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I stood drumming my fingers against the counter, waiting on my lone customer to return. Finally, I spotted her moving my way, cradling an 80₵ bottle of off brand cola. She gently placed it on the conveyor belt, just far enough out of my reach to make it necessary for me to turn it on. The loud hum of the machine filled the strained silence for too brief a moment. I quickly scanned and bagged her single item.

“That’ll be 88₵.” I said. She slid her card, entered her pin and waited. Finally the bolded words TRANSACTION DECLINED popped up on the screen.

“Sorry,” I said, “but it says here you only have 17₵ left in food stamps.” She bit her lip, revealing stained teeth and nodded.

“I… I can’t afford it then. You want me to put it back for you?” She reached for the bottle. I suspected that if I handed her the cola it wouldn’t find its way back to the shelf.

“No, that’s okay; I’ve got nothing else to do.” I said.

“Oh… okay,” she said as she took her card and turned towards the door. As I watched her go I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. Here I stood with a candy bar in my pocket that cost the same as that cola, but I felt little remorse about taking it. I wanted to stop her, tell her to take the damn cola, I’d pay for it, but I didn’t. Just as she got close enough for the automatic doors to slid open, she stopped. She hesitated on the threshold for a moment before retreating back inside the store. She glanced at me, looking to see if I noticed that she had stayed, obviously hoping I had not. When her eyes met mine, she ducked her head and quickly moved to the back of the store. 

Knowing she had no money I was immediately concerned. If she was caught stealing and I said nothing, I could lose my job. On the other hand, if I did tell my manager and she had seen me pocket the candy bar I was also in trouble. So I waited and I watched her move from aisle to aisle, occasionally glancing up to see if I still watched her. She lingered on the toy aisle, gazing longingly at dolls. I watched her hold their hands and lovingly stroke their brows. I wondered if she had a daughter or was there some simple remnant of childhood innocence that drew her to them? I was pulled from my surveillance by an all too familiar voice on the intercom.

The End

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