A swoosh of warm air hits Lori’s frosty skin like a furnace as the automatic doors open, beckoning her inside. She pushes her tired limbs to keep going, diving through the entrance and finally into the warmth of the store. The doors slide closed behind her, sealing the cold outside.
Making her way through the second set of sliding doors and into the store, she searches for the digital customer service clock. 11:24pm. Nearly an hour and a half late. Only a couple checkout lanes are still in operation, serving the last trickle of customers who speak in lowered voices in the echoey, emptying store.
Lori trots over to customer service, hurrying both due to the lateness of the hour and in an attempt to warm up her freezing limbs. She sees Cooper standing at the register, apparently talking to himself. As she approaches she overhears the conversation between him and his invisible pal.
“If you die it puts people at risk anyway. You have to learn when to ask for help.”
“I’m not dead.”
“That doesn’t make you right. It just means you got lucky.”
Grace pops up from below the counter, hair hanging greasy and disheveled around her grime-streaked face. Her standard blue collared work shirt in favor of a cheap promotional t-shirt featuring a map of Michigan with a star in the upper peninsula and emblazoned with the words “S-Mart 2010 Company Picnic: Raising UP Spirits!”
“Yeah, well , he’s still lying facedown in the store closet. You can go kick him in the face a couple times if that’ll make you feel better.” Grace places her balled up workshirt on the counter, a stained bunch of reds, purples and blues. As she attempts to tug and smooth her hair back into something resembling a ponytail, she catches sight of Lori.
“You know your shift starts at ten, right?”
Lori nods. “I had a transportation issue.”
“What kind of issue?”
“I couldn’t find any. My…my mom couldn’t find her keys…again…and I missed the last bus pickup.”
Cooper halts his work and looks at Lori. “You mean you walked here from Overlook Park?”
Lori shrugs and drops her eyes to the floor. “More like sprinted,” she mumbles.
Cooper casts a concerned glance at Grace. “That’s over two miles.”
Grace narrows her eyes at Cooper, then turns back at Lori. “Lori…if you’re going to work this shift, your chronic tardiness is not going to fly. Not for a second. People are counting you.” Grace lowers her voice. “People’s lives might depend on you. So you need to work around whatever issues you’re having at home and show up when you’re supposed to show up.”
Grace sniffs at the air and wrinkles her nose. “Also, there is a zero tolerance policy for being under the influence during your shift. Especially for minors.”
Lori’s heart jumps. “No! I’m not drunk! I don’t drink. I never will, ever. But see there was an accident—“
“I don’t really care who gave you the Schlitz bath,” Grace interrupts. “You need to make sure that when you walk through those doors you don’t reek of booze. That is your responsibility and no one else’s. If you can’t do that and show up on time, then there will be no place for you here.”
Lori’s insides freeze, then drop to the floor. She feels the sting of embarrassed tears at the back of her eyes and a huge lump form in her throat. Next to Grace, Cooper looks stunned, but remains silent.
“Now,” Grace continues. “I have a job for you to do. Go to the basement and grab a pair of coveralls, an axe, some lye and a hell of a lot of garbage bags, then come back up and address the situation in the storage closet. You can see if Nathan will help you, he should be done stocking shelves…both his and yours.”
“Yes, I…right away. I’m sorry, I’ll…I’ll be more careful next time.” Lori stammers as she retreats into the store, hopeful to find the safe and comforting presence of her best friend. She has no idea what situation is waiting her in the supply closet, but it couldn’t be any more horrifying that this moment.
As Lori disappears into the aisles, Cooper turns to Grace, his eyes angry and demanding.
“What the hell was that about? There’s obviously something wrong here, we need to—“
Grace grabs her soiled shirt and starts walking in the same direction as Lori.
“Hey, I’m talking to you!” Cooper yells after her. “I mean of course she has to honor her obligations here but you don’t have to be such a…a…”
Grace turns back, eyebrow raised. “Such a what?”
Cooper’s mouth gapes, then closes. Grace smiles and nods.
“I’m just saying, it might be better if you were more supportive. You are her direct supervisor.”
Grace nods and sighs. “Cooper, what is today?”
Cooper shakes his head. “Uh, well, Friday, in thirty minutes. Are you even listening…?”
“And the date?”
Grace smiles. “Exactly.”
Cooper furrows his brow, confused. Grace turns away and resumes walking towards the basement.
“Cooper,” she calls back, “sometimes you just have to give people the chance to help themselves first. Now finish that register, kick Bonehead in the face if you must, then get downstairs. It’s almost time for role call. And you know how much he hates to be kept waiting.”