Five dollars isn’t a lot of money. Unless you’re a runaway with nail scratches up his arms and a bat-shit crazy mother who’s probably figured out that I’ve flown the chicken house by now. Five dollars is a goddamn fortune for that poor sap.
The store reeks of gasoline and day-old hot dogs. I wander up and down the aisles, letting my fingers trace over the cardboard boxes and plastic packages masking their sugary chemical deliciousness. I select a can of Mountain Dew—way cheaper than a bottle—and a bag of sunflower seeds. They’ll last me a few days. What I really want is to inhale about four packs of M&Ms, but last time that happened I puked all over my mom’s mom’s mom’s crocheted afghan and got a bloody lip for my trouble. Needless to say, bad memories.
I pile my spoils on the counter and throw a pack of mints on top. Whenever I get really hungry, a tiny green-speckled disc on my tongue sometimes tricks my brain into thinking it’s real food. The dude behind the register leans on his palms, inspecting my stuff. I glance up and startle, because he’s not checking out my meager meal, but staring at me with a mix of alarm and interest. He’s also sorta gorgeous—oceanic blue-green eyes that make me think his entire body tastes like the sea, a dark top-knot on his head coupled with, dear sweet holy lord, a beautiful beard. He’s maybe a little older than me.
“Is this all you need, man?” he asks, tapping one long finger on the soda can.
“Sure about that?”
I tilt my head and catch a glimpse of myself in the cheap mirror behind him. Its surface is wavy and bordered by packs of cigarettes, but I see enough. My sandy-blond hair looks darker than normal, days of grease and actual sand for all the hell I know slicking down the strands. My cheeks sink inward like they’re trying to eat my mouth. Don’t even get me started on my eyes. Usually a coffee-with-cream brown I’ve always sorta liked, they now look like a mud puddle a dog pissed in.
My eyes sting and I look away. I slap my five-dollar bill down on the counter, focusing on my dirty half-moon fingernails. After a few long-ass seconds, he takes it and hands me an even three bucks in return.
“You didn’t ring up the mints,” I say.
“Sure did.” He disappears for a sec to grab a plastic bag, then tosses my stuff inside. He holds it out to me, biting his lower lip and still managing to smile in a way that makes me want to simultaneously maul and make out with him.
“Fuck it,” I mumble, yanking the bag from his grip before stalking outside. I have no idea why mumbling obscenities and yanking and stalking like a toddler seem appropriate reactions right now, but they are.
The humid afternoon air is sticky in my lungs, but I feel a little more in control. I know he didn’t charge me for the mints, if he actually charged me for anything. For some reason, his kindness infuriates me. Who the hell? I’m fine. I’ve lasted five days on only ten George Washingtons and this raw fed-fucking-up-with-life feeling in my chest to drive me. I’m only a couple hundred miles away from Asheville and my aunt, whom I haven’t seen in five years and who’s the only person on God’s green Earth who probably gives two shits about me. No one helped me out when I had to drag Mom’s drunk ass into the bathroom on my fifth birthday so she could puke her gin into the toilet. No one helped me scrape up change from the floorboard of her car so I could buy some Neosporin from the CVS for the cut burned across my right eyebrow from a flying beer bottle. That was all me and I’m doing just fine.
I meander down the sidewalk and dive into the bag, my stomach rumbling for some salty seeds. Inside I find three perfectly yellow bananas and two slick green apples. The hell? When did he slip those in?
Whirling around, I stalk—yes, stalk—back inside the store. He glances up from the comic book he’s reading, slipping off his stool as I approach. I empty the bag of its fruit on the counter and turn to go, but he snags my wrist.
“Just take it, man,” he says.
“I don’t need it.”
“Yeah. You do.”
His fingers tighten gently on my wrist, thumb brushing over my skin, then all at once loosen and slip free. I feel their absence, this phantom softness that brings a weight crashing down on my shoulders.
I can’t remember the last time someone touched me in a way that wasn’t out for blood.
Suddenly my chest is way too tight and the oxygen in the store way too thin. I stumble back a couple steps and Top Knot circles around the counter. He reaches out a hand, circling it around my arm to steady me. He doesn’t say a word. Just keeps his arm there for a few seconds while I heave and gulp air like a…well, like a runaway who’s scared shitless.
After a few minutes, he puts the fruit back in my bag and presses it to my chest. I grip it and he squeezes my shoulder. Tears stack up in my eyes, but they don’t fall. I don’t let them.
But I do take the bag.