For a Thursday in mid-December, it sure as hell was cold, and I was well underdressed – a jacket and runners weren’t going to cut it at all. It was probably for that reason that I picked up my pace on my way to collect those damn cigs, especially since the nearest corner store in the area was more than a kilometre away. What’s funnier is, the store isn’t even under our jurisdiction, meaning that all our transactions have to be made legitimately from them – it was annoying to deal with at first, but Asahi constantly assured us that corner stores are simply endless moneypits, with minimal return from the investment. I learned not to question his decisions, as most of the time, he was bang-on with his analysis, but in times like this, I really want to strangle the guy.
Come to think of it, did that guy even have tax paperwork to deal with? I had sworn that Tosh had taken care of everything weeks ago… was that slimy piece of shit just lying to not have to go out in this frigid weather? Eh, whatever. I’ll deal with him whenever I see him next.
‘Hello and welcome to A-Mart Seaside!’
Their automated voice greeting always stuck out to me as rather peculiar and unnecessary – like, I know exactly which establishment I’ve entered, why do you have to tell me so again? Moreover, why would anyone program such a useless system? It does nothing besides say that same line each time that the doors swing open – it’s pointless.
At this point, I’m talking to myself about a damn automated voice greeting. The freezing weather probably angered me more than I’d like to admit, but the store’s warmth began to diminish those embers of annoyance. What brightened my spirits even more was remembering that the store’s got an employee lounge upstairs, and although the place isn’t under our jurisdiction, most of the employees knew exactly who I was, so I was allowed on my leisure – somewhere like that to relax for thirty or so minutes would be heavenly.
‘Welcome to A-Mart Sea-Side!’
I turned abruptly to see an employee standing behind me, probably wondering what I had been doing since entering the store.
‘Hey there! You mind showing me to the smokes section? It used to be around here, if I remember correctly, no?’
‘Yes, it was. We’ve renovated over the last few weeks sir.’
That was a lie. The smokes section had never been here, it was always in the back corner to which he was taking me. That was just a litmus test to see if he knew of me – fabricating some renovation story to prove that X54’s leader wasn’t going senile all but assures his fear towards my crew. To laypeople like him, we’re draconian monsters – retorting in a critical manner would almost certainly be seen as some form of disrespect, which wouldn’t be tolerated.
For me though, I could care less. I’d rather you correct me than just fall in line, regardless of whether you know of me or not. That’s the one shitty part about this ‘world’ of mine – I can never be looked at as an average individual anymore. Theoretically, that may seem great, especially since I’ve always yearned for a ‘high’ – and having people bow beneath my feet exhilarates me, don’t get me wrong. In practice though, once they know of me, or get to know me, there’s this instant fear that appears, and a clear division bridged between us – the rift in power is too large, and I can’t be treated as just another customer, or another person to them.
‘Here we are sir. Six-packs, twelve-packs, twenty-four packs, and whatever else you may need. We unfortunately don’t carry cigars, but anything else that I could assist you with, please let me know.’
‘No, thank you for your continued patronage.’
He nodded, and turned straight to the backdoors, which led to the employee lounge. Wondering as to the reason for this, I checked the storefront for their hours, and, to my surprise, the shop closed at eight o’clock, or, in about fifteen minutes. Usually, corner stores stay open twenty-four hours, but it seemed like this one only kept those hours on weekends – weeknights had eight-to-eight timings instead: possibly due to a lack of business in the evenings? Who knows.
What was odd though was the fact that it seemed like the store was deserted – apart from myself and that one employee, there wasn’t anyone else here. I get that he knew who I was, but was he that confident that I wouldn’t just nab a bunch of these twelve-packs and walk out the door? Or was he just that scared? Either way, that doesn’t concern me – we’re swimming in enough liquid cash to not have to threaten minimum wage employees over smoke packs. Chuckling to myself, I picked up about twenty twelve-packs, tossed them into my basket, and headed towards the cashier, ready to wait for that monotone employee to come back downstairs.
What the? Thought I heard someone say something, but it sounded muffled, and there’s no one here anyway. Must’ve just been my imagination.
There again! Sounded like a woman, but I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from.
‘Oi, moron! Stop gawking around, I’m right here!’
Suddenly, from behind the cashier’s desk stood up a short – about 5’4 tall – girl, who looked to be in her late teens. In fact, I knew she was in her late teens, because she had a knapsack with one of our academy’s senior uniform pants sticking out of the top. She’d been sitting with her phone in the corner, which had been charging in an outlet sandwiched between at least twenty different sets of wires connecting to God-knows-what. She looked exhausted, with her glasses lowered on her right eye but elevated on her left – even then, she was quite cute, I must say. All of a sudden, she looked at me and smirked.
‘What… you checking me out or something? You haven’t said anything at all! Haven’t seen a girl as pretty as me, eh?’
‘Huh? Where’d that come from?’
‘Don’t give me that! You totally were! You had nothing to say for the past twenty-three seconds, I’ve been counting!’
‘Why were you counting?!’
‘Oh see, you’re totally nervous! And here I was thinking you were one of those edge-lord types, who wouldn’t even bat an eye at me, since you’d be all “Oh, I’m well beyond these earthly relationships, and trying to woo a girl – my focus is saving this world from the terrible sins its people are bringing to it! Only I can deliver such a hammer of justice”, or some nonsense like that! You totally fit the part!’
I shook my head and almost started chuckling.
‘What the hell happened to respect? Do you want me to report your behavior as inappropriate to someone else?’
She burst out laughing.
‘Oh brother, you’re one of those “Let me speak to your manager!” types too! You’re literally my age – I think, unless I’m getting that wrong – and it’s nearly closing! Let me have some fun at your expense! All of my coworkers are either airheads or shutins, and no one young ever frequents this store – let me have this!’
‘Why should I take it!’
‘You don’t have to take anything! You can come right back at me, y’know!’
I stopped, and pondered how to respond to that.
‘Bingo! See, you are nervous! Even the guys who look uptight get so flustered around cute girls! Y’all are like an open book!’
God, she was night-and-day from the other employee. And here I was, just talking about how everyone feared me, and wouldn’t dare to insult me, meanwhile this girl’s already hit like seven daggers to my heart. Insanity.
She chuckled to herself, then asked me a question:
‘So, anyway. I take it there’s about twenty in there, right? I’m too lazy to take them out so if you grabbed an extra, count it on me. I’ll need to see some identification for them though, you look like you’re around my age so you probably can’t buy those, but you may be older and I’m just underestimating you.’
‘You want my ID?’
‘Uh, yeah. I think I’m speaking the same language as you – that’s what I just said.’
‘Madam, do you know who I am?’
‘Madam? So formal, for what?’
‘Just answer the question.’
‘Well, I presume you’re a student in the area. You could be an academy student, or a university student, I can’t tell. As for who you are… no, you don’t ring a bell.’
She paused, and then exclaimed:
‘Oh wait! Actually! I think I know!’
‘Go for it.’
‘You look awfully familiar to that kid in my class who’s always skipping! I could be wrong, but is that it! I’m pretty good with faces, but I don’t see yours enough, so am I right?’
‘Prof Lincoln, first period?’
‘Yeah, that class! You are in my class then. But that’s all the more reason that I need some sort of ID. You’re clearly my age, unless you’ve been held back many times, which could be entirely possible with the amount of absences you’re holding.’
‘So, you don’t know why I’ve been absent then?’
‘Huh? Of course not, I’ve never talked to you in class at all! You’ve always been an enigma, so I just assumed it was some personal problem and never pried into it.’
‘So, rumors never went around?’
‘Sure they probably did. But I don’t listen to rumors – they never interest me anyway.’
This girl was clueless. Completely clueless. I didn’t have any forged ID on me either, so she clearly wouldn’t sell the smokes to me. Normally this never happens – I’m just allowed to purchase smokes since the employees always recognize me. So what do I do here then… do I take them by force? I could easily overpower her, and I doubt she’d care enough to stop me…
‘It’s pretty clear you’re trying to look for some excuse to buy all of these smokes without some form of counterfeit, trust me, I’ve seen it happen enough. But for my own sake, I won’t be able to sell you anything without any ID – counterfeit, real, whatever it may be. Just come back tomorrow with a counterfeit why don’t you?’
I looked upwards and sighed heavily.
‘Unless… you’re actually not thinking about any of that, and you’re just standing there aimlessly, lusting over me.’
‘Would you cut that out! In what world is that the way that an employee should speak to a customer?’
‘Fine, fine, whatever! You’re so stuck up, y’know? Ah! It’s probably a smoking addiction – that’s why you’ve got so many packs! Let me guess, you haven’t had a smoke in more than a day, and now you’re cranky, aren’t ya?’
‘You couldn’t be more wrong. They’re for a friend.’
She was taken aback.
‘I was only halfway kidding… all of those are for one person?’
‘Yeah, they are. He’s a bit of a heavy smoker.’
‘Well, as much as we’re being casual, you probably shouldn’t have told me that you – an underage customer – are buying smokes for a friend, who isn’t even here. How am I possibly supposed to sell these to you in good faith? I know I told you I don’t care what ID you had, and whether it was counterfeit or not, but even I’ve got some scruples man!’
‘So, you won’t sell these to me?’
‘If you were the least bit convincing I honestly would! But you’re terrible! You’ve gotta learn a lot about how to sneak around the law – you’re a complete amateur!’
I sighed deeply, then tilted my head back, grabbing onto my forehead with my left hand. Did she really just tell me that I’m an amateur in skirting the law? Sure, I may be a bit comfortable – but that’s cause you’re the oddity here! How haven’t you heard of me? What rock have you been living under?
While cautiously debating how to proceed from here, the store’s front doors swung wide open, and two guys, similar in structure to myself, walked through. She immediately turned to them:
‘Hey there, we’re actually closing now, so I won’t be able to ring anything out for ya! Sorry!’
The two turned towards her, and then looked at me, and laughed to themselves. The slightly taller individual gestured towards his jean pocket and smirked.
‘Yeah, we won’t be needing you. Don’t worry.’
That’s when I immediately realized it – he was gesturing to a nine-inch switchblade in his pocket. I’d never seen these guys before, but considering the way that they scoffed at me, they definitely didn’t recognize me and were probably from out of town. That, I won’t take.
‘Ah, what a pain tonight’s turning into.’