There were three good things about working graveyard shift. One was the drunks who came in and paid cash for their late-night energy drinks and snacks and didn’t notice him short changing them. A dollar here and there, it all added up. It didn’t even feel like stealing.
It was for his boy, after all. Jamie had school sports and school trips and the good kind of shoes no one would give him shit for. His son deserved it more than those who had enough they didn’t count it to the last dollar.
It was five in the morning, the slow hour crawling toward the end of his shift. From outside there was the loud rumble of a car pulling in. Some souped up thing, big engine, big exhaust. New and shining. Some dickhead driving. Meanness in him when he looked at the things which seemed so out of reach.
“You’re nineteen years old, do you want to throw your whole damn life away?” his mother had demanded, when he told her Hannah was pregnant.
They were standing in the kitchen and he cast his eye over her and her worn robe and the crowded ashtray on the bench, the bottles stuffed in the bin and thought; it wasn’t much to throw away to begin with.
“Hannah wants it, what am I gonna do?” he asked her. “It’s my kid.”
He hadn’t wanted it, yet pride stirred in him at those words. Something like what he imagined a real father might feel. It drove him out of bed early the next day, applying to all the jobs which didn’t need any kind of qualifications.
Out on the forecourt the driver got out to pump petrol. The passengers got out, a man and a woman, and headed toward the entrance.
He slid his pad under the counter and straightened up. They wandered the aisles, grabbing drinks from the fridge, talking in loud whispers about how they were coming down so bad. As if he might give a shit what they did.
“That and the petrol too,” the man said, slapping drinks and gum down on the counter.
Justin held the hundred-dollar bills he gave him up to the light.
“Don’t you worry, that’s real,” he said. Smirking at him. No older than he was.
“Store policy, nothing personal,” Justin said. Handed him the change, a ten where should have been a twenty. Jamie wanted drum lessons and he was scraping the term fees together. Should have been able to buy a whole damn drum set for the cost of them. He pulled out the receipt and held it toward them.
“Keep it,” the man said, waving it away.
He watched them walk back out into the early morning, a line of grey light creeping up above the horizon. A blast of cold air as the doors gaped open. Then they slid shut again, sealing him back in under the fluorescent lights.
He looked back outside, waiting for the car to leave. The driver got out again and slammed the door. Somewhat familiar, the way everyone who came in seemed to be. Like someone he might have known but didn’t. He saw so many of the same types of people, those who were out in the night.
He came straight up to the counter without getting anything off the shelves.
“You didn’t give me the right change,” he said. His hundred dollar bills then.
“Yeah, I did,” Justin said.
“I’m ten bucks short.”
He knew the car was probably eighty grand off the lot. This dickhead getting out of it to come in and bitch about losing ten bucks. Trying to take his sons money.
“Your mate probably dropped it then,” he said.
The man was wearing expensive looking shit, nice trousers, a shirt. He wasn’t going to get down on the petrol-stained concrete out there and hunt around for ten dollars.
“No, they didn’t,” he said. His hands flat down on the counter, like he thought he owned the whole damn place. Looking at Justin like he knew exactly what he’d done.
“Alright then,” Justin said. “If you really need me to prove it, I’ll add up the till. You got time to wait?”
He folded his arms, gazed back at the man. There was a long moment of silence and he waited to see how much he wanted his ten dollars.
The man looked harder at him. “Didn’t you go to the high school there?” He ducked his head, indicating down the road. “Justin, right? We were in the same form class in year nine. Sam Dolan.”
“Hey, yeah, that’s right,” he said. He remembered the boy and vaguely recognized him in the man. One of those boys who ended up playing on the first fifteen, old man loaded to the eyeballs, knowing the world was his for the taking.
They’d been friends their first year of high school. Used to hang out after school at Sam’s house and swipe vodka from the bar his old man had attached to the garage. They got caught at it once and after that Justin was banned from his house, and they drifted apart.
“Damn, it’s been a few years. What you been doing?”
Justin shrugged. “You know, sailing around on my yacht and shit. Just work here for a laugh.”
“Never saw you after year eleven,” Sam said. “You dropped out?”
“Yeah. What are you doing, bro? Driving your dad’s car around?”
“Working for him, actually,” Sam said. “He had cancer last year, needed me to help him out.”
“Is he alright?” Justin asked. His old man owned a construction company. He saw the name up all over the place, billboards nailed up outside scaffolded buildings.
The last time he’d seen Sam’s father he was watching the room spin around him while he stood over Justin and told him to get out and not ever set foot in his house again. He used to feel pissed off about it but now understood, he wanted to keep bad influences away from his kid too.
“Sure, he’s a tough bastard. Says nothing can kill him. It’s my company car out there, got to be some good things about working for family.”
Justin eyed him. He remembered Sam never used to brag, didn’t have it in him. Just accepted what he had as what he deserved.
“I have a son,” Justin said. “Jamie, he’s six years old.”
“You got a six year old already? That must be rough.”
“Nah, it’s cool, being a dad.”
“So, you and his mum together still?”
“Yeah,” he said, and saw the surprise, they were always surprised. He knew no one ever expected him to be any kind of a father, not one who stuck around. But he’d been there when Jamie was born, the first to hold him, and satisfaction in him at that moment that he’d already done more than his own father ever had.
“Hey, listen,” Sam said. Pulling a business card out of his wallet and putting it down on the counter. “We’re looking for laborers. If you’re interested in working daylight hours, give me a call.”
“Doesn’t your old man hate me?”
“You mean over that high school stuff? He’s not gonna hold the shit you did at fourteen against you.” And he laughed, as if no one ever paid for their mistakes years later.
“Yeah, maybe,” Justin said, leaving the card there. Figuring it’d be rude to bin it while he was still standing there.
“Look,” Sam said. “Don’t worry about the money. Those idiots probably just dropped it. I'll see you later.”
Justin called him back before the doors closed behind him. “Hey, found your change. I must have just dropped it down under the till.”
Sam looked at him. “You keep it,” he said.
Justin pulled his pad back out, put it down over the card and stared down at the grid of six little squares. That was the second good thing about working graveyard shift, the quiet times when no one was in there but him and he leaned against the counter and drew.
He was working on a comic he and Jamie were doing together. Each morning while Jamie ate his cereal he’d stand against the bench watching him and they’d talk about what was going to happen next.
It was a convoluted tale of a father and son astronaut who were stuck on an alien planet populated by dragons and giants and dinosaurs. Whatever Jamie wanted it to be, he’d draw it that night at work, and then the next day Jamie would color them in with his markers. They’d already almost filled a whole clear file with the pages of it, and there was no end in sight.
In the drawing he'd done the night before, the son had been steering the spaceship and accidently crashed it into a volcano. Jamie was taken with the explosion, outlined flames he wanted to color in right away.
“Do it after school,” Justin had said that morning. “We got to figure out how they're gonna get out of the volcano.”
“Do you think his daddy's mad?” Jamie had asked, looking up at him.
He sat at the counter looking at his pad now. In the first square the father and son sat on the edge of the volcano looking at the wreckage of their ship. A speech bubble coming from the father’s mouth.
I’m not mad at you, it was an accident.
He chewed on his liner pen, contemplating the last incomplete square. He had less than an hour to finish it and his mind felt blank. The kind of weariness in him no amount of sleep would ever drive out.
The father and son were back up in the air. Hovering over the volcano as a dinosaur clawed up toward them, just out of reach. The speech bubble coming from the father’s mouth was empty still and he tried to think of something to write in it.
Sometimes as he sat there in those quiet hours of the morning, darkness outside and the time stretching ahead of him, he’d find himself writing things he couldn’t say to his son aloud. The words which knotted up inside him. But they flowed out of the mouth of daddy astronaut, into the little speech bubbles which floated above his head.
I love you more than anything in this entire universe.
No matter how hard this is I will always be glad you're here.
He looked at Sam’s card again, his ten dollars. One day soon enough Jamie would figure out his own father was nothing but a dumb kid who knocked up his girlfriend long before he was ready, but the daddy astronaut was smart and good and patient, some damn hero. Never ripped off drunks just to get a few extra dollars to buy his kid something, just to feel a second’s flash of victory.
He picked up the card, turned it between his fingers. Pocketed the ten dollars he had wanted so much, and Sam had given up so easily.
The best thing about working graveyard shift was the end of it. Driving home through the mostly empty streets, the lights coming on in houses, a rubbish truck crawling the curb, birds swooping down from the wires hanging overhead. Everyone else beginning the day.
Back past the high school he'd attended but didn’t finish and the house he once lived in with his mother, and sometimes it felt his life was a path already laid and he was only travelling down it toward an inevitable end.
He walked into the quiet house where Hannah and Jamie were sleeping still. He left off the lights and walked through the rooms grey lit in the dawn, a pattern so familiar he could have done it with his eyes closed.
He paused in the doorway of his son’s room, saw him asleep in bed. The toys lined up on his shelves, the drawers of clothes, the framed posters on his wall. All the things he had.
Hannah had told him she was pregnant as they sat on the plastic chairs outside the back door of her house, him drinking beer and her not drinking. She dropped it on him with no build up. I’m two months pregnant. And holding her hand over her stomach, so he knew already, no matter what he might say, she was going to keep it.
“It’s the size of a blueberry right now,” she’d told him.
“No shit,” he’d said, holding his fingers apart. Imagining it.
He looked down at his son now, exactly what he’d imagined that day. A boy with blue eyes like him, dark curls like Hannah. A boy he’d look at and see a better and brighter version of himself shining out from.
In the kitchen while he waited for the jug to boil he got the change jar down from the pantry. He pulled the ten dollar bill out of his pocket and dropped it in on top, remembering the way Sam had looked at him. You keep it. The knowing in him.
He made coffee and took it through to the bedroom and when he walked in Hannah was already awake, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Here,” he said, passing the mug down to her. He leaned back against the draws. He never sat down when he got home, not until after he’d gotten Jamie dressed and fed and dropped him off at school.
Some mornings though Hannah would reach for him and pull him down onto the bed with her, and for a moment they’d be young and in love. They were young and in love. It was hard to remember sometimes.
But this morning she just sipped her coffee and looked at him. “We got to pay the drum lessons by Monday, if Jamie’s going to enroll,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it, I’ve got it,” he said.
“That’s good,” she said.
He didn’t know why guilt poked at him. Jamie deserved it. He deserved everything they had to give him.
He went back into his son’s room. Pulled out the drawing and put it down beside his bed. It would be the first thing he’d look for.
“Hey,” he said, stroking Jamie’s hair. Watching his son open his eyes, smile when he saw him there. He leaned down to kiss his head, feeling the card Sam had given him jabbing his leg through the lining of his pocket.
Daddy astronaut and his son flew away from the volcano. You might feel like you’re stuck, but there is always a way out.
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God, I envy your writing. You probably know this already, but I'm one of those readers who vastly prefers character-driven pieces to plot-driven ones, so your stories always appeal to me. Which is not to say that your narratives are plotless, but rather your characters drive the action of the story instead of the other way around. And I love that. There are so many good things going on in this piece. First, I love how you formatted this with the "three good things about working graveyard shift" opener, and then each paragraph after the line...
Thanks so much, Zack. Always really appreciate your comments it's so great to hear how things come across. And you are super talented so it's a big compliment you like my writing. I'm like you, I prefer character driven stuff, but I sometimes feel a bit insecure about writing it, as if the reader doesn't find the characters interesting then the story will be a fail! End of the day though I always figure there is no point doing this if I'm not writing what I want to write. I'm really glad you liked the comic bit, I didn't want it to seem ov...
Your character writing is awesome. A strong opening kept going into a strong story and I believed every word.
Thanks Graham, coming up with the characters is by far my favourite part of writing!
Do you also find it hard not to write about them? When I get characters I really like I want to keep writing about them.
Yes same here! There is a few of my characters I really want to write more about, and a couple of my stories I would like to expand into a novel at some point.
Go for it on all counts.
This is just so interesting-- the high tension, the moral questions, the way our protagonist is just stuck in his life. It's hard not to sympathize, honestly. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for your comment, I'm glad you enjoyed the story.
This story was so beautiful, Kelsey! I loved the way it gently unfolded, letting us fully understand Justin. I so admire your ability to create such complicated characters in so few words - it’s a very skill!! I loved the line ‘Something like what he imagined a real father might feel.’ That feeling is so universal regardless of the age or situation of the parent. A poignant, thought provoking piece. Thank you for sharing. :-)
Thanks so much for your comment, I always enjoy coming up with different characters and situations, though turning it into an actual story/plot is the hard part!
Zack put it so well, about your character-driven stories - it's what literary fiction is, isn't it, and it's soo good to read and, for me, so difficult to write! But you nail it every single time, that bit of unraveling of a character's inner workings. You are so good at writing these very real people we can sympathize with despite their flaws and you come up with so unique situations and characters every single time - I could never get bored of it and it's always a highlight when I see a new story from you - I probably said as much before! ...
Thanks so much Riel, I'm so glad to hear your thoughts on this. I wish I was better at coming up with more complex plots to be honest, I actually tried to think of another mystery/twist story since I did have fun writing my last one, but it's just not something I can force. Anyway I still like writing these sort of simple plot stories, so just happy if someone else enjoys it too!
This story reminded me why I love moments just before sunrise or just before sunset, for their suspended quality and the kind of intimacy they conjure up in the in-between. The characters here are like that: caught between the faded memories of uncaring adolescence and the responsibilities of adulthood - and the in-between of choices: be an asshole or do the right thing. I like the fact that there are no clear answers to that, and sometimes a bad thing contains its good side, just like an asshole can be a decent person and a decent person ...
Thanks so much for your comment! You really got what I was trying to capture with this character, on the one hand he is young and still trying to overcome a troubled upbringing and figure out who he is, and on the other hand he has this huge responsibility he desperately wants to live up to.
PS - I've just realized we can still edit our stories after publication, so you might want to correct this : "They were / stood in the kitchen and he cast his eye over her"
PPS - Huh, I've just realized we can't. So don't worry about it. If anything, it adds a touch of surreal/beat poetry to the scene ;)
Thanks! It hasn't been approved yet so still able to be edited.
Great story! There's *so* much going on here, and I think the line "This dickhead getting out of it to come in and bitch about losing ten bucks. Trying to take his sons money." defines so much of it. He's doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. It's not easy to get us to sympathize with a thief, but give him a believable reason for it and we're good to go. I love the comic book scene. At first I thought he was going to toss the card, because he was working on a comic in his spare time and that was his ticket to get out of th...
Thanks so much for your thoughts. I have to admit I do love an anti-hero! I'm so glad you liked the story, I didn't know if it would be boring to read or not, so hard to judge my own work! I did realize as I was writing it that taking the construction job would probably actually give him less time with his son, though I feel like his wish to be a better provider and role model will win out ... interesting dilemma though. I'm glad you liked the comic book scene too, I liked the idea of him using it as a way to connect with his son. I actual...
This story was sad, but the end was hopeful. Hopeful that maybe better things are coming. I mean he's got that new job offer which hopefully will come with better pay so he doesn't need to steal just to get his son nice things.
Thanks for your comment, I did want to finish with a more uplifting feel than it started with!