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Behind the white expanse of the customer service counter, surrounded on every side by whiffs of orange, rose, and tincture of Roe, Amelia fiddled with the thin band of gold, still unfamiliar in its spot on her fourth finger. She turned it first one way, then the other, and the metal spun reluctantly but steadily, occasionally catching on the odd curvature of the joints. None of the infinite variations of position, though, were proving in the least bit comfortable. The hand felt ... leashed, somehow, which was ridiculous. It wasn't as if it was a particularly heavy thing, nor was-

"Excuse me, ma'am, how much..." A stout and indecisive figure waved a little bottle over the counter. Amelia glanced disinterestedly at the tag, which belonged to a small but coveted (and therefore rather generic, now) vial of Grimsley's Tropicia.

"24," she said, "before taxes and all. Is that alright?" But of course she knew the answer already. The woman looked at the bottle with newfound apprehension, before turning away with a hasty "thank you" which in sales circles was as good as "no." On another day, she might have tried to lure the woman back with coupons or made-up discounts from a far higher price, but not today. Today she felt strangely tired, and more than a little heavy, if that was the word. She saw off a gaggle of teenagers with more money than was good for them and watched them saunter out of the store with their bags, giggling and chirping in the unique language of pubescent female youth, and then a woman old enough to be her mother, before folding into a small revolving chair and contenting herself with a moment's rest. Tracy came over from the other side of the counter, where the returns line was briefly, blissfully empty, to take charge of the vacancy.

Amelia closed her eyes. The ring still announced its presence by means of tingling irritation, and she rolled it for a while with her thumb. A thought, uninvited, wild, certainly unwelcome, sidled up to her head. What did you go saying yes to him for? You didn't have to-

"Hey, Amelia. Amelia?" Elegant brown fingers swung under her eyes, and she looked up to see Becca, as she liked to be called, looking at her with a shy smile. "So, listen, my shift's just finished, and everyone else is busy... you don't wanna run checkout by any chance, do you? I wouldn't ask, but Luke's here, and I promised I'd go down to a movie with him today..." She looked pointedly at her watch, then back at Amelia.

"Yeah. Yeah, of course. Have fun." She roused herself, and looked blankly at the unmitigated hell of holiday checkout queues. At least it would get her mind off of things.

Ten minutes later, her hip, arms, and vestige of sanity were loudly complaining, and the line of chattering women seemed yet unending. It was, she decided, the third element of constant vexation in the universe, right after the irritability of taxis in rush hour and the over-seasoning Thai dishes in the fringe districts of Manhattan.

She was aware of watching eyes, and looked over in time to see a pair of blue eyes snapping back to the bagging of several large tubes of pricey lotion. What was her name? It was the new girl, she knew that much...

"Beatrice, right?" The eyes glanced back up, but only for a moment. "I'm sorry, did you want something?"

The girl passed a pair of bulging plastic bags across the counter, quickly disposed of the syrupy smile one reserved for customers, and shot over a quick missive before the next one came bustling over with a pair of gilded glass bottles filled with lavender extract. "No, it's just..." an apologetic, but genuine, smile flitted across the lips. "That ring. You keep... I don't know. Fiddling with it. I don't know. I'm sorry. I was staring."

"No, it's alright... have a nice day, ma'am... yes, you too... happy holidays. Where was I? Oh. No, it's just... you know how it is."

"No, actually. Is it too tight?"

"Yes, card is fine... hm? No, it's not like that. It's just a lot to think about, I suppose."

Beatrice looked a while longer, as long as the line would let her, before being forced away by a loud woman dangling a pair of earrings. When next she was able to speak, she said, "that's an engagement ring, right? I don't really know these things, I'm sorry."

"Yeah. That's right." Engagement. A funny word, too. Sure, it was supposed to be happy, but just the sound of it pinned you up against a little wall and put up bars so you couldn't get out. The more she thought of it, the more Amelia disliked it. The way the syllables slipped around like the oiliest of lawyers in some places, then hemmed against the teeth in others. She mouthed it to herself now, under her breath, and grimaced slightly.

"It's not that I don't love him," she said out of the blue, and Beatrice looked over, and expression of bemusement on her pretty face. "Because I do. He's a nice guy, and... and he treats me well, you know? There's not many boys like that, that want to hear what you have to say, and ask questions, and..." She shoved a box of concealer into a bag violently enough to have it shoot out the other end, to the tittering of the watching woman. "Sorry! So sorry. Here's a new bag, ma'am. I... sorry. Really. Happy holidays." She looked back at Beatrice, but she was busy with her own customers. She hadn't been listening. Not her fault, of course, but still a little candle of resentment flitted in Amelia's heart, and she turned her eyes willfully away.

And shot them back with surprise.

It wasn't often that you saw a boy in Genevieve's Beauty Selections. It was even rarer to see one on his own, with no beaming girlfriend or pleasant mother leading him by the sulky arm. Yet here one was, looking awkward but still determined, clutching a few scattered items in his gloved hands...

Wait a minute. Amelia peered up at the small round glasses. "Tommy?"

"Hey Amelia."

"What are you doing here?" Something in her chest jolted. Shock, she decided. What else could it be?

"Just... er... shopping. For these." He held out the little array of boxes and bottles. From behind, a few scattered notes of complaint arose from the waiting customers. Tuning them out, Amelia inspected with amusement the various perfumes the boy had picked out.

"Not only is that enough blush to start your own ballet, it's also around half a thousand dollars. Who are you shopping for, Tom, and when did they become a vampire?"

He rolled his eyes dramatically as the line dispersed with a few grumbles and one or two hurled insults. The women shuffled into the adjacent lines, and Amelia saw at least one of them bustle off to find a manager. She winced, but Tommy didn't notice. "Fine. You've got me. I wanted to see you, okay? You don't have to... Why? What's wrong?" But his eyes soon left her worried face, instead tracking the sudden flash of light on metal. The ring blinked guiltily back at him, shiny in the fluorescent lighting of the store. Tommy blinked back, then looked from her, to the ring, to her again. "Is that... but you didn't! You couldn't have, not with"-

"What's going on here?" James Boulevant, luxury merchant extraordinaire and acting manager of Genevieve's, sidled up to the counter and placed one very pale and bony hand on Tommy's back. "Young man, you understand that you are holding up one of only three checkout lanes? No? Because those other two lines there have now stretched their way into the shampoos, which should not be happening." Those last few words were aimed directly at Amelia, who looked away despite herself.

"I - I'm sorry. I didn't mean"- Tommy's face turned a slight shade of red.

"Get out, please."

"But what about"-

"You very obviously have no interest in making a purchase, and even if you did, I'm afraid I'm not going to let you. You've made enough a nuisance of yourself. Get out." Boulevant took hold of the boy's shoulders in a way he never would have done with one of the women, with their fat purses and ermine scarves, and hustled him to the door, to a scattering of cheers and applause. Amelia watched him go. Once he had been released onto the mall concourse, she smiled, expecting him to look in at her, and return the gesture. They'd been friends for years, hadn't they? Of course he'd look in, and she'd text him later.

But he didn't. She saw him pause for a while, back stiff and hands balled into the pockets of his hoodie. Then he dropped his head a little, shook it, and disappeared into the crowd. She felt suddenly sick, but Boulevant was looking at her now, and gesturing people to return, and as she returned to her station the light caught the band of gold on her finger, and threw little shards of light under the counter. The dust swirled around them, and they were gone.

December 11, 2019 01:41

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1 comment

Juliet Tullett
09:00 Jul 02, 2021

Bitter sweet. I want to know what happened next...


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