One thousand, one hundred and twenty-one, the number likely doesn’t mean much to most people. It means something to me, though. It’s the number of days that have passed since my mother died. My adoptive mother, I guess I should say. Three years ago she lost control of her car coming home from work one night, skidded into a ditch and wrapped the vehicle around a tree. I was fourteen 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 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.
My mom had loved to throw a huge farewell to freedom bash on the last day of 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, including taking shifts at my part-time job.
I pulled into my usual parking spot behind The Patch, a store that sells a mix of stylish used clothes along with new. The racks are filled with vintage-looking, one-of-a-kind items that my boss, Carmen Stephanopoulos, 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 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, packed with merchandise displayed under strands of white lights, and pushed the door open. “Carmen, I’m here.”
I scanned the sales floor but didn’t see anyone. The Patch had a sort of nature-meets-nostalgic-chic kind of feel. Wood paneling gave the impression of a log cabin, and built-in shelves, painted in a variety of bright colors, lined the walls, framed classic movie posters hanging between them. Carmen also had an entire wall devoted to her massive vinyl collection, and always had 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 lay 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 pulled sweaters off her and set 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 pulled her to her feet, and she helped me pick up the rest of the sweaters. “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 sorting stock; I know how much you love to do
Carmen grimaced. “You wouldn’t believe it. I think there have been maybe ten people in today.” 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 smiled. That was Carmen’s style; she treated me more like a co-worker than a subordinate, which made it difficult to say no to anything she asked. “I can do it, 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.” 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 to 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 stood 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.” I made my way to 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.’ Did her strategy get her any sales? Who knew for sure, but it made people smile.
My long auburn hair was messed up from lugging boxes around all night, and I took a second to smooth it down. 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 yanked the door open, I was met with the lean, well-sculpted chest and stomach muscles of an unsuspecting guy pulling a shirt over his head.
“Sorry,” was all I managed to squeak out before I quickly shoved the change room door shut again. I leaned against it, so mortified I couldn’t feel my legs. Blood rushed to my face and I struggled to take a deep breath. Move! I screamed silently, not wanting the embarrassed salesclerk 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 nine,” 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. 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 glanced towards the
back to make sure he wasn’t on his way out yet.
“Oh, is it that really good-looking guy? Early twenties maybe. 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, walking towards us. I dropped my head down and pretended to tidy something under the counter.
“Can I ring something up for you?” Carmen asked him.
“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 wore 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. Why would she put me in such an awkward position? Still, my curiosity was getting the best of me. What sort of face belonged to that torso? Judging from the way Carmen’s voice came 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, beautiful and yet layered with an unmistakable sadness. I recognized it as the same expression that reflected back at me whenever I looked in a mirror.
My fingers slipped as I went to take the sales tag he’d already removed from him and it dropped onto the counter. “Sorry.” I snatched it up.
“That’s okay.” A smile extended across his lips.
Was that surprise that flashed in his gaze? Whatever he’d expected his change room intruder to look like it clearly wasn’t me. The expression vanished before I had time to analyze it further though.
“Good choice,” Carmen spoke up, dissolving the moment and pulling me back to the task at hand. She motioned to the dark blue t-shirt he wore.
“Thanks.” The guy glanced down at himself.
“Would you like a bag for your shirt?” I held up a brown paper bag with The Patch logo on the side as I handed him back his change.
“Sure.” He took the bag and slipped the shirt inside. I caught a glimpse of red streaks on the material before he folded down the top.
“See you around.” 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 flip the sign and lock up,” she called over her shoulder. I shook my head. She just wants to watch him leave.
Who was I to judge? I felt glued to my spot. The brief interaction with this handsome stranger had rattled me. He was gorgeous, with his dark, almost black hair, tanned skin accentuating those beautiful green eyes and incredible smile, but it wasn’t a polished Ken-doll type attractiveness. A slight ruggedness to his features only added to his appeal. What had happened to him to mar 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 stood next to me again.
“He’s gone; you can stop your very convincing impression of a lawn statue.” Carmen laughed and went back to counting receipts.
“Right.” I took a deliberate step away from the cash register.
“I wonder what he did to himself. The stains on his shirt looked like blood.”
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’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.
“I can’t believe of all the people I could have walked in on while they were changing it had to be that guy.” I reached for my backpack from behind the counter, where Carmen had stored it earlier in the night.
“I’m sure he’s just one of the straggler tourists trying to soak up the last bit of the dying days of summer. You can console yourself with the fact that you’ll probably never run into him again. Although he did say ‘see you around,’ so you never know,” she added with a devious grin.
“I’ve already seen more of him than I should have, so I hope I don’t.” I raised my eyebrows and headed out the door. I was lying. I’d never admit it to Carmen, but there was a big part of me that hoped I would get another chance to interact with Mr. Gorgeous.