Marnie and Kyle in the Quick ‘n’ Now
~ Jason Washer
Eleven-thirty p.m. and it’s freezing rain outside. I’ve already swept the store and emptied the trash, and haven’t seen a single customer since our shift started. I can’t see past the gas pumps and the darkness to the street beyond, but I know it’s deserted, too slick to travel. The roads were treacherous on the way in and I should have stayed home.
Kyle’s been stocking the beer freezer for what seems like hours. Through the freezer door I watch him sit down onto a case of beer and hunch forward over his phone. He stays like that for a while, his fingers occasionally flicking at the screen, and I don’t want to know what he’s looking at. I pull a half dozen magazines from the rack and bring them back up to my perch at the register and start flipping through them. Later I’m turning the last page on the last magazine and digging through my purse for nail polish when I hear the squeal of the freezer door opening and see Kyle hugging himself as he walks up to the register. His cheeks are blue.
“You were in there a long time,” I say, glancing up at the clock behind the register. Hardly any time has passed at all, but I don’t retract or apologize. Instead I lean into it, “I hope it was good for the phone too . . .”
“Don’t be a perv, Marnie,” Kyle says, not meeting my eye, and then I really don’t want to know what he was looking at on his phone. It takes a minute but he eventually blushes and tells me to fuck off, but not with any particular vehemence, only a mild shame. Tonight’s my third shift at the Quick ‘n’ Now, just two nights past my orientation shift with Jamie, and only my first working with Kyle. He’s as awkward as he sounds, and always was, even back in school. He sits next to me behind the counter, the two of us up on stools, silently surveying the store, waiting for someone to come in.
No one does.
“Did you sweep?” he asks, like he’s my supervisor. He’s not. It’s my third day but it’s only his second month.
“Yup,” I say, and then because I can I ask, “Did you stock the cooler while you were in there?”
“Yup,” Kyle says, and then glances down at the empty trash bin behind the register. “Did you empty the trash?”
I glance from the empty can to Kyle and try to hold his eye for a moment so he knows just how stupid of a question that was but he quickly looks away. Someone needs to come into the store soon and buy something or I’ll lose my mind. I’m certain if this quiet and boredom continues for another seven hours Jamie will find us in the morning at each other’s throats like feral dogs, one of us wearing the other’s blood as war paint. Or worse yet making out in the cooler.
“How’s your mom?” I finally ask, reduced to small talk. He looks at me, an eyebrow raised, confused. I don’t know his mom, and hardly know him, other than for the years we passed each other silently in the halls of Ripley’s schools. A dozen years of school for a job at the Quick ‘n’ Now, and Jamie had me trained in less than an hour: here’s the registers, card everyone under forty for beer, and don’t forget to sweep and take out the trash. We spent the rest of the shift chatting, and then had beers in his car up by the airport. I’ll admit it, Jamie’s pretty hot.
“Dead,” Kyle says with something like glee. Not glee that his mom is dead, but glee that I asked such a stupid question. Of course she was dead, and had been since sixth grade. Everyone in town knew his mom was dead, even me. She drove into a lake.
“Sorry,” I say, and I mean it. I should have remembered. It was a big deal back then, and the only thing anyone in school or town talked about, and then everything went back to the way it was. At least for us. “I forgot.”
“It’s okay,” he says, still not meeting my eyes. When he says it it comes out mumbled, and sounds like ‘s’kay’ and then for some dumb reason I feel even worse, because I remember that I never told him I was sorry when his mom died in sixth grade; and no, I didn’t just remember. I knew and I’ve known that I never did. Even at the start of the shift, I knew. I could feel it between us even if I didn’t know at first what it was. I’m not sure if anyone at school ever told him they were sorry about his mom.
“The floor . . .” Kyle says, this time meeting my eye for a moment before looking away again.
“I told you I swept,” I say, sharper than I should have. His mom died after all, and for me anyways it’s as fresh as if it just happened, though I guess he’s been living with it, or without her, so he’s probably used to it by now. Could a person get used to their mom driving into a lake?
“No,” Kyle says, getting up from his stool and walking around to the other side of the counter. He points to the cooler, “the floor. In the cooler. It’s cracked.”
I follow him into the cooler so he can show me his discovery and I hope he doesn’t think this is the part where we make out, because it isn’t. The door seals behind us and it’s freezing in the small and brightly lit beer cooler. Neither of us is wearing a jacket. I hug myself for warmth and he points to the floor, and sure enough, there’s a crack in the tile.
“It’s new,” he says, crouching down on his heels. He runs his fingertips lightly up and down the thin foot long crack in the floor. “It wasn’t there yesterday…”
“Someone must have dropped a case of beer,” I say. “Better call the cops.”
He squints down at the crack, “Do you see it?”
“What?” All I see is the cracked tile, and Kyle, shivering on his knees in the cooler. It’s freezing in here, and I’m freezing too. Fuck this, “I’m going back to the register.”
“The reflection in the crack,” Kyle leans down, his face inches from the floor. “Or maybe it’s a light?”
“I don’t see it, and I’m cold,” I move toward the freezer door.
“Just look at it,” he motions for me to come closer. “Come look. Don’t you see it?”
“No, and if you think I’m getting down on the floor with you—”
“Fine,” I say, and kneel down beside him to stare at the cracked tile. There’s a reflection, he’s right. Or maybe it’s a light. “So someone left the basement lights on. Big deal.”
We’re both kneeling on the cold tile, our faces pressed close to the floor staring at the crack and he looks up at me, his face inches from mine.
“Nope,” I say, clambering to my feet. “Not tonight. Not going to happen.”
He looks up at me, confused for a moment, until his face registers understanding. “Stop being a perv. And don’t you get it?”
“There’s no basement.”
Back at the register I glance up at the clock and it’s still barely half past eleven. Time is crawling by, and this is officially the longest shift ever. Outside the sleet continued, and the constant pattering of the freezing rain on the roof rang on. I watch Kyle staring down at the slowly rotating hotdogs for what seems like minutes, until I can’t stand it anymore.
“Jamie never told me,” I say, and Kyle looks up at me, his spell broken. “About the hotdogs? Do they ever get swapped out? Or are those the same ones from the grand opening?”
Kyle shook his head no, and smiled. “I’ve never seen them changed since I’ve been here. And I’ve never sold one. Maybe on the day shift?” He grabbed the tongs. “Want one?”
“God no,” I say, “You go ahead.”
Kyle sets the tongs down, “Nah, not hungry. Maybe later.”
He hops back up onto the stool next to me and we sit silently for what seems like hours. Finally I’m unable to stand it any longer, the awkwardness too thick, and I break the spell and blurt out, “Jamie seems nice.”
Kyle snorts, a grin on his face. “Everyone thinks so.”
“He’s a great manager. Really nice,” he says, and I see the expression on his face and hear the bitter longing in his voice and realize that I’m not the only one who’s been drinking beers up by the airport with Jamie. The manager of the Quick n’ Now is an equal opportunity employer.
“So nice,” I agree softly, and stare hopefully at the door, willing someone to come in. No one does. This might be the longest night of my life. “Is it always this slow?”
“Maybe it’s a crawl space?” Kyle asks, staring over at the beer cooler again. “For the pipes?”
“Maybe,” I say, and then add. “It’s probably just a reflection.”
“An optical illusion,” Kyle says. “The way the lights are hitting it.”
“What?” Kyle asks me.
“My dad, he always says ‘optical delusion.”
“Yeah,” Kyle says, and then gets up from the stool. He goes into the office and comes out with his jacket in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. “I’m just going to take another look.”
I watch the freezer door close behind him, and I sit under the store’s buzzing fluorescent lights and wait. After a while I get up and grab another handful of magazines to skim through even though I’ve read them all before. He’s gone for what seems like a really long time, though the clock is still showing barely half past eleven when he comes back out of the freezer with the screwdriver in his hand. He nods at me as he walks past the register and into Jamie’s office. I can hear the drawers of the file cabinet banging open and shut, and when he walks back into the cooler he’s carrying a hammer in addition to the screwdriver.
I wait at the register for what feels like an hour and then grab my jacket and follow him into the cooler.
Kyle’s on the floor wailing away at the tile with the hammer. The walk-in cooler is filled with a haze of dust, and tiny chips of tile are flying through the air and pinging off the cases of beer. The hairline crack is now a hole big enough to reach an arm into. A faint yellow light streams up from the opening.
“Holy shit,” I say over the sound of the smashing tile. Kyle’s arm is robotically swinging the hammer at the floor, over and over and over again, the hole getting bigger and bigger until it’s almost two feet across. “Jamie’s going to kill you.”
Kyle stops swinging the hammer and looks up at me questioningly, and then says, “It’s not so bad, I just wanted to see . . .” He looks down at the ruined floor, realizing what he’s done. “Oh shit.”
“Yeah,” I say. “You’re fucked.”
“I didn’t think I . . . I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t realize.”
“You were in here for a long time,” I say. “How could you not realize?”
He pulls out his phone and glances at the clock, and shakes his head, “No, I wasn’t.”
“Yeah, you were. You’re really fucked.” I kneel down beside him and peer into the hole. It drops six feet down to another ceramic tiled floor, and a hallway that veers off to the side. The light is coming from off to the side, further in. “What is this?”
Kyle shrugs and wipes sweat from his pocked forehead with the sleeve of his jacket. “An unfinished basement. Utility room, maybe.”
“With no stairs?” I say, thoroughly creeped out. I shiver, maybe from the cold. I’m pretty sure that Kyle has stumbled into someone’s murder hole, and that there’s probably a dozen body’s stacked like cordwood just out of sight around the corner.
“And no door,” Kyle says, and then, “There has to be a door.”
Kyle shrugs again, “There has to be.”
I stand up and say “Nope. That’s enough. Fuck this. We’ll sweep all this shit down into the hole and just tell Jamie we dropped a keg on the floor.”
“You think he’ll believe it?”
“Sure. And it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t. I’m going to get the broom out of the office.”
I grab the broom out of the office and glance at the clock as I head back into the cooler to see how many more hours of this I have left. 11:30. It has to be broken, or the clock’s batteries are dead, so I pull out my own phone to check the time and my battery’s dead too. Awesome.
“Kyle,” I say as I’m pulling open the cooler door. “What time is it?” He’s not in the cooler. “Kyle?”
“Down here,” He pokes his head up through the hole in the floor.
“What the hell!” I jump back, startled, and may have peed a little bit. “You scared me. What are you doing?”
“I just wanted to see where the light was coming from,” Kyle says, ducking his head back down into the hole.
“And?” I crouch down near the hole just in time to see him duck around the corner and out of sight. “Kyle?”
“Just a corridor going down, and then it turns off to the right again.”
“Come back out,” I say, and I can hear his feet scuffing away. “Right now. You shouldn’t be down there.”
His voice echos up to me, “I’m just going to look. I’ll be right out.”
“Jamie’s going to kill you,” I say, and then regret it.
“It’s fine,” he calls. “I just want to look. Be right back.”
“Kyle,” I say as I listen to his footsteps get further and further away.
I stare at the hole in the cooler floor and I wait.
I pull out my phone again to check the time before I remember my battery’s dead, and then I walk back out into the store and pull a charger off the shelf next to the Tylenol and tampons. I rip open the charger and then try to plug my phone in behind the register but of course it’s the wrong size phone plug. Of course it is.
I look up at the broken clock and try to work backwards to figure out when Jamie will come in and our shift will be over, and I think about the magazines and the sweeping and Kyle breaking open the floor with the screwdriver and the hammer and I don’t know. It has to be four a.m. by now, or later. It feels later. It’s been such a long shift. When Jamie gets here in the morning I’m going to quit. I go back into the cooler and sit down on a case of beer to wait for Kyle to come back. I try not to imagine Jamie wearing his skin.
I stare at the hole and wait and before long I can’t even feel my hands anymore and my ass is numb from sitting for so long. My nose runs from the cold, the sleeve of my jacket damp with snot. Occasionally I give a halfhearted yell down into the hole for Kyle, but he never answers and after a while my voice goes hoarse and my throat grows sore from shouting.
I try counting to measure the passage of time, but invariably my mind wanders and I forget where I am in the count and have to start over. I consider leaving my vigil at the hole more than once, but I don’t. Where would I go? And once I stop expecting the shift to end, or anyone to come into the store, the waiting grows less painful.
I think about Kyle’s mom a lot. Was there a point in the lake as the water rushed up around the car that she changed her mind and said fuck this? A moment where she fought back? And if she did change her mind how hard and how long did she try to get out of that car? At some point did she just give up and accept the water rushing in and over her?
I yell for Kyle again, loud, and this time when he doesn’t respond I drop down into the hole.
I walk for longer than I can remember. The passage slowly descends, each long and tiled hallway eventually turning right into another and then another, and in this way I slowly descend until I almost forget where I’m going or what I’m looking for. Hours or years later, I don’t know anymore, I turn right for must be the thousandth time and the hallway terminates in a dimly lit and low ceilinged alcove no bigger than the beer cooler.
Kyle and Jamie are sitting at a card table and Kyle’s laughing like he just heard the world’s best joke. Jamie can be wickedly funny, especially when he has you alone in a car by the airport, or in a small room deep underground.
“Hey guys,” I interrupt, a little worried that I’m ruining Jamie’s joke.
“Hi Marnie,” Kyle says, holding up a hand in greeting.
“Want a beer, Marnie?” Jamie grins and holds up a sweaty can of Pabst. I love his smile, I can’t help myself, and almost take the beer, but instead I shake my head no and offer him a tight smile in return.
“I’m not thirsty,” I tell Jamie, and I notice Kyle’s not drinking either. I turn to Kyle, “I was waiting for you. You didn’t come back.”
“Sorry,” Kyle says. “We were just hanging out. I lost track of time.”
“Let’s go back up to the store now, Kyle,” I say, and instead of answering me Kyle just looks at Jamie, waiting for him to answer. “Our shift is almost over.”
Jamie smiles that smile he has, all charm and promise, and he looks at me like I’m the only person left in the world, like it’s just me and him alone at the end of the world, as if Kyle’s not even here, and then he shoves out a metal folding chair from the table with a small booted foot and says, “Sit and have a beer, Marnie. Let’s hang out for a while.”
“I’d love to, but we left the story empty,” I say, and then add, “Sorry.”
“No worries,” Jamie says after he downs the last of his Pabst and crushes the can. He tosses the can onto the floor near my feet, and then he’s somehow popping the tab on another can. “It’s fine, really. The store can take care of itself. Kyle, tell her to sit down.”
“Sit down Marnie,” Kyle says, not meeting my eye. “Jamie was telling a story.”
I smile politely, but I don’t sit. I know I can’t sit if I want to leave, and I really, really want to leave, even if the beer is starting to look good now. I didn’t think I was thirsty, but maybe I am. I’m also very cold. I tell Kyle, “We should go now.”
Kyle looks from me to Jamie, hoping for his permission. It doesn’t come. Jamie just smiles that smile of his like this is all perfectly normal. Nothing’s wrong, and why would anyone ever want to leave?
“Kyle,” I say, and he smiles apologetically, and this time meets my eye, but doesn’t move. Maybe he can’t move, I don’t know. I turn to Jamie, and try not to think about what we did together in the backseat of his car, because he doesn’t look quite the same anymore; he seems older now, thinner, his hair greasier than before, his bones prominent. He’s wearing a thin pair of blue jeans with the cuffs tucked into the brown boots, and a buttoned up shirt that I swear is straight out of the seventies, and not retro fashion or seventies inspired, but an actual and threadbare shirt pulled from the seventies. I realize that he’s very old, older than even the nineteen seventies. “Jamie,” I say to him, trying to smile, trying to not let on that I know how old he is, “we’ve got to get back to the store. Our shift is almost over . . .”
“Nah,” Jamie says, and he’s not smiling anymore, and maybe he never was. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”
“We have to leave,” I say again.
“I know you’ve heard it before,” he says to Kyle, and he winks, his eyelid slowly folding shut like a bat’s wing before reopening. His hand rests intimately on Kyle’s shoulder, his fingernails long and dirty, brown with decades of stain.
“Jamie, please,” I say, and I realize that he won’t willingly let us go. He can’t.
“There was a boy, we’ll call him Kyle,” Jamie laughs. “And his mom drove into a lake.”
“Don’t be an ass, Jamie,” I say. “I know the story. We’re leaving now.”
“No. And you don’t know the whole story—”
“Kyle,” I say. “Get up. We’re leaving now.”
“Marnie?” Kyle says, half up from his chair, and his eyes are boring into mine, pleading with me, hoping.
Fuck this. Fuck Jamie. Fuck the store. Fuck all of it. I reach over the card table and grab Kyle’s arm and try to pull him the rest of the way to his feet. His arm is cold, freezing, and Kyle is shivering, his face pale, his lips blue.
“We’re going,” I tell Jamie as I pull Kyle up from the chair. Kyle looks at me, his eyes still pleading with me, and I’m remembering back to middle school after his mom died and I really, really wish I had told him how sorry I was. It was a really shitty deal for him, and I should have said something, should have said anything, but I didn’t.
We stumble past Jamie and he doesn’t look anything like Jamie from the car anymore, not even close, not even human, and then Kyle and I are out of the alcove and we’re back in the narrow corridor.
“I’m so sorry,” I say to Kyle. I can hear him just behind me, following me, shivering, his breath coming in frozen hitches as we climb the long hallway back up to the beer cooler. “I really am. I should have said something.”
“It’s okay, really.”
“No, it’s not. Kids are assholes. I was an asshole.”
“Marnie, let it go, okay. It was a long time ago,” Kyle tells me, but it really wasn’t. Six years, a couple of thousand days. I couldn’t imagine how he could let it go so soon. “I’ve moved past it, and you should too.”
“How can you move past it?” I ask incredulously, trudging back up the long halls toward the surface. I listen to Kyle’s feet scuffing the tile behind me, but I don’t hear anyone behind Kyle. Not yet. I wish I could remember how far away the store was. “I don’t believe you.”
“She did the best she could,” Kyle says.
“Bullshit,” I answer, “absolutely fucking bullshit. She was a bitch and should have done a lot better by you,” and when he doesn’t reply I realize I’ve gone too far. Awesome. First I ignore him when his mom dies, like he wasn’t even there, pretending like nothing ever happened, and then I call his dead mother a bitch. Nice going. “Sorry.”
He still doesn’t answer, and we keep walking. Time passes, and we must be close to the store by now, but I have no way to know with my phone’s dead battery. I spend most of the walk wondering if Jamie’s coming after us, and if he is what he’ll do when he catches us. I’m tired. After a while I realize that he can’t follow us. He’s too old, too set in his ways by a thousand years of time and death washing over him. He can’t move, and he doesn’t want to move. He never moved, even in the car by the airport; he was just a daydream, a passing fancy, a wish sworn and quickly recanted.
He just waits.
Kyle and I are safe, for now.
He doesn’t answer me, and hasn’t for the last hours and miles, though I still hear him behind me.
“I said that I was sorry,” still no answer. “I’m sure she did her best.”
My mind wanders back to the sixth grade, and Kyle, and his absence. I hadn’t told him I was sorry about his mom driving into the lake. Not then and not ever. How could I?
“Kyle, don’t be a dick. Answer me. Say something.” And then even though I know I shouldn’t, I turn to look at him, and then he’s gone, vanished from the long tiled hall.
He’s been gone for a long time, forever twelve years old.
A woman who drives into a lake, that’s tragic, I remember my dad saying. Who knows what demons that poor woman might have been facing? But a woman who drives into that same lake with her twelve year old son in the back seat? Then she’s not a woman facing demons anymore, is she? That’s too generous of an assessment. She is the demon.
A minute or a lifetime later I finally see the fluorescent lights of the beer cooler. I climb up through the hole and stagger out into the Quick ‘n’ Now. The clock is still stuck at eleven-thirty. It’s still sleeting out, still dark. No one has come in all this time.
“Kyle?” I call softly to the empty store, and I know he won’t answer. I’m alone. I grab the same magazines I’ve read a dozen times before from the rack and bring them up to the register and start flipping through them. Nothing has changed. The fluorescent lights buzz overhead, the sleet rattles on the roof, and I wait.
Jason Washer lives in New Hampshire and divides his time between caring for his family, running a small business, and writing stories late into the night at his kitchen table. His work has appeared in the No Sleep Podcast, Mystery Tribune, Theme of Absence, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and in the anthology In Darkness, Delight: Fear the Future.
Find him on the web at www.jasonwasher.net.