Read The Six: Complete Series Online
Authors: E.C. Richard
He groaned as the alarm clock went off for the fifth time that morning. These early shifts were killing him. Every buzz got progressively louder until it was impossible to escape the noise, even with a pillow over his head.
"Simon? There's coffee. Did you want some coffee before you leave?"
He smacked the snooze button and rolled back onto his pillow.
"You're going to be late. You had better get going."
She was already up, of course she was. It never seemed to matter how early he had to get to work, she was always looming by his door and impatiently waiting for him to leave. It had been cute in high school, but now it just pissed him off.
"I know!" he shouted from under the covers. "I'm up!"
He waited for her footsteps to creep away so he could fall back asleep, but the faint outline of her slippers was still visible. "Oh, I heard this story on the radio this morning,” she shouted through the door. “Did you hear the one about those little girls who fought those dogs in Fremont?"
He threw the pillow on the floor and dipped one foot into the crisp morning air. It sent an unwelcome chill down his body. "I don't want to hear about it—"
"The younger one got bitten. Oh, it sounded like a terrible story."
Simon lumbered over to the door and opened it just a crack. The rest of the house was just as cold as his room. There was an early morning staleness that had settled in the hallway; talk radio mumbled in the kitchen. The faint aroma of bacon accompanied both. "You don't have to make me anything," he said. “I can do it myself.”
She patted his arm. "It’s not a problem. You need your protein for all that heavy lifting."
"They'll probably put me on the register again."
"Oh," she said, "are they still doing that? I thought you told them that you didn't want to do that anymore."
"Well, I haven't told them, yet."
“Simon,” she said as she crossed her arms, “this is what always happens. Tell them and then maybe you’ll have better luck at this place. You need to stand up for yourself.”
He nodded. “I guess. The boss is a real asshole, though.”
She pulled at the belt to her robe and cinched it snug against her waist.
“Well, I’m going to the mall after my appointment. Do you want me to ask around? Maybe there’s something open at the bookstore? That would be nice, right?”
“Mom,” he said, “I’m fine. I’ve got this.”
She looked up at him with hopeful eyes. “All right. You do what you need to do.”
“I’ll try,” he said. “I’ll try.”
The line was seven people deep and not letting up. A virulent strand of flu had ravaged half the employees, and the ones still left were either too busy smoking outside or too hung-over to show up for work. He had been the only one on the register all morning, without so much as a bathroom break since ten.
His fingers were calloused from handling frozen vegetables and twenty-four packs of Diet Coke all day. The lady in the front of the line had the tight cardigan and oversized jewelry of a housewife with too much time on her hands. Unpronounceable cheeses and organic vegetables littered the conveyor belt. Behind her avant garde groceries were the sale items, the batteries and the dog food, that had been flying off the shelves due to the massive clearance coupons in the newspapers.
It was clear that this wasn’t the type of woman who had the patience to change her own batteries or pet a dog without a vial of Purell nearby. She was another couponer trying to show off to her disinterested husband when she got home.
She watched his hands as each item swiped across the scanner. Her eyes darted back and forth between the spinach on the belt and the total that added up on the register. In an attempt to inject a shred of guilt into her, he heaved the fifty-pound bag of dog food and wrenched his back as it rang up. Even his faux pain didn’t faze her. Instead, she kept an eagle eye on his register as he completed the sale.
“Did you scan my coupons? I don’t think you scanned them.”
The woman glared at Simon’s hands which still clutched the stacks of exquisitely clipped coupons from the Sunday newspapers. She tapped her fingernails loudly on the credit card scanner and made an exasperated sigh towards the customers who stood behind her.
“Sorry,” he said under his breath as he slid the papers beneath the scanner. Between piling three hundred pound bags of kibble in her cart and stacking boxes of Wheat Thins like Jenga pieces, it had slipped his mind.
“I mean... all the time I spent finding them. Thank goodness I noticed.” She got supportive nods from her line-mates.
“I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.”
The woman swiped her credit card with a self-righteous yank at the machine. “No excuse for not paying attention. I mean, seriously.”
He looked out at the people standing in line behind her for some kind of support. They stood there with their eyes focused everywhere but at him. He, alone, stuffed her bags and handed her the receipt with a smile.
“Have a nice day,” he said as she walked away without saying a word.
It was his sixth straight day at work, and his feet ached. They had hired him to work in the back, doing odds and ends and shelving. When one of the old timers decided she’d rather take an unscheduled vacation than come to work, he was thrown on the cash register without a minute of training. No one who worked at the store felt like helping him, and he wouldn’t have accepted it if they tried. This job was just as temporary as all the others. What would be the point of learning a whole new system when he’d inevitably be looking for another job in a month?
His sister had found this job for him. He’d been looking for a few weeks, and the string of disastrous interviews brought him to her front door, begging for a favor. The guy she’d married knew everyone around town and could smooth things over for him. He knew the manager of Andronico’s and got him the shift in the back where he wouldn’t have to see anyone. All day he dodged the cock-eyed glance of an old-timer who recognized his face from the newspapers. At least once a shift he’d get a question about it. “Hey Simon, is it true he’s getting out?” “Hey Simon, how are you holding up?” “Hey Simon, stay out of trouble.” These people would look at him as if he were a rotten peach at the top of stack—a sweet ruined piece of life they could just walk away from. All he wanted to do was go back home and sleep. Dealing with people all day made his head hurt, and his mom had hidden his pills. All he had left were the few he’d squirreled away when she was on her walk.
The break room was empty, just the way he wanted it. He immediately stripped off the official mint green collared shirt they’d given him on his first day. It was a size too small and pinched his neck. With a sluggish flourish, he unwrapped the apron from his waist and threw it on the ground.
The locker stank and made it clear that he needed new clothes. The t-shirt was from high school, and his pants were worn so thin that a light breeze would litter them with holes. His last girlfriend, well his only girlfriend, bought him clothes a few years ago. She used to grab him on the weekends and force him into Target for hours. His mom hated her and said she was using him. “For what?” He asked. “My fifty dollars in the bank or my complete lack of accomplishments?” She didn’t find that funny and neither did his girlfriend. That’s probably why she left him for her neighbor.
He put on his headphones and blasted the CD that his sister had burned for him. It was filled with rock bands that her husband had discovered when he went to some festival for work. It was a live recording and the crowd was going crazy. What he wouldn’t pay to feel like he could go to a concert again.
He spun around after throwing his clunky shoes into his locker and, where there was no one before, now stood an impatient coworker with three layers of eyeliner and hair sprayed to within an inch of its life. She waved her hand in front of him like he was a dazed shipwreck survivor. He yanked the headphones out of his ear.
She was already talking by the time he could actually understand a word she was saying. “...should come.”
He gestured to his headphones. “Sorry, what’d you say?”
With the largest sigh she could muster, she stomped her foot and began again. “I’m having a dinner thing on Friday. It’s just going to be some people from work and stuff. You should come.” Lily from the deli counter peeled off the apron from around her waist as she spoke. She yanked down the hem of her tank top and revealed the outline of her ample cleavage.
“So?” she asked.
Friday was movie night at home. He couldn’t miss movie night. Mom would be so angry if he weren’t there.
“Maybe. I have some plans, but I’ll try, though.”
Lily looked over at the closed door behind her. He recognized his coworkers peering out from behind it. “Okay whatever, it’s at six.” He didn’t even have time to respond before she walked out the door.
As the door swung shut behind her, he heard her say, “...of course he didn’t!” He couldn’t go. Mom would be disappointed if he didn’t show up. He was all that was keeping her together right now.
There was a muffled sound coming from the back of the locker room.
“Hello?” he asked. “Is anyone in here?”
After he took a few steps closer to the noise, it suddenly stopped. He followed it into the single bathroom stall that sat in the unlit area in the back of the break room. On the balls of his feet, he crept closer to the door and peered underneath. Two red Converses were planted on the floor, and a slouchy purse sat against them. He immediately knew who it was.
“Grace?” he asked.
Her tiny shaking hand picked up the handle of the purse and snatched it from the floor.
“I’m fine.” Her voice shook as she spoke.
He leaned against the door. “You sure? Can I get you some water or anything?”
She clicked the door latch and slowly pulled it open. There was a pair of oversized sunglasses that covered half her face, and she was bundled up in a heavy coat. Even under her disguise, she still barely took up any space. She squeezed past him and went right to her locker.
“Grace!” he said as he followed her. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
He’d known Grace ever since high school. They never hung out much, but it wasn’t a big school. When you’re one of the few that didn’t jet set off to college after graduation, you have to take whatever friends are left over. “Is it work? Did they say something to you?”
She shook her head.
“It’s not that. Just leave me alone, okay?”
Grace yanked out a sweatshirt from the top of her locker which dislodged a stack of books she’d been storing in there. They fell to the floor in a heap at her feet. “Shit,” she muttered as she bent over to pick them up, only to have her glasses slide off the side of her head and on top of a crisp copy of “Lord of the Flies”. As she lifted her head, he saw the bruise that surrounded her right eye.
The moment she saw his shocked expression, she lurched for the glasses and turned her head away from him.
She threw the books back into the locker in a heap. “It’s nothing.”
He grabbed her arm and pulled her back before she could get any farther. “Is that from Don?”
Her eyes said it all. For a brief moment, he was sure this would be the time she’d let it all out. Instead, she grabbed her glasses and pressed them firmly on her face. “Leave me alone.” She ducked her way out of his grip and marched towards the door.
She went for the doorknob. “I’m fine. Just don’t, okay?”
That asshole had hurt her, again. It was the same creep who had thrown pencils at the back of his head all through Chemistry class because he thought it was funny to see how long it took to give Simon a panic attack. This was the guy that made school a living nightmare and forced him to up his antidepressant dosage to the point he almost overdosed his senior year. That same asshole knocked her up when they were both in high school. He made her give up that baby and never let her get out of the terrible life she grew up in. Grace could have been a doctor or a lawyer or something. Instead, she worked double and triple shifts at a second-rate grocery store.
He moved to chase after her, but what was the point. A thousand people had told to her to leave but, there she was, living in the same shithole she started in.
He hadn’t eaten since that morning. Three Red Bulls and a handful of Skittles had powered him through his second shift. Now that he didn’t have to be on guard with every housewife that came into the store, his appetite had reappeared with a vengeance. Every taste bud craved fried rice from the Panda Express behind the store. He could already taste the salt on his tongue.
Lily hadn’t taken out the trash and the alley behind the store stank of rotten fruit and spoiled meat. Using his phone as a makeshift flashlight, Simon meandered through the minefield of overflowing plastic garbage bags. He kicked an escaped moldy orange against the wall, and it splattered like an overfilled water balloon.
As he stepped over discarded Labor Day sale signs, he heard a rustle behind him. He listened for the slam of the back door to the store, which some people used because it was a shortcut to the parking lot. There was no slam, not even a peep. All he heard were the muffled footsteps traveling behind him.
He knew what to do or, at least, what he should do. As he sat in the hospital with his body bandaged up from head to toe he had replayed in his mind a hundred ways he could have done it all differently. Maybe, he thought, if I had walked a little faster when he pulled up he couldn’t have gotten me. Or, maybe, if I had some kind of weapon to pull out then I could have gotten out of there much faster.