It’s been three years since my mother’s death; my adoptive mother, I guess I should say. Three years since she lost control of her car while coming home from work one Tuesday night, skidded into a ditch and wrapped the vehicle around a tree. I was 14 at the time, and just about to start my first year of high school.
Knowing what I know now, I suppose that would officially be when the madness began, but it would be another three years before I would learn the truth. Not until I was completing my final year of high school would I be drawn into an entirely different world than the one I had known my whole life; an incomprehensible world where secrets hid in the shadows of everyday life.
Every year before her death my mother threw a huge farewell to freedom bash on the last day of the summer, the last day before heading back to the rigidity and routine of the fall. Since her accident I’ve done everything possible to keep myself busy on that day so I wouldn’t be able to dwell on her absence, including taking shifts at my part-time job.
I pulled into my usual spot in the parking lot of The Patch. A store that sells a mix of stylish used clothes along with new, but vintage looking apparel, and a lot of one-of-a-kind items that my boss, Carmen Stephanopolous, finds in flea markets or at auction sales.
As I locked the doors of my trusty Toyota, I shivered at the unseasonable chill in the air; it was going to be a slow night. The final week of the summer in East Halton always has a certain amount of winding down to it. The town is set right on Lake Pocotoa. It’s scenic, quaint, and just far enough from Hartford and New Haven to be a prime holiday location in the summer, when the population of the town nearly triples with all the cottagers. By the end of August though, tourists turn their attention to backpacks and new school clothes instead of sundresses and sandals, and things are almost back to the way they always are in the off-season around East Halton: like a big family.
I strode across the small yard and deck that Carmen has packed with merchandise displayed under strands of strung up white lights, and pushed the door open.
“Carmen, I’m here,” I announced as I entered the small store. I quickly scanned the sales floor but didn’t see anyone. Carmen designed the place to have a sort of nature-meets-nostalgic-chic feel. Wood paneling gives the impression of a log cabin, and built-in shelves, painted in a variety of bright colors, line the walls, framed classic movie posters hanging between them. She also has an entire wall devoted to her massive vinyl collection, and always has some sort of music playing on her turntable and throughout the store.
I dropped my backpack at the sound of a loud thud in the back room, followed by a muffled but familiar voice. “Crap.”
When I reached the storage area, Carmen was on the floor, almost completely buried in the remainder of last year’s unsold sweater collection. A cardboard box was crumpled at her feet, and only her mass of curly black hair and her left arm stuck out of the pile.
“Hey Carmen, were you cold?” I couldn’t help laughing as I started pulling sweaters off of her, setting them on one of the free shelves in the back.
“I’m fine, thanks for asking.” She attempted a scowl but it quickly spread into a smile.
I helped her to her feet, and she started picking up sweaters as well. “It’s been incredibly slow today. I swear the tourists are taking off earlier and earlier every year. I figured it’s time to see what we still have from last year’s fall and winter collections that we can swap with the summer stuff.”
I piled the last of the sweaters on the shelf. “It must be slow if you’re going through stock; I know how much you love to do that.”
“You wouldn’t believe it. I think there have been maybe ten people in today.” Carmen grimaced. Then she turned her gaze on me with a mischievous glint in her eye.
She tapped a finger on her chin, deliberating, then pointed at me. “I really do hate going through old inventory, and since you’re here now, how about if you deal with this stuff?”
I rolled my eyes, but gave her a smile. Carmen’s voice was pleading, not commanding. That was her style; she treated me more like a co-worker than a subordinate, which made it really difficult to say no to anything she asked. “Sure, I can do it Carmen, just let me know exactly what you want me to go through.” I surveyed the randomly sized boxes that lined the top shelves of the backroom.
“Why don’t you sort through those boxes.” She pointed to the containers right above my head. “See what we have lots of and we’ll start with that.”
I nodded. The bell on the door signaled that a customer had entered the store, and Carmen sauntered back to the sales floor.
I’d been right about the night. The doorbell only rang five or six times and the evening dragged on. Just before seven, I decided I should see if Carmen needed any help with the closing duties.
“She emerges,” Carmen proclaimed, as I came out of the backroom and joined her behind the counter where she was counting the day’s sales receipts.
The sun was setting, and Carmen had turned on the lights to compensate. I squinted as my eyes adjusted from the dimly lit storeroom. “Is there anything I can do before I leave?”
“I think everything is pretty much set out here, I’ve already brought in the stuff from the yard, but you can check the change rooms; there were a couple of people in and out of them and I haven’t had a chance to see if they left any merchandise back there.” Carmen waved a hand toward the back of the store.
“Sure thing.” I made my way towards the changing area, a curtained-off room with three wooden changing stalls, track lighting and lots of mirrors. I smiled at the inscription Carmen had painted on the full-length mirror fastened to the far wall. At the top it read, ‘you are beautiful’ and at the bottom she’d added, ‘especially in that outfit.’ I wasn’t sure if her strategy got her sales, but it made people smile. My long auburn hair was mussed from lugging boxes around all night, and I took a second to smooth it down. Then I brushed the dust off of the front of my favorite—because it brought out the turquoise in my eyes—blue sweater, and pulled the sleeves back down before walking over to the changing stalls. The first two rooms were empty, and I moved on to the third one.
As I pulled the door open, I was met with the lean, well-sculpted chest and stomach muscles of an unsuspecting guy who was pulling a shirt over his head.
“Sorry,” was all I managed to get out before I quickly shoved the change room door shut again. I leaned against it, so mortified I couldn’t move. Blood rushed to my face as I tried to take a deep breath. Move! I screamed silently, not wanting the embarrassed sales clerk with the bright red face to be the first thing the guy saw when he exited the change room.
“I’m sorry, am I not supposed to be in here?” a warm baritone voice asked from inside the change room.
Now what do I say? I concentrated on my breathing for a second so when I did speak, my voice wouldn’t crack.
“Um, we’re sort of closed for the evening.” I was still leaning on the change room door, painfully aware that at any second this guy would try to emerge and I would have to look him in the face.
“The sign on the door says you’re open until 9 p.m.,” he replied with a mixture of confusion and amusement. Obviously the embarrassment I felt was coming through in my voice.
I slapped my hand to my forehead in annoyance. Carmen had gone back to autumn hours that week, but of course she’d forgotten to take down the summer hours sign; she was terrible at remembering little details like that.
“We’ve gone back to our fall hours; I guess the sign was left up by mistake.” I finally pushed myself away from the change room door. “I’ll just give you a moment,” I added, before he could respond. I strode out of the changing area and made my way right for the counter, where Carmen was sliding an album back into its jacket.
Her forehead wrinkled when she saw the look on my face. “What?”
“Carmen, there’s someone back there; I just walked in on him in the middle of changing,” I whispered. I looked towards the back to make sure he wasn’t on his way out yet.
“Oh, is it that really good-looking college-age guy? I thought I saw him leave.” Carmen frowned. After a second she shrugged and wriggled her eyebrows. “So how in the middle of changing was he?”
“Enough that I didn’t see his face to know how old he looked, and enough for me to be incredibly embarrassed,” I hissed. From the corner of my eye, I noticed the guy come out of the changing area, making his way towards us. I dropped my head down and pretended to be tidying something under the counter to keep from making eye contact with him.
“Can I ring something up for you?” Carmen asked as he approached the counter.
“I know you’re in the middle of closing for the night but I wondered if it would be okay for me to pay for the shirt I have on?” My eyes grazed upward just a little. He was wearing the shirt he’d been trying on when I barged in on him. Another shirt was balled up tightly in his hand.
“Sure, no problem at all. Hannah, could you ring that up for the gentleman?” Carmen turned to me with a look of pure innocence on her face.
I clenched my jaw. I wanted to throttle her; I couldn’t believe she would put me in such an awkward position. Still, my curiosity was starting to get the best of me. I was dying to know what sort of face belonged to that torso, especially since, judging from the way Carmen’s voice was coming out an octave higher than normal, she was clearly impressed.
“Of course,” I muttered, looking up into the deepest green eyes I’d ever seen. Emerald in color with fireworks of gold and copper flecked through them, they were beautiful, and yet, they were layered with an unmistakable sadness. I recognized it instantly, as the same expression that reflected back at me whenever I looked in a mirror. A caring smile extended across his lips, and my knees went weak.
It was strange, but for a split second, I thought I saw something flash in his gaze that I could’ve sworn was surprise. I’m not sure what he’d expected his change room intruder to look like, but it clearly wasn’t like me. In any case, the look was gone, before I had time to analyze it further.
“Good choice,” Carmen spoke up abruptly, dissolving the moment and pulling me back to the task at hand. She motioned to the dark blue t-shirt he was wearing.
“Thanks,” the guy replied, breaking his gaze with me to look down at the shirt and then up at Carmen.
I rang up the purchase, he handed me some money and I gave him back his change. “Would you like a bag for your shirt?” I held up a brown paper bag with The Patch logo on the side, still feeling incredibly self-conscious.
“Oh sure.” He took the container and slipped the shirt inside. As he did I caught a glimpse of red stains streaking across the material before he closed his hand around the top of the bag. “Thanks.” The guy nodded to Carmen and offered me a quick smile before he turned and left the store.
Carmen waited a second and then rushed to the door. “I’ll just flip the sign and lock up,” she called back over her shoulder. I shook my head, pretty sure she just wanted to watch the guy leave.
I felt glued to the spot. The brief interaction with this handsome stranger had rattled me. He was gorgeous for sure, with his dark, almost black hair cut into an intentionally messy style, and his tanned skin accentuating those beautiful green eyes and incredible smile, but it wasn’t a polished Ken-doll type attractiveness. There was a slight ruggedness to his features that only added to his appeal. And I felt myself compelled to learn what had marred his expression with that underlying sorrow. I barely heard Carmen blathering on about how you never find a guy with looks and manners, until she was standing next to me again.
“He’s gone; you can stop your very convincing impression of a lawn statue.” Carmen laughed as she went back to counting receipts.
“Right,” I answered with a little nod.
“I wonder what he did to himself; the stains on his shirt looked like blood,” Carmen commented.
I frowned. “It couldn’t have been anything too serious or he would’ve been at the hospital instead of shopping.”
“I don’t know; we have some pretty fabulous deals on right now. Maybe he couldn’t resist.” Carmen grinned. “And I swear I detected a bit of an accent, Irish or Scottish maybe. I love a guy with an accent.” She shut the till with a decisive clang. “Anyway, I think I’m pretty much done for the day. I know you’ve got school tomorrow so you can go home if you want. That is, if you think you can stop swooning enough to pay attention to the road.” She jostled me playfully.
Carmen had moved my backpack from the middle of the floor where I’d dropped it, to behind the counter, and I reached for it. “I can’t believe of all the people I could have walked in on while they were changing it had to be that guy.”
“Well, I’m sure he’s just one of the straggler tourists trying to get the most out of the dying days of summer. You can console yourself with the fact that you’ll probably never see him again. Although you never know,” she added with a mischievous grin.
“I hope I don’t. I’ve already seen more of him than I should have.” I raised my eyebrows and headed out the door, waving goodbye as I went.