“I ain’t working Christmas Eve. I’ll walk out!” Linda took a long slow drag off her Strawberry Vanilla vape and exhaled dramatically. “Are you smoking again?” Toni asked, her voice intermittently fading, just strong enough to push through the weak signal.
“Vaping,” Linda answered. “Since Jordan was diagnosed with asthma last month. I swear it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done but, what can you do?” Her lips tugged at the warm electric pen. Feet propped in a red plastic chair and eyes locked on the puddle collecting at the foot of the staff refrigerator, she sighed and said again, “I ain’t doing it. I ain’t working Christmas Eve. I worked half of my Thanksgiving last week and I’m gonna spend Christmas Eve with my boys.”
“People need gas on Christmas, too, Linda,” her cousin reminded, passively coaching her to reconsider resignation. “No, the hell they don’t! By Christmas Eve, everybody is where they need to be, and if they ain’t, then they just need to sit their ass at home and let the rest of us enjoy our time with our kids!”
The door swung open, barely any time for the arthritic hinges to groan in protest. A young and red-faced Cassie Martin stood in the doorway, dark green eyes ballooned with agitation behind her thick frames. Here was the posterchild of panic. Cassie’s chest visibly heaved beneath her black wool sweater while her hands nervously flapped, communicating her frustration better than her words. “I’m so sorry,” she started breathlessly. “It’s getting backed up and I don’t know what to do!”
Linda sighed at the new girl. “This is called a breakroom for a reason.” Were those actual tears forming in the girl’s eyes? Her lip trembled as she started to turn away. “Cassie,” Linda called in a singsong voice. The young cashier turned to the sound of her name. Linda sighed again, eyes connecting with her co-worker. “Breathe, okay? Stress will kill you.” One last draw from the mechanical stick. She assured her cousin she would call her back. “These people act like we’re the only damn place to get gas in this town!” she explained before disconnecting.
“We practically are,” Cassie chimed in. Self-righteous Cassie. Always had to find a way to correct someone. “At least, the only good one with clean restrooms.”
Linda rolled her eyes. “I admire your passion, new girl, but you sound like a commercial. I give you a month, tops, till you’re looking for somewhere else to go. See how them clean restrooms feel when you’re overworked, underpaid and going home with bricks in your back every night.”
There was no real reason for Linda’s bones to click and pop the way they did. She was only 32 but some days those tired bones felt closer to 80. She lurched out of the small quiet paradise of the breakroom, prematurely leaving behind a world of peace. No constant chiming of a door that never closes. No motors revving, teenagers howling, radios blaring through the parking lot. No boys fighting over who gets the remote. In that breakroom, for those 30 minutes, was her time. Was her shameless hideaway. Solitude was worth her weight in gold.
“Lord, Jesus!” Linda exasperated as she came around the corner to see a line backed down to the coolers.
Cassie’s body relaxed the moment her eyes found Linda entering the battlefield. Her guardian. Her on-the-job savior. Cassie’s heroine wore a baggy gray hoodie, light blue jeans and white laceless high tops. Her dirty blonde hair was pulled back into a careless bun, bangs long overdue for a trim created a curtain over her stormy blue eyes.
“Next!” she called out to the long jagged line of bundled bodies. Linda sure loved her pump payers. It wasn’t unusual to glimpse her waving out the window as they fueled up, showing her antisocial appreciation for those diehard “Gas and Go” customers. Flipside to that coin is that most gas stations cannot survive without its cache of on-the-go drinks, junk food and some here-and-there necessities.
A cold, fresh cola and a $5 scratch-off. Next!
Fistful of corn chips, two drinks and a 2-pill packet of painkillers. Next!
Three energy drinks, a pine air freshener and a lottery ticket. Next!
The mass of bodies disappeared one by one, sometimes two by two. Moving, moving, moving along. All but one. One small-framed body swallowed up by a thick brown parka. A woman. She stood off to the side, evading the line like a timid doe. That face. Linda didn’t mean to stare, but she knew that face. Zoning into that familiar face, her stomach suddenly clenched.
It was Catherine Holmes.
Linda took a deep breath as the line of customers dwindled down to three. Two. One. Pump payers outside the window never slowed. An assembly line of gas guzzlers. But for now, quiet. Catherine approached the counter in just a couple slow steps. Weak steps. Heavy. Her face was more pale than Linda remembered. Thinner. More fragile. Sunken cheeks accented the sharp angles of her cheekbones, feeding up into hollow sockets wherein lay eyes the color of syrup and just as sweet. Those docile but tired eyes were islands to the surrounding dark oceans encircling them. Undoubtedly sleepless, shark-infested oceans. Catherine’s hair was unkempt. Listless chestnut faded with a touch of gray in the roots, precocious for Catherine’s age. Linda always believed silver hair was earned and should be celebrated. It’s just that Catherine was so young. The wrinkles mapped at the corners of her thin lips, trailing down her neckline were untimely.
“Hey Cathy.” Linda pressed her lips tightly together and offered a smile that fell limp. That one simple greeting wore a tone of sympathy like a thick musk. It was an obvious tone, and one she tried to avoid with zero success.
Catherine attempted a friendly smile in return. Old habits. She was so good at it, hiding the devastation just beneath the surface. Years of practice, most likely. Though the effort was genuine, a blind man could clearly see the tremendous strain it took on Catherine to lift and hold the corners of her mouth. It was still odd to see Catherine so bleached of life where once she glowed.
The silence quickened Linda’s already racing heart. Flanked by the candy bar rack and a small box of cherry lip balm was a clear plain mason jar. The quart-sized jar held a most demanding presence anytime Catherine or Mark Holmes came in, especially now. An image frozen in a time not long ago, taped at all four corners on the front of the jar, was the sweetly smiling pale face of 9-year-old Luke Holmes. For being captivated by the boy’s gentle eyes that sparkled like emerald gems and a genuine smile that could light the darkest recesses of the world, the hospital bed and oxygen hose were almost unnoticeable. He proudly held his game controller high above his head. Catherine had fondly told the story the day she set the jar up. After giving up twice in six months, Luke had finally defeated the end game boss in Turbo Wars Maximum. He was beyond excited that day. What the photo didn’t capture, Catherine had said, was the tears that followed only minutes later from the pain that ignited through his delicate bones. Linda reflected intimately on that story every payday when she would slip $10 through the slitted top and say a silent prayer for the boy and his family.
“Twenty on pump four, please.” Catherine’s request was almost inaudible. Her thin fingers shuffled through a wad of $1 bills. Royal blue nail polish flat and chipped on every nail. Linda noticed the fine shaking in the woman’s hands as she recalled where all those single dollar bills came from. The yard sale just a few short weeks ago on Clarity Lane. Sold damn near everything she had. Linda had found the perfect place in her kitchen for the flamingo figurine she bought at Cathy’s yard sale. And her own two boys loved playing the video games Luke gave them that day. Free of charge with strategic tips, Luke insisted. Linda tucked $40 over asking price into the donation bucket, and an extra $10 for Luke’s generous gameplay tips to Jordan and Cam. Those dollar bills between Catherine’s trembling fingers were the products of true devotion. She and her family sacrificed the things they held dear in order to raise money for Luke. Furniture, clothes, antiques, video games, appliances. It was a wonder they had anything left in their house.
Linda reached for the jar. The cold on the glass nipped at her fingers. “While you’re here,” she said, trying to tilt her voice into a more chipper tone. She twisted the lid and withdrew $16.75. It felt good to hand it across the counter to those feebly shuddering hands. To give the other woman anything opened up her lungs just a little. Catherine stopped counting the dollar bills and looked at the money in Linda’s hands. Then, she recounted the bills again, this time passing over $4 to add to the $16.
The door chimed with a customer. A gentleman in a thin coat over black slacks and polished black shoes. He grabbed a newspaper and a coffee. Cassie called him over. The quiet mumblings between customer and cashier were whispers on the other side of the counter. The weather talk. The holiday talk.
“Thank you,” Catherine quietly spoke, bringing Linda’s attention back around. “People are kind.”
“Yeah,” the cashier whispered, tucking a stray blonde lock behind her ear. She tapped the numbers into the cash register, ringing up for pump #4. Every punch of a button felt wrong. She didn’t want to charge Catherine. Not tonight. In fact, she just wanted to give her anything she wanted. But she couldn’t. Not with the all-seeing eyes of the cameras, always watching. Not when she needed this job, especially with the holidays rapidly approaching. As much as Linda hated to admit it, and truly she probably wouldn’t aloud, she did need this job.
“How’s Mark?” Linda asked. The woman tossed her head back, sending her long wavy bangs out of her eyes. “Oh,” she said, thinking of how to respond. “He’s been staying at his brother’s. Says he can’t be in the house. Trying all he can to get a loan for a decent stone and a funeral.” She shook her head lightly. Heat blossomed from the inside out. Catherine’s pasty, almost ashen complexion rouged with emotion. Embarrassment. Anger. These emotions shared custody of those blotchy patches of redness. “Told him our credit score isn’t magically going up in a week.”
Linda nodded and carefully offered, “I knew someone who couldn’t afford a funeral for her dad. She had him cremated and had a private service at her house instead.” Part of her felt like she was helping. Another part felt intrusive. Overstepping. But the woman nodded understandably. “Mark just doesn’t…” her words trailed off, then dissolved into a whole other subject. “How was your Thanksgiving?”
Smoky steel blue eyes rolled dramatically, accompanied by a smile. “Oh, you know the Thanksgiving Shuffle. You go to your parent’s house and stuff yourself. Then gotta go across town to the sister’s house and visit with her family, but you’re too full to eat anything but a small bite of pumpkin pie. By the time you get home later that evening, you’re hungry again!”
The woman laughed lightheartedly. Counterfeit and forced, as though socially mandatory.
“How was yours?” Linda hated herself the moment those words slipped. Habit. Just friendly habit. Her heart hammered in her ears. You don’t have to answer, she silently pleaded. Please, don’t answer that. But Catherine did. Her dark eyes lost the last bit of lingering light. Snuffed out. Through insurmountable strength, she held that synthetic smile like plaster. That, too, was friendly habit.
“It was alright,” she murmured. Warm redness bled across her neckline. It was like being caught in a lie. “I mean,” she backpaddled. “We’ve definitely had better.” She laughed a little to herself. How it felt so inappropriate to laugh. To smile. To be standing here. To breathe. To live when Luke couldn’t. Finally, the smile lost its battle and faded.
Linda remembered Thanksgiving day. She was leaving her shift that late morning when Mark Holmes came in for gas and cheap coffee. Heading to the funeral home to discuss arrangements is what he told her. Her heart collapsed as she now stared past the façade of Catherine’s mechanical smiles and automated breathless laughter. She also remembered complaining Thanksgiving morning. She was angry that day. She had wanted to sleep in before having to dress the boys for family visits. The funeral home was open that day, too. She wondered if any of them complained as badly as she had.
Hesitantly, Linda deposited the money into the register. It made her stomach churn to take money from the grieving mother. The silence was heartbreaking.
“You know,” she began quietly as she looked across the counter. “I was so scared that day Cam fell on that glass table. Right in the middle of the damn store! Blood everywhere!”
The woman acknowledged with a nod.
“Cam screamed the entire way to the hospital. I did everything to calm him down. Hell, I couldn’t even calm myself down! But you…”
Catherine’s smile returned, more natural this time. Authentic.
“The moment you came into the room, everything was okay. You brought that train for him to hold while the doctor stitched him up. Do you remember that?”
“Trauma Bay 7,” Catherine remembered fondly.
“Yep,” Linda nodded. “He said you were his favorite nurse. He still says so, two years later.”
The smile rolled into a chuckle.
The cashier reached beneath the counter and dipped her hand into the contents of her purse. She collected the last $20 from the crossbody shoulder bag. Tomorrow was payday. She had a half-tank of gas and a refrigerator full of food. She had her boys warm, safe and fed. Most importantly, she had her boys. Period. There would be a Christmas tree welcoming her home from behind the partly drawn curtains, twinkling like a coven of fairies amid the pulsing reds, greens, blues and yellows. She stretched the $20 bill across the counter. Catherine stared at the worn green paper. She deliberated for a moment before gently shaking her head. Her lips parted with a refusal, but words were cut short when Linda interrupted. “Please,” she urged. “I never thanked you for being such an angel for my son that day. For me, too.”
Tears welled in the woman’s eyes. She whispered, “You don’t have much, either, Linda.”
But I have more than you, she wanted to say. “Please,” she insisted. “It’s the very least I can do.”
The woman gently clasped her fingers around the money and slipped it into her coat pocket. “Thank you,” she said. Two words she had to learn to use more often these days. A hard lesson for some to learn. To let others love us. To allow ourselves to be helped. “Have a good night,” Catherine uttered. “Tell those handsome boys of yours Merry Christmas, and to stay away from glass tables.” She smiled lightly and turned for the door before the tears blinked out of her eyes and rushed down her warm cheeks.
Linda watched from behind the window until Catherine got to her car. Wispy pockets of breath puffed into the air around her. The woman cradled into the ruby red Honda Civic, unaware of the thoughtfully surveying eyes as she drove out of the parking lot and disappeared into the 8pm darkness descending down Chapman Avenue.
Linda plucked her phone from her pocket. Four text messages.
You calling me back??
Did you get robbed??
She headed back to the break room, connecting the phone to her ear. “Sorry,” she started. “Got real busy for a bit.”
Toni smacked obnoxiously. “So, I was thinking about this whole Christmas Eve thing and you’re right. Hell, that’s two holidays in a row he’s making you work! I would tell your manager up there to kiss my crack and shove that gas station right up his—”
“Nah,” Linda chimed. “It’s no big deal. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how blessed we really are. I’ll be home with the boys Christmas morning. For that, I’m truly grateful.”