So Christmas is seemingly the only thing that inspires me anymore; alas, a new story emerges. I'm hoping to get this out in its entirety by the 25th, and as always, feedback is greatly appreciated. Thanks!
The sound of the grocery scanner was now permanently and irreversibly carved into my brain. It had been going off rapid-fire (not two feet from my ear) since the second I had clocked in that afternoon. Now, finally, at ten-oh-seven PM on Christmas Eve, it had stopped.
Well, the real one had stopped. But I could swear that I still heard phantom beeps behind the sound of the overhead radio.
"All is calm…"
I let my forehead collide with the aisle-seven sign. "You think that's the rush for tonight, Al?"
"Hope so," he called back, all the way from aisle two. Al was my one lone trench-mate tonight (such is your fate when you're the noobs) and I could hardly see him over the register.
At 73 years old, Al was easily the oldest employee they had here. He was perpetually hunched over from years of sitting behind an insurance agent's desk. When he got laid off that past summer, he started scanning groceries to pay the bills, and despite it all, the guy never came in without a smile on his face.
I didn't say it, but I really hoped so, too. This place was depressing. Especially tonight, and the tinsel snowflakes drooping from the ceiling did little in the way of holiday cheer.
Things clattered. I shot up straight at the sound.
There was now a pile of assorted items dumped on my conveyer belt. Namely a box of sidewalk chalk, a carton of eggs, a bag of mixed hard candies, an obscene amount of graham crackers, and roughly sixteen cans of men's shaving cream. I looked up.
I recognized him right away. Tommy Barton. West Hill's very own chameleon.
"Oh. Mia. Hey."
"Hey." A disinterested response on its own, but the tone hinted at curiosity. Tommy kept it casual.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Do you have a store card?"
"I'll scan mine."
"Do you want the eggs in a separate bag?"
"Don't even worry about it."
"Okay. That's $39.87."
He pulled out a card.
"Credit or debit?"
The clicking of number keys. The rustling of plastic bags. And still, Silent Night droning on in the background.
"Thanks. You too."
He whistled along as he walked toward the automatic doors. Then Tommy Barton, Chameleon, left the building.
"He seems like a nice lad."
"Yeah. He is."
"You know him?" Al asked.
"I do," I said. "I go to school with him."
"Friend of yours?"
I hesitated. "Well, no. Not really. But we're…definitely not not-friends."
Al shrugged and smiled and nodded, all simultaneously as he often did, and left it at that.
Truth was, there wasn't anyone at W.H.H. who wasn't on good terms with Tommy. Hence the chameleon thing. He just floated from group to group to group, fitting in anywhere he decided he wanted to be. And he acclimated. Not in a fake way or anything; he just had a million different sides to him, and each one came out in the presence of a particular niche.
He lived two houses down from me on the opposite side of the street. The welcoming-party side of him had come out when I moved there in second grade. He caught me out on my front lawn and asked me to go for a bike ride. Then we were sort-of friends, and we did sort-of friends things like block-wide games of manhunt and occasional bus-seat conversations.
That is, until this one night in the middle of my first summer there. I hadn't really seen him in a while—school being out and all that—and he knocked on my door sometime around dusk. I remember it being super hot and muggy, and he asked me to walk down to the canal with him. I did. Something was bothering him that night, and I never asked what, but he seemed to feel better by the time we got back.
We graduated to just-plain-friends after that, and it stayed that way for a year or two. Regularly-scheduled bike rides and Go-Fish on my bedroom floor and N64 marathons in his basement. Then I guess people started to realize how many sides he had to offer, and Tommy got pretty busy with floating. Thus, several years later in the midst of our senior year, there wasn't much left. Not not-friends, like I said.
And then my not not-friend walked back in through the automatic door.
"Hey Mia, when do you get off?"
"When do you finish work?" His bags of mostly-shaving-cream clattered in his hands.
"Um… I'm closing. So, like, a little after midnight."
Tommy's mouth tightened and shifted to one side. "Hm. Damn."
"Well, I'm in the middle of this thing, and it kind of turns out we need an extra person, so—"
"Don't mean to interrupt, Amelia," Al piped up, and his voice could hardly be heard over the much-louder rendition of Sleigh Ride that had since replaced Silent Night. "But I'm closing tonight."
I raised an eyebrow. "I don't think so."
"I am. And it's about that time for second-to-last out. Jimmy'll be mad if he finds out he's paying two bodies to do nothin'."
I started walking towards register one, where we kept the schedule. "But I checked when I got in. I—"
Al somehow got there first, and his fist closed around the schedule. His strikingly blue eyes wrinkled at the corners. "I'm scheduled to close, Mia. I'm sure of it."