Stranger

Stranger

 

walking_away_by_kwiatirupe-d3aduz1She smiles. She drinks wine. She stumbles, falls on the dance floor and gets up laughing. She smiles, but not at him. She holds hands with her girlfriends and cups a hand at their ears to share secrets.  She flirts with some of the guys at the party but not with him. She is wearing a pink dress. It is too short. When she stumbles, you can see her rear end. She blows kisses at a friend across the room. It is late when she finally leaves with a guy she has been talking to for a long time. He is wearing a blue shirt. She takes his arm and allows him to wrap his arm about her waist. She is unsteady on her feet. She looks like a whore. Later when he looks in her window, she is not alone. He knew she would not be alone. She is making love to the guy in the blue shirt. She throws her head back, her eyes are closed. Her mouth opens in a perfect, surprised ‘o’ as she climaxes. He begins to imagine what her mouth will look like when she screams.

 

#

Brittany lifted her glasses and wiped her eyes, trying to stay awake. After about ten-thirty or so, all she got was tipsy college students, kids passing fake ids and shift workers looking for Red Bull to help them make it through the night. Brittany tried the whole caffeine routine but it only made her feel like something was crawling under her skin. She wasn’t supposed to read while sitting at the cash register. Rahjid said it was dangerous and that if he caught her at it, he would take away the graveyard shift and give it to Josh instead. It had been difficult enough getting him to give her the late hours in the first place.

There’s been rapings, he said solemnly.  I don’t want that happen to you.

Brittany didn’t worry about the ‘rapings’. She worried about dying of boredom. But the pay was better if you worked the overnight schedule, and when she got off at five a.m., she slept until just before noon and still had most of her day ahead of her. Not that she had elaborate plans for what to do with her day.  More often than not, she picked up more hours at work, subbing for other cashiers who needed time off to pick up kids, go to family functions or who – like Josh – were hung over and didn’t want to admit it.

Sometimes Rahjid worked with her on the graveyard shift. He talked about his life in Afghanistan which was kind of interesting, and about how he wanted to go home and find a nice wife from his clan. Once, Brittany had referred to them as ‘tribes’ and he’d gotten offended. Mostly she just listened. He made life there sound so idyllic; she didn’t ask the obvious question which was why he’d come to the States to live if things were so great there.  And of course, things could only be so great when your country had been torn by war for as long as anyone could remember.

Cody stopped by sometimes, but he kept trying to make her go back with him into the stockroom for a quickie. They’d been broken up for seven months, but just because she was cordial, he tried to leverage his way into booty calls every once in awhile. And Brittany happened to know he was going out with Elise Turner now. Elise worked in the mall at the pretzel place and won Employee of the Month a bunch of times because she sold so much. Guys went by and bought pretzels because they liked her long, blonde hair and the fact that she wore a uniform that was a size too small and showed off her tits. Brittany thought Elise was cheap and an obvious step down for Cody, but 19-year old guys were stupid that way, and Cody was no different.

In six more months, she would have enough saved to move to Orlando and live with her cousin, Stacie.  Stacie worked at Universal Studios theme park. She said she met all kinds of interesting people and could go to the beach twice a week if she wanted. That sounded about as close to heaven as Brittany could imagine. She’d stopped going out every weekend when she realized she wasted about fifty bucks a week just buying watered-down beer and shooting pool, throwing up behind the dumpster and being late for work the next day. Now she saved almost everything she made, putting it all into her checking account and taking out only as much as she needed for gas and to pay rent and stuff. Josh’s new nickname for her was ‘Nun’ because he’d stopped running into her out at the bars and she’d told him she was laying off for awhile.

Josh was cute.  And he was different from most of the guys around town because he’d actually been to college and finished. When Brittany asked him why he was working as a convenience store attendant with a college degree, he’d said he was “working some shit out” whatever that meant. She sometimes watched him lifting boxes and thought that maybe she could go out with a guy like him but he drank as much as most of the other guys so it was probably stupid to think that his college degree would make any difference in the end.

“Wake up, young lady.”

Brittany smiled, looking up at the sound of the familiar voice.

“Hey Nick. Long time no see.”

“Indeed,” Nick said. “But I don’t suppose you missed me much.  I bet you have lots of customers more stimulating than I am.”

“Not really,” Brittany said.

Nick was a professor at the college. About thirty-five, he had a goatee, chestnut hair and the prettiest hazel eyes. He told Brittany over and over that she was smart and should consider registering for school. He even promised to write her a recommendation. But school and Brittany had never mixed. Nick was one of her regulars. He was writing a book and late hours were par for the course since his days were occupied with teaching and counseling underperforming students. He always bought the same thing – an extra large Coke, a bag of Doritos and a doughnut. Sugar for energy, caffeine to stay awake and salt for taste, he’d explained to Brittany the first time they met.

“No fascinating young men popping by?” Nick asked as he waited for his Coke cup to fill.

“No, but plenty of drunk young men,” Brittany said.

“Hmm.  Too bad.”

“What about you, Professor? Any interesting young women?”

“I had a date last week,” Nick said, securing the lid on his Coke. “She was an Amazonian brunette who smelled like she smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. She intimidated me, so I’ve asked her out again.”

Brittany laughed. “If she intimidated you, why would you ask her out again?”

“It’s important to conquer your fear,” Nick said bringing his choices over for her to check them out.

Brittany slid her glasses up her nose. “I can’t say there’s much I’m afraid of,” she shrugged.

“Well then you’re one of the lucky ones.” Nick winked at her as he left.

Around one a.m. Martha, another regular, came in. She wore tattered baseball caps and sweatshirts and mumbled to herself as she chose her purchases – a can of Campbell’s chicken soup, a loaf of bread and a pint of ice cream. Martha lived in one of the nastiest looking houses in town. The yard was littered with old appliances, a broken down and rusty Ford, assorted boxes, piles of old newspapers, plastic bins and yards of barbed wire, all rolled up like on an obstacle course. When Brittany was a kid, she’d gone around to Martha’s with her friends just to toss things in the yard and see whether she came out to yell at them, which she invariably did, and then they would all squeal and run away.

About once a month, someone from the county went around to issue her a citation.  They would post it on her gate and go away again. Martha ignored the citations until finally some other folks from the county would show up and issue an order for her to clean up her yard or have the whole property and its structures condemned. Volunteers would show up on a Saturday and help haul things away except for the old Ford, which Martha would never let them touch. The county would be satisfied and leave her alone until she started hoarding crap once again. By Brittany’s count, there had been roughly five occasions when folks had pitched in to help Martha with her refuse problem. The town never seemed to grow tired of her; she was the only remotely interesting bit of local color around here.

“Where’s the Arab at?” Martha asked as she slammed her choices on the counter.

“Rahjib’s not working tonight, Martha,” Brittany said wearily.

“Ain’t right, him making you work here all alone late at night,” she said.

She dug into the pockets of her jeans for her money; bills and loose change all balled up together. Martha never made eye contact. She always seemed to be looking someplace off to the side, between Brittany’s right earlobe and collarbone.

“So you keep saying,” Brittany sang.

“Town ain’t what it used to be,” she muttered.

“I know,” Brittany said, stifling a snicker. “There’s been ‘rapings’.”

For just a flash, Martha looked up.  “Funny, huh. Till it happens to you.”

She grabbed the bag from between Brittany’s fingers and shoved her way out into the night.

“Crazy old bat,” Brittany said under her breath.

The rest of her shift was relatively slow. A gaggle of girls from the college around two-thirty and then Mrs. Henderson around three-thirty looking for a packet of handi-wipes. She was dressed as though coming from a party, but her eye make-up was smudged and her hair a little disheveled. She smiled dimly at Brittany as she paid, then headed back out to her car, which was parked a little further back in the parking lot. She got in on the passenger side and was driven off.

As dawn broke, Rahjib came in, his hair wet and his face rosy from the brisk morning air.

“Good night?” he asked.

“Pretty good I guess. Fair.”

“Quiet?”

“Like a tomb.”

Brittany yawned and stretched her arms above her head. Whenever Rahjib showed up it was almost as though the exhaustion she’d held at bay assaulted her all at once. Her eyelids grew heavy and all she could think about was getting home and into bed. She stepped aside from the cash register and allowed him to close her out.

“Today your day off,” Rahjib reminded her. “I see you Sunday.”

“Thanks Raj. See you.”

Her ten-year old Toyota was parked right near the front door. She liked to keep an eye on it during her shift in case some of the neighborhood kids were around vandalizing property.

“Hey there, Nun.  How’s it going?”

Brittany looked up from fumbling in her purse at Josh. He looked bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as usual. Standing about six feet tall, Josh was built like a cyclist – lean and somewhat lanky and with an enviable mocha complexion. He perpetually gave off the air of someone who’d just come back from vacation and was still loose and relaxed.  Women in town were intrigued him because he was racially ambiguous, clever and funny but in a sarcastic, almost mean way.

“Hey Josh.  You made it in on time today.”

Josh shrugged. “Even a broken clock’s correct twice a day.”

“See you Sunday,” Brittany managed before sliding into her car’s warm interior.

“Hang on there, Nun. Not so fast.”

“What’s up?” Brittany stuck her head out.

“Party at my house tomorrow to watch the fight. Mayweather versus Moseley.”

“Not really into boxing.”

“There’ll be a lot more going on than that. Food, brews, good times. C’mon, don’t be a wet rag.”

Brittany laughed.  “Okay, fine. I’ll be there.”

“Fight’s at ten. Party starts at eight.”

Back at her apartment, the television was on, just as she always left it. It made her feel less alone coming home to the sound of voices, even if the voices were those of the Today Show. Since her Dad died last year, she’d lived by herself in the small one-bedroom at the edge of town, literally across the tracks from the more affluent parts of Willow Run.  Her bedroom windows overlooked the yard where all the old cars from the railway sat.

Trains hadn’t run through Willow Run in at least ten years. After the cereal factory moved, everything seemed to come to standstill just as the trains had. Dozens of families left town and the ones that remained were either employed by Fineman College or by businesses that existed primarily to service the college. It was because of Fineman College that the divide existed between those who lived east of the railroad tracks, like Brittany, and those who lived to the west. College professors and their families lived in stately, colonial-style homes that you could almost make out through the trees and dense vegetation that had been left untended for years. A few kids from the college and maverick instructors lived on the east side of town but they stuck out like sore thumbs.

While the townies dressed in plaid work shirts and cheap denim, even when they dressed down the college folk looked affluent. Josh was one of them, but he’d stayed on after graduation, effortlessly straddling the divide, one foot in each world. His house, to which Brittany had been invited before, was on the west side, but close to the dividing line on Main Street which began in the neighboring town of Russell and ran north where it abruptly ended at Willow Falls, the one and only natural attraction in these parts for about one hundred miles.

Brittany closed the shades in her bedroom to shut out the rising sun and the eyesore of the abandoned railway and kicked off her Keds.  On television, Matt Lauer was pretending to care about the new movie being promoted by a skinny red-headed starlet. Brittany peeled off her jeans and crawled under the sheets, her eyes half-open as she waited for the local weather. It was that weird time of year when the temperature vacillated between summer and fall, making it difficult to figure out whether you should be wearing cut-offs or a fleece pullover.

She was almost asleep, or perhaps she had been but only for a moment, when the bulletin flashed across the screen. It was a picture of a girl with a wide, toothy smile and short fair hair that was almost platinum blonde.  The picture, obviously a cut-out from something much larger was of her in the middle of a cheer at some kind of sporting event. She looked positively bursting with youthful enthusiasm and good health.

Her name and vital statistics were beneath her picture: Stephanie Walker, 5’ 3”, 105 pounds. Something about her smile was arresting. Brittany blinked and focused on what the newscaster was saying.

“. . . seen walking alone from a party three blocks away from her dorm. She was wearing gray sweatpants and a white t-shirt with blue Adidas flip flops.  Police are asking anyone who believes they may have seen Stephanie, or who was in vicinity of Cherry Drive on Thursday evening to call the number on your screen.”

“Well. We can only hope that Stephanie is found soon,” the female announcer chimed in, her voice appropriately somber.

“Soon.  And safe.”

“Yes, Marv, absolutely.  In other news, the Willow Run Tigers are having a great season this year! We’ll talk to their coach right after this break as he describes the new and unconventional exercise regimen that he swears deserves the credit for his team’s turnaround this year.”

Fascinating as that sounded, Brittany decided she was better off turning over and getting some sleep.

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