The all too familiar sound of the shutters rolling up told Sally Dean that she was late. Again. Why couldn't she just get here on time? It didn't seem to matter what time she got up, what time she left the house or if she took a train or a bus. Sally sighed and braced herself for a Skeletor attack.
"Nice of you to join us, Miss Dean." Sally flinched and stopped in mid jog across the shop floor; she turned and prepared herself for the barrage. Miss Middlebrook, always Miss Middlebrook and never a first name, glared at Sally over the top of horn rimmed spectacles. She believed that familiarity bred contempt so she refused to be on first name terms with her staff but, right now, she had skipped contempt and gone straight to disgust. And now she stood there, skinny hands on bony hips, looking as if a sneeze would blow her down.
"I'm sorry, Ske . . . Um, Miss Middlebrook."
"I doubt that, since you manage to be late every day." Sally felt a small flower of anger begin to bloom in her chest.
"It's not my fault, Miss Middlebrook."
"Then whose fault is it, may I ask?"
"Yours, Miss Middlebrook." Sally's voice was level and totally free from sarcasm, but Miss Middlebrook blanched anyway.
"And what exactly do you mean by that?" Her voice was cold, like chips of ice being spat across the room. Sally gave a small sigh, in for a penny in for a pound.
"You know I have trouble getting here for nine. I asked you weeks ago if I could have the 9.30 shift and you said you would let me know. How long does it take to make a decision?" Sally Stared at Miss Middlebrook, not even daring to breathe. Miss Middlebrook's lips twitched and then she raised an eyebrow.
"Well, if you'll excuse me I think I need to change the rota." Sally stared, open mouthed, at Miss Middlebrook's retreating form.
"Holy shit" whispered Sally. Another head raised itself above the counter and grinned; Tanya Peters stood up and waited until the door to the office had closed before she started her victory dance.
"Oh my giddy God! I can't believe you just did that!" Her voice was high pitched but barely above a whisper. Sally couldn't believe it herself; she swallowed and walked in a daze to the locker room to put her things away.
When the clock finally rolled around to 1pm, Old Skeletor rolled the shutters back down and dismissed her staff for lunch. Sally and Tanya took the back door out of the shop and crossed the car park to the burger van. After retrieving two cheeseburgers with everything, they dashed back into the shop and went to the staff room. A girl was sitting at the table. She was thin with mousey brown hair, thick glasses and a pock marked face.
"Hello. Sorry, I'll move so you can sit and eat your lunch." Tanya gave a haughty snort and dropped into the empty chair.
"Thank you. I'm Sally and the stroppy moo there is Tanya." The moo in question wasn't listening; she just gave another snort and started on her burger. Sally dragged another chair to the table to allow the girl to have a seat too.
"I'm Sam. Nice to meet you both" said the girl. Sally smiled and nodded before eating her own burger and trying to include Sam in the conversation even though Tanya ignored her.
The shutters once again rolled down and the shop was closed for the day. Sally leaned against a counter and tugged off her blue cowboy boots.
"Why do I wear these? They rip my feet to pieces" she muttered. Sally followed Tanya to the locker room; they grabbed their things and then left again by the back door. Old Skeletor was left to cash up and lock down. Sam was standing outside and Sally wondered how she had got out here so fast but then she noticed Sam had no bag or coat. She must have gone straight from the shop floor and outside. Sally smiled, that seemed like a good idea!
"I'm off. See you tomorrow, Sally." Tanya turned on her heel and strode past Sam, not even sparing her a glance. Sally sighed and shook her head.
"I'm sorry about her. She's got ideas above her station" said Sally, She put on a posh accent and winked at Sam. The small girl smiled and blinked behind her thick lenses.
"I was wondering if you'd like to come back to mine for a drink and you can tell me how things work in the shop?" asked Sam. Sally opened her mouth to refuse but Sam looked so lost and lonely, she only wanted a friend. Plus, Sally still felt a little guilty about Tanya's rudeness.
"Yeah, okay. I'll give you the lowdown on Old Skeletor." Sam's smile was so bright that Sally immediately felt better about agreeing to go.
Sam lived in a one bedroom flat a short walk from the shop but they instead went into a nearby park. They perched on the swings and talked about anything they could think of. Old Skeletor, where they lived, schools they had gone too, men that had passed through their lives and then vanished. It was a pleasant evening that passed quickly and Sally only left at midnight because she had work the next day.
"Sally, I just wanted to say thank you. This is the most fun I've ever had in my life. Thank you, Sally, for being my friend." Sally smiled at Sam, the girl was so earnest but there was sadness behind her words. Almost as if she were saying goodbye instead of see you tomorrow. Sally waved as she set off on the long walk home but she didn't mind. She planned on having a chat with Tanya in the morning and then maybe they could all go for a drink after work.
The next morning, Sally managed to get in with plenty of time to start at 9.30 which put Old Skeletor in a much better mood. Sally didn't really get the chance to speak to Tanya properly until they went for their lunch break. Once they were seated in the staff room, Sally decided that now was the time.
"Have you seen Sam today?" Tanya raised her head and stared at Sally, a frown creasing her brow.
"Who's Sam?" Sally sat back in her chair and bit her lower lip, trying not to get angry at Tanya.
"The new girl? She was in here yesterday while we had lunch; you were really rude and ignored her the whole time." Tanya swallowed a mouthful of food and continued to frown at Sally.
"What are you talking about? There wasn't anybody in here yesterday. You spent the whole break chatting away to yourself so I just let you get on with it." Sally gaped at Tanya, she hesitated a moment before pushing away from the table and striding out to the shop floor. Old Skeletor was filling the scarves; she turned at Sally's approach.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Miss Middlebrook but I was wondering what happened to Sam?"
"Sam who?" Sally closed her mouth; she had never heard Sam mention a second name.
"I'm not sure, she never said but she started yesterday. I thought she would have been back in today . . ." Sally stopped when she found that Old Skeletor was staring at her in the same way that Tanya had.
"Miss Dean, nobody else works here. It has always been just the three of us." She turned and went towards the shutters; it was time to open again. Sally stood in the middle of the shop and frowned at her shoes in confusion.
It seemed like a week had crawled past before the shutters came down again and Sally was able to leave. She grabbed her stuff and dashed from the shop so fast that Tanya didn't even realise she had gone. Sally hurried through the streets and found the park that she and Sam had sat in the night before. On the opposite side of the road was the block of flats that Sam had pointed out.
"What number did she say?" muttered Sally. She didn't relish the idea of going from door to door in a huge block of flats after dark and asking for Sam. Sally jogged across the empty road and ducked inside the block, a small snippet of conversation floated back to her. Sam had mentioned that her mother was in a wheelchair and, from the looks of it; this block had no lift so they had to be on the ground floor. Sally smiled and pushed through a set of double doors to right and, steeling herself for a lot of embarrassment, she knocked on the first door.
Four doors in and Sally's knocking was rewarded by a petite brunette in a wheelchair. She cast her eyes skyward and sent a small thank you to whatever was up there.
"Hello, my name's Sally. I was looking for Sam?" The woman looked her up and down for a moment before wheeling herself backwards and beckoning Sally to follow her. Sally closed the door behind her and followed the woman down a short corridor and into a small living room. Sally sat down on a rather shabby looking sofa and looked, expectantly, at the brunette.
"How did you know Sam?"
"I met her at work. I was worried when . . . Wait, how did I know Sam? Is she okay?" asked Sally, suddenly picking up on the past tense. The woman sighed and wiped her eyes.
"Sam killed herself. She was just so lonely and people never understood her. They made her life a living Hell. All she wanted was someone to be her friend." Sally swallowed the lump that had risen in her throat and gave a shaky sigh.
"I'm so sorry. She seemed fine when I left her yesterday." The woman's head snapped up, a look of total confusion on her face.
"I don't understand. We buried Sam yesterday, in the Hillside Cemetery. She hung herself over two weeks ago."
Sally walked through the gates of Hillside and wiped the tears from her eyes. Mrs Holmes, that had been Sam's last name, had shown her a photo of Sam. The girl was definitely the same one that she had spoken to. Sally had made some excuse that she couldn't now remember and had dashed from the block and made for the cemetery.
"Two rows in and six across" muttered Sally. She followed the directions until she came to a freshly covered grave with a small, plastic marker with Holmes written on it. Sally managed a smile at that, Sam had talked about Sherlock Holmes and how much she loved his mysteries. Sally took off her jacket and laid it on the grass and then she sat down on top of it. She felt she should say something but what was there to say?
"Hello, Sam. I just wanted to . . . Ah, Hell. I don't know what to say. I think I'm going nuts. I know I saw you yesterday but nobody else did. I can't believe I had that much fun with a ghost!" Sally smiled as she remembered how much her face had hurt after all the laughing and then she heard Sam's voice in her mind.
"Thank you for being my friend." Sally smiled through the tears that trickled down her cheeks. She placed a kiss on her fingertips before pressing them against the earth.
"You're welcome, my friend. Sleep well." Sally stood up, shook the grass from her jacket and headed home.