Twenty-TwoMature

I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling. Where am I? I close my eyes and listen for clues, hoping to hear a sound that will help me to get my bearings.

A car? Muffled though, like there’s a wall between us; voices, muffled again, I can’t make out what’s being said. Not my place then, I can say that much.

I sneak a finger out from underneath my blanket and touch the floor. Tile… triangles… like at…

“DJ’s,” I mumble and it all comes back to me. The back room, the blanket and pillow TJ fetched for me before placing a goodnight kiss on my cheek, the deep sleep that followed soon after. What time is it?

I struggle to my feet, wearing the blanket like a skirt as I stretch my arms above my head and stumble to the front of the store. I feel like I slept for a month and I could easily sleep for another.

A flick of the switch brings the lights to life and I find the clock on the wall – ten minutes to opening. Perfect timing - that was lucky. The message light is blinking on the answering machine; maybe the phone woke me.

Deciding to save that for later I shuffle to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face and brush my teeth. The toothbrush and toothpaste were gifts from DJ that I had tried, without success, to accept graciously. He had smiled and said something about every little bit helps.

My stomach grumbles a little as I return to the counter but not too loudly – I should be able to make it to lunch. I sit down on my stool and stab the message button with my finger.

“I hope you had a good sleep J.” TJ’s voice is warm and comforting… when was the last time I thought that? “Give me a call later and maybe we can meet up for dinner tonight.”

I smile and listen to her message again before deleting it. The scrap of paper with her work number on it is still in my pocket – that had been another surprise from last night. I can’t picture her doing filing and photocopying but she probably had a hard time imagining me here.

The machine beeps again and another message begins to play but this voice is not such a welcome addition to my morning.

“Rise and shine, little brother – the store opens in fifteen short little minutes.” Ashes’ voice scrapes across my nerves like broken glass. The warmth of last night is quickly replaced by icy dread. “You don’t want to have angry customers banging on your door, do you? So up and at ‘em sleepy head – who knows what today has in store for you.”

The click at the end of her message is like a gun being cocked. After a moment I listen to the message again but this time I focus on her voice. Ashes sounds like a career smoker with a job on the side as a heavy drinker. There is bitterness and hatred there, but also some laughter, like she’s enjoying herself.

I save the message, I’m not sure why. There’s nothing there the police would care about, she had made sure of that. Scrolling through the caller ID list I arrive at her call to find ‘Unknown Caller’. Of course.

So – empty threat or deadly promise? She could have called from across the street or across the country. I’m not in a gambling mood so I reach for the phone and dial the number from memory.

“Hi J, what’s going on?” Karl asks.

“I need a big favor from you,” I say. “Can you come by the store right now?”

“I can be there in fifteen – what’s the problem?”

“I’ll tell you when you get here. Knock four times so I know it’s you – the door will be locked.”

“I’ll be there in ten,” he says before hanging up.

Nine minutes and forty seconds later the four knocks on the front door signal his arrival. I let him in and lock the door again. He hands me a muffin and waits for the explanation.

Between bites I fill him in on the details. The food calms me down as much as talking does. I’m learning quickly that a shared burden is easier to carry.

“I’m calling the police,” Karl says as he moves to the counter. “Keep the door locked.”

“Will they care about this?” I can’t believe that they will. Karl looks up at me as he finishes dialing the number.

“I’ll make them care.”

The End

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