anyway.
‘You. You always remembered me. Why’s that?’ It was a genuine question.
‘When I worked at Starbucks, you were the only one who tipped us.’ A truth painted with a brush of omission.
‘Surely more than I tipped…it can’t possibly be…’
‘Here we are. Thanks for carrying everything!’
He set the crates down. His arms, grateful for the release, lifted somewhat; unintentionally. ‘That offer was real, you know…’
She passed him a receipt with her number on it. The question of when did Sara have a chance to write the number down was lost on him. He accepted it and placed it in his pocket with the roll of ‘paid for’ stickers he was about to plunder. ‘Come back in three hours and show me.’ The line was a throwaway, but it struck its mark.
‘Even the swarms of coupon grannies couldn’t keep me away. See you in three.’ He turned to stride through the check-out lines to the exit.
‘Tipping. And you have a nice ass.’ Sara said and watched as the words surfed on a sea of blue hair. He shot a grin back at her. She blushed.
Time can stick still or slip into reverse. All the images are phantoms that our mind won’t exorcise. Some more wicked than others. The air was heavy with smoke. A fire burned three time zones away, but the wind carried through. The smoke absorbed in to the lungs and throat, the eyes and clothes of everyone wandering out that night. It was bonfire mixed with ash. It’s that ash that stings the lungs and eyes apiece.
He straightened his shirt, a button-down thing with dark solid patterns, one more time before going inside. The store had cleared out, mostly. There were nevertheless a few vestiges of the mid-evening horde. The discounted cans from early were gone, with a few dented remains lay scattered as the sole clue the display ever existed.
He plucked a bottle of water, off brand, and moved to the check-out. Sara was there, of course. Her smile revealed a taste of wonder. She spoke over the customer she was currently checking out. ‘Aren’t you Mr Punctual.’ An older woman got in line after him.
‘Doctor, actually.’ The response caused the older woman behind him tilt her head. A grin inched across her whitened face. She clasped the scandal rag in her fist towards her breast.
‘Doctor? If I have an ache, you’ll look at it?’ A direct hit.
‘Depends where it is. You see, I’m a specialist of sorts.’ The man in front of him paid with credit. A tap on the machine and a beep before the printer churned to life to produce a decayable trophy to commemorate the purchasing of Doritos, Cool Ranch.
‘Too bad. I think I need a full physical exam. But after this shift,’ she rounded her back and grimaced, ‘I could really use a back specialist.’
‘Maybe we can get away tonight for that consult? Strictly professional, of course. Come on. Car’s waiting. Anywhere you want—just name it.’ He ignored the game and went for the familiar.
‘Oh, go on! Take my opinion, men like him don’t happen often in your life. If you don’t take him up on it, I will.’ She paused for recognition then backed out of the line, pulling a wire stand towards it, essentially closing the check-out.
Sara smiled. She paused, then turned off the check-out lane light. ‘Marjorie, I’m heading out.’ she said, walking out of her check-out box.
‘OK, Sara. Don’t forget, you open tomorrow.’ Marjorie wasn’t sharing the same walk down memory lane as the old woman. The reminder stung like the smoke mixed with stale piss that passed for recycled store air.
He took the bottle of water in one hand and Sara in the other. They stepped out the door together. It was the second thing he stole that night.
As the car pulled up to the private garage, he could feel Sara tense. The vibration of the door reminded him of the receipt printer at the check-out. The familiar groan of gears used to a million uses a day echoed through the otherwise quiet garage.
‘Your garage is under the building?’ She announced in a half-alarm.
He never gave much thought to it and dismissed the anxiety in her voice. ‘You know, it took me a few hours to find this garage. It wasn’t on the tour, and I couldn’t figure out where people were going. It took a guy walking his dog to tell me.’ He said, as if the remarks would explain perfectly why a multi-million-dollar condo would have a parking garage under an abandoned street. For Sara, it didn’t.
‘This is all yours?’ she said.
‘Well, sorta. I mean, I own the twenty-second floor.’
‘You mean a condo on the twenty-second floor?’ It was a common question.
‘You’d expect that.’ They got out of the car and headed towards the elevator. ‘No, I’m not used to suffering neighbors so when this place went up, I sorta, well…’ he twirled his arms around in semi-circles as if that cleared up everything.
The elevator was small, and heavy padding adorned the walls. He pushed 12, and the gates shut with a thunk. Slowly, the lift elevated. Its passengers held in silence. He examined her and she shifted her eyes downward.
The ride to the twenty-second floor was short and unremarkable. An open door. A turn. Another turn. Another open door. Shoes go here. Coats there. A drink, with ice, in her left hand. One without in his right. His view overlooked the city, and the lights winked like stars burning dim in the sunken sky of midnight.
‘This is your place?’ Sara said, looking over the city.
‘It better be. Otherwise, someone’s going to be upset we’ve broken into the liquor cabinet.’ An old réchauffé. A miss.
‘All of this is yours?’ she echoed, her gaze never leaving the sky line.
‘Could be. Could be yours if you wanted.’ Exceptional counter play wins the night. His arms steal around her midriff, his hands, now drinkless, collapse into each other as bodies do. She eased her head backward against his chest. Her hair was a mix of softness and day-old dry shampoo.
‘Mine? I wouldn’t know what to do with it.’ Sincerity, an uncommon commodity, dripped from her words as the sounds vibrated over past her teeth and tumbling past her faded red lips.
‘You’d have a lifetime to figure it out. If you wished.’ His words echoed a distant past.
‘A lifetime?’ she parroted. ‘I have to open tomorrow.’
‘Yes. What if you didn’t?’ He leaned in. His chin resting on top of her wavy auburn hair. Smoke mixed with pears and honeysuckle greeted his nose.
‘Marjorie would be cross with me. She is supposed to open but wanted me to do it so she could sleep in. She didn’t even tell me how to open. You know that? Do you know how to open?’ the question was innocent if a bit misplaced.
‘I imagine you’d have to unlock the store and make certain everybody is in position…’ an offhanded remark, but one with truth to it.
‘I don’t have keys.’ It came out flat. Matter of factly.
‘Well, then you don’t have to fuss about opening. Let Marge-whore-eh figure that out when she wakes up. Besides, tonight it’s just you and I.’ He wasn’t perfectly certain why he said Marjorie’s name that way, but it was too late to take back.
‘You and I? I like that. For tonight.’ The city reflected off her glasses in a panoramic. The bay window betrayed her gaze.
‘Just tonight? Really?’ the shock wasn’t feigned but practice made the effect masked and presented as a perfect simile of wonderment.
‘I like you. I do. If I need anything beyond tonight…’ a slight shrug of her shoulders sent his head slightly out of its resting spot.
‘What do you desire, then?’ It came less a question than a command. His voice part honey, part 80 grit.
‘A back rub.’ She arched her back, and the ice clinked in her drink that was half water now.
‘That I can do. Do you want spearmint or rose water?’ he asked, his gaze never leaving her reflection in the window.
‘Spearmint? Like the gum?’ her eyebrows fought to climb her forehead.
‘It helps with muscles. Rose water relaxes; spearmint invigorates.’ he punctuated the delivery with a tough of his fingers down her sides, and then once past mid-thigh they reversed course but going under her work smock.
‘Rose water. Definitely. My muscles been invigorating for twelve items at a time.’ A slight lie, as nobody really paid regard to the ’12 items or less’ signs.
He held her by the hand and ushered her towards the bedroom. A small tuft of fur with legs walked over to rub against her. Its name was Chuck.
‘Oh, a cat!’
‘Yes, I was wondering when he’d come out to see us.’
She bent over to pet him. ‘What’s his name?’
‘Chuck’ he said and left it at that.
‘I love cats but I’m so allergic!’ She said as her hands became toxic to the rest of her.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I can give you something for it. I’m a bit allergic to cats, too.’
‘Sure, I’ll take what you have. I usually carry allergy pills for the smoke outside but ran out of them.’ Sara had a clear blue allergy pill in her hand before she finished her sentence. With a final shot of the whisky, she inoculated herself against the smoke and cat hair. A mistake, but a slight one.
The empty glass laid on top of the nightstand. Something between an old-fashioned mix tape and a new internet radio offering played on the room speakers. The check-out girl lied on the bed. Lying down was a mix of pain and relief. Her feet, free of their bondage, pulsed in time with her heart.
The check-out girl’s uniform stuck to her body. ‘I’ve been on my feet for over 13 hours. I’m sorry if I am, you know…’. Her face turned sideways as her upper lip raised with her eyebrow, while her nose seemed to bend down to kiss the lip.
He gave her a kiss. Gentle. One that signaled that he meant her no harm. Meanings and doings weren’t always aligned. ‘I like you. All of you. Even the 13 hours on your feet you.’ Another kiss, this one less innocent in intent.
He traced his lips down her neck. It was a game of mine detector. When she shivered, he marked the location for next time. A repeat performance. Up. A bit left. Now, down. Her skin was subtle and tasted vaguely of sweat and papaya. She didn’t verbalize much. A message concealed in a quiver, a paused breath, a small escape of tension.
The outfits, much akin to an old-time potato sack drenched in black, did nothing to show her figure. He didn’t know someone could be so vibrant naked yet have all their softness sucked out of them once the uniform draped over them. It seemed to act like an obscure cloth that absorbed beauty and allowed only plainness. Plain was not in his bed.
In his bed, stretched out ever so slightly, was the nineteen-year-old check-out girl. His mind avoided the math problem of knowing her for three years and what her age would have been at that time. It’s easy to avoid issues when one’s eagerness to sabotage reason is a prime function. Reason that was an embattled left over from when the spirit was less fractured.
First the socks. Foot rub. The rose water absorbed neatly into her skin parched from a long night of work. Then the uniform bottoms abandoned her as he rubbed up her calf, making his way up to her thighs that were covered in a soft fuzz. Kisses and rose water rubs intertwined. Her button-up uniform was next. Soon, it joined his button-up shirt next to her stockings. Her breasts, fully firm pale orbs radiant in their rebellion of gravity, sighed with relief of release; a nipple, stained with perspiration, invaded his mouth. His tongue greeted it like an old friend. The taste of honeyed whisky mingled with a stale Dentyne Ice. She shivered and his hand started its course up her inner thigh. Gentle. Soft. Almost weightless went his touch. Fingertips and atoms grazing her young flesh.
‘I want you to fuck me.’ The words came from her as a petition, not a seduction.
He kissed up from her breasts, up from her collarbone, to her neck, and into her mouth. Her fingernails left marks across his back as he helped the elastic of her panties down past her hips. His mouth left hers and a pout shadowed across her face. As lips traced where his hands had functioned as a friendly guide, fresh from previous exploration, the pout turned into a glazed look.
As his tongue penetrated her, the check-out girl’s moan was a semi-perceptible ‘Puma socks? How do we wear the same socks? My mom buys these for me!’ The non sequitur hung off in rhythm to Linkin Park.