Rory’s back was breaking.
At least to her, the pain of carrying the pile of boxes up the old stairs was the equivalent of having a sadist shove knives between her vertebrae.
To be fair, the situation was partially her fault. She should have done the sensible thing and carried one or two of them at a time, but instead, she had six compact boxes, bursting with comics for the next new release day, piled in her arms. She didn’t like having to do this job more times than could be avoided.
She made it to the main shop, gasping for breath, and dumped the boxes onto the ground. The sound made Carl, the shop owner, turn around and sigh at her.
“Rory, how many times do I have to tell you not to do that?” He asked, heading over to the pile and picking one up as she twisted from side to side, trying to crack her back.
“7,435 at the last count, I think,” she said.
“You need to stop doing that. You’re going to hurt yourself. You keep this up and I’m going to get Kevin to start doing all the lifting.”
Rory tried to suppress a snort of laughter. “Yeah, Kevin, he is definitely the picture of physical strength. Besides, isn’t he out sick again?”
“Yeah, poor kid’s got the flu again. And anyways that’s not the point. The humiliation of having to hand the job over to him would be enough to make you do it safely.”
“That boy would last three seconds before he’d call me down to help him. Besides, I’ve told you that we should just move the break room down there and receiving up here, and it would solve the problem.”
“And I’ve told you, no one wants to have their coffee break in a dank basement.”
“It’s coffee, Carl. Stick it in an IV and people will be grateful the caffeine gets into their system sooner.” She picked a few of the boxes up again and followed him into the next room, setting them beside the break room couch.
“Uh-huh. Sort those out, will you? Then you can take off. Amy’s finishing up a job too, so you guys can walk out together. You’re in tomorrow morning, right?”
“You still haven’t taken any vacation days this summer, do you want to get that sorted? You start classes again soon, don’t you?”
“No, I’m okay. Morgan and Rachel are still off camping, having apparently decided that all of civilization is meaningless to them, so it’s this or sitting around an empty house. I’d rather have the shifts.” Rory assured him as she started opening the boxes, sorting out which books that had been delivered were back issues and which ones were bound for the new release shelf. She didn’t mind working the closing shift. It gave her a chance to browse through the new stock, and it was nice and quiet after having to deal with teenagers and kids acting like idiots all day long.
The job didn’t take long and soon Rory had clocked out, grabbed her bag, and heading towards the door. She and Amy waited for Carl to unlock the door for them, and then waved goodnight to him as they departed.
“You want a ride home?” Rory offered, “It’s getting pretty late.”
“Yeah, if you don’t mind, rather not wait for the bus in the dark.”
“No worries.” She led the way to her car, a black Honda parked behind the store.
“So the housemates are still gone?” Amy asked.
“Yeah, they were supposed to come back this weekend, but then they apparently decided to go through Utah on their way home, because there are good hiking trails out there. I mean, to each their own right? I’ve got the pizza waiting for them when they come back.” She shrugged, and Amy laughed.
“So long as they don’t try to put some fish in your freezer or whatever.”
“Ha, no, Rachel’s too queasy for that. She’d never be able to pick out the bones. Morgan might, but can’t cook to save his life.”
“They might make you do it, though.”
“Not a chance,” Rory grumbled, and Amy laughed.
They settled into an amicable silence and a couple minutes later pulled up in front of Amy’s apartment building.
“See you tomorrow!” Rory said, waving her off. She backed out of the driveway. She turned up the music and let her mind drift.
She thought about what Carl had said, and it was true that the summer was drifting by very quickly. With the first two years of college under her belt she’d been excited for a summer in Denver with her friends--working, no classes, a bit more responsibility, and freedom. And then they’d decided to go traipsing around in the wilderness, which was all well and good, except that Rory despised nature. Besides, she couldn’t take that much time off of work, especially for something as grotesque as spending time without running water. While there was plenty to do around the city, she’d been feeling a bit lonely. She did like the closing shifts, but it could get a bit eerie coming home in the dark to an empty house. On the whole, she appreciated having the privacy of living off campus, and the opportunity it allowed her to stay in town the entire year, but this summer had taught her she did not do well living alone. She’d been crashing on the couch fairly frequently, falling asleep to the sound of the TV and the lights and sounds of cars as they passed by.
As she drove along, she saw a cat stuck on the middle of the road, a mist of yellow light wafting around him as the blood dried alongside his head. She wondered how long he had been here, how long he still had before...She shook her head and looked away, staring at the road. She didn’t want to think about that. It was the streetlight, that was all. Her eyes were playing tricks on her. She just needed to go home, get a snack, and go to bed.
Rory parked the car and headed inside. She dumped her bag by the door and went to grab her computer from her room. She turned it on and put on some music, turning it up to fill up the empty space. She wandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge without any real enthusiasm. It was bare except for some questionable leftover chicken and cans of Diet Coke. She sighed. She needed to go shopping. She grabbed one of the cans and sat on the sofa. She turned on the TV and scrolled through Netflix for a few minutes, before leaning back and pulling out a book from her purse. She couldn’t really settle to anything. Rory tossed the book aside and sat up. She grabbed her keys and decided to head to the grocery store. She knew she had work early the next morning, but figured the errand would at least give her something to do.
She wandered down the aisles, not really looking for anything in particular. The store was closing soon, and she felt bad, knowing that the employees probably wanted her to hurry up and go. Making up her mind, she wound her way to the check out with some vegetables, pasta, and ice cream. It wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of culinary excellence, but she figured it’d keep her going for a day or two before she could do some legitimate shopping. She left quickly, with the guy at the checkout looking grateful to see the back of her. She walked slowly back across the parking lot, in no rush to get back. She dropped the bags in the back seat and pulled out of the lot and onto the road.
She was at a red light, drumming her fingers against the steering wheel in time to her music when she heard it. It was a violent, screeching sound - the unmistakable sound of rubber resisting hard against the pavement. She turned her head, curious against her will, and saw, to her horror, a van careening violently towards her, twisting this way and that, the driver clearly having lost control of the car. She slammed on the gas and pulled her car over, trying to avoid the van, as it hurtled into oncoming traffic and slammed into an oncoming Toyota. She ducked behind the dashboard as she heard the cars skid down the road before coming to a halt about 50 yards away, an impacted mess of metal and smoke.
Rory raised herself up, staring at the crash unsure of what to do, before coming to her senses and digging through her purse for her phone.
“911 what’s your emergency?”
“There’s been an accident! This van just came out of nowhere, I think he must’ve been drunk or something, he was running all over the place, he ran a red light and this car hit him, it’s a mess, I,” She was fumbling with her seat belt, trying to get out of the car.
“Ma’am, please calm down, where are you? Is anyone hurt?”
“They must be, I--”
But Rory suddenly forgot that she was on the phone. A streak of black made the street around her flicker before it slammed into the van with a force that made the ground shake. The van was attempting to drive away, straight towards Rory’s car. Panicking, she tried to get out of the way, and the van smashed into the back driver’s side door before turning and narrowly missing Rory. She was jerked violently to the side, her seat belt cutting into her neck. The van tried to spin back around. But, Rory could only guess, the driver had lost control as it spun in a circle and crashed into the median strip, finally landing on its right.
The van was burning, bright flames shooting up into the sky. Peeking out behind the car, she could see the waves of heat passing from the site of the crash. Then, there was pair of feet, and hands clutching the ground, a kid crawling from the wreckage. The sound of coughing and spluttering reached her ears. Without thinking, without realizing what she was doing she was running, out of her car, straight towards the body.
It was a small boy, no older than eight, choking on the smoke. Cuts covered his face, and blood was pooling under him from a gash on his side. She put a hand to his side, attempting to staunch the blood, and tried to pull him away from the fire.
“It’s okay,” She said, “It’s going to be okay.” But she could feel him gasping for breath; feeling the blood pour between her fingers.
“Please, no, we’ll go...we can get you to a hospital it’ll be okay,” She said desperately, holding him tightly. The boy looked up at her, stopping the words pouring from her mouth. She could see the outline of his body, almost as if it was beginning to blur. A light blue light seemed to be emitting from him.
“No!” She cried out desperately, “No, please--” But his eyes met hers, and she stopped again. He raised one weak, trembling arm to her, and gently touched the side of her face. He breathed out, and the color seemed to leave with him. She felt warmth fill her even as the boy’s eyes shut, and his head turned away.
She stayed there for a moment, before becoming alert again to the sound of the fire, and the creaking metal, and knew she had to move, to do something. But before she could figure out what, she heard a voice from behind her.
“Well, now, who is this?”
He was hidden in shadow, the fire only illuminating him from the knees down. His voice sent an uneasy feeling down her spine, and she held the boy’s body closer to her chest.
“Did you get there first? Or it still there? I can’t tell,” He seemed to be speaking more to himself than to her. She tried to stand, to take a step away.
“Don’t move.” He ordered. But she had never felt less inclined to obey someone. Feeling a pang of remorse, she let go of the boy and ran for it, back towards her car. She could feel the man behind her, and as she reached the door to the driver’s side, he grabbed her arm, twisting it behind her, and shoving her body into the car.
“I told you –” He started, but she twisted her body into him and kicked, then scratched him with the keys still held tight in her hand. The shock of the movement loosened his grip and she wrenched herself away, slipping into the car and locking the doors as he tried to grab her again. She slammed the key in the ignition and drove back, speeding out of the parking lot as fast as she could go.