“ Hey, Luke. Go home man. I can run the store today. This is the last place you need to be.”
“ Thank you.”
Luke says hugging Nathan hard. He pulls away before his tears betray him. But, Nathan knew. He watched his friend with unmet needs leave the store. He hoped that he made it home.
His skeleton ached beneath his flesh. This round of depression hit Luke especially hard. He stared at himself in the mirror of his bathroom. He didn’t recognize his own face. When had his handsome young flesh been replaced with all of these lines and dark circles? His appearance made him weep. He could barely stand to look at himself. But he forced eye contact in the mirror. Something had to change. He couldn’t go on living like this anymore. He runs the shower until the water makes steam. He rolls his neck underneath the shower head allowing the scalding water to ease his mental pain. He’s fully aware that he’s trading one pain for another. Right now it’s the only vice he has. Luke finishes his shower and takes a couple bites of a day old slice of pizza while getting dressed. On his way to work he remembers that he forgot to brush his teeth. He picks up a toothbrush from the gas station and continues to work. He brushes his teeth in the parking lot with a bottle of water. Before heading into the store, he practices what he thinks look like genuine happy expressions and tones of voice. Being that he is a gifted singer; Luke is able to weave friendly tones and cadences into his speech. Smiling at himself while he does this helps to convince him that he’s being convincing. In all honesty it comes off a little crazy. A pounding knock on his window. Snaps him out of his friendly facial expression rehearsal.
“ Boy! Are you in there fake smiling at yourself again? That shit is so creepy. “
“ Good morning to you too Nathan.”
Luke says exiting his car. The two banter as they walk into the store. Luke shuts the door and disarms the security system. Nathan heads back to the office to check the schedule. The pair start counting the safe and the registers getting the store ready to open, as their staff for the morning arrives. Shortly after welcoming the first customer of the morning. Luke’s eyes gaze off into the distance. His eyes are tracking someone but his brain hasn’t fully registered who that someone is. When it finally clicks, Luke steals away to the stockroom. A sudden rush of anxiety has overtaken him and he doesn’t want to be around people if he starts having a breakdown. Heat spreads throughout his entire body. Sweat pours down his brow and into his eyes like he’s been working out. A panic attack, that’s what his therapist last year had called this. Something that triggered his subconscious had sparked this episode and he had no idea what it was. It could’ve been something in his peripheral vision. A passing thought that hadn’t fully registered. A scent or a sound. It could’ve been anything. Whatever the cause the result was the same. Luke always felt crazy, helpless, and fragile. Just like now. He thought he saw someone he didn’t. They just had the same haircut and face shape and a similar gait to their walk. Bile rises up in his throat as he pushes through the door to the stockroom. He makes it to the trash can just in time. His mouth tasted like just brushed teeth and stomach acid with pepperoni pizza. He turned up his face in disgust as he ran his tongue around his gums making sure there weren’t chunks stuck anywhere.
“ Fuck man.. Get your shit together.”
He curses himself. He knows this is all in his head. A physical response to a psychological problem. He has unmet needs and he knows all he has to do is quit this job and follow his dreams of being a musician and all of this self imposed illness will go away. But, he can’t make himself quit. He just finds a way to endure. All the while building up more and more resentment. It’s going to give him an ulcer or a heart attack. At least that’s what his therapist told him last year. He stopped going after that session. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. It seemed too simple to be right. Luke rinses his mouth and splashes cold water on his face. He checks his shirt to make sure he didn’t get puke on it. Satisfied that he’s puke free. He puts on one of his practiced smiles and returns to the sales floor. A customer flags him down. The kind of customer he can’t stand. She’s even wearing the annoying customer uniform. Brown horse riding boots for no reason. Paired with a medium wash cotton stretch denim. Nope, they weren’t even denim. They were leggings with a denim print. From the waist up she wore a tan corduroy blazer. With a lace trimmed half camisole and an obscenely large scarf with flower print. She wore a severe asymmetrical bob. It was parted just slightly too wide. Upon further glance he could see that it had been shaved into her head. He sighed discreetly as she approached and widened his smile.
“ Good morning, how can I help you?” He said sounding more chipper than he intended. Whatever this lady was into it. She gave an approving shimmy like they were girlfriends about to spill tea.
“ Now, I know that you all don’t carry back stock. But, I was just wondering if by any chance, you had any more of these baby jumpers in size 6 to 8 months tucked away in the back. The gal from yesterday said that you get shipments on Wednesdays. Today’s Wednesday!”
She sings the word Wednesday with vibrato. Luke forces his smile. Gripping hands tightly behind his back.
“ We do get shipments on Wednesdays. We haven’t gotten our shipment yet this morning.”
“ What time will it be here?”
“ I’m not sure. They get here when they’re done with the store before ours.”
“ Okay. Because I really would like to buy four more of these jumpers. I’m having a photo shoot with my English Angora rabbits. We’re going to go viral on Instagram.” She gives a little giggle. Just then Nathan comes to grab Luke.
“Truck is here,”
Nathan says. They have their shipment. Luke goes to the back to verify the totes and help unload the truck. Nathan’s flirting with the driver like always. After they finish unloading the trucks to the stockroom. They divide them up by department. Luke takes the men’s totes out to the floor to give to the men’s lead sales associate to start processing. Nathan sets some totes out in the kid’s department for his sales lead to process when she’s done clocking in. As Luke crosses the sales floor. He notices the woman from earlier going through the totes in the kids department!
“ This heifer has some audacity.”
He says under his breath. He feels his temper rising as he practically teleports across the store.
“ Hi.. uhm… What are you doing?”
He says looking her over from hideous head to toe. Arms behind his back to keep from snatching that ugly scarf. He’s looking directly into her eyes. Searching for who the fuck she thinks she is. He realizes that he’s overreacting in this situation. But, he cannot stop himself. The guard dog brain has complete control and he’s finna bite. Nathan is helping a customer when his Luke radar goes off. He can always tell when Luke is about to lose it on a customer because he starts sweating. A flash of heat dampened the middle of his back and the center of his chest. He starts scanning the store for Luke’s location. When he sees him doing that thing where, he leans forward with his hands behind his back, and he’s staring at the customer like they’re an idiot.
“ Excuse me. Just one moment sir. I’ll be right back.”
Nathan flies across the store just as Luke is losing his temper.
“ You do not work here! Keep your greedy little hands out of my totes!”
The woman is appalled and pulls her phone out to “ call corporate.” Luke snatches her phone and chucks it out of the store and into the mall. Passersby are kicking her phone. Not realizing it’s in their path. She runs out after it. Nathan snatches Luke up by the arm and pulls him into the stockroom. He’s mad but he’s also trying not to laugh.
“ Luke! What the hell is wrong with you boy? Are you yelling at customers again? I thought you worked that out in therapy?”
“ I stopped going.”
“ Obviously. You threw that ladies phone!”
Nathan says, unable to hide his laughter. Luke isn’t laughing. He looks like a mess. His eyes are wild and dangerous looking. Nathan is really concerned. He’s never seen Luke like this before.