Astrid buckled her seatbelt and turned on her seat warmers. “Ahhh,” she sighed as she waited for her toosh to unthaw from the frigid air outside. She clicked on the AM radio station, her morning ritual, and backed out of the driveway towards her, now regular, route to work.
“We want our lives back,” a lady on the radio announced, “Ever since The Great Equality Act was put into effect last year, those of us hard-working individuals who actually paid for our college and worked hard to earn our big money, are the ones who are losing out. It isn’t fair. It should be called The Great Inequality Act.”
Astrid could hear protestors in the background muffling the woman’s voice and she dialed up the volume to listen more clearly.
“Folks have been protesting throughout the country ever since The Act was passed in January of last year, but this group at the Capital today is the biggest we’ve seen yet. So far this morning, three protestors have been taken into police custody for bomb threats. As we all know, there have been several suicides by high up ranking CEOs and business owners across the country. Petula, do you expect these protests to slow down?” Nikon Snyder, the show’s morning journalist, said. Astrid always thought Nikon had a sexy voice, though she’d never admit that to anyone. Before she could hear Petula’s response, Astrid’s phone started ringing through the blue tooth.
“Hello?” she asked as she turned onto Eighth Avenue.
“Hey honey,” her husband, Alger, purred, “I forgot to ask you this morning if you found a replacement for Starla? Our house is a mess.”
Starla, their cleaning woman of ten years, had quit the week prior. “I’m going to college to become a podiatrist-my lifelong dream,” she had said when she’d resigned. Now that the government was making college free for everyone, all kinds of people were getting their degrees. Janitors were becoming lawyers. Plumbers were becoming doctors. Waitresses were becoming engineers. Cleaning ladies were becoming podiatrists.
“Yes, Carreen from two houses down,” Astrid said as she took a sip of her hazelnut coffee, “She just quit her job at the Pharm Sales Company and decided she was going to clean houses. I just hope she’s as good at cleaning toilets as she is at selling Viagra,” she laughed.
“Good for her,” Alger said with a chuckle, “Following in our footsteps, huh? Why work in a job you hate when you can get the same pay for a job you love? So anyways, honey bunny, I was calling to see what you wanted to do for dinner. Want me to pick up Chinese on the way home?” he asked with a hopeful voice.
Astrid furrowed her brow. Alger knew she hated Chinese, but he always attempted to get it for take out anyways.
“How about Thai?” she asked as she pulled into her parking spot in front of the bookshop.
“Deal,” he said abruptly, “I love you and hope you have an amazing day.” Astrid grinned as she heard the phone click and she grabbed her purse and coffee before stepping into the wintry air towards the book shop. She’d started working there a few months before and every morning on her way to work, she had a smile on her face that she couldn’t erase. Who wouldn’t love working in a quiet bookshop on a quiet street? Her day consisted of ringing up the handful of customers they had, making lattes from their little café that had two little tables, and organizing the dusty bookshelves. It was heaven on earth.
“Good morning,” Edith, the owner, chimed as Astrid walked in, a bell on the door alerting Edith to her presence.
“Good morning,” Astrid replied with a smile. “It’s a cold one today.”
“Shall I light up the pellet stove?” Edith asked, gesturing towards the little stove next to the café tables.
Astrid’s face lit up even more that it was. “That would be lovely,” she said as she placed down her coffee cup and took off her wool coat, arranging it on the wooden coat rack next to the front door. She walked to the back room to scan her work ID card and then got to work arranging the “Winter Reads” section of the shop she’d been organizing the day before.
As she sorted the books according to author last name, she heard the bell ring and saw their first customers come in, an elderly woman holding a small child’s hand.
“It’s my birthday,” the little boy yelled as he ran into the shop, letting go of the woman’s hand.
“Good morning,” Astrid said, standing up straight as she approached the duo. “What can I help you with today?”
“It’s my grandson’s sixth birthday,” the woman said, gesturing towards the little boy. I’d like to buy him a special book.”
“Well, happy birthday!” Astrid exclaimed. She led the two to the children’s section and showed them a few of her favorite’s books before allowing them to venture off on their own. She loved the sound of a child exploring literature. What a nice birthday gift, a book, she thought as she went into the café and grabbed a chocolate chip muffin and heated it up. She walked back and brought the muffin to the little boy.
“Happy birthday,” she said, handing him the treat. “This one’s on us,” she winked at his grandmother. She’d take some money out of her wallet and pay for the muffin later. Now that she had plenty of money, she liked doing little things like that for strangers.
“What a nice lady, thank you so much,” the grandmother said, touching Astrid’s hand gently. Astrid couldn’t remember the last time a stranger touched her hand. It was nice. Before The Act, no one did nice things for one another. No one connected like this. Now, she was seeing people go out of their way to help one another out. When there’s no stress about finances, people can be free to help, she thought.
As the day continued, Edith and Astrid had customers trickle in and out of the shop. A man buying a nonfiction book on tennis. A woman buying some novels for her upcoming vacation. A few browsers just looking. Right as they were ready to close the shop, a teenage girl who looked to be about sixteen or seventeen, sauntered in, slamming the door behind her. Astrid heard Edith welcome the girl as the teen veered her way to the YA section of the bookshop.
Astrid made her way towards the cash register, awaiting the girl’s purchase eagerly. This was her favorite part. Talking about books. Talking to people. Connecting. Everyone was always happy in a bookshop. Why wouldn’t they be? It wasn’t anything like her other job before the Great Equality Act. She’d been so stressed; she’d had daily panic attacks. Sure, she’d made good money. But she’d hated her job.
Astrid watched as the teen brought a handful of books up to the register and slammed them on the counter, refusing to look Astrid in the eye. Astrid smiled as she scanned them, admiring each of their covers. “I hear this one is a page turner,” she said, holding up the novel with the bright pink cover.
“Yea, looks good,” the teen said as she awkwardly put her hands in her back pockets. “I haven’t seen you in here before, are you new?” she asked as she eyed Astrid suspiciously.
Astrid smiled as she wrapped the girl’s books in tissue paper, one of the shop’s signature touches to their customer’s purchases. Since Edith was getting paid so much more than she used to before the Great Equality Act, she was throwing out all kinds of luxuries for her customers.
“I’ve been here a couple months,” Astrid replied as she placed the books in the glossy paper bag and tied a green ribbon around the handles.
“What’d you do before?” the girl asked as she grabbed the bag from Astrid’s hands, a scowl appearing on her face.
Astrid frowned thinking back to her previous job. “A VP at a tech company,” she said and then smiled again as she looked around her new place of occupation. Being the Vice President of Maltech had been stressful work. Extremely stressful work. Always competing for money. Always keeping up with the Joneses. Alger had been a lawyer back then, so he was stressed too. They fought all the time. Never went on dates. Didn’t vacation. They were too tired for sex. Too tired to even enjoy one another. Now Alger worked at a men’s shoe store, and he was the happiest he’d ever been. And ever since Astrid had quit Maltech and started working at the bookshop, she’d been the happiest she’d ever been in her entire life. It was like they were newlyweds again. They couldn’t get enough of one another.
“Figures…” the girl said rudely as she grabbed the bag and headed towards the door. Astrid was taken aback by the girl’s discourtesy. Had Astrid done something to upset her?
“I’m sorry,” Astrid said, “Did I do something to offend you?” she asked. If this was Maltech and the girl spoke to her like that, Astrid would have brushed it off. But Astrid wasn’t used to people speaking to her this way in the bookshop.
“You did. The government did. Everyone who accepts this bullshit offends me,” the girl muttered.
“But…. why?” Astrid asked curiously. She was always surprised to hear of people being angry at The Act.
“Why? Why? Because my dad killed himself after it happened, that’s why. He couldn’t handle the equality. The unfairness,” the girl voice began to raise her voice as she opened the door, letting in the icy air, “We used to be rich. Really rich. Now my mom won’t even work she’s so depressed so she’s not getting the monthly paycheck we should be getting.” The girl stepped one foot outside and then turned back towards Astrid again. “So, like I said before, everyone who accepts this bullshit offends me.” She slammed the door behind her and headed left out of the parking lot. Astrid wanted to ask the girl where her hat and scarf were. It was so cold out, she would freeze.
Astrid closed her eyes, feeling such empathy for the girl. Most people she knew loved The Act. Now, everyone was equal. Everyone was paid the same, so it didn’t matter where you worked. A cashier at McDonalds made the same every year as a heart surgeon. A nail technician made the same as a politician. An electrician made the same as a movie star. A bookkeeper made the same as the Vice President of Maltech. And Astrid liked it that way. No competition. Great pay for all. As long as you worked, you got fifteen thousand dollars a month. For some, that was like winning the lottery. For others, like Bill Gates and apparently the girl in the bookshop’s dad, it was like death.
As Astrid watched Edith lock up and get into her car, she thought about that teen girl going home to a non-working mom. It was so rare to hear of anyone not working now and days. If you worked, you got paid. And you got paid well, equal to everyone else in the nation. The girl’s mom could work as a cashier. As a therapist. As a teacher. She could even work remotely from home and do something from her computer if she didn’t want to leave her house. Astrid couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t do it. Why anyone wouldn’t accept The Act.
Astrid clicked on her seatbelt just as the Bluetooth started ringing.
“Hello?” she asked as she began to back out of her parking spot.
“Honey, the Thai is going to get cold if you don’t hurry your cute little toosh home,” Alger hummed into the phone. Astrid blushed like a high school girl talking to her crush.
“I’ll be home in seven minutes,” she said, turning onto Eighth Avenue.
“Love you,” Alger said.
“Love you more,” Astrid said. She heard a click and continued driving towards her husband and the delicious Thai food waiting for her at home.