Dominoes

Fiction By Madeline // 7/28/2014

**So this is a pretty long short story. I'm talking 18,000-word short story. If you're feeling adventurous enough to read it, I really appreciate this. I talk about the inspiration behind it a bit more in the notes. I just wanted to add that this story has been edited to suit Apricot Pie's standards. There is no censorship needed (so it's bleep/asterisk [*] free, as it didn't need it), so as long as you're mature (due to some older themes, not of an inappropriate nature, but a darker one) you should be good to read it. :) Thanks so much if you do! I so appreciate every comment and would love to get one from you! So...basically me shamelessly begging for some feedback! I've been working on this a while. Every-so-often, I love to just take the time and write a short story. I find them so lovely. Anyways...I guess my idea of 'short' is probably more different than most**

- - -

Dominoes

by HomeschoolGirl

December

I see hundreds of faces every day. Some stick with me more than others. Most of them are there and gone along with the last words of our polite, insignificant conversations. Sometimes it’s just faces that suction themselves to my brain, although eventually those leave too, when the customer turns away and heads for the exit.

What’s a hundred times worse, though, than simply forgetting, is when one of them remembers and seems to know you and ventures into personal chit-chat and asks about your little brother and you’re standing there going, who is this and how does she know so much about me? And because they know you, having to avoid any replies that would necessitate the use of their name. It’s all about faking it, in those unfortunate cases.

“Aw, it’s so nice today,” the woman behind the counter breathes, finally pausing after a lengthy montage on her husband’s latest health crisis. She rakes her fingers through her primly highlighted hair and smiles so big her eyes crinkle at the corners. “What about you, Montana? How’s the little brother?”

Oh, Jeez. I scan a package of men’s socks and deftly tuck them in a grocery sack that’s starting to bulge with her numerous purchases. This doesn’t give me very much recovery time.

“Great, thanks,” I say at last. “He’s—he’s—”

“Still going to be in baseball, I presume?” She hooks her finger into the sack and lifts it into her cart. It joins the ranks among four or five others. I continue ringing up her influx of items.

“Yeah, he loves it,” I say truthfully, as his big post-game grin infiltrates my mind like the best kind of medicine. “He’ll be pitching this coming season.”

“Lovely. Sam's hoping to get back into it as well.”

The name faintly rings a bell. I squint at the woman. Her smile falters a bit beneath my scrutiny.

“You okay, Montana?”

“Yeah, I just—”

She doesn’t let me finish. “There’re a few things left.”

“Right.” Red in the face, I reach for the nearest thing—deodorant, as it happens—and give it a quick swipe. The beep sounds, and the total rises another three dollars and twenty-nine cents. I start the sixth bag.

“So Sam's…doing pretty well?” I try, hoping this is the right thing to say. Whatever’s going to give me more clues as to whom this woman is. I mean, I’m fairly decent when it comes to recalling people whom I’ve talked to about my family. There aren’t many that I randomly delve into personal conversation with, much less in grocery stores. I have my select few: Donna, Martin, Ellen; that’s about it, really.

“He’s great.” The woman nods confidently. “He’ll be back on the field in no time to play with Denver, again.”

At that prompting, everything seamlessly clicks together and I know who this lady is. The one on the sidelines at all the baseball games who always makes a habit of congratulating Denver on a job well done before she goes. Her name comes to me, too, though she’s only ever told it to me once.

“That's good to hear, Liz,” I chirp, dropping the last item into a bag. Her total is in the two-hundreds. She reaches into the depths of her purse for a reflective credit card and slides it.

“Well, it was great to see you, Montana,” she says, as her receipt prints.

I tear it off and hand it over. “You, too. Have a nice day.”

“Thanks.” She manages a one-hand wave as she departs, and then is gone. I let out a sigh of relief, grateful that I recovered in time to save my butt. I linger for a few more moments and then, when nobody else wanders into my lane, take off for the jewelry aisle.

This is where I go to sit and think. It’s also the only section of the store—back in a secluded corner, under the cover of fully stocked shelves—where I can text and not get in trouble. I send a quick summary of my encounter with Liz to Mom, who probably knows her even better than me. She’s taken care to make friends with all the other Special Ed Team moms. They swap stories and childcare tips. I mainly stay out of it. I wait a minute, but she doesn't reply. Probably busy.

“Excuse me?”

I jerk my head up and instinctively hide the phone behind me, in case it’s Casey, the GM on weekends, but it’s not—just some kid with bedhead and a kind of dazed look about him.

“Yeah?” I ask, shoving the phone into my pocket as I push off the wall and join him. He’s staring intently at the bracelet racks. I ready myself for an answer about prices even though they’re clearly marked on the brackets that hold the jewelry.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure. I’m here to help!” My tone is overly friendly, but like everyone else, he takes my insincerity at face value.

“Thanks. So, um, I’m kind of trying to pick something out for my girlfriend.”

“Uh-huh,” I add, at his sudden pause.

“Yeah. So. Like, I was wondering what you’d suggest?”

“What—wait—what I’d suggest?”

“Mhmm.”

“I’m not a consultant or anything.”

He glances at my nametag. “You work here, right?”

“Yeah. But—I don’t know. I’m a cashier.”

“Well, what would you pick? If you had to pick something?”

I flail my hands helplessly in the air between us. “I don’t know. I’d have to know more about your girlfriend.”

“Okay. Like what?”

“What she likes, for starters. Is she girly? Sporty?” I study the rows upon rows of glitzy things, feeling overwhelmed. I am so not the person to ask for this. The girl who never wears jewelry, advising others on what to get for their significant others. I’ll end up ruining the relationship or something, I just know it.

He considers my questions. “I guess she’s pretty average.”

“Average.” I stare at him in shock. “That’s all?”

“No—I mean—yes. But not in a bad way. Not like, unexceptional average. Meaning she’s not annoyingly girly and she’s not really into organized sports but she exercises a ton.”

“That doesn’t help at all.”

“I didn’t think so. She likes yoga.”

“Um…” I rack my brain for other indicators as to what might please her. “What color does she wear most?”

He thinks over this for a second or two. “Blue. She loves blue.”

“Okay, so—”

He grabs a blue beaded bracelet. “Something like this?”

“No. Definitely not. You don’t want to get her something that’s going to match her outfits too much.”

“Oh.” He appears a bit discouraged by this, and forlornly hangs his choice back up. “What did you mean, then?”

“Pick a complimentary color and go with that.”

“Right. Okay. Well—” He studies the whole lot yet again. “Everything kind of goes with blue.”

“Kind of. But—” My eyes earnestly search for something that will be perfect, that she can wear anytime. They land on a delicate silver bangle, interlaced with opaque pink stones. I snatch it up and hold it up to him, triumphant. “This.”

“That?”

“Definitely. She’ll love you.”

He blows out a breath. “Let’s hope so.” He takes it from me and turns it over in his hand, getting a view from all angles. I’m smug with myself, giddy in a way. Finally, he nods, and a grin stretches across his face.

“This is perfect. Really, thanks so much.”

“No problem.” I find myself extending my hand to him. He takes it and we shake.

“If she asks who picked it out, can I take all the credit, though?”

“Sure.” I laugh, backing away. “Have a good rest of the day.”

He bounces the bangle in his palm a couple of anxious times, casting me a farewell smile. “Thanks. You too.”

When he’s gone, I finish my text to Mom and check the time. I’m going to be missed if I don’t get back to the register.

- - -

It’s been a busy day. In anticipation of Christmas, the customers have been coming through the aisles in droves, laden with everything from overpriced toys to all the necessary ingredients for a traditional family meal. There are so many items to scan that I go on autopilot. My hands repeat the same few steps and the rest of me’s left to think.

Things don’t even wind down with the end of my shift. No, it’s as if everyone’s going to keep coming through the store in a steady rush until the end of time. I take my check from Chris, the weekday GM, and go to the employee breakroom to grab my coat and car keys.

I glance at the modest amount on the check and tally that up with the rest of my savings so far. I have about two hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars, just for myself, that Mom doesn't know about.

Maybe I'll buy a present for Denver with it.

I step outside through the back exit and into the fresh air, breathing deep. It’s seven, and I’m starving. As I walk, shouldering my heavy backpack, I think of the load of homework that awaits doing when I get home. Christmas break starts tomorrow, which gives me some catch-up time, but not a lot. I have so much to catch up on.

“Hey!”

I walk, cancelling out the noise on either side of me. A car horn honks, somebody calls for someone else and the snow crunches under my boots.

“Hey!”

I turn in curiosity when the call comes again, searching the crowded sidewalk for the culprit. I scan the faces, none of which seem particularly interested in me, save for one guy with a stocking cap pulled low on his head. He smiles when he sees me, and I frown in response, wondering what he wants.

“Hey,” he says again once he’s within normal-volume distance. I purse my lips.

“Hi,” I reply. “Can I help you?”

“No. I just wanted to let you know she loved it.”

I blink a few times. “I don't know what you're talking about."

"What do you mean?"

"I think—yeah, you’ve got the wrong person.”

“No.” Suddenly, though, he looks less certain. “You’re the girl. I think.”

“Sorry.” I shake my head, giving him a shrug. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m sure it was you.” He points to his nose. “You with the nose ring.”

I reach up to self-consciously graze the silver bead with my fingertips. “I don’t—”

“You helped me find a bracelet for my girlfriend!”

It clicks. I lean forward, getting a glimpse of soft brown hair peeking out from under the edge of his hat, and then feel stupid for not remembering.

“Oh! Right. Yeah. Sorry.” I smile sheepishly. “She liked it?”

Loved it! I told her you helped me.”

Our conversation comes back to me in bits and pieces. My cheeks lift higher. “Oh, really? I thought you wanted to take all the credit.”

“I decided that would be morally depraved.”

“Good choice.” I give him a weak thumbs up and kick the snow at my feet.

He takes a step away. “So really…yeah, that’s all.”

It registers that he’s carrying a sack of groceries. I step down off the curb and into the street, where my ancient Chrysler New Yorker is parked in the VIP area. “Okay. Great. Sorry for keeping you.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m glad you remembered. I was worried I was crazy for a sec.”

“You’re not.” I shake my head. “I just see a lot of people. You’re right.”

He nods. “Duh. Yeah. Of course.”

“‘kay. So—right. See you.”

“Sure. Merry Christmas.”

I give him a parting wave before I turn around. “You, too.”

- - -

January

“How was your Christmas?”

I stretch as he comes through my line. I’d been slumped against the magazine rack, half asleep, as I waited for the customers to hurry and pick up pace.

“Sorry,” he apologizes as soon as I’m standing. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“No, it’s—” I’m interrupted by a big yawn, which I cover as best as I can, “—it’s not you. I’m just tired.” I blink the sleep from my eyes. “Double shifts.”

“Ow. Those are killer.”

“Mhmm.” I start ringing up his items, blinking rapidly to keep myself awake.

“So did you have a good Christmas?” He repeats after a while.

Oh. Oh, yeah. Sorry. I forgot to answer.”

“Uh-huh.” A second passes. I finish filling the first of his shopping bags—egg, milk, cream, cheese. “What did you do?”

“Just hung out at my house.” I’m a bit unnerved by his interest, but I try to shrug it off. He’s just being polite. “You?”

“Had dinner with my girlfriend and her family.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yep.”

I come to the coffee sitting on the belt and make a show of clutching it to my chest like it’s my savior during some kind of bogus natural disaster. “Oh, caffeine. How thou art my…” I trail off.

“Muse?” He suggests.

“Yeah.” I drop the coffee into a sack. “Muse is good.”

“You look really tired,” he offers after a beat, as if this is any consolation to me.

I pick my upper lip with my fingertail. “Thanks.”

“No—but you do. Not in a bad way.”

“Really. You’ve said plenty.”

He presses a fist to his mouth.

“What are you doing?”

“Putting my foot in my mouth.”

“Hm. You do that a lot?”

“Yeah. My girlfriend has to write scripts for me and stuff when we go to public places.”

“Oh, wow.”

“It’s not like I try to be difficult or anything.”

“You’re just naturally socially inept.”

“Right—wait. No.”

I finish scanning the last thing and turn the total screen toward him. “That’s one hundred and five dollars and sixty-three cents.”

He reaches into a swiss army wallet and pulls out a wad of cash. Leafing through them, he counts out a few bills and hands them to me. “Here you go.”

I deposit it into the register and grab his change. My fingers graze his as I slip it into his palm. Money exchanges are undoubtedly one of the most awkward parts about being a cashier. I sag forward as he takes the bags, feeling officially off the hook.

“I feel like I need a script,” I mumble as my eyes slide closed.

“I can get Sarah to write you one.”

I open them back up and find him staring down at me, looking amused. “Is that her name?”

“No. I just said that.”

“Ha-ha. Funny. Have her write you some new jokes while you’re at it.”

“Will do.” He salutes me. “Have a good day.”

“You too.” I pull my eyes from his as he walks away and will the clock to move faster.

Only an hour to go.

- - -

I’m tallying my register when I sense a presence. I look up and find my guy standing there, hair flying every which way, carrying a paper grocery bag. He flashes his teeth in greeting and nods toward my work.

“Whatcha doing?”

I slide the paper back, over the edge of the counter, until it disappears from view. “Drawing princesses,” I say, deadpan, and gesture to his groceries. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, you know.” He lifts the sack up in acknowledgement. “Drawing princesses.”

“It appears we have a lot of the same interests.”

“Who’d have thought.” He sets the grocery bag down on the conveyor belt and casually leans against it, fixing his expectant face on me.

“Is there anything I can help you with?” I ask, after a semi-awkward pause.

“Not really. I just wanted to say hi.”

“Okay.” I hesitantly pull the paper back up and resume my adding. He’s quiet for a moment, allowing me time to complete another row of figures, before he interrupts.

“Hey. I never got your name, by the way.”

I stand and point to my name tag. He squints.

“Montana. Oh. That’s a first name?”

“Well, yeah. What did you think it was?”

“A last.”

I twist my mouth to the side. “Well, it’s not.”

“Okay.”

I get three more numbers in before he inserts himself into my business.

“So really, what are you doing?”

“Um—store stuff.” I fold the paper in half, down the middle. Casey would not love it if he wandered by to find a stranger gawking at our finances.

“Like…?” He beseeches.

“Like I’d get in trouble if I told you, store-stuff.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

I wave him off. “It’s fine.”

“I’m nosy.”

“So I’ve learned.”

“Yeah. But anyway.” He stands back up, grabs the sack with a crinkle. “It was nice to officially meet you, Montana. Have a good one. I’ve got to run.”

I let my eyes linger on his retreating back until he's gone. Only then do I reluctantly go back to work.

- - -

I’ve got to ask Casey for a raise. There’s no way around it.

It’s the next weekend, and I’m puttering around in the office, trying to find something to keep myself busy until he arrives for our scheduled 8:15 a.m. appointment. So far, he’s half an hour late. I’ve already reorganized the mishmash of various pens scattered on his desk and sorted through the junk mail balancing on an end table. Unless I’m willing to invade his personal inventory, there’s nothing left for me to do.

I sink into the chair opposite his beat-up old office desk that serves as Chris’ Monday through Friday. Casey’s taken Chris’ photo off that's of him and his wife and their daughter and put up one of some random pitbull that maybe looks like it was cut from a magazine. I run my thumb over the cracked glass protector and then wipe at it with the hem of my t-shirt.

“Hiya, Hannah,” Chris says as he comes into the breakroom. I jolt a little in my seat and set the picture frame down as slowly as I can without looking guilty.

“Hey,” I return as evenly as possible, ignoring his poor attempt at humor. Chris thinks it’s hilarious to call me Hannah, and I go along with it mostly to get on his good side. Now I’m hoping the past five months of unrequited joshing are about to come to fruition.

“So you wanted to talk to me?” He prompts, plopping heavily into his chair. He doesn’t even apologize for being late. I guess that privilege comes with being a GM, because goodness knows if I was even five minutes past the appointed time I’d probably be fired. But anyway.

I wipe my clammy hands on my knees and try to construct a coherent response. “Yes. Thank you. Yes.”

Well. Nobody can say I didn’t try.

He cocks an eyebrow at me, which would be impressive if the action wasn’t so frustratingly pretentious. "You nervous there?"

"No," I lie. "I just have a question."

“Go ahead. Ask away.”

“I—um—” I twirl my finger around a loose strand of hair, winding it so tight that it begs for circulation. I release the little lock and it slides back against my face, smooth as silk thanks to my straightener. “I wanted to ask for a raise.”

“A raise?”

“Yes. I’m—um—I’m trying to save for, um, college and—yeah, and I need more money because I haven’t got enough for the first semester and, um, I kind of need more.”

I cringe inwardly at my botched explanation. I’d told myself from the beginning I wasn’t going to let my nerves get the best of me, but whaddayaknow. Instead I went into my whole life story. I might as well start talking about how this request is also due in part to the fact that Denver just started expensive (but necessary) speech therapy classes and my mother is working sixty hours a week to try and pay for everything.

And then that sometimes we don’t even have groceries. After all that.

I duck my head and rub my eyes, knowing I should be leveling them at Casey right about now. But I am, afterall, a teenager. Entitled to my own bouts of self-consciousness, maybe even more than most.

“I feel you, Montana,” he says, and he sounds so serious, that I instantly know it’s not good news. “But we’re stretched thin right now. We’re employing the most people ever in the history of this store, and it’s a pain as of now trying to keep up with all the requests for more money. Maybe after we do a couple layoffs, then we can talk. Okay?”

“Okay,” I manage, shaking a bit.

Casey leans forward and pats my arm, looking the most sympathetic I’ve ever seen him. I suddenly recall that his brother’s friend, Davidson, is in the Special Ed league with my brother and that he’s coached him before. He knows what I’m dealing with.

Cheeks alight with embarrassment, I hightail it toward the door. I don’t feel like I can breathe until I’m out of the room, on the other side of Casey and rejection and the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. And the simple, hopeless, what do I do now?

I don’t want to think about that. Mom's the one who asked me to do this, after all. She's going to wonder what I could have done wrong. I'll get her standard interrogation.

Denver will still get his therapy, I remind myself. It’s not like his fate hinged on the possibility of me earning three extra bucks an hour. I pull in a deep, soothing breath and square my shoulders, stepping forward—

“Hey!”

The guy almost rams into me. The one I’ve been talking to for a month now. I give him a nod and keep walking.

“What’s up?” He easily falls into step beside me. I shrug on my uniform vest I’ve been holding in my hands and straighten my nametag.

“Not much. Just my hopes and dreams getting denied. All that good stuff.”

“Uh-oh.” His eyes widen theatrically. “What happened?”

I stare at him, so suddenly sick of his overacting, his exaggeration, his rapid questions—I shake my head.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

He’s unphased. “Oh, c’mon, Montana. You can tell me.”

“It's personal.”

I come to a stop at my register and step behind the counter, assuming my position of faithful employee. “Anyway, can I help you with anything?”

He just stares at me for a moment. I tuck my hair behind my ears and raise my eyebrows.

“Why are you giving me the brush off?” He demands abruptly, in a voice as harsh as any I’ve heard him use.

“How is asking you if you need help giving someone the brush off?”

“Because you are.” He shrugs away from the counter. “Whatever. I’ll see you some other time.”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

I stare hard at the register, ignoring the clip of his shoes against the floor. I tell myself it doesn’t matter. He’s a stranger. I’m merely someone he entertains himself talking to. He probably, like, laughs about me with his friends afterward.

But anyway. I should be doing my job. Not thinking about him.

I rub my jaw briefly and force a smile as a woman struggling to hold an antsy toddler comes into my lane.

- - -

I don’t know what compels me to do it. But the next time I see the familiar mess of brown hair passing by on its way to the freezer, I follow. I grab a clipboard so I can claim taking inventory in case Casey happens by and trail behind him, keeping a safe distance.

I make sure the aisle is empty and come to stand beside him as he contemplates the popsicle selection. I lick my lips and try to find a way to start without saying sorry.

I don’t have to. He twists toward me and pops his lips together. “Hey. What’s up?”

“Taking inventory.”

“Uh-huh. And you just happened to need to take it in the exact spot I’m standing.”

“Actually, yes.”

“Okay. Whatever you say.” He sweeps his arm across the rows of different flavors and brands and options. “Which do you prefer?”

“Popsicles? I go straight for the Klondikes.”

“Okay. So what would you do for a Klondike?”

“Um—nothing illegal.”

“Right. Me either.”

“Nothing involving any favors of the more promiscuous nature.”

“Uh—yeah. No.”

I clasp my hands under my chin and mull this over. “I would…ask what your name is.”

He laughs. “Wow. Sneaky.”

“Well.” I drop my hands. The clipboard claps against my thigh. “Are you going to tell me?”

“It’s not exciting or anything.”

“I’m named after a state. I don’t generally expect much.”

“It’s Elias.” He sticks his hand out. “Nice to meet you.”

“Just don’t call me Hannah.”

“Hannah?”

“That’s what the general manager calls me. Chris. I hate it.”

“Oh.” He grins. “That’s actually—”

“Don’t say smart.”

“—really stupid. But funny. Do you sing?” He shimmies his hips.

“No, I don’t. And if you start calling me Hannah, now, I’m going to call you alias.”

“Alias?”

“Like an alter-ego. You know. Alias.”

“That’s not even pronounced the same.”

“Spelled, though.” I shrug. “Do we have a deal?”

He takes my hand when I stick it out. “We have a deal. And I’m going to get lemon-bar.”

“What?”

He points to a package of neon-yellow popsicles and nods decisively. “Lemon-bar.”

“That’s going to be sickeningly sweet.”

“I like that.”

“I’m sure. I bet you had lots of cavities when you were a kid.”

“Only, like, seven. And I bet you had none.”

“And you’d be right.”

He reaches for the lemon-bar box and holds it under his arm. “Who never has cavities when they’re a kid? That’s a right of passage.”

“We didn’t have health insurance. I was cheap.”

He motions for me to follow him as he starts walking. “I would stay and chat, but these are going to melt.”

“Yeah. And I have to go back to work.”

“Yep. You better go take the inventory.”

I ignore this, pausing to let an elderly woman pass by. She gives me a smile.

“Aren’t old people the sweetest?” I muse, studying the little flower she has tucked into her hair. She leaves a musty-smelling perfume behind. “They remind me of flowers.”

“I’m not sure—yeah, I’m not sure if you’re being ironic.”

“Hm? No, I’m not.”

“Well, they’re not kids.” He steps up to one of the self-checkout counters. I toy with a Reese's wrapper.

“Why so offended?”

"No reason. I've just always had a soft spot for—” He stops to curl his first two fingers in the air. “‘Old people’.”

“Air quotes are pretentious.”

“Saying old people are ‘the sweetest’ is pretentious.” There’s a teasing lilt in his voice, though, which allows this comment to scrape by without causing offense.

“I don't think you know what pretentious means.” I crane my neck toward my checkout lane. Casey’s going to notice I'm missing if I don't get back soon. “I should go.”

“Okay. Thanks for helping me figure out what to get, Montana.”

I back away. “Thanks for educating me on the virtues of old people, Elias.”

- - -

February

I don’t see Elias for the rest of the month. And then, when I do, he takes me by surprise—as always.

“Fancy meeting you here.”

I jump about a foot and drop one of the cans of vegetables I was holding in my hand. Turning around, I fix him with my most annoyed glare while I feel a surge of elation.

“Whoa…” He steps back. “You look prepared to kill.”

I bend over to pick up the can, checking for dents. It seems fine, so I stick it on the shelf with all the others. I’m doing restocking, possibly the most boring job in the whole store. “You’ve discovered my secret. I’m an assassin.”

“I knew you had one.” He lists casually against the shelf, a few feet down from me, considerately leaving me some shelving room. “How are you?”

“Fine. You?”

“Fine.”

I grab two or three cans this time, hoping to hurry the job. It’s so monotonous, I could fall over and sleep right now. People who need to take sleeping pills should just stock shelves before bed, I decide, and the country’s dependency on medicine would go down about fifty percent. And, bonus, I’d never have to do this again.

“Where’ve you been?” I say after a while. Elias is playing on his phone.

“Oh. Well, Sarah and I kind of went on a mini road trip to New York.”

“Oh. That’s cool.”

“Yeah. It was okay. I wanted to, like, go to Central Park and stuff but she had all these exercise classes booked.”

“That sucks. I just really can’t believe your parents let you go.”

He stiffens a bit. I frown, wondering what I’d said wrong.

“You okay?” I check after a beat.

“Yeah. Um. Just—just no parents.”

Oh. I’m sorry.”

He shrugs. “It’s okay.”

“That’s terrible. Who do you live with?” I realize that might be way too nosy and cringe. “I’m sorry. Just ignore that. I’m naturally curious.”

“It’s fine. It’s not some taboo subject.” He laughs, but it sounds forced. “I actually live with Sarah right about now.”

“Oh? Your—your girlfriend?”

“Mhmm. Her parents let me.”

“That’s nice. That you have a place to stay and everything.”

“Yep. I guess so.”

“Yeah.” I keep shelving, hoping if I’m casual enough, he’ll tell me more. “So why don’t you live with them?”

His voice hardens. “They kicked me out.”

I stop. “Wait. Seriously?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s awful.” I straighten from my stoop over the box of cans. “Why’d they do that?”

“Because…I was kind of a terror a few years back. Just stupid stuff.”

“Oh.” My face is skeptical of its own accord. “Really? You?”

“Really me.”

“Huh.”

“Why huh?”

“No—you just don’t look like a delinquent.”

“Well, I am. A reformed delinquent, I might add. This adorable face”—he points to his mouth, which is down in a faux pout—“stole a car when he was fourteen.”

“Stole a car?”

“Yes. Not a nice car, but still.”

“Why?”

“Because I felt like it.”

“You felt like—like stealing a car.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Is that, like, a mood or something? You’re saying it like it’s feeling angry or sad or something.”

“Well, it kind of is.”

“So you were just sitting there, like, eating lemon-bar popsicles—”

“This was three years ago, not the other day.”

“Okay, then; playing video games.”

“Nooo. I’m not into that stuff.”

“Then what?”

“Bike riding.”

“Okay. Fine. So you were riding your bike one day—”

“Around my neighborhood.”

“Sure. And you just were suddenly struck with the feeling that you wanted to steal a car.”

“Basically.”

“You just thought: hmm, I feel like stealing a car.”

“Exactly.”

“So you did.”

“My mother’s old teacher’s car, which made things about two-hundred times worse.”

I cover my mouth to hide my smile. He gently grabs my wrist and tries to pull it away.

“You’re laughing.”

“No, I’m not.” My words are slightly muffled. I press my hand harder.

“Come on.” He pulls with a bit more force. “You think it’s funny.”

“I don’t. I just—I can’t—”

“I spent three days in juvie! And you’re laughing at me!”

“Three days?”

“Yes. As my punishment. It was terrible.”

“...”

“Are you laughing?”

“No,” I say, but I am. And then he’s laughing.

“So your parents kicked you out,” I say, trying to catch my breath, “because you stole your mother’s teacher’s car and went to juvie for three days?”

“Well, there was other stuff. But basically.”

I squeeze out another laugh. My ribs hurt. “Holy cow.”

He shoves my shoulder. I stand up. “Hey.”

“Hey to you. Look at you, laughing at me.” But he’s grinning bigger than I’ve ever seen him, and the sight of it makes my throat ache, though for what reason, I’m not sure.

“I’m going to call you Elias the Car Thief.”

“That’s a really uninspired name.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, I’d like to see you—”

“Montana!” Casey barks from behind me. “What’s going on?”

I whirl around. “Nothing. Stocking shelves.”

He glares at Elias. “Can I help you, sir?”

“No. I was just talking to—”

“This is a place of business. You’ll have to take your conversation elsewhere.”

I turn back to the box and discreetly roll my eyes. Casey sees.

Montana.”

“Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“No more. I’m docking you an hour’s pay for this.”

I wait until he’s out of earshot to mumble, “seven dollars, the world is ending.”

Elias stifles a laugh. “I should go before you get into more trouble.”

“Probably.”

He gives me a back-pat in parting. “Catch you later.”

“Go have fun stealing cars.”

If he gives me some smart-aleck-y gesture, I don’t see. I do my job.

It’s what I’m here for, after all.

- - -

“I need your help.”

“Well. That’s new.”

“No, seriously.” Elias leans across the counter and grabs my hand. “Come help me pick out what to get Sarah for Valentine’s. Last time it was a huge success. I know I can’t do this without your good eye.”

“Okay, okay. Quit being dramatic.” I pull my hand from his and step out from behind the cash register. “Lead the way, Colonel Car Thief.”

“Shut up,” he says playfully. We enter the jewelry section. His smile fades a little.

“Wait—more jewelry?” I say, when I realize his plan.

“Uh-huh. Everyone loves jewelry.”

“Oh, no. Don’t do that. Get her something else.”

“Like what?”

“Like a purse. A shirt. A picture of you guys.”

“Absolutely not. I’m telling you right now—nothing is more disappointing than getting a picture as a gift. That’s a total copout.”

“No it’s not.” I crinkle my nose. “I’ve given pictures as gifts all the time.”

He ignores this, reaching for a fake pearl necklace. “She loves, like, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn and stuff. What about something like this?” He shakes it at me.

I laugh as it tickles my nose. “Put it back. That’s terrible.”

Terrible seems a little harsh.”

“So does telling people that their gifts suck.”

“I never said yours did. I said in the general scope of things—”

“Yes, I know. But I’m telling you: don’t get her another necklace.”

“It was a bracelet last time.”

“A bangle, actually. If you want to get technical.”

“I really don’t.” He puts it back with a sigh. “So jewelry is out.”

“Yes. That's way too repetitive. You need to spice things up.” I think for a moment. “What about, like, a CD of some kind?”

He perks up. “She loves this one band. Rhythm and Righteousness.”

“Ew. I hate them.”

He gives me a conspiratorial look. “Me too. Don’t tell.”

“I won’t.”

“I think—” He starts toward the music section. “They just came out with a new album, I think.”

“Perfect.”

I follow him there, even though it’s unnecessary. In a way, I’m stalling the inevitability of having to go back to work. I watch as he rifles through the slightly disorganized CDs.

“Can you help?” He requests, and I join him.

I’m the one who finds the CD. It’s some guy in hipster glasses and suspenders and five-o’clock shadow. I stick my tongue out as I hand it to him.

“It burns,” he jokes, turning it over to scan the tracklist. “Yup. This is it. Thanks.”

“Sure.”

He hesitates. “But, like, won’t she be expecting something huge? It is Valentine’s Day.”

“No. I don’t think so. How long’ve you been together?”

“Six months? Around that.”

“Then you’re good. Start buying her eighty-dollar stuff after the year mark.”

His face is bemused. “How do you know so much about relationships, anyway? Are you a boyfriend guru?”

“No. I’ve never had one.”

"That’s comforting.”

“Hey.”

“I’m just saying.” He scans the aisles as if searching for someone, then his eyes dart back to me. “How do you know so much, then?”

“I’m an observer. In case you haven’t figured that out yet.”

“No. But I’m starting to.”

- - -

My hands are cramping. I’m in returns today, and there’s been a lot of people coming through with cruddy Valentine’s presents and no gift receipt. Grant, a complacent twentysomething who claims he took this job only because his girlfriend threatened a break up with him if he didn’t, seems even more bored than me.

“Ready to go home?” I ask, just to say something.

“Whaddayathin,” he reponds. Most everything Grant says is compressed into one word, oftentimes leaving out key consonants. He's a surprisingly likable guy, despite that downfall. And the fact that he has a drugged-out look about him.

“Well. I am,” I reply shortly. "Too."

The conversation peters off into silence. I rifle through a whole slew of discarded receipts and scoop them up, heading for the trash can. When I turn around, Elias is standing there.

“Hey.” My face breaks, unprompted, into a smile. He quirks the corner of his mouth at me.

“What’s up?”

“Not much.” I come up to sway against the counter. “It’s been boring.”

“Yeah.” He holds something rectangular and wrapped in red paper out to me. “I got this for you. As a thank you.”

“Oh. Wow. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Sarah told me I should. I mean, I knew I should. She loved the gift, by the way. Said it was better than the last one.”

“Awesome.”

“Yep. You just keep on outdoing yourself.”

“Well.” I flip my hair over my shoulder, speaking in a purposefully smug voice. “I’ve been known to do that.”

“So here. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

I pull the gift toward me, suddenly wary. “Should I open it now?”

He shrugs. “If you want.”

“Well, don’t say that.”

“Why?”

“Be decisive. I’m not going to open it at all if you say that.”

“Ever?”

“Not in front of you.”

“Oh, so you’re gift shy.”

“I am not.”

“You so are. Your face is red.”

I briefly raise a hand to my flushed cheek. “I’m just not a present person.”

“Way to make a nice gesture feel appreciated.”

I shake my head and flip the gift over, to tear it along the taped edge of the paper. A cardboard back is uncovered, along with a black frame. I flip it over, furrowing my forehead. Inside it is a crayon stick-figure drawing of two bodies with brown hair, one vaguely resembling a girl, and one looking a bit boyish.

“Wow. This is…”

“Excellent. I know.” He points to the childlike strokes. ”This one’s you and this one’s me. In case you couldn’t tell.”

“The attention to detail is stunning.”

“Well, you seemed to like picture frames so gosh darn much…”

I pick it up and study it. “This is cute. Thanks. You actually had me excited for a good gift for a minute, though.”

“You’re welcome. I promise something better next time.”

“Next time?”

“Well, now that we’re friendly, you’ll be receiving presents on your birthday and Christmas. I’ll probably skip Valentine’s Day, just because that’s intended for girlfriends.”

“What’s this, then?”

“A thank-you present.”

“Okay.” I set it back down.

He nods. “Okay. I gotta go get bread and stuff. See you around.”

“Bye.”

I wave until he’s gone. And a few seconds after that, too.

- - -

March

“Hey. What’s up?”

“Are you always going to say that every time you see me?”

“Well”—Elias hands me his purchases: a coloring book, it appears, today, and a Saint Patrick’s Day shirt—“yes, since that’s typically what you say to someone when you haven’t seen them in a while.”

“Two weeks,” I point out cheerfully, ringing up the coloring book.

“You’re keeping track?”

I shake my head. “Hardly. My life’s just so boring I commit it to memory when anything even the tiniest bit exciting happens.”

“So essentially, you’re keeping track.”

“Kind of. In a roundabout way.” I add the shirt and give him his total. He proffers his cash.

“Is the coloring book for you?” I ask as I tear off his receipt, only slightly teasing.

“No. Sarah’s baby brother.”

“She has a baby brother?”

He takes it from me and unceremoniously shoves it in his pocket. “Yeah. Why do you act so shocked?”

“I got an only-child vibe from her.”

“You’ve never met her.”

“From the way you talked about her.”

“You are seriously off your game today.”

“I think you just maybe don't understand my game."

"Are you saying I'm stupid?"

"Not stupid. Just slow."

"Whatever. Have a nice day.”

“Will do.”

He starts to back up. Off your game, he mouths emphatically.

- - -

The next time I see Elias, I resolve, I will be the first to ask what’s up.

I catch him a few days later as I’m eating lunch at the picnic tables we have set up out front. I pop out of my seat. It doesn't go as smoothly as I'd hoped as I stumble over the bench in my hurry to catch up to him. My foot catches and I topple forward awkwardly, catching myself hard on my palms.

“Montana!” Elias’ hands curl beneath my armpits and he jerks me out of my predicament, a little roughly. I reach for his upper arm to steady myself as one foot finally meets the ground, and then the other.

I’m sure my face is bright red. I blow a stray wisp of hair out of my line of vision, and smile sheepishly up at him. “That was all your fault, you know.”

My fault? How’s that?”

“Because if I hadn’t been in such a rush to catch you, that never would have happened.” I brush my palms off on my pants, indignant.

“Well, you’re welcome for rescuing you.”

“Please. That’s the least you could do.”

“Right.” He stuffs his hands in his jacket pockets and blows a while cloud of breath into the air. “It’s cold. Should we go inside?”

I sit back down at the Table of Doom, keeping my legs on the outside this time, for smoother emergency-exit purposes. “I’m good.”

He hesitates. I bite into my sandwich.

“So…what? You’re just going to sit there?”

“Mhm.” I nod. The roast beef tastes off. I think I saw Denver open it last week, but when I asked him, he acted like he didn’t remember what I was talking about, which wasn’t surprising. I should know better by now than to take his word for anything, his memory recall is so warped. I reach for my napkin and press it to my lips, hoping to spit out the spoiled food discreetly, but Elias immediately catches on.

“Wait,” he starts, as I’m crumpling the napkin up around the half-chewed bite. “Did you just spit out your food?”

“No,” I lie reflexively, and I’m not sure why, because it’s pretty plainly obvious that’s what I did and there’s no use denying it; that just makes me look stupider than I already do. “I mean—yeah. Maybe. Why do you care?”

“No reason.” He plops down next to me, after seemingly mulling over this decision for a while. “So what’s up?”

I throw my sandwich at him. Don’t even give him any warning, just chuck it right in his small-talking, what’s-up-asking face.

- - -

I'm in the staff room with my head in my locker, crying.

Not loud—just enough that I have to sniff a few times, which I can always blame on allergies. I draw the length of my pointer fingers beneath my eyes, glad I had the foresight not to put on mascara while I was getting ready this morning. It was almost like I knew Mom was going to be standing by the front door, ready to assail me.

I shrug out of my coat and let out a shuddery breath, telling myself to leave it alone for now; the hurt, here in my locker, where nobody can get at it but me. My throat aches from the yelling.

“It has come to my attention that you haven’t been giving me all of your paycheck, Montana.”

I’d paused a half second with my boots halfway on. How did she know that?

“Montana?”

I straightened. “I don’t know what you mean, Mom.”

“I got your tax statement in the mail last night. Your earnings don’t match up with what you’ve been giving me.”

“Mom, I—” Fabulous. Neither Casey nor Chris had ever warned me anything of a deception-revealing nature would be coming. Otherwise, I would have gotten it myself.

“You what, Montana?” Her lower lip was curling inward, the way it did when she got really angry. Everything came at me, assaulting my senses. She was still in her pajamas—an ancient shirt of my deceased Dad’s and old flannel pajama bottoms. I could hear Denver’s spoon clicking against his bowl in the living room, the low hum of the TV. A smell was emitting from my boots which I’d yet to notice (I made a mental note to buy a box of fabric softener sheets at the store and stuff them in the toes. That would take care of it).

“Montana!” Mom repeated, loudly. I jumped a bit. Denver let out a startled yelp in the next room.

“You scared him,” I pointed out, flatly.

“Oh, don’t get that started, Montana. You’re the one who’s taking his livelihood. We’ve been over this: I need your help, now, and it all comes back to you later. Every penny. We’ve discussed this. And yet—Montana, this is a few hundred dollars short. A few hundred dollars.”

“What? Like, three? I only keep, like, fifty for myself a month! That’s it, Mom! And it's my money!”

“Fifty dollars is another therapy appointment, Montana! Fifty dollars is another month’s supply of his ADHD medicine! Fifty dollars is a new uniform for his team. How could you be so selfish?”

“How come you expect me to pay for your kid?” I demanded, disregarding my boot. I let it bang to the floor, throwing my hands out. “He’s not my responsibility!”

“We’re a family!” She retorted, jabbing an accusing finger at me. “We go together, and we help. Now is not the time for shallow things!”

“But I need clothes! I need new clothes!”

“You can wait for birthday or Christmas! For the extra money!”

“No, I can’t. I have work and school and I need to be dressed like a sane person!”

“None of this matters, Montana!” She stepped forward, poking her finger into my chest. “Don’t you realize? Nothing but him. Nothing but Denver.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Mom, Denver is fine the way he is. Nothing’s going to help him!”

“Don’t you say that! Don’t you dare discourage him!”

I backed away. “So what? So he’s not going to be a doctor or lawyer or something great. Who cares? He could be happy doing something that matters to him. You should be proud of him for the way he is.”

“I am proud of him, Montana! We should just do everything we can to help him along his way.”

There was a small whimper from my right. I whipped my head in the direction and blinked at Denver. He stared at us with wide, tear-filled eyes.

“Stop,” he whispered. “Nobody's wight.”

Mom smiled a self-satisfied smile. “You see, Montana? That sort of impediment is a hindrance. He has to see somebody for that, and it’s a hundred dollars a session.”

“You could have sent him to the school group therapy!”

“You know he doesn’t do well in social situations, Montana. He gets nervous."

"See? You’re making excuses for him again!”

“I’m not making my excuses! I am doing my part as Mom. But you—you’re not nearly stepping up to the plate as his sister. You don’t even act like you care about him.”

She might as well have slapped me, to say such a horrible thing. I reached for my boot and stomped toward the door, shoving past her.

“Montana!” Mom chastised, but I was already down the steps.

“In case you haven’t noticed, Mom,” I tossed over my shoulder on the way to the car, disregarding the crunch of snow beneath my socked foot, “it’s the plate I don’t give a bit about. Not Denver.”

- - -

I stay an extra shift that day, hoping to avoid home until Mom leaves for her evening shift. I’m leaving her high and dry without a sitter for Denver, but Grandma can always do it, although she barely hides her distaste for it. She doesn’t understand why Denver still mispronounces his words and doesn't like certain sounds—the microwave, for instance, which she was is a big proponent of. Everything's nuked in Grandma’s house, despite the health risks I've warned her about.

“Oh, Montana,” she always says, smoothing back my hair. “I didn't have anything like it when I was a girl. It's so easy, you know? And I'm just going to die anyway."

It’s slow today, unfortunately, despite it being a Saturday. The busy seasons come and go, and mid-March isn’t exactly the height of it. Just wait until July, I tell myself. You’ll be wishing for these days.

I pull out my phone and check it for text messages, even though I’m not supposed to. Casey is slacking off in the breakroom, probably on his computer despite harsh warnings to us if we even so much as ask for the wifi password. A few rows down, I see the only other on-duty cashier, a middle-aged woman named Martha, is doing the same.

No missed calls, nothing from Mom. She’s too proud after this morning to call and complain about my obligatory sitting job-turned-absence, and not concerned enough to question why I didn’t show up. It’s exhausting, this one-sided, mental back and forth with her, and I know I won’t be able to keep it up for long.

“Excuse me?”

I glance up from my screen. A young girl is standing there, smiling pleasantly. I flip on the belt button and start scanning her things without apology for failing to notice her.

“Twelve sixty-eight,” I say flatly, when her last item has been rung up.

She hands me a twenty and dives into her wallet for the change. “I hate taking back pennies.”

“Me, too,” I say, feeling a bit sorry for being so short with her, and a bit annoyed she’s the talkative type. “I try to avoid it at all costs.”

“Which doesn’t help,” she adds, “when you don’t have change and need change to not get change.”

“Oh, the irony,” I chime in, and she grins. She’s got one of those generic, pretty, round faces. The exact opposite of my angular structure and thin lips. She hands me the change with her left hand, and I notice for the first time that she’s wearing a bangle. A bangle with opaque, pink stones.

My heart pauses for a second. I try not to falter as I take it but I’m a beat behind.

“You okay?” She asks, peering closely at me.

“Yeah. Uh-huh.”

“Well, okay. Have a good night.”

And then she clicks away in her suede booties, and I think to myself: That was Elias’s girlfriend. That was Sarah. She has red hair. She wears some sort of birthday cake-scented perfume. She bought pads and two chocolate bars and tomatoes. She’s beautiful. And she’s his.

- - -

“Hey. So guess what?”

Elias pulls a box of Uncle Ben’s off the highest shelf before he turns to me, eyebrows raised.

“Aren’t we eager today, Hannah?”

“I ran into Sarah a week ago,” I announce grandly, waiting for his gasp of surprise. Or something.

It barely seems to register. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yep. It was a momentous occasion. One that was almost like inception, it was so weird.”

“Huh. Did you guys talk?”

“Yep—about change.”

“Did you tell her who you were? Because she never mentioned it to me.”

“Well, actually…” Okay, now I just sound like a crazy person. Talking about meeting his girlfriend and I never so much as introduced myself. I should have thought this through.

“Are you sure it was her?” He asks, furthering the uncertainty that is surely written all over my face.

“Not exactly.”

“So how do you know?”

“She was wearing the bangle I helped you picked out.”

“Isn’t it possible that it was just some other girl who bought the same thing? I mean, it’s not exactly one of a kind, Montana. Right?”

I can tell he’s trying to be kind. I wave him away.

“I know it was her, okay? I felt a spiritual connection. I thought: I knew this girl. I’ve met her in another life, or at least through Elias’ perspective.”

He’s laughing, now. “Really? What’d she look like?”

“Red hair—”

“Sarah’s blonde.”

“Oh." I feel stupid for feeling so certain. There's only one way to salvage this. "Maybe she dyed it.”

“Oh yeah? For just a night?”

“Yep.”

“It’s a possibility.”

“Actually, a fact. Because it happened. I met her.”

“Sure, sure. And what did she look like?”

“Brown eyes—”

“Sarah has blue.”

"Elias. Don’t you get it? Contacts.”

“Oh, duh.” He thunks himself on the forehead. “What was I thinking?”

“And she had a really round face.”

“Sarah has an oval face.”

“And pale skin.”

“She’s pretty tan. And with freckles.”

“Well, obviously she had facial reconstruction surgery.”

“What was she buying?”

“Pads.”

"Interesting."

"Yes. Winged. Overnight." I realize I'm babbling, but I can't seem to stop. "The kind with the tabs that are super absorbent."

“Right.” His face has reddened. “Could we maybe not talk about my girlfriends period anymore?”

“Hey—you’re the one that brought them up.”

“Right. Sorry. That’s my greatest mistake in life thus far.”

“We can just talk about mine, if you want,” I say coyly, walking my fingers up his arm.

He backs up. “Hey.”

I drop my hand. “What?”

“Don’t—you can’t—”

I furrow my eyebrows in confusion. “What? I was kidding.”

“It’s just that it’s not like that.”

“I know. I’m not an idiot.”

“Don’t be defensive. It’s fine.”

“I’m not being defensive. What?”

“Yeah, you are. You’re freaking out.”

“You’re way overreacting. I was just joking. It was just a joke.”

“Well—let’s keep jokes platonic.”

“Yeah. Sounds good.” I turn away. “Sorry I offended you.”

“Wait, Montana,” He calls after me, but I keep going. I need to get back to my register, before Chris sees.

- - -

“Hey.”

“What’s up?”

I press my lips together. “I swear...”

“What?” Elias sets his items down on the belt. “What do you swear?”

I start scanning, keeping my head down. “Nothing.”

“What?”

“If you say what’s up one more time, I swear I’m going to kill you.”

I catch the eye of the woman next in line, who, despite thumbing through a magazine, appears to have caught this. “I think I forgot something,” she mutters, for my benefit, and slowly backs her cart out of the narrow space, forcing the man behind her to step aside. She heads over to Grant’s lane instead.

I roll my eyes.

“You’re in rare form today,” Elias notes.

“Annoyed form, more like it.”

“Hm.”

I scan his last item and hit the button to finish ringing him up. “Today your total is—”

“Could you hand me the raisinets?” He asks.

I pause. “What?”

“The raisinets.” Impatiently, he reaches over the counter and digs into the bag, coming out with the candy. His hand brushes against my shoulder as he leans away. I could have moved. But I let it.

“Right. Okay.” I repeat the total and he gives me the money. As I hand him the receipt, he presses the box of chocolate raisins into my hand.

“What’s this?” I ask, accidentally dropping them in my surprise.

He sighs and stoops over to pick them up, holding them out to me. “You make it impossible for me to do anything nice.”

“What are you doing that’s so nice?”

“I’m giving you apology candy.”

“Oh.” I set the box down. “Thanks.”

“I thought it was a nice gesture.”

“It is.”

“I guess I should have asked if you really like them, though.”

“They’re okay,” I reply noncommittally. He laughs.

“You’re impossible.”

The man next in line clears his throat. I shoot him a strained smile.

“I’ll be right with you, sir. My apologies.”

Elias glances behind him, as if just realizing someone was there. “Oh, man, dude. I’m sorry.”

He holds his hand up. “It’s okay.”

I hit the belt and his groceries spurt forward. I start scanning.

“Thanks, really,” I say as Elias walks off. “I’ll enjoy them.”

“Catch you later, Montana.”

- - -

April

It’s baseball season for Denver, which means I hardly see him or Mom anymore. With all of us coming and going, it’s a whirlwind of bank-draining activity. Denver’s outgrown his old uniform, and he needs a new one—bam, there goes half my week’s paycheck. Oh, his glove is too old to last another run, out goes the other half. I’m picking up as many shifts as I’m allowed, until I’m stretching my thirty hours a week capacity. I’m barely sleeping, I’m barely getting schoolwork done; everything is this job. Everything is Denver.

That’s why I’m currently trying to work in some test cramming on my break in the employee lounge. Outside, the sun has finally come out to melt away the last of March’s frigid winter, although the looks are deceiving. It was positively freezing when I came in three hours ago, cold enough that I wore a hat, which I never do.

I itch my nose and wince as it catches on my piercing. The allergies that plague me this time of year have flared up and irritated the area. I’ve had to do countless saltwater soaks to ward off infection. There’s hardly even time for those, the way things are right now.

I run an hand through my hair, aggrieved, and close my science book. My break is up in five minutes, and despite the page full of notes I’ve been taking, I feel like I’ve absorbed absolutely nothing. I’m too tired, honestly. I fold my arms on the aluminum tabletop and lay my head down on the makeshift pillow. With my puffy jacket on, it’s actually really soft, so soft, and—

“Montana!”

I jerk into a sitting position so quickly my head spins. I glance around the room, disoriented. Outside, it isn’t nearly as bright as it was before. Crap. Did I fall asleep?

“How long have you been in here?” Casey’s standing in front of me, a furious expression contorting his face. I stand up, feeling lightheaded, keeping my grip on the back of the chair to steady myself as I look at the clock.

“Um—um—” Oh. Oh no. “Four hours.”

Casey closes his eyes for a long moment. I swallow.

“You’re getting docked today’s pay,” he barks at last, jerking his thumb toward the door. “Go. You’re out of here.”

“Yes, sir,” I say. Mine is definitely not a side worth arguing. I head to my locker to get my heavy coat and purse. Casey steps aside to let me out the door. I’m hoping he’ll leave me be, but he follows.

“Montana,” He says, as I near the sliding exit doors. I slow down and turn to face him.

“Yes?”

“Honestly, I think this workload has been far too much for you to handle. You’re a high school student. It wasn’t actually that long ago that I was in the same position myself, and I know it’s not easy.”

“It’s manageable,” I counter, but he’s right. It’s not. It’s not easy.

His stern expression falters. “Look, kid—I’m not trying to be harsh. It’s just, we can’t have people pulling this kind of stunt and expecting to get away with it.”

“But I wasn’t—”

“I’m not saying you, specifically, but people in general. It’s like dominoes. One person does something and gets off scott-free, another thinks, hey, maybe I’ll try that—so on and so forth. Until all the sudden it’s not punishable anymore, whatever they’re doing, because everything has already come apart. Do you follow?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Great. Then you understand.”

“I understand.”

“That’s excellent to hear, Montana. Just don’t let it happen again. You’re a good employee—I wouldn’t want to have to let you go.”

As I walk home, I think of those words, imagine Casey carrying out his threat. I think about what it would mean for me. What it would mean for other people. What those other people would do. How their actions, in turn, would affect me. How maybe I’d then do something that pulled in some innocent third party. So on and so forth.

Dominoes.

- - -

This time, I beat him to it.

“What’s up?” I ask, leaping in front of Elias. He’s forced to stop suddenly, stumbles a bit. I bend over and retrieve the packet of Skittles that he’s dropped.

“The sky,” he says after a minute. A smile plays at the corners of his lips. I toss the Skittles to him.

He catches them one-handed. In the other, he holds one of our blue baskets filled with groceries. I give him an approving thumbs-up. “You don’t say? Good catch, by the way.”

“Thanks. And yeah—it’s crazy. The sky. How it’s up.”

“A novelty, really.”

“Uh-huh.” He steps out of the way of some lady as she careens past on her cell phone, who’s either running a marathon in the middle of the store or very, very, very late for something. I cross my arms and lean against a display case.

“What are you doing?” I ask, unable to come up with anything more original.

“Oh, getting stuff for Sarah’s birthday party tomorrow. She’s going to be eighteen.”

“Yeah? Cool.”

“Pretty much the coolest.”

“I gotta say, though, I’m surprised you didn’t come to me for gift advice. This is a first.”

“Well—you know.” He shrugs sheepishly. “Times are tough. I can’t be exercising the services of some lovely young cashier without proper payment, and I don’t have any.”

“Selling yourself into slavery should be just enough, Elias.”

“What does this slavery entail?” He leaned forward, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “I’m intrigued.”

“Making me breakfast, lunch, and dinner…” I tick the items off on my fingers. “Hm. Let’s see. Oh, running my brother to Little League—”

“Back up. You have a brother?”

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t I know this?”

I shrug. “Dunno. You tell me.”

“How is it possible that you’ve never told me this before? We’ve been talking for five months, Montana.”

My eyes widen. “Wow. Has it really been that long?”

“Yes.”

“Well…” I shrug. “I guess I never needed to mention him. Until now. While we’re discussing slavery.”

He takes in my disheveled, post workday appearance. “Are you off?”

“I’m off.”

He juts his head toward the self-checkout lane. “Come with me, then. And we can talk about your brother.”

I pull on my jacket as I walk next to him. At the checkout, he scans, and I bag.

“Isn’t this nice for a change in routine?” He wonders aloud. I laugh.

“Yes. I'm actually quite good at—” I stop talking to concentrate on forcing a carton of eggs in with some vegetables. “I have a—ugh, why won’t it go?”

He watches, smirking. “Need some help there?”

No. I was saying I think I have a natural talent for—” I pull the eggs out and inspect the cartoon. “Is this rigged?”

Elias slides it out of my hand and into the bag, seamlessly. “The eggs have been defeated once again. All Hail our powerful queen, Montana—oh, crud. What’s your last name?”

I laugh, scooping his bags up as he swipes the credit card. “You first.”

“I asked you first,” he points out, taking one from me. “So no. It’s all you.”

“It’s Montana Callaway. You?”

“Jean.”

“Elias-something-Jean.”

“Montana-something-Callaway.”

We reach the doors. I trek out in front of him. The sun is warm on my shoulders and I close my eyes for a minute, just enjoying the warmth after a long day under glaring lights.

“Yo, Montana Callaway. I’m heading out.”

“Oh.” I open my eyes. “Okay. We never talked about my brother.”

“I guess we’ll have to save it for next time.” Gently, he takes his other bag from me. I flick my hand to get my circulation going again. The little plastic handles are beasts when it comes to cutting it off.

“Sounds good. Have a nice day.”

“You too.” He steps off the curb, then hesitates. With a smile on his face, he twists to look at me. “Hey. What’s your middle name?”

“Oh.” I stick my tongue out. “It’s boring.”

“What is it?”

“Anne.” I shudder. “Who names their kid Montana and then goes and gives them a plain middle name like Anne? She should have named me Montana Colorado, or Montana California.”

“I like Anne. Mine is Jacob.”

I grin. “Elias Jacob Jean. It sounds like a tongue twister.”

“Ugh. You’re bringing back bad elementary school memories. Please.”

“Sorry. That was insensitive.”

He salutes me and accidentally hits himself in the face with his bag of groceries. “Ow. Didn’t think that through.”

“You think?”

“I hope you have a good rest-of-the-day, Montana Anne Callaway.”

“You too Elias Jean-Jacob, Jean-Jacob, Jean-Jacob.”

He curses under his breath but he’s grinning, and I’m giggling, as he walks away. I watch him until I can’t see him, until he fades in among the cars. Then I get in mine.

My phone is off in my purse, and I fire it on. The screen comes alive in light and, to my surprise, six missed voice messages. I scrunch my face together, hoping everything is okay, and hit listen.

My stomach plummets.

- - -

I feel sick as I drive to work the next morning. Sick, truly sick, to my core. I didn’t want to leave. Mom made me. She said I should talk to Chris about switching to evening shifts.

I get out of the car and let out a hitched breath. In the early afternoon light, with shoppers coming in and out in throngs, this parking lot doesn’t look so threatening. But it seemed that way last night. Everything—oh, everything seemed so bleak.

I’ve never wanted to die in my whole life. But I thought last night, if I lose him, then what’s the point? I could tell Mom, sitting by his bed and squeezing his hand, had a similar train of thought. It was the closest I’d ever felt to her, my whole life, the both of us lining either side of Denver’s hospital bed. When they told us this morning that he would be okay, I cried delirious, sleepy tears. Mom just nodded. And then she told me things could never be the same.

It’s not like I was particularly fond of my life the way it was. But this is going to be worse. And I don’t know how to ask Chris without telling him the whole story, which I don’t want to do. He’ll tell Casey, and Casey has connections to the team, and then all the kids will know why Denver’s going to sit out three weeks.

I steel my nerves with a shaky breath and get out of the car. I tell myself, walk forward. When I get to the door, I command go inside. So on and so forth. Each time I pause, hoping I’ll change my mind. This is a nightmare. But there’s no way out of it.

I ask Grant where Casey is and he points me into the direction of the office, but not without squinting at me first and saying, “Youlooterriblewhappened?”

“Rough night,” I reply, which is so far from the actual, horrific truth that it’s laughable. I continue on to Chris’ office, knocking once. There’s no answer. Then twice.

I hear a click and then Chris says, “Come in!”

He’s sitting at his desk with a closed laptop in front of him, shoved slightly askew. A pair of headphones is plugged in. I try to mask my disapproval and gesture to the chair pushed into the corner. “Can I sit down?”

“Sure thing, Hannah. Pull it on up. I was just doing payroll.” He grins obnoxiously.

Sure he was. I ignore the dig about my name and perch on the edge of it, drumming my fingers on my knees. “I need to talk to you. About something serious.”

“Aw, man. Can’t it wait for Casey? Casey’s the one who handles the serious stuff.”

“Not really.” I fold my hands in my lap and swallow. “I’m going to need to change my shift.”

“Oh. That it?” He flips the computer open. “In that case...whaddaya need, kid?”

“Um—an evening shift.”

He frowns. “Evening shift?”

“Yeah.”

“What kind of evening shift?”

“Preferably like...ten to six?”

“Whoa—Hannah, slow down there. You’re still in highschool, right?”

I bite my lip.

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“Why aren’t you in highschool?”

“I…withdrew this morning.”

"Why? And you want to work evening hours? What are you on?”

“Nothing. I—”

“Absolutely not. I’m not going to let you do that, Montana. That’s ridiculous. You need to go back to school.”

Wow, okay. He’s serious. I hardly ever hear him use my actual name. “I’m going to finish online. It’s okay.”

Why? I think I deserve to ask you why, at least. I want to hear a legitimate reason.”

I squirm uncomfortably. “Well—it’s kind of personal, and—”

“Believe me. I’ve heard it all before. I’m not switching your shift unless I hear something justifiable.”

I shake my head. Tears spring to my eyes, and I curse myself for it. I promised I wouldn’t cry. I told myself, if anything, that’ll be the last thing that happens here.

Chris is visibly uneasy. “Hannah—”

“My name is Montana, Chris.”

“I know.”

I wipe my eyes. “I just—can you promise you won’t tell anybody?”

He presses his lips together. With his round face, slightly stubbled, and his hair—in a sort of buzz cut, as I think he was in the military before he moved here—he seems so innocent. Why do I suddenly feel ages older than him?

I shake my head. “It’s embarrassing.”

“That’s okay. I’ve had my fair share of embarrassing experiences.” He chuckles. “Believe me.”

“Right. Okay, well—honestly, my brother tried to kill himself yesterday. While he was home alone.”

“Oh.” Chris’ eyes widen for a millisecond and go back to normal. “I’m so sorry to hear that. Is he okay?”

“Um—yes. Physically. They had to pump his stomach.” The fear, the uncertainty of it all, comes rushing back at me. I use my sleeve to swipe at my cheeks, which are wet. “He was alone, when it happened. He took a bunch of his meds all at the same time. And my Mom just happened to come home early. If she hadn’t—”

Chris folds his hands, at an obvious loss for what to do. “That’s terrible.”

“I’m just glad she found him in time. Honestly, I’m glad it wasn’t me. I would’ve...” I’m too overwhelmed to finish.

“Of course.”

“So—yeah, he’s going to need special treatment for a while. Constant supervision. So I’m going to have to stay home with him during the day, and then come to work at night. At least for a little while.”

I say this, but I feel the mute forever stretching on in front of me. I’ll never feel even slightly okay leaving him again. I never expected this from Denver, no matter what. He’s typically so happy and vibrant. He has his moments but—I don’t know. It’s been driving me crazy, trying to imagine what would compel him into this, because I can’t. And I’m destroyed over it.

Chris nods. “Okay. We can do that.”

I let out a relieved breath. “Oh, thank you. I can come in tonight. I really should get back to the hospital.”

“Sounds good.” He nods. “I hope your brother fully recovers.”

“Thanks.” I stand, feeling a thousand times more relieved. But also not, because I know what awaits—life. And it’s hard, and it’s not going to be easy, but it’s for Denver.

It’s always for Denver.

- - -

“Montana! Hey!”

I wave at Elias as he joins the line for my register. There are a few late-night stragglers waiting their turn, mainly men in manufacturing uniforms on their way home from working second shift. They buy milk and bread and sometimes beer. I’ve picked all this up fairly quickly—this is my seventh stint so far. I like it, though. It’s more languid than the day. People are generally less grumpy, less bothered, less prone to hissy fits and indignance during the night. And they’re never in a hurry.

It’s ten minutes before I get to Elias. He’s picked up only a few things—a frozen pizza, a gallon of ice cream, and some other random stuff I can’t bother to note.

“Long time no see,” he converses in his friendly way. I smile.

“Yeah.”

“I don’t see you here at all in the afternoon anymore. I was worried maybe you got fired.”

“Nah. Just changed shifts.”

“What hours do you work?”

“Ten to six, about four days a week.”

“Wow. That’s a lot.”

“Kind of,” I allow, and move on. “That’ll be fifteen dollars and twenty-seven cents.”

He hands me the card. I scan it. Our eyes lock for just a moment while I hand him his receipt, and seeing the innocence in them, I just want—I want to tell him everything. About the blank look in Denver’s eyes from bumping up his medication, about the way the antidepressants make him nauseous sometimes. He hates the nausea pills, says they taste like copper. I crush them into vanilla ice cream and don’t tell him.

I long to tell Elias that he tried to take his life because some boneheaded kid on a team they were playing against told him to, just because he was mad Denver got past him on second base. Go kill yourself, loser. My brother—my sweet, loving, impressionable brother—took it literally. He cried and then came home and popped the cap on one, two, three bottles of medication, downing enough pills to kill a person three times his size.

He said he was sorry. He says he knows now it’s not the right thing to do, that he didn’t want to die, but I’m scared. More than anything, I’m that. I worry constantly about saying the wrong thing to him, because if Denver doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand when somebody isn’t being serious, ugh, how is he ever supposed to exist?

I worry that my brother was not meant for this world.

I don’t say anything of this, of course. I beam up at Elias as I hand him his receipt and tell him to have a good rest of the day, what’s left of it, anyway. He looks perplexed.

“Okay, then. You too. Bye.”

“Bye.”

After he’s gone, I go into the bathroom and lock the stall door and sit there for a minute, holding my head and wishing I had one of Denver’s anti-nausea pills for myself.

- - -

I get called in early by Casey. It’s Sunday. Mom’s not going to be home for hours. When I tell Casey I can’t, he says it’s an emergency—a truck came in early, the food’s going to spoil, they’ve got everyone shelving and they need cashiers.

“I’m going to have to bring my brother, then,” I tell him.

He sighs. “Isn’t there anyone who can keep him?”

“No,” I maintain, and I must sound pretty firm because he says fine. Snaps it, more like, but that’s okay. I grab Denver’s afternoon medicine and him and we head out the door.

The store is a blur of activity, and I see why Casey needed me. I clock in and take my post at one of the registers, ordering Denver to sit still. I grab a coloring book and a package of crayons from our poorly-stocked craft section to keep him busy, writing it down so I remember to pay later.

For an hour, I hardly take a breath. There are tons and tons of people coming through the line. I’m the only other one open besides Grant’s, and he’s a slow scanner. Denver keeps to himself, coloring happily, until around five when he looks up and abruptly announces, “I’m hungwy.”

“Just a sec, Denny,” I promise as I count change for an older woman.

“I want wice. Do they have that heuh?”

“Um—I’ll take you to Wendy’s.”

“I don’t want Wendy’s. I want wice.”

“We’ll talk about it. Just give me a second.” I close the register and scan the store. Nobody seems to be coming this way. I hold out my hand for Denver’s, and he obliges. Together, we walk through the store to the back, where Casey is supervising everybody restocking. There’s a lot of shouting going on.

I tab Casey on his scrawny shoulder. “Hey. My brother’s getting hungry. Can I run out real quick and—”

“No time,” Casey snaps. “We need you at the register for at least two more hours.”

“But, Casey—”

“No buts if you value your job.” He doesn’t even so much as look my way. I tug Denver out of here, quickly, feeling hot in the face. So my little brother’s needs aren't valid to him, huh?

Jerkwad.

“I’m hungwy,” Denver whines. “Montana, I want something to eat.”

“I know, Denny. Just give me a minute.”

Then I spot him in aisle four—Elias, with his hat pulled low on his head, even though it’s warm out. I’m struck with an absurd idea. Actually, a really bizarre one. Mom would probably kill me.

I lug Denver over to him anyway.

“Elias!” I call, when I’m within shouting distance.

He glances up at me. I pick up my pace and Denver stumbles behind.

“So I know this is a weird favor to ask,” I say in a rush, coming to an abrupt stop in front of him, “but I got called in early and I have to watch Denver but he’s starving and Casey won’t let me leave.”

“Uh-huh,” Elias says.

“And you’re doing to think this is a strange request and everything, but do you think you’d take him to Wendy’s or something—”

“Wice!” Denver orders.

I squeeze his hand to get him to stop. “Sorry. What do you think?”

Elias’ hand falls on the back of some girl standing with him. I watch the movement, then realize for the first time that she’s with him. I glance at her and feel my heart start to pound, because she has sandy brown hair, and blue eyes, and freckles.

It’s Sarah—in the flesh.

She’s much thinner than I pictured; her arms look toned. She’s wearing a jersey and form-fitting yoga pants. Her legs are sinewy, she’s makeup-free, reading the label on the back of a box of instant blueberry muffins. I lick my lips and force a smile.

Elias nudges her. She looks up.

“Oh, hey,” she greets, holding out her hand. She’s got a french manicure going. “You’re Montana, right? Nice to meet you.” She holds up the box to indicate it. “Sorry, I was just making sure this doesn’t have soybean flour in it. I’m trying to avoid soy.”

“Ha, yeah, me too,” I say, even though that’s not true in even the slightest respect.

“Really?” Her eyebrows arch up. They’re kind of thick, accentuating the deep set of her eyes. “Cool beans.”

“Ha. Soybeans. I get it.”

Her calculating stare goes to Denver. “Who’s this?”

“My brother.” I nudge him forward. “Say hi, Denny.”

“Hi.”

Elias crosses his arms. “This would be the infamous brother we’ve never talked about?”

“Yep,” I say, wondering if I should repeat my question. I’m so thrown off by Sarah’s unexpected presence, I hardly remember what I came here for.

“And yet you trust me with the guy?”

“Hundred percent,” I say confidently, and I realize that I do. Maybe that’s stupid. But I—I trust Elias. I know he’s a good person, just from our few conversations. He cares about things. He cares for people. That’s more than I can say for a lot of the others in my life, including myself sometimes.

“What do you think, Denver?” Elias asks, directing the question at him.

Denver shrugs. “Do you like baseball?”

“Love it.”

“Have you evuh played it?”

“Yes.”

“Can we talk about it? On the way theuh?”

“You bet.”

Denver looks at me. “Can I go with him, Mon-Mon?”

I take a breath and bend over, dropping a kiss on his forehead. “Okay. Have fun.” I dig into my pocket for some money, but Elias waves it away.

“Nah, we got this. Ready, Sarah?”

“Oh, yeah, of course,” she says, kindly enough, but I can tell by her insincere smile that this detour has annoyed her. I watch them go, hoping Denver doesn’t say anything strange, that he doesn’t throw fits, that he says please and thank you like we’ve painstakingly taught him.

I realize as I head back to the register and find a whole line waiting for me, one that stretches back to the freezers, that I’m hoping for a Denver that doesn’t exist. And probably never will.

- - -

May

Denver goes back to Little League the second week of the new month. I grow acclimated to my shifts, at least enough that I don’t feel like a member of the walking dead. During the daytime, I watch Denver and do my online school. The nights are for working.

I have some days off, though, and today I decided to take one. There’s a big test I’ve been cramming for, and I took the whole mid-morning for notes and second and third cups of hot chocolate, even though it’s starting to swelter outside, on the edges of the afternoon. Then, of course, Mom comes home and immediately sends me to the store to pick up diner because she’s so exhausted after her workday. She climbs into her heavy faux-leather recliner, and Denver crawls into her lap, and she kisses his forehead and asks him about his day.

I go.

The grocery store seems different, when I’m the customer—everything suddenly looks less cold, somehow. I take one of the baskets to keep myself from going overboard and load it up with anything that looks good. It’s mostly junk food. Grant sees me and waves as I breeze by. I return it.

I head into the frozen goods section to hunt for some Ben and Jerry’s. I’m deciding between raspberry core or chunky monkey when there’s a tab on my shoulder. I drop both ice creams into my basket and glance over my shoulder to see it's Elias, already smirking.

“Well, what do we have here? A Montana in her natural habitat, only without the uniform?”

I glance down. I’m wearing an oversized t-shirt and sweatpants. “I think that would be a step up, actually.”

Elias leans over to look at what I’ve got. “Cheese puffs, boxed macaroni, garlic bread, ice cream, chocolate—my, my, Montana. Can I come over?”

I shake my head, unable to keep from grinning. “I’m binging. I’ve been working on school all day, and I figure I need some kind of reward for it.”

“Well, I’ve been watching TV all day—can I binge, too?”

“Nope. This is strictly Montana-only food.” I’m quick to add, “Oh, and Denver, too.”

“Speaking of which,” Elias begins, leaning against the coolers. His face goes serious and oh, I know this can’t be good. My stomach turns to knots.

“Yeah?” I say, trying to keep my tone light.

“Denver mentioned something, the week before last, when I took him out.”

I can’t meet his eyes. “Did he? Was he good for you?”

“Oh, yeah. Great. He’s really funny,” He replies indulgently. I nod.

“So what’s the issue?”

“Not an issue. He just mentioned something like—um, like along the lines of I’m glad I didn’t die or I wouldn’t have met you, something like that.”

I squeeze my eyes shut. “Oh.” My first thought is, irrationally enough, did Sarah hear? So I ask him.

“No, I dropped her off at the house. She had to go meet her friends for coffee or something.” Elias pauses, apparently waiting for me to take initiative and explain. I don’t. “So…”

“Look, I really didn’t want to tell you this. Anybody this.” I set the basket down. “We’re trying to keep it in the family and we tried to explain to him that suicide attempts aren’t something you just discuss with people, but he doesn’t get it—”

Suicide attempt?” Elias’ mouth gapes open the slightest bit. I can’t help but look at his lower lip, fuller than mine and maybe just the slightest bit chapped. “What is he, nine?”

“Eight,” I say, and it sounds so young. “That’s why, you know, I’m working the night shift. So I can keep an eye on him during the day. I dropped out of school.”

“I'm sorry, Montana. I’m so sorry. I just—” He’s at a loss. I reach out and give his arm a pat.

“It’s fine. He’s fine. It was stupid, if you’re wondering why. Just some kid he beat out on the bases told him to go kill himself, and Elias isn’t…he’s on the Special Ed Little League.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. He has like, ADD and anxiety disorders and some aspergers. He’s been that way since he was a baby. He just took it so literally, you know?”

“That’s awful.”

“I know.” I rub my face with my fingertips, hard, to keep from getting upset. “He just took it too hard and came home and took a bunch of his meds at once. They had to pump his stomach, and for a while they weren’t sure what was going to happen. Now he has to be on all these other medications like antidepressants and stuff and—and—” I cut myself off, jerking my head away from Elias. He’s listening, his face unreadable. “I’m not sure why I’m telling you this.”

“Because we’re friends.” He reaches for my hand, lacing his fingers through mine, and gives it a squeeze.

I’m a bit stunned. “Are we?”

He leans forward. “We are. I consider you my friend, Montana.”

I duck my head. He’s still holding my hand. “You’re the only person I’ve told this to besides Chris, but that doesn’t really count because it wasn't of free will.”

“Then we’re definitely friends then, aren’t we?”

And it’s so good to hear, that I have an actual living, breathing, sympathetic person in the world who cares for me, that I lean against him. He wraps his arms around me.

We stand there for a little while. Holding each other.

- - -

“You know what I’ve realized?”

“What?”

Elias hands me a package of Chips Ahoy and glances behind him. “Do you think you could close the register down for a sec so we don’t have people trying to push me along?”

I flick off the open light and ring him up. “Did you buy these cookies just to see me?”

“I dunno. Maybe.”

“I’m flattered.”

He pulls out a five and hands it to me. “Keep the change.”

I put the money in the register and pocket the difference. “Okay, now I’m just suspicious. You’re trying to pay me off for something. Am I about to witness a murder?”

“Now, Montana. Murder jokes are not funny.”

“You’re right. My apologies.” I print his receipt and tear it off with a flourish. “Will that be all today, sir?”

“Well, no. Okay, so the truth is, I came here under the guise of buying Chips Ahoy to ask for your phone number.”

“Did you, now?” My eyebrows shoot up. I bite the inside of my cheek hard to keep from beaming like a fool. “So you’re trying to buy my phone number?”

“Is it working? Am I persuasive enough?”

I pretend to think about it, theatrically tapping my chin. “Maybe…”

“So what do you say, Montana?”

I motion for him to hand me the receipt. He does. Flipping it over, I grab a pen from the cup we keep on the counter for signatures and scrawl my number.

“There. I’ll be expecting to hear from you so—”

“Montana!” Casey barks. I start and spin around, accidentally knocking into the pen cup. Bics fly everywhere, and the glass shatters against the linoleum. Casey sighs a very deep, very aggravated sigh.

“Clean that up, please. And quit daydreaming.”

Elias widens his mouth at me in an apologetic grimace. I wave him away. He goes, and I realize I’m still holding the receipt. With my number.

- - -

“Long-time-no-see. Hey, you forgot my number last time.”

“Right.” Elias sets a magazine on the belt along with a few other items and I get to work ringing them up. “Sorry. I’ve been busy.”

“That’s what they all say,” I quip lightly, but I’m troubled. It’s been a week since he asked for my phone number, and I’ve hardly seen him.

He doesn’t ask for it again, pulling out his debit card. “Can I scan?”

“Almost.” I finish ringing him up. “There. Eleven sixty—”

He swipes his card before I finish and grabs his bags. “See you.”

“See you,” I return, but he’s already gone.

- - -

“What’s up?”

I’m on my break today, outside again, doing a practice test for school. Elias stands in front of me, holding two Starbucks cups. He nods toward the seat opposite mine and sits down without waiting for my consent.

“I brought you a coffee,” He says, sliding it across to me. I curl my fingers around it and take a tentative sip.

“Chai Tea Latte. Well, don’t you know the way to a girl’s heart? How’d you know I’d be here?” I set the cup down, resting my elbows on the tabletop.

“I’ve got your schedule memorized by now.” It’s late, around eleven, but a balmy evening nonetheless. I prop my chin up in my hand.

“I can’t decide if that’s endearing or creepy.”

“How about a little bit of both?”

“Sounds like a compromise.”

“Look…” He draws a circle on the wood surface, procrastinating. “Sorry I was so weird last week. I was having a bad day.”

“That’s okay,” I reply automatically, taking another drink.

“Really—that was just really awful of me, to brush you off like that.”

I set the drink down. “It’s okay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“If you say so.”

“I said so.”

“Well—good.” He raises his hand for a moment, blinking into the cloying darkness of a nearly-empty parking lot. “Sarah and I broke up.”

My skin prickles. I glance down and see goosebumps, all up and down my forearms. I grab the jacket laying useless on the bench beside me and pull it on, though I don’t need it.

“Oh,” I say at last, practically choking on the word.

“Her parents haven’t kicked me out yet,” he continues, “but I can tell they want to. Or they’re going to. Her mom is already dropping hints but I don’t have anyplace to go. So that’s not been easy.”

“Don’t you have an aunt or a grandparent or something?” I suggest, then realize what a stupid question that is. Of course he doesn’t. If he did, he’d be with them.

Elias entertains this proposition, anyway. “Nah—nobody that I’m friendly enough with. At least, not to go up to them and say Hey, can I live with you, maybe?” His adam’s apple bobs up and down as he swallows, focusing all his attention on the cup. “I don’t really have anybody.”

“Hey,” I chasten, reaching across the table to touch my fingers to the back of his hand. It’s bony, and smooth. I let them linger there for a bit.

He looks up at me. His eyes are sparkly, I realize with tears. He doesn’t let them fall, though, keeps his composure. “Thanks, Montana.”

“Sure.” I pull my lower lip through my teeth and glance away. “I should get back inside.”

“Okay.”

“Look,” I say as I stand, grabbing my notepad and textbook in one hand, the Chai Latte in the other, “call me. If you ever need a place to crash. My mom’s…cool enough. She wouldn’t care. And Denver would love it. He hasn’t stopped talking about you.”

“Thanks. That’s nice of you.” He rises from his seat and stumbles a little as he swings his leg from the bench. Our eyes lock. A giggle threatens to escape.

I end up laughing, even though it’s probably insensitive. “See?” I exclaim, vindicated. “That bench is out to kill people!”

“I’m sorry for ever doubting you. I believe it.” He walks forward until he’s right in front of me. I’m holding my breath, mostly so I don’t blow the smell of the Philly cheesesteak I had for dinner in his face. “I’m lucky to have you, Grocery Girl.”

“Please,” I shake my head, but my throat is strangely thick. “You don’t even know the half of it.”

- - -

With the grace of God, I manage to pass my test and finish the year early. Mom takes us out to dinner to celebrate. Denver throws a fit because they don’t have orange soda, but I force a smile through it.

I find myself wishing Elias was with us.

“So guess what,” I begin, the next time I run into him. He’s wandering the aisles with an aimlessness about him, wearing his hat. He smiles when he catches sight of me.

“What?”

“I finished school. Early.”

“You’re done?”

“Yessir.”

“I’m jealous. I’ve got two weeks to go before I graduate.”

“College man.”

“Not quite.” He itches the side of his nose. “Do you know where you keep cocktail sauce? I can’t find it anywhere.”

“Oh, sure.” Without thinking about it, I take hold of his wrist and pull him away. We walk quickly, falling into an easy pace alongside one another.

“Did you ever get the home situation sorted out?” I venture after a minute, watching him carefully for any signs of distress.

He grins. Beams, really. “Actually, things are pretty much back to normal.”

“Oh. Meaning…?”

“Sarah and I are back together. Her parents are over it. Everything’s great.”

I veer a sharp right down the condiments aisle and start searching for the jar of cocktail sauce, keeping myself preoccupied. “Here it is.”

“Thanks.” Elias grabs it and tosses it from hand to hand as he talks. “Yeah, I’m relieved. Our fight was stupid, anyway. She realized she was overreacting and I said sorry and everything is great. Perfect, really.”

“That’s great,” I say. It doesn’t nearly sound as convincing as it should.

“Yeah.” Elias is oblivious to my discontent. “I would love to talk, but I should run. Sarah’s mom is having this dinner thing and she needs this for her shrimp.”

“Absolutely. Have fun.”

He reaches out to squeeze my shoulder. “Thanks, Montana. It was good to see you.”

“Always is,” I reply morosely.

He either doesn’t notice, or pretends not to.

- - -

“Hey. Come here.”

I motion for Elias to be quiet, glancing around the store to check for Chris, who’s been patrolling the area since an incident with an uppity customer and hostile cashier this morning. The woman threatened to take the story to the newspaper, and everyone’s been employed to do damage control—giving her groceries to the woman for free, carrying them to her car, handing over all the new coupons that haven’t even come out yet in our catalogue; so on and so forth, to hopefully keep her from talking. If I take off…

“What is it?” I whisper back.

Elias leans over. His lips are at my ear, and the pale hairs on my forearms rise in response. “It’s a surprise.”

“Sounds intriguing,” I hiss-reply. “But if I disappear, I’m going to be in trouble.”

“We’ll just act like I needed you to show me something.”

I reluctantly pull away, purposefully raising my voice. “What do you need help looking for, sir?”

“Laxatives today...um…” He makes a show of looking at my name tag. “Montana! Very unusual name, Montana. But yes, ex-Lax. You see, I’m going on a full-body cleanse for religious reasons and I’ve been stopped-up for days now, and I’m afraid I went a wee bit overboard…”

I duck my head and pinch myself, hard, to keep from laughing aloud. “Oh, really?” I ask, and then slip into hysterical giggles. Elias is beaming, pleased with himself.

“So I’d be most...appreciative...if you could show me the way.”

“Indeed, sir. Right this way—” I step out from behind the register and thread my arm through his. “Lead the way.”

“See, I thought you were the person who works here…”

“Hurry up, now. I don’t have long.”

He keeps a brisk pace, until we’re nearing the back of the store, the jewelry section where we first met. When we’re there, he pauses for a moment, his smile faltering.

“I don’t really know if this is appropriate,” he hedges, digging into his pocket, “but I got you something.”

“Presents are never not appropriate.” My heart is pounding. I hold out my hand. “Come at me.”

At those words, his expression slips into something a bit more calculating. I swallow and drop my hand. It’s only a few seconds that he peers intently at my face, and then the moment is over. My teeth chatter a bit as I wait, though I’m unsure whether it’s from apprehension or the fact that it felt like he just saw through me, straight to the core of who I really am. Like there was an instant where he knew me better than myself.

“Come on, man,” I urge, trying to shake my unnerved feeling. “I’m waiting.”

“Right.” He reaches the rest of the way into his pocket and pulls out something. I see a flash of silver, and then he deposits an anklet into my hand. I bite my lip.

“Oh. This is cute.”

“I thought—well, maybe you needed a pick-me-up, with all the stuff that’s going on.”

It’s a simple silver chain with a little charm attached—a stick-figure girl, hands on hips, feet spread apart. I bend over to slip it on.

“Thanks. It’s really adorable,” I say, as I pull off my shoe.

“It’s nothing. Not really. I saw it in the mall and it kind of reminded me of you—the stick figure and everything—and I noticed you wear ankle bracelets a lot, so.”

“Really, thank you.” I touch my fingertip to the charm, then straighten to look him in his eyes. Soft and brown, like mine. “I needed something like this.”

He’s pleased with himself, I can tell. He runs a hand through his hair, which only serves to mess it up even more, and grins wide enough that it crinkles the corners of his eyes. “Hooray. Good.”

I stare at him. He’s so happy, so wholly happy and open and everything about him is sparkling, even his gray hoodie which is maybe just the tiniest bit too small and frayed at the cuffs. I think of the way he looked at me, like I maybe seemed interesting to him, too.

There's this white-hot, crackling fire of possibility flitting between us. I don't know whether to act on it.

“Elias—” I start. He interrupts me.

“Hey. It looks like your boss is heading over here.”

I twist and see Chris, coming our way. Briefly, I reach out to grab his hand, even though I know it’s not something a nice girl would do. It’s disrespectful to Sarah. It’s too forward. It’s way too friendly.

He surprises me by holding it back, for just a second. Then we release, and I’m hurrying toward Chris, and he’s reprimanding me for leaving my post, but I don’t care.

I was happy there, for those few seconds with him. I was happy.

- - -

I drive to work seeing red.

I got into another fight with Mom, provoked this time because I asked to switch to the day shift now that school is over and Denver’s doing better. He’d only have to be alone for a couple of hours.

“Are you crazy?” She hissed, pulling me into the kitchen so Denver couldn’t hear. “No. Absolutely not, Montana, he would only end up hurting himself again. Or worse.”

“Mom—”

She didn’t even let me finish. “I know it’s not easy. I know. This is a time for sacrifice, though. We have to do what’s right for your brother. Just another year, Devon, just another three hundred and sixty-five days and then you’re done with this. You can do whatever you want.”

“This should be your sacrifice, Mom,” I shot back. “It’s not even like I’m asking to quit. I just want to work during the day so I can sleep at night like a normal person. It’s just two hours I wouldn’t be watching him.”

“He needs somebody here,” she said, firmly. She was still holding my arm.

I pulled away. “Then hire a sitter. There. Simple.”

She shook her head vehemently. “All of the extra money needs to go to him. You can’t be selfish about this—we need to be realistic. And the real world is that our insurance isn’t that great and we’re going to have to pay out of pocket for all his new medicines, and we need to add counseling to the therapy—it all costs.”

“We can certainly spare, like, a hundred dollars or something so I can have some peace of mind.”

“Montana…” She clicked her fingernails on the countertop. Her dark hair was wild around her face; it hadn’t been brushed yet, causing her to look severe. Looking at her then, my mother seemed old.

I backed toward the archway. “You do realize you have more than just one kid, right?”

“Montana,” she scoffed, flicking her hand in the air, “you’re hardly a child.”

“No, that’s right. I’m not. I’m an adult.”

“Exactly.” She nodded.

“Free to make my own decisions.”

She hesitated. “What are you trying to say?”

“Nothing, Mom.” I snatched the car keys off the counter. “See you later.”

The day is already fading into night by the time I get to the store. I pull the keys out of the ignition and just sit there for a minute, holding them in my lap.

I am suddenly just so—ugh, so unsatisfied. With my life. My friendships—or lack of them. My choices. I never stand up for myself. If I did it would just end badly. I draw a breath and close my eyes and tell myself to think of the number one thing I want.

Elias.

He pops into my head without any warning. I jerk forward in my seat. It’s not an option. Not even a remote possibility. He’s made it clear to me we aren't anything more than friends. And that’s okay. It has to be.

Or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know. But something has to change. I feel it in my core, in the very pit of my stomach. I cannot handle another summer of passivity, of living for the purpose of sustaining someone else. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I’m never going to be truly present for Denver until I’m there for myself.

I get out of the car and tuck my hair behind my ears. As I walk toward the front doors, I realize that I miss my busy shifts. I miss talking to lots of people, the meaningless conversation. I’m going to change my shift back, I resolve, and Mom will just have to deal with it.

I march in there with my head held high. For the first time in a while, I feel good. I turn the corner, smile at Martha, who works the evenings with me. I’m heading straight for the staff room when my eye catches a familiar hat.

I turn toward Elias, already raising my hand to wave, but I see he’s not alone. Sarah’s standing beside him, leaning over the tiny display of journals we keep in the center of the store. She turns her head a little bit, and he tucks it beneath his chin. One of his fingers lazily plays with a strand of her hair, come loose from a ponytail. She picks up one of the journals and flips it over. He laughs.

She’s gesturing spiritedly and he twists his head to the side, admiring her in a way that I know, with a deep and powerful ache, that he’s never going to look at me. Even if my deluded mind thought he could.

I whirl away, eyes burning, and continue into the staff room. Chris is in there, sitting at his desk like the mogul he will never be, balancing the register. I come to a stop in front of him.

“Yes?” He asks, barely glancing up.

“I—” Quit. I want to quit. I want this pain to end. Because for a moment, this store was my escape. I could get away here. From my brother’s mental illness, from my mother’s insistence that I help to fix something that cannot ever be fixed.

I don’t have a life anymore. Elias has become it. But he’s not, he can’t be, even though I believed that the bracelet adorning my ankle proved otherwise. He loves her, or at least cares deeply enough that he’ll never be with me. It’s the harsh truth, and I tell it to myself, because I need to hear it.

“Montana, I’m right in the middle of something here. If you could just wait—”

I can’t do it. Quit. Denver’s counting on me, no matter how much I long to spite Mom. “No, I can’t. I need to change shifts.” My eyes are welling with tears. I blink them into oblivion. “I need to change shifts.”

“You said that. And actually—” Chris pauses to clear his throat, “I’m afraid that’s not going to be possible.”

“What? Why?”

He folds his hand on the table and squares his shoulders. “I was hoping to do this next week. But you deserve to know why I have to refuse you. Han—um, Montana—you’re a good girl. A hard worker, when you apply yourself.”

My hands start to shake. I press them hard to my stomach in an effort to get them to stop. “Why are you saying this?”

“We have to make some company cuts, Montana. And as a young employee who’s graduating and then most likely heading off to college next year, you’re going to have to go. It’s a liability.”

I feel sick. “Please—Chris, I need this job.”

“You’re a teenaged girl, Montana. You’ll find work elsewhere. For right now, though, we’re only seeking long-term employees.”

“I’ll be long term,” I promise, scrambling for a way to salvage this. “I can stay. I’ll go to community college.”

He seems almost disappointed by my reply. Slowly, he stands, pushing his chair back from his desk. “Montana, I’m going to be frank with you. You have—” he pauses, measuring his words. “You have potential. You can do greater things than this store. This isn’t the place for you.”

“But I need the money. For my brother,” I try, hoping this convinces him. “He has therapy and medicine and—please, Chris.”

“I’m sorry, Montana.” He sinks back down into his chair. “I’ll need you to turn in your nametag at the end of the evening.”

I stare at him, hard, until he starts to squirm. Because how dare they. I’ve been working for them for nearly a year, with a near-perfect record. They don’t need to let me go. I don’t want some you-are-greater-than-this bull to try and persuade me to leave peacefully.

“How about I just take off now?” I say in an even tone, reaching for my tag. I pop it off and set it down on the desk, feeling an eerie calm come over me. “Thank you for…yeah.”

I turn toward the door, shouldering my purse, and go.

I force myself not to look back at Elias and Sarah as I leave. I head out into the night and get into my car, closing the door hard, with resolution. This is over. With him, the late nights, the exhaustion. I’m just—

Relieved. I think I’m relieved, so I don’t cry. I just turn on the car and back out and pull into the road. I take a deep breath to steady my nerves and head home to tell Mom.

I’m ready for my dominoes.

June

July

August

September

I leave work at a little past four and say bye to Lauren, who offers me a stick of her Orbit gum like she always does. Today, I take it. Whether I do differs depending on my mood from day-to-day

The kids went home a while ago, leaving an empty preschool, three-teachers, and us three paid trainees behind. I've been spending the afternoon cutting out shapes of fruit from construction paper for tomorrow's project. We're working on connecting colors to flavors as prep for October, the big food month. I'm excited to bake with the five-year-olds, if I'm being honest. It's a nice reprieve from our usual, far less messy routine.

In the car, I give Denver a call to check up on him. He's been staying home alone for a half hour or so lately, to his own insistence. Amanda, the sitter, never goes far from the house.

"Hi," he answers, jubilantly. He loves answering the phone. "Callaway wesidence. Denvuh speaking."

"Hi. This is Velma Dinkley, with Mysteries Incorporated. I was referred to you by my friend, Mr. Scooby Cornelius Doo. He told me you have a mystery for us to solve."

Denver giggles, absolutely tickled by this. "Montana!"

"Oh, you got me. What's up?"

"Nothing," he says in singsong. "Whatcha doing?"

"Driving home. You by yourself?"

"Yeah."

"What are you doing?"

"Dwawing at the table."

"What are you drawing?"

"Just stuff. A suhpwise."

"Okay, then. I won't ask."

"Good." There's silence, nothing but his heavy mouth-breathing and the distant scratch of paper against a wood surface.

"Okay, Denny. I better go. I'll see you in a minute."

"Oh! Wait. Amanda said we'uh out of milk."

"Milk? Can it wait for tomorrow?" I readjust my hands on the wheel and press the phone between my ear and shoulder. "I already passed the store."

"She said we need it for the soup."

"Okay. I'll turn back."

"Theuh's a mawket there."

"What?"

"Mom took me theuh once."

"Oh, yeah." I suddenly recall that there is, a ways up. It's a bit dingy, but surely they have milk. "Good job."

"Thanks. See you soon?"

"Soon. Love you."

"Love you," he echoes. The line goes dead.

I swear, he surprises me sometimes. The speech therapy hasn't been working as we've liked. He's having trouble in school, despite it being the beginning of the year. He's on his last dose of antidepressants, and we're worried about that. What happens after. There have been a lot of tense moments, between Mom and I. A lot of arguments over what's best for him. Because I feel like I know. Maybe it should be entirely up to her, but I love him just the same as she does.

He shines through, though, when I least expect it. With the brilliance of the sun, and it makes my chest ache in the best way.

I find the market he was talking about. It's older and dirtier than I remembered, but I pull in any way, pulling my purse taunt across my chest. There are a few cars in the parking lot, all older models, and mine fits right in. I head for the door.

A sorry bell jingles a halfhearted welcome. I glance around. There's only one register, and the aisles are crowded with old merchandise. I spot the coolers right away, poorly lit with a partially out row of fluorescent lights. I grab a gallon and head for the register, waiting.

"Excuse me?" I call out, after waiting a full ninety seconds.

"Sorry!" Comes a guy from the back. "I didn't know I had a customer."

I reach into my purse for change and hear the squeak of shoes against the floor. I glance up and watch as the cashier comes around the corner. My heart leaps into my throat. He's not looking, preoccupied with a set of keys. I hear him curse under his breath as he goes over to the door and twists one of the locks to the right.

"I'm sorry," he says, pocketing the keys. He tests the door to make sure it's bolted. "We were closed. I forgot to lock the doors. I—" He stops when he finally sees me. His smile fades, returns, fades again.

I find my voice. "What's up?"

I'm glad we needed milk.

Comments

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHMM

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHMMMMMMUUUUUUYYYYYYGGGGGAAAAWWWWWW!!!!!!
I love, love, love, love, love, love, love this story!!!! Read it all I. One sitting, which is really impressive because it felt like a novel, so full and rich and BRIILIANT!!! I absolutely adored this!!! Omg! Love!
I... I don't know what else to say? It's sadly realistic, bitter-sweet! I enjoyed the depth of the characters-- the way you wrote in brief passing details! It all felt realistic! I could picture it all! I adored, adored! Absolutely love!!! I might just marry your short story :P I love it SO much!
Ahhhhhhhh!!! Love!

Kassady | Mon, 07/28/2014

"Here's looking at you, Kid"
---
Write On!

AHHHHH!!!

OH MY GOODNESS. What have you done?? I'm coming back to comment when I have the time because I'm meant to be somewhere so but I'll let you know I love this. Be back!

Maddi | Wed, 07/30/2014

Goodbye? Oh no, please. Can’t we just go back to page one and start all over again?” – Winnie The Pooh

Alright, I'm back.

Okay!! So, first I have to say that you will become a published writer, with all these amazing short thought-provoking stories and all.
I was tearing up with Denver being self-suicidal and all; it completely took me by surprise. I was expecting him to have had an accident, not this!
The conversations between Montana and her mum are SO GOOD. The tension, conflict and everything was very well written.
The other thing I really like about this is not the things you did write, but the things you didn't write. I like how you left out anything to do with her schooling, except that she was doing it at home etc. Like you didn't add any extra conversations with people at her school, teachers. And you didn't focus on characters that were insignificant (I guess that's kind of the point, since they're insignificant, but I liked how you shaped Montana's thoughts so that she dwell them, there were...insignificant. Yeah, enough said.)
Even though her getting let go was sad, I'm glad that happened, because...I don't, it just kind of fit.
And at the end, I really enjoyed it (even though it IS an open ending) because it's like the tables turned and it's really good.
Although I usually don't like hanging endings, this seemed to fit, and there doesn't seem anymore to say after that.

Homey, well well WELL DONE! Don't think I could say it enough.
Also, the conversations with her boss/es are really well done too. And, I've noticed your character are really very sarcastic. But Montana was just the right balance for what her life was like, and everything was pretty realistic. GREAT JOB!!

Maddi | Thu, 07/31/2014

Goodbye? Oh no, please. Can’t we just go back to page one and start all over again?” – Winnie The Pooh

Kassady--Thank you so much!

Kassady--Thank you so much! :) I can't believe you read it all in one sitting; it really is quite long. I so appreciate it! Love ya!

Maddi--Wow, yay, my favorite kind of comments (though any comment is lovely, I will admit). Thank you so much for the compliments, for pointing out what you liked--so on and so forth. :D It's so nice to have good feedback! Makes me happy! Reading stuff like that is just food for a writer's soul. ;) haha!

Being published is a dream! I hope all of us ApricotPie-ers can make it there one day!

By the way, I read Not Perfect Chapter Six this morning and will comment by tomorrow for sure! If I don't, for whatever reason, hold me to it!

Thanks guys! So much! <3

Madeline | Thu, 07/31/2014

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

OHHHH this is so good :) I

OHHHH this is so good :) I loved it. One thing: in Montana's second argument with her mother, she calls her Devon. On another note, have you read We Were Liars by e. Lockhart? I read it today (in only 3hrs lol). It's weird but amazing. Haha. Anyway, wonderful job!

Erin | Fri, 08/01/2014

"You were not meant to fit into a shallow box built by someone else." -J. Raymond

I forgot to mention how much

I forgot to mention how much I loved the banter between Elias and Montana. I almost laughed out loud at several moments, but I actually did when she threw the sandwich at him. I could just visualize the scene and it was super comical :)

Erin | Fri, 08/01/2014

"You were not meant to fit into a shallow box built by someone else." -J. Raymond

:)

This was riveting. Well done!

Kyleigh | Mon, 08/04/2014

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