This story is by Sydney Kleckner and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
January winds surge through all of western Washington and circle upon a quaint town nestled on the edge of the mountains. The storm, wild and free, places its hands against the boarded windows and tears at the lush forests surrounding the town. Its occupants remain asleep despite the storm’s insistent tapping and attempts to be let in.
As the forces push further and further into the heart of the town, a lone figure wrapped in a bulky, black jacket struggles against the wind. Headed towards the corner gas station, the figure’s heavy breaths quicken with every step. The flickering Sunbeam Gas sign filters into the streets. Neon red and yellow reflect the flooded pavement and asphalt.
The figure’s heavy boots splash through the parking lot, past the empty fueling stations, and pause under the serenity of the gas station awning. The fluorescent lights inside the store challenge the chill sweeping against the windows and pounding against the door. The open sign raps and sways. The figure uses both hands to rip open the door and closes it with a whoosh.
The drowned, hooded figure sighs in relief.
“Ah, Jenny. There you are,” says a man wearing a white polo and black cargo pants sitting behind the front counter.
“Hey, Roger.” Jenny walks to the employee bathroom and sheds her garments delicately, the way a mother neatly peels a bandage from a child’s wound. She hangs them behind the door and grabs her name tag from the front pocket. She assesses her rain-slicked hair and thickly applied eyeliner in the eroded mirror. She adjusts the silver hoop in her bottom lip. Her navy polo is a size too big and is pulled to the left, while her khaki pants pinch the fabric at the waist. She pins the name tag to her chest. It reflects as “ynneJ” in the mirror.
Jenny nods at herself with approval and turns off the bathroom light.
“Tell me you didn’t walk here.” Roger’s face scrunches as he sees the soggy girl before him. “You look like you’ve just been baptized.”
“I thought it’d be safer than driving,” Jenny circles behind the counter.
“Smart. Safety first.” Roger smiles. He slaps his hands against the counter, “Okay, well thank you for coming in on such short notice. I wouldn’t have asked you, but no one else was able to cover the shift.”
“It’s okay,” Jenny smiles, “I could use the money.”
“It’s your first night shift. You nervous at all?”
“I don’t know. Should I be?”
“Well, the store is different at night than in the day. It can be very slow and quite boring.” He adds, “Even lonely.”
“I’m not worried,” Jenny says, perching on the stool. “I’m used to being alone.”
Putting on his coat and scarf, Roger says, “Well, call me if you need anything.” Walking to the front door, he stops and salutes Jenny, “You’re in charge now. See you in 8 hours.”
“Later, Roger,” Jenny laughs.
He walks into the willing wind waiting to carry him home.
Jenny leans on the glass counter and smooths her hair back with her hands. She takes the tawny ponytail and assesses her split end. The black nail polish on her nails has nearly disappeared, leaving only forgotten fragments traced along the beds. The sound of static from the television propped on the wall behind her distracts her thoughts on whether or not it’s time for a trim.
She turns off the television and replaces the static with heated tunes from the radio. She turns it to a station called “The Golden Oldies.” Jenny bops her head along. She’s always loved older music, like Johnny Cash and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Growing up, her father traveled a lot for work. When he’d return, she’d wake in the morning to the strumming of acoustic guitars and raspy, timeworn voices. Jenny would walk through her small, cluttered house and find her father making breakfast in the kitchen. He was a stout, big-bellied man with a grizzly beard. Jenny could always count on his smile as she’d walk through the doorway. Usually yawning, stretching her arms forward like a sleepy feline.
“Hey, kiddo,” he’d say as he scrambled the eggs in a pan or flip a pancake onto a plate. “Come get your grub.”
The radio station continues to stream through the store. Jenny hums along to the melodic strings and melancholy lyrics. She sways her hips and bops to the left, then the right. Her feet guide her through one aisle, into another, like a memorized maze. She stops in the candy aisle and grabs a Hershey. She snags a bag of Skittles and then refills her Coke from the soda fountain.
She glides smoothly against the slick floor and lands before a rack of magazines. The ones she picked earlier had already been devoured. As she lingers before the racks, the covers multiply like Russian dolls.
A mass of faces with slanted smiles, bodies sucked and puckered, babies carrying handbags worth more than her car, white teeth with whiter skin, beckon Jenny with wide, pleading eyes. She lands on a cover of an adoring couple gazing into each other’s eyes and picks it up. The magazine is sticky from spilled soft drinks and feels light in her grasp.
Vibrant blues and soft yellows greet her as she opens the magazine. She weighs every letter, every word. Her narrowed eyes study every face. Every body.
If only, she thinks.
Perfume ads cloud the stiff air. She inhales the aged tabs and rubs the faint floral scents on her wrists and neck. She stares longingly at her reflection in the window.
“Those girls,” a gruff voice says behind her, “They’ve got nothing on you.”
Jenny turns around and sees a familiar, thick figure.
“Dad,” she cries out with surprise, “How’d you get in here?”
“The back door was unlocked,” he says, grabbing her face with his rough palms. “I wanted to check up on my beautiful girl.”
“Psssh,” Jenny waves him away. “Not these days.” She looks down at the magazine with an ache in her chest. Her father closes the magazine and tosses it on the vinyl floor. Its slap echoes throughout the empty store and challenges the constant, howling wind outside.
“Those girls aren’t real, Jenny.” He says, “But you are.”
Leaning on the other side of the counter, her father says, “We should talk more.”
“We talked last week,” Jenny laughs.
“I know,” he says, “I just worry about you. I mean, do you even like this job?”
“Could be worse,” she says, slicking back her hair. “There’s a lot of downtime, which you know I love.”
Her father laughs, “You and your downtime. You always did like to be alone.”
“Yeah,” she says, quietly. “It can become suffocating sometimes.” She shifts on the stool, “But most of the time it’s all I want. It’s all I know.”
He leans in further across the counter, “I know I was gone a lot. I’m sorry about that, kiddo.” Folding her hands inside his own, he nods knowingly, “I’m just trying to make it up to you now.”
Jenny looks into her father’s creased eyes, “I know, Dad. You don’t have to apologize.” As they sit silently, weighing the conversation, a Neil Young track radiates warmth throughout the store.
Jenny’s cheeks rise with a grin, “I love this one.”
“Harvest Moon,” her father smiles deeply.
“Your favorite,” she tunes in.
He stands up and leads Jenny to the open, entry space still slick with moisture.
“Care for a dance?” he asks.
As they sway and spin, tranquility passes over the town. The storm casually steps back and exits quietly.
“It’s been great seeing you, Dad.” Jenny gives him a tight hug, “Thanks for keeping me company.”
“Anytime, kiddo.” He kisses the top of her forehead and vanishes into the back office.
Jenny sits on the stool, peacefully gazing outside. The sun peeks golden pinks and yellows through the store. Roger passes by the clear window and waves.
“Good morning, Jenny.” He greets. Chipper and well-slept, he shakes off his coat. “How was your first night shift?”
“Not bad,” Jenny yawns and stretches her arms in the air. She hops off the stool and heads to the bathroom.
“Anything unusual to report?”
“Nothing I can think of,” she says, wrapping her body into her now dry jacket. She yawns again.
Untying his scarf, Roger says, “Thanks for hanging in there, Jenny. Go home and get some rest.”
“No argument there,” she smiles and starts to head into the back office. “See you later, Roger,” she calls behind her back.
“Uhm, Jenny,” he says with alarm. She stops and looks back at him with tired eyes. “Where are you going?” he asks.
“Oh,” she says, “I thought I’d go out the back door.”
Stopping, his scarf still wrung in his hands, he says, “Jenny, we don’t have a back door.”