Author's note: More than a week has passed since I began writing this story. I was so young back then. I remember the days...
When I step in Rian greets me with a simple nod and a “What’s up?” I tell him I am ready to begin, and he just looks at me for a moment, face a serious mask. “Are you sure? This job requires focus, and determination. There are a lot of intricacies to working in a head shop that most people don’t understand. They think it’s all fun and games, but it’s really not. You got to be on your A-game. You sure you’re ready for this kind of gig?” Then his mouth breaks into a grin. “I’m just messing with you. Come on back and grab a jay, and I’ll show you the ropes.”
I don’t laugh, but I don’t think he cares. I think I am going to like my job. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Now this here’s the credit register. You know how to use it?”
“Well, let’s play for a bit.”
For the next hour he shows me the store. The extra pieces are stored in the back, the code to unlock the register. He gives me a key—“Hey, if you’re working here, I don’t gotta be, right?” He strides and sways through the store with a kind of familiarity that begets abandon, always with the terminal obscuring his eye. I think he looks like a pirate and I tell him so. “Nah, man. I think my great-great-grandfather might have been part Somalian, though. Me, I’m purebred, one-hundred-percent American-Irish.”
When the tour finishes he steps out back for a break. I still have the joint he offered me. It sits in my pocket. I brush my fingers along it, wondering how my life could have been different. In theory it is not hard to imagine. But I cannot seem to settle on particulars. The tasp affects physiology. Certain doors are now closed. Others have been unlocked. I can run farther and faster. I eat more than I used to—or I would if I had money. I am very hungry most of the time. Physically, I have changed as well. When I was thirteen, my finger got caught in the back side of a car door. My father was beside himself with shame, but did not have enough money to afford a replacement. My days of throwing curveballs were behind me.
Then a friend told me about the tasp, about what it did.
The first thing I did after the change—once I could stand on two feet again—was streak one around our building’s satellite dish. It broke a window.
So many things were available now that weren’t before. Rarely is the tasp not enough.
Three boys saunter through the door. They are dressed like the kids in myold school who used to—
—Well fuck me, it is them. It’s the very same ones. How delightful. I wonder what they’re doing here? Expanding their empire of misery, perhaps. I find it difficult to imagine that they came to the city looking for a better life than the one they had terrifying hapless high school kids in the middle of Joliet.
The tall one in front—Carl, orbited by twin moons Lasker and Baruda—looks around this shop like he’s seen better but it’ll do. The two behind him, his henchmen, two steps behind like always, are both larger ’round the waist and head area than their fearless leader.
Tall-and-Mighty gives me a look, and it’s so adorable, like a Chihuahua having a stare-down with a tornado.
“The fuck is this.” His henchmen leer. I stare at him. Hold eye contact. It’s not hard. All it requires is a change in perception. How you look at the world is shaped by a filter between what is there and what you think you are seeing. I remember this little stain from between classes, from the dumpsters out back, from the ice rink and the dumpster behind that. I remember looking up at him. Now I see him differently. He’s a piece of meat, like all of us. His bigness comes from his swagger and self-perception.
Which is funny. Because he’s such a little fucker now.
“Didn’t know they let bitches work here.” He swaggers in my direction, taking his time. Scoping the competition, innit? What if I jump across the counter and bite out his throat? But I probably won’t. “What say you, bitch?” he asks. “You humped all the pipes yet? Is there a single piece of glass in here your disgusting dog dick hasn’t touched? I don’t even want to know what’s in this carpet.”
Chuckles from the peanut gallery. Cue the laugh track. I grin. He stops, his own grin falters.
And there is no way that is happening. I don’t want James anymore.
Grinning used to be a reflex. I did it when I was nervous. I did it the first time he asked for my computer, so he could “do his homework.” Big mistake. I feel the grin start to loosen, and my face fall. What I feel now is… irrational. There is no way he recognizes me. But my question still comes out of a child’s mouth. “C-can I help you?”
“I don’t need no dog food.”
Nothing he says is important. None of it is relevant. But still, his two friends laugh at all of it. It confused me before, when I was first learning how bullies work, when I thought leaders had to be intelligent. But that is false. They just need to be persuasive.
Rian is out back, smoking or doing something else. I cannot leave the store with customers to go get him. And that would look weak. I cannot show weakness to these people.
And they came to a store. They must want to buy something. So I say again, “Can I help you?”
“What are you, autistic?” Carl looks to Lasker, the slightly larger one of his cohorts. “Isn’t your sister autistic?”
“No.” Lasker looks uncomfortable.
Carl shrugs. “Whatever. This place is fucked, ain’t got what we need. We don’t need no animals serving us. What happened to the American who used to work here? You eat him?” Somehow he’s come all the way up to the counter without me noticing. Now he’s right in front of me, leaning onto the countertop, staring up at me, head cocked to the side.
I take a half step back and immediately regret it.
His smile widens. “You did, didn’t you? Sick fuck. Come on, let’s blow.” He backs off, still swaggering, then turns. His cohorts follow him. Out the door. Away. Somewhere.
I jump at the hand that settles shakily on my shoulder. “You okay?” Rian asks. He looks concerned, the end of a roach still between his lips. And I realize his hand is not shaking. My shoulder is.
“I am fine,” I say. He just looks at me, and I know that he does not believe it. But he does not contradict me. Instead he simply drops the roach into the trash can and says, “I’m gonna go unpack the Tower Sixes. We just got four in. Figure they get the seat of honor, what do you think?”
The rest of my shift passes without incident. During my break, I step out back and make short work of the joint.