some days are better than none
Julianna was tired; she’d been tired for hours. She felt, sometimes, like she’d been born tired.
Standing at the counter, she watched the group of teenagers near the big glass doors of the cooler of cold drinks, just next to the cooler of cheap beer. Pretending to check her long red nails, she could see the small black and white security monitor under the counter. The picture was blurred, the angle of the camera awkward, but she knew they were doing something. She could hear them giggling from where she stood. They were probably high. It was irritating, but then she remembered that it was Saturday night, and she would probably be doing the same thing—used to do the same thing—when she was their age. That seemed like a long time ago now—high school, especially her freshman year, just before she dropped out. It had been all about Tony then, as though he mattered now, as though any of that shit mattered now. God the drama, she thought remembering the backstabbing remarks, the preps and the geeks, the way she stood up for Tony, even to her friends, especially to her friends.
Now she wished she didn’t know what happened to Tony, that he had simply upped and left without another word; that he hadn’t kept coming back, begging for forgiveness and another chance. She almost lost their daughter Natalie that way, the night Natalie was supposed to be asleep, but she had gotten into Tony’s drugs. “Shit, she’s having some bad trip,” Tony said, full of mescaline, as Julianna pulled Natalie off the carpet, screaming, kicking, and clawing like a cat. Later, after they had pumped Natalie’s stomach, she told Tony to leave. He refused, planting himself on the couch with a beer and his stash until she actually called the cops. But he was long gone before they arrived. It was two years later, just last month, when she finally heard about Tony. He had been working for somebody in Reno, or Vegas, she wasn’t sure. Some part of a security detail for one of the casinos. He had stolen money, a new truck, and the girlfriend of somebody important. Someone had hunted him down and made him pay, extracting pain in payment for his crime. The police had shown up at her house a week ago, with pictures. He had her name and address on a card in his wallet. “It was on the body, we found it on the body,” one of the cops had said. She was thankful that Natalie was at school then. The cops had shown her photos of Tony’s bruised and battered face. His eyes were swollen shut; there was a line of blood from his mouth, and what looked like a burn mark on his check. She nodded, saying nothing. They had asked her about surviving relatives, but Julianna could only shrug. After they left, she had thrown up, unable to make it to the bathroom before she let lunch fly. “What’s that smell?” Natalie asked, standing in the kitchen and wrinkling her nose, hours after Julianna had cleaned it up. “Some milk spoiled,” she said. “I dumped it down the sink.” Natalie seemed content with the answer, just as she was content with all of the reasons why Tony, her father, didn’t come around anymore, and she went back to eating chips and watching cartoons. On the monitor she saw one of the boys put a 40 oz bottle of beer into his coat, and then his two friends grabbed sodas from the other cooler. They didn’t look up; they hadn’t even bothered to look up. Too lazy to even steal right. Tony had shown her everything about shoplifting, and they used to make a game of it, a Saturday ritual when they were out of cash and between jobs. But Julianna hadn’t known that Tony was always doing it, that when he actually landed a couple of jobs he wasn’t laid off but fired for stealing. The mall stores were the easiest marks before breakfast or at night, but convenience stores were an easy target for lunch. They planned it out, talking things through, paying attention to details. She would be lookout, paying close attention to everything Tony did, and she always looked up. Even then cameras were everywhere. When Tony had finally confessed to being fired for stealing, she had forgiven him only because she knew he hadn’t had her along, she hadn’t been there to watch out for him. The group of teens made their way slowly toward her register, glancing around, cautiously, every so often. They grabbed a couple of candy bars, some chips, and plastic wrapped donuts. For a few minutes she wondered if they would run, and she’d be forced to file a report, maybe even call the cops. There was no way she was leaving the counter. By the time they got to her she had gotten a very good look at them. All wore baseball caps, brims straight, some to the side. All had puffy jackets with hoods, and loose dark jeans. She had assumed they were all boys, but as they approached her, one boy put his arm around another member of the group, a girl with braces, traces of lipstick, and eyeliner. They were all younger than fifteen. She smiled as they piled their food on the counter. They didn’t smile back, but looked away and then stared at her silently as though she was some kind of freak. She rang up each item slowly; the small boy with the 40 cradled awkwardly in his coat started to look nervous. “Nice night,” Julianna said. It was clear but very cold. The girl shrugged, the small boy looked down, and the other looked away. Juilanna rang up the last candy bar. “So this everything?” She looked directly at the small boy with the 40. “Yeah,” the girl said. “You sure?” she said and looked down at the lump in the boy’s coat that he shifted to conceal. “Yeah, we’re sure,” the girl said. “What’s this bullshit?” the girl’s boyfriend said. “Look lady, we’re ready to roll.” “Right, no problem, let me get you a bag for that,” Julianna said before they could argue. She took her time getting a bag and then slowly bagged each item. “So, that will be fifteen and thirty five,” Julianna said. The boyfriend prodded the girl, and she narrowed her eyes at him. The girl pulled a small purse out of her coat and set it on the counter. She pulled out her lipstick, her small cell phone, tissues, eyeliner, a compact, mascara, and a couple of quarters. “Shit Gina,” the smaller boy said. “You takin’ everything out.” She ignored him and emptied most of the rest of her purse, discretely keeping the tampons inside, and then she pulled out the wadded up twenty dollar bill. “Here,” the girl said. Julianna slowly unfolded the bill and then smoothed it methodically on the side of the counter. “Okay then,” she said, and she opened the register to make change. “And here is your change, four dollars and sixty-five cents.” Just as Juilanna was about to place the money in the girl’s hand, she let the coins drop. “Shit,” the girl said, and all three teens scrambled to grab the coins that rolled across the hard floor and under the shelves and display cases. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Julianna said. “Yeah, whatever lady,” the girl said as she packed up her purse and put the bills back. “We found most of it. Let’s go already,” the boyfriend said and grabbed the bag of food. “Have a nice night,” Julianna said. The teens walked out into the cold night air, the buzzer on the door sounding as they left. Julianna could feel a slight waft of cold air against her face. They walked and then ran into the darkness, their breath coming out in mists behind them. Julianna smiled to herself. She reached into her pocket, pulled out the girl’s cell phone, and then flipped it open.
Noah Ashenhurst's first novel, COMFORT FOOD, won an Independent Publisher Book Award for Best Regional Fiction (West-Pacific). He earned his MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop (Pacific Lutheran University) where he had the opportunity to work with writers such as Ann Pancake, David Huddle, Kent Meyers, and Jess Walter. His short fiction has appeared in Beyond the Margins: A Literature and Art Magazine, Apparatus Magazine, and Brittle Star (UK). For the past eleven years he has taught at the secondary level, and currently teaches online high school classes in Olympia, Washington.
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