- Paths -
The wind gusted strongly through the small town. Fat flakes of snow fell, whipped into a frosty froth by the powerfully gusting wind, from slate gray skies gradually turning black at the unhurried approach of evening.
I like snow, I always have. I could dimly remember cheerful childhood memories of running around through knee-deep snow, gazing in childish awe as a colorful world slowly changed into a rainbow of delicate shades of gray liberally sprinkled with think blankets of stark white snow. Childhood delight aside, as I looked out the large bay window facing the street, I realized that as much as I may like it, I still have to walk home through it. I smiled vaguely at the few brave souls out running from shop to shop, bundled tightly against the chilling wind and the thickly falling snow.
The weatherman had predicted a light dusting of snow this morning, and unsurprisingly, he had changed his mind and was extorting people to stay inside and stay warm as the winter storm lashed the countryside. A meter of snow, an amazing new record, had fallen in the outlying towns in the past hour, and the snow was coming down thicker with every passing hour. There has been no mention of the dreaded "B" word, but even a blizzard un-named is still a blizzard.
I looked upwards, pressing my palm against the cold glass, trying to recapture some, any wonder from my childhood as I studied the dull lumpy clouds lying over the sky like a wet blanket. Nothing. My palm was growing cold from the glass, and I worried about the walk home. I guess the child within is an adult now. Not that I had much of a childhood to begin with...
"Darren! Can't we just close up and go home? No one's ordered for an hour and a half!" I whined plaintively. I yelped and stuck my suddenly freezing hand under my arm to warm as a sudden gust of wind threw a near opaque sheet of near solid snow against the window. "And it looks like a zombie movie out there!" I said as the gust stopped, revealing two colorfully dressed people, enshrouded tightly in thick layers of cheerfully colored parkas, sweaters, and scarves, briskly trundling past the window, holding an animated conversation; as the two glanced in my direction as they passed, and I heroically suppressed the temptation to stick my tongue out at them.
While their clothing certainly veiled them from the cold, it also concealed their face from my gaze. Unbidden, my mind conjured up images in the swirling whiteness, images of the manikins from the Gap coming to life and parading in front of the store, mocking my lack of thick designer clothing in my wardrobe. They may mock me because of my clothing, I thought sourly, mentally gave them a rude salute, but I still have a kick-ass computer; and it runs even better when it's cold. I tell myself this often when I shiver at night, when my small apartment is freezing, and when my blankets are fighting a losing battle against the arctic temperatures. I hold the thought out like an ancient idol to distract me from the truth; I simply cannot afford the heating bill. Well, I could, and then I'd have to take a radical diet of no food intake, but that's too depressing to think of.
Darren sat, perched like a vulture on one of the stools in front of the phone bank, his eyes locked on the phones with intense attentiveness, as he had been since the last call, silent, unmoving, unblinking. He was probably trying to use the power of his mind to get someone, anyone, to call and order. Not that he was telepathic, or not that I knew of.
My eyes crossed as the thought of Darren with telepathy ricocheted around in my mind. It did not bring either warmth or joy to my heart, I decided. Darren with telepathy was like giving the television remote control to a hyperactive kid. Unless you like looking into a strobe light, it's not a good idea. I tapped the synthetic, fireproof faux-wood table with a knuckle, which brought him out of his absorbed contemplation with a start, exhaling noisily. "Sean, it's bound to pick up. Once all the other places close, then we'll get all the business. Simple, no?"
I turned away from the fast frosting window. I didn't want to go home, really. Papa Mezito's Pizza & Tacos was well heated from the oven and well lit from the heating lamps. Both of which, my apartment was not. Plus, there were people here to talk to; people here I wanted to talk to. Another thing my apartment didn't have. I tapped the glass pensively, trying to draw his attention away from the phone bank and towards what was happening outside the heated burrow of the store. "Darren, they're probably closed for a reason, ya think?"
Darren smiled briefly, not looking at me. His gaze was firmly on the phones, and I doubted a small matter like a mere blizzard would ever wrest his eyes away from them. At least, I thought he smiled. It was difficult to tell through his thick, old world mustache. Often, I would idly wonder if there was an alternate universe in his mustache, safe from my world, living among his hair follicle trees. Then I would wonder if they liked pizza; or tacos, for that matter. My mind, when bored, often ran in fixated circles.
Darren wiped the beads of sweat off his brow with a smooth flick of his wrist, and said, chuckling heartily, "Of course they are! They don't see opportunity in as many places as I do. Now come away from the window and help me clean, okay?"
I sighed. My legs ached from standing on them too long, my feet ached from too many times spent outside maintaining balance on snowy ground, treacherous at best for my Nike sneakers as I tried futilely to clean the sidewalk outside of snow every thirty minutes before Darren finally (mercifully) gave up on the idea. Darren is a nice guy, but he can bit anal at times, like right now; what he actually means by "help me clean" is "you're bothering me, and you need busy work, however pointless it may seem to you".
My wet shoes squeaked quietly as I walked into the back and started washing dishes like a man possessed. I have to admit, Nike makes a good sneaker, and the tread is great for a basketball court, but in my experience, the treads clog with wet snow very quickly, turning them into fantastically frictionless shoes. I guess that wouldn't be so bad -- if I could skate, or had any kind coordination at all. The idea of falling on freezing concrete, and perhaps breaking something, was not something I was entirely too eager to experience.
Time passed. At this point, I no longer bothered to keep track, I only focused on the job at hand until it was done. I am highly regarded for my cleaning skills, if that meant anything, and Josh, who works days, said that was a sure sign of a psychological disorder. Unfortunately, he didn't know which one; he hadn't gotten that far in his class at The University, some twenty minutes away by car -- through a howling snowstorm now. This was the same Josh whom called in earlier today, leaving me the sole other worker on this shift.
As much as I would grumble (and I do) about everyone dropping the ball and calling in, leaving me to pick up all of the slack, their claim of being snowed in, however much it was an outrageous falsehood, did contain a kernel of truth within it. Fortunately, I had it easier. My commute to work was a brisk fifteen-minute walk, which saved me a fortune in gas, as well as simple wear and tear on the car that was increasingly surviving on my reverent hopes, prayers, dreams, and liberal amounts of Wal-Mart brand duct tape. Correction, I thought as I glanced outside, fifteen minutes of walking on a nice day. I'd probably take thirty minutes to walk home now, if I was lucky.
I remember when I was the new guy, now I'm the oldest crewmember. How did that happen? Doubtless when I wasn't looking I'm sure, I mused somberly.
"Sean! I'm going out on a run!" Darren yelled back to me as he shrugged on his L.L. Bean parka, shaking me out of my reverie. Wow, I had cleaned just about every flat surface in the store to damn near a mirror shine. I glanced at my watch as I logged Darren's run almost purely by reflex; two hours had passed in a twinkle.
My eyes flicked over the lobby, checking the empty tables for the customers by ingrained habit as the door slammed shut behind Darren, who looked for all the world like a walrus in a parka, mercifully cutting off the gust of bitter wind across the room, only partially rebuffed by the ovens and the heater lamps. I shivered slightly as the wind raised goose bumps on my arms and neck, virtually the only parts of my body not covered in the uniform. I wondered, as I rubbed my arms, if I could bum a ride from Darren as the walk back to the apartment loomed ever closer. The more I thought about it, the more I didn't like it at all. I would owe Darren, and Darren would invariably collect, sooner rather than later. The hike back was going to really suck super hard, there was no two--.
A delicate cough shattered my brooding reverie as a soft soprano politely asked, "Ah, excuse me?"
Startled, I had fully turned around before the last syllable escaped her lips. Her perfect lips, her absolutely, perfectly shaped lips, and the rest of her was just as perfect as her lips, even down to her perfectly ruddy cheeks. She stood around five feet, three inches, and the little figure that I could see from under her thick sweater was divine. She looked like a goddess, pure and simple. Or at least, that's what my hormones were telling me, pure and simple. Down boy, follow the logic: customer brings money, money that lines my pocket -- eventually. I'll make a date with my hand later, okay? I thought caustically as I said aloud, "Hello, how may I help you?"
"Do you have an order for 'Kat', perchance?"
Her voice fell like raindrops onto the parched desert of my ears. Instead of the usual slow twang of Midwestern American English, her speech was a refined British accent with hints of an upper class education. She was a goddess, and she had a British accent too? Is this too good to be true?! Are you dating? Do you have a sister?!? Outwardly calm, with a calculated amount of boredom, I checked the computer log. One order had been logged a little bit ago, and the food was in the oven, about half way through. "It'll be a few minutes, madam." I said professionally, trying not to stare. Or drool.
"That is not a problem. I shall wait here." She said, tapping her wet, snow flecked umbrella on the tile flooring to emphasize. I nodded, and began pulling boxes to fill with the scalding hot foodstuffs that would be done in a few minutes.
"Nice night, isn't it?" She said looking out the frosted window, and absently drumming her perfect fingers with their perfect glossy nails on the countertop.
"I'm sorry, madam?" I said, as I finished pulling the boxes and glanced outside. It was getting worse. The exterior floodlights, which pointed at the sidewalk, were making it look more precarious as the last dregs of sunlight gradually died outside. With the unfathomable darkness shrouded by a swirling cloak of snow, the night seemed a little more sinister, perhaps even ill-omened, than while the last of twilight was falling, just a scant handful of minutes ago.
If I was in a horror/monster movie, the ominous, low-key music would start playing right about now, and in a minute, some horrible thing would jump though the window, and go for me. The girl, of course, would be screaming ineffectually, and I'd get eaten in three small bites. Then it'd carry her off to do horrible things to her, but the square jawed hero, in the -- ta-daa -- nick of time, would rescue her. I know I'm not the hero. I certainly don't have a square jaw, but I don't have a weak chin, I think. Fat chance of that happening in any case; I'd like to think that the average monster would be at home sipping hot cocoa by a warm fire, plotting to take over the world when it warmed up a bit more, or at least stopped snowing enough to drown the world in frozen water.
She smiled, breaking my concentration, as she said, "I said, nice night, isn't it?"
"Umm, I'm not certain that that would be my first thought," I said dryly, "but I guess if you look at it from a certain way, then yes, it is a wonderful night."
Her perfect eyes crinkled perfectly around their perfect corners. "A certain way?"
"When I was young--ger. Younger. When I was younger, I always loved the first snow. I loved the way the world slowly changed into shades of gray, while a blanket of pure white delicately laid over everything. What once was a lush forest of greens and browns becomes a frozen skeletal jungle of browns, grays, and white. I thought it was pretty, at least."
"Because of the way it was monochrome?"
"I guess so." I chuckled slightly at myself, "I guess I'm kind of odd at times."
"Well, I would hope so, there is one of you, correct?"
It took me a startled second to decipher what she said. I know I'm not stupid, but I was so unused to humor on that level for so long that my head whipped around, and I stared at her for one long second, my head canted at an angle as I furiously deciphered the message.
Her eyes fell as I looked at her. "I'm sorry, I did not mean any offense."
"No. No! I'm sorry, I'm just not used to such humor. It's been forever since I heard things like that."
"But what of your co-workers?"
A slight smile crept across my lips. "I would not exactly call that 'stimulating conversation'. While amusing, at times, I would not put it in the same region, let alone the same category, as that joke."
She laughed politely behind a gloved hand. Her laugh sounded like the ringing of delicate silver bells. My hormones, if made flesh, would have done something by now, that I am sure of. What it would do, I was too afraid to contemplate.
"But you go to The University, correct?"
She gestured gracefully behind me. "The calculus book over on the wall over there."
"Wha-? Oh! No, nononono. Please do not be mistaken; I'm self-studying that. The University is so expensive, and my grades aren't good enough to get a scholarship."
"Ah, that sounds very much like a Catch-22 if I ever heard one."
"Indeed." I said, saying my universal non-committal grunt. The University was a sore spot if there ever was one. I'd like to think I was learning a lot from the books, but I knew I needed the other side I wasn't getting, namely, the lecture. A sore spot, a wound that refused to heal, but instead festers slowly, away from prying eyes of everyone, except my own.
She was staring at me, her gazed fixed somewhere between my eyes. She was waiting patiently for something.
Blinking, I asked politely, "I'm sorry, what?"
She smiled warmly, "My name is Ekataren, what is yours?"
"Mine? Um, Sean."
"Well, um, Sean, then why does your name tag say 'Listerine'?"
I looked down, and sure enough, my nametag had changed from a simple 'Sean' to 'Listerine'. Darren. Darren must have done it. Fruity bastard, I thought warmly.
"Umm, well, it's not quite that that way. F'shure." Hoo boy, how embarrassing. I stammered a bit, my cheeks warming slightly. Quick, Sean, think of something! "It's my nickname here. I get things so clean it's like they were soaked in--"
"Listerine?" she said dryly, "How very poetic."
I smiled weakly, "It's something I came up with, after being saddled with the name. Couldn't convince them to drop it, might as well wear it as a badge of honor, of sorts." Good fast thinking Sean, it's not like you sounded like a total drooling idiot.
"Sound thinking, it seems."
My smile quirked a little, "Well, I'm not completely broken -- I think."
"Indeed?" She said, imitating my inflection nearly perfectly.
"Indeed." I glanced back at the oven, and my heart fell a little. Her order was done. Damn. With swift, practiced movements, I slid everything into their respective boxes, and put them on the counter. She had already paid for it, so she grabbed the bulky packages, and smiling, she thanked me, gave a dazzling smile, and walked out the store.
When the door clicked shut, the wind seemed a little colder, and the room seemed a little less cheerful when she left. Ah well--dammit! I could have gotten her address from the order. No, that would be waaay to freaky. I could show up one night, smelling, no reeking of pizzas and tacos, and I could just imagine the conversation:
Me: hey, I saw your address on the pizza order, and I just wanted to get to know you better.
Her: Eeek! Stalker! Pervert! Butch, kill!
Me: Is that a Doberman?
Me: (runs, gets tackled by the dog)
Dog: (bites my head off)
Newspaper headline: Stalker pervert pizza boy was killed by rabid Doberman; Doberman to receive medal for role in attack. Pizza boy to be turned into dog food for heroic dog.
It could happen. It probably would happen. Besides, logically, I'm only attracted to her because she is female, and of a suitable age, and displays no obvious genetic flaws. No flaws at all. Not one. Perfection thou art thee. If I could just sit and listen to her voice, I would roll over and purr, if I didn't drool all over myself, giggling idiotically. I shook myself mentally; this is not productive, Sean, logically, she would be involved with someone. Unattached females are so rare around her as to be a fanciful myth, as you well know. Damn university students poaching the local pool, I groused.
Sighing, I wiped the counter down, for lack of anything else to do. A few minutes later, Darren trundled through the door, and slammed it close behind him in one fluid move. A small blizzard of flakes shot through while it was open, dancing wildly on the wind before the door slammed shut.
The flakes settled gently to the floor as Darren stamped his feet and shouted, "Sean, muck this! We're closed! Go home and keep warm!"
"Woot." I said, forcing joviality into my voice. Just glancing outside, I knew the walk would be a forty-minute long, freezing forced march through a bitterly arctic hell. Well, stuff like this supposedly builds character; that is, if nothing falls off. Well, I reflected sardonically, hopefully nothing that I use anyway.
Closing the store took the better part of an hour, and not a single call. Darren looked worriedly at the phone for a time before he gave up and helped me finish the last part. With everything shut off, and a few lights left on, the warm, cheery atmosphere of the store somehow slipped into the night, stolen by the snow. Perhaps, more correctly, it slipped into the night to sleep. Sheltered by snow and darkness, it would doze contentedly, and await the coming of the morning.
I waved goodbye to Darren as he drove off in his big four-wheel drive, metallic blue Land Rover. The big SUV skidded only slightly as it picked its way out of the parking lot and onto the deserted main road, it's motor burbling cheerily as a muffled Beach Boys song slipped across the hushed expanse of snow-swathed asphalt and the partially hidden gaunt skeletons of sleeping trees as he vanished into the silently falling snow. I remembered the song dimly from my childhood, and standing in the dim shadow of the store, I almost wished I were at Kokomo; it seemed like a much warmer place than here, at least. Bundling my Wal-Mart special sweaters closer to my body, and slipping my chilled hands into my pockets, I carefully walked the opposite direction, leery of shiny patches on the sidewalk.
Diamond bright halogen floodlights lit the street for the short distance that I had to walk along it, before my course veered deeper into a few poorly lit neighborhoods that I had to cross to reach my apartment building. The narrow beam of the small, red lensed mag-light I habitually kept in my pocket, turned the virginal white snow sanguine to my night adjusted eyes as my footsteps made a soft crunch as each foot sank ankle deep into the lightly packed snow. I kept an even, wary pace, carefully keeping my head up, and looking around, while simultaneously looking at the ground and planning where to put my next step. During my walk, I could feel my ears, nose, feet, and hands go numb, followed by parts of my arms, and legs. Since there was nothing I could do about it right now, I tried to ignore it hoping feverently that frostbite took longer to blacken my fingers and toes than a half hour long trek thought wet snow. I wouldn't know. I've never lost any body part, ever. Except my wisdom teeth, but I do know where they went, so they're technically not lost.