This would be fine. Fine. Adam clenched the steering wheel. The drive was too short. No traffic in the middle of the day, so he was at the store in only eleven minutes. He parked at the very back of the parking lot. Taking his hands from the wheel, he felt the slick of sweat that had accumulated between his palms and wheel’s black leather.
His breath hitched. He made to catch it and just ended up coughing. He leaned into his elbow, throat rasping. It suddenly felt so dry, like he hadn’t had anything to drink in ages, even though he’d downed a gatorade only half an hour ago.
Pulling in a deep drag of air through both nostrils, Adam willed away the tremble in his fingertips. He could do this. He blew that deep breath out through his lips and stared across the parking lot.
Wasn’t too crowded today, what with it being the middle of the day on a Wednesday and all. The sun was already hanging low in the sky. Shadows painted the pavement, as the scarce sunlight filtered through the veneer of trees bordering the parking lot on two sides. He wiped his wet palms on his jeans. Through the trees, he could just make out the gas station on the opposite side of the road. A tall guy wearing a neon pink sweatshirt hustled out of the small gas station convenience store and climbed up into a massive truck parked at the pump. On the sidewalk in front of the cages where the propane tanks were stored, a young couple appeared to be arguing. The short blonde woman, maybe late teens or early twenties, poked a finger, hard, into the guy’s chest. He put a hand on her shoulder. She jerked it away.
Adam shut his eyes. Five minutes. He had to be in the office with Dick and Cheryl in five minutes. Now or never. Time to do it. He shut off the car and stepped out into the world. The world. He guessed he was a part of it again. Months spent as something apart, sequestered, segregated, solitary…..Becca did that to him. And she could do it again if she wanted to. Any woman could. The store loomed closer and closer. An older woman, maybe mid-thirties with a short haircut of glossy black hair, loaded bags of groceries into the back of a silver hatchback. Did she know she had the power to ruin lives? Did any of them? He didn’t know which would be better, if they had no idea, or if they did know and acted like it didn’t matter. Because it did matter and Adam was about to walk into a building where his coworkers might hate him for something he’d never done. Something he would never do. He hadn’t wanted to go so far so fast. He asked her to stop. But he had the dick, so when her feelings changed, he became the predator.
The automatic doors slid open and Adam stepped into the artificial glow of fluorescent light. Pop music over the intercom. Clearance Christmas decorations and candy smacking his eyeballs with a glaring combination of red and green.
He gave a hesitant wave to the greeter, same little old lady who always stood there on weekday afternoons. “Hey, Janet.”
Janet’s tiny brown eyes widened. Shock on her round, wrinkled face. She covered it quickly, smothering it with a smile. “Adam, good to see you, sweetheart. Doing some shopping?” The smile on her lips didn’t touch her glassy eyes.
Adam shoved his hands into the pockets of his winter coat. “Here to talk to Dick.”
Her mouth popped open and it stayed open as Adam put his head down and walked away. He heard her saying something behind him, but he didn’t turn around. She used to be so nice to him. Janet acted like she was the entire world’s grandma. The day he’d come in with his new haircut she’d been so happy for him. Told him he was looking sharp. Looked like he wasn’t even worth a real smile now. Forced politeness dripping with discomfort that was all that waited for him now. Crossing through the shoe department, he felt a sudden and intense urge to forget this whole thing and bolt out the store. He could get a different job. Yes, he….but….no, no he wouldn’t do that…this was the best paying job he could get right now. One day, when he had his degree, then it would be different. Becca was a liar and a bitch, but he didn’t have to let her take this from him. He’s worked here so much longer than her. It was going to be hard. He knew that. He’d be subjected to judgment that he didn’t deserve.
But he could do it.
He knew that he could do it. Pushing through the swinging rubber doors to the employee area, Adam steeled himself. Words and thoughts couldn’t hurt him. He repeated this in his head. Like a mantra. Nothing in there could hurt him. Nothing the other workers could think or say about him could hurt him. Not if he didn’t let. Deciding in that moment that he wouldn’t let it, he marched onward.
Dick was already in the office, the door wide open. Adam peeked in and lifted his hand in a wave. Dick sat at the end of the white table that served as a desk in the cramped space. He held a stack of papers in his hands and a brown folder stuffed with more papers lay open across his lap. Holding his hand up awkwardly, Adam waited for Dick to notice him. Dick kept shuffling. Adam cleared his throat.
“Go on in, Adam.”
Cheryl’s voice from behind him caused Adam to start. Dick looked up, strangeness in his features, and Cheryl pushed her way around him, setting down a clipboard and a walkie talkie in front of the office’s one computer. She turned to him and gestured to the plastic chair pushed against the wall across from Dick. “Go ahead and have a seat.”
Adam nodded and came into the office. “Hi, Dick.” He dropped down into the chair and angled his knees to the right to avoid knocking into Dick, the office was stupid small.
“How have you been?” Dick asked. His voice sounded genuine, albeit somewhat lacking, somewhat strained.
“Good. Well, not good. Okay. Everything was…” Adam shook his head and looked down, busying himself with unzipping his winter coat. “I don’t know what to say about all of that.”
He heard the click of the door and then from the corner of his eye, watched the shape of Cheryl pulling out the third chair from under the long desk and turn it so that it faced away from the door and towards Adam.
He took of his coat and balled it up on his lap in front of him. It was already way too warm in here…
“So, we’re happy to bring you back to work,” Cheryl began. “And third shift is the perfect position, considering the circumstances.”
Considering….the circumstances…the Becca-is-a-fucking-liar circumstances…
But he didn’t say that. Instead he swallowed, feeling the flex of dry muscles, squirming on the hard plastic chair, and said, “Right. Good.” He hated the way his voice sounded.
“Now,” Dick began, clearing his throat. The warble of flem echoed off the concrete. “Now, Adam, we can’t ask you about anything that happened with Becca outside of work. All we can do is say that Becca has…made it known to us….well, she’s made it known that she wouldn’t be comfortable working with you again.”
“I won’t bother her,” Adam muttered. He sounded guilty and he knew it and he detested the way there wasn’t any clear path out of this for him.
“Wonderful,” Cheryl chirped. “So, we’d like to ask you not to go to the deli on your days off. And please don’t change shifts with anyone, unless you clear it with Dick first.”
“If you do run into Becca, don’t engage. Walk away. She’s also been told not to talk to you, so if she tries to converse with you, walk away and then report exactly what happened to myself or Dick right away.”
Something inside of him lifted. They had talked to her? She wasn’t supposed to talk to him either. It wasn’t all on him then.
This might not be so bad. He could do this. He could.
“Alright, well, think that’s about all we needed to cover,” Dick said. “Just need to have you sign some papers saying we talked about this and you agree to keep your distance from Becca. And then…” Dick paused, shuffling through a sheaf of papers on the desk.
“And then?” Adam pressed.
“Checking the schedule here,” Dick muttered. “Need to get you on shift with Bubba. She’ll teach you the ropes of third shift prep.”
A person named Bubba was a she? But he left this question unposed.
Instead he said, “Cool.”
“How about…Saturday. Can you do this Saturday?”
“Yeah, I-oh, Dick, I gotta tell you, I can’t come back with open availability.”
Dick pulled a pen out of his pocket and handed it over to Adam, along with two sheets of paper stapled together. “You can’t?”
“Nah, I’m starting school. I only have classes Monday and Wednesday. Was hoping not to work overnight Sunday or Tuesday.”
“That’s not too bad. Think we can manage that. Read that over and sign both pages.”
Adam read over the document. Like Dick had said, it stated that a conversation was had after a complaint was made by Becca. It didn’t say that Adam was admitting to any wrongdoing, only that he agreed to keep his distance at work. Adam scrawled his sloppy signature across the solid line at the bottom of both pages and then handed the papers and pen back over to Dick.
Dick smiled at him then, and it was like seeing the old Dick for the first time since Adam had entered the room. “Glad to have you back, Adam.” His words sounded so genuine.
A nasally clearing of a feminine throat. “What are you going to school for?”
Turning to face Cheryl, Adam gave her a hesitant smile. “Game development and design.”
Her brow furrowed. “Game…”
“It’s a program for learning to make video games.”
“Oh…” She trailed off, her face blank like she didn’t know what to say.
“Anywho,” Dick interjected. “Everything’s all set on our end. We’ll put you in for open, ‘cept for Sunday and Tuesday. You want the same amount of hours?”
Adam nodded. “If you could. Yeah.”
“‘Course. I’ll get you reinstated in the system. You’ll be good to go by this Saturday. Can we expect you then?”
“Yeah…can’t wait to be back.” That wasn’t exactly true. It was more like he didn’t have any better options.
Dick shook his hand and told him to come back Saturday at eleven. Cheryl flashed one of her fake bleached white smiles.
And then it was over. He was walking out of the office.
The tension evaporated from his body. He walked down the drab concrete hallway, between the rows of beige lockers, holding his still balled-up winter coat in his hands. He did it. Coming back to the store was hard, but he did it.
He pushed through the swinging rubber door and nearly collided with a massive wall of a body. Jerking back with a start, he muttered, “Sorry, man. Didn’t see you.” He looked up to see a familiar, smirking face, and his mood dropped.
“Look who came back to work,” Josh laughed.
Adam almost said something. Almost. He wanted to retort, wanted to tell Josh what a massive dickhead he was. Snap that Josh didn’t have anything to grin about.
In a moment of panic, Adam could see all that he’d accomplished in the past fifteen minutes melting away. If he gave in. If he didn’t resist that urge to tell Josh to shut the fuck up.
With purpose, he looked away. He threw out a hand and pushed through the rubber door. He walked away before his impulses could get the better of him. He marched through the store, shoved his arms into his jacket and ripped up the zipper. Josh was an asshole. Thought it was funny that he came back to work? Why wouldn’t he? He didn’t do anything wrong. Josh probably knew that too. Fucking laughing at him. What gave him the right to laugh at….
It hit him.
All at once, as he hurried past Janet without saying goodbye and through the whooshing automatic doors, into the ever-dying January sunlight, it hit him.
He….he could be angry about this.
Or he could just…not be angry about this.
He spiraled so easily. One slight, one rude comment, one rejection, and he spiraled. But did he have to? Could he just not?
Walking slowly to his car, sneakers striking pavement, he gave it a try. He still felt the irritation, the absolute indignity of an asshole like Josh looking down on him. That irritation bubbled steadily below the surface, but with a hardened sense of resolve, he kept it from boiling.
And when he did this, he felt…powerful.
He climbed into his car and shut the door. Staring out across the parking lot, his eyes drifted over to the gas station again. An old woman hunched over in a black parka shuffled from the small convenience store to a red sedan. A black Volkswagon pulled up to the pump beside her, a family with kids inside. He put the key in the car’s ignition.
Driving home, he considered this new power. He could decide not to care when others were rude. He could just not care. It took a little bit of work, a whole lot of pushing away the urge to spiral that pricked at him. But it was possible.
He kept smothering the thoughts that surfaced. What an asshole. I bet everyone at the store is laughing at me. Who the fuck do they think they are? He smothered each of them, one by one, killed them off, and by the time he’d reached his new home, they were dead.
Let them think whatever they wanted.
He was done giving a single fuck.