By Julie Jackson
“Watch the register for me?”
Benjamin nodded and watched as Mr. Bagsley tottered off slowly, careful not to put any strain on his back.
Benjamin was hired at Bagsley’s Books For Less over a year ago, after the old man’s health began to spiral downward. He couldn’t change the light bulbs on the high dirty ceilings or carry the books anymore. Ben was making a little over minimum wage, and it wasn’t very difficult work for a just-turned-18 year old boy, which was good because much of his time and energy was dedicated to his senior year of high school and trying to figure out how he was going to pay for college. Even though it was just October, he knew May of the following year would be here quickly. He worried the time would move too fast.
The bell clanging on the front door knocked Benjamin out of his reverie. A girl that looked about his age timidly stepped into the bookstore, and made sure that the door didn’t slam behind her. Her hair fell in a long blue-black waterfall down her back, and dark green eyes scanned the bookstore, taking in the surroundings. Her skin was white and clean; she didn’t appear to have on any makeup. She wore tattered blue jeans, a black tank top, and the black shoes she had on looked awfully similar to military combat boots. Her only jewelry was a clunky antique watch. She was very pretty, and he felt his throat automatically close up when he should have been doing his job and greeting her.
“H-Hello!” he finally spat out. “Anything we can help you find?” he asked in one breathy rush. He was suddenly annoyed with himself. He had friends that were smoother than silk when it came to girls. Benjamin, however, felt that someone had just dumped him in a raft sitting on a gravel road. The girl spun away from a cluttered magazine rack and flashed a smile. Benjamin was suddenly afraid that he was going to be sick.
“Nope. I’m just looking. Thanks though,” she replied, and picked up one of the phony sensationalist ‘Bat Boy’ magazines, as he called them. It’s better than the celebrity smut, he thought, even if it is completely bogus.
Benjamin nodded, watching how her long black hair fell over her shoulders and onto the magazine as she bent to read. “O-okay. Just, um, let me know if you, uh, want something in particular.”
“Or, you know, if you have any questions, about um, where something is. I can tell you that, too.”
She smiled a knowing smile, as if she was fully aware of his awkwardness and the cause of it. “Sure thing, thanks,” she said again, and turned slightly away from Benjamin.
Who felt the embarrassment crawling all over his skin. He looked down and busied himself rearranging paper clips and receipt paper, willing the blood that was in his face and neck to go back down to the rest of his body. He tried very hard to resist the urge to keep glancing at her; he’d never seen her before and wondered if she was just passing through, or maybe she was new to the area. He had seen a moving truck at the trailer across the street from his just yesterday, but he knew that the chances of this girl standing in this store at this moment actually being his neighbor were slimmer than winning the lottery twice.
She was moving around the store now, looking at the subtle discord that is the charm of a used bookstore, her booted feet hitting heavily on the scuffed floor and the magazine clutched under her arm. She ducked down one of the fiction aisles and Benjamin heard her heavy footfalls go all the way to the back of the store. He groaned to himself. She was back there shopping and that section was an awful mess. The dust covered books were hardly alphabetized, and the shelves were so crammed that there were books sitting on the floor, including a stack that he had knocked over earlier in the day and forgotten about. He dashed around the counter and down the aisle and discovered her in a squat, picking the books off of the floor and making a neat stack as close to a corner as possible. He cringed. She stood up quickly when she saw Benjamin.
“I didn’t knock them over, I promise,” she said, slightly flustered. “They were already in the floor, so I just thought that I would –”
“I knocked them over earlier today,” Benjamin said sheepishly, hoping that he didn‘t sound as nervous as he felt. “I had forgotten about them until just now. Here, I’ll get them out of your way.” He walked over to her and the half-picked-up, half-not books, careful not to make eye contact. He bent to pick them up and though she stepped out of his way, he could feel her presence almost touching him. The aisles were cramped and Benjamin was almost certain that ceiling was sitting on his head. His hands didn’t seem to want to work correctly; he dropped two of the books he had just picked up, and when the front door bell clanged rudely again, he jumped enough to knock over another stack. The girl smiled at him as he let out a curse of frustration.
“Rough day?” she asked simply, her head inclined slightly to the left. “Or do girls just make you that nervous?”
His eyes met hers for the first time and he stopped breathing. “Umm, well –”
“Hey look guys, it’s Ben Dover!” a juvenile male’s voice screeched across the store. A chorus of laughter rang out and Benjamin felt a strong surge of anger. Richie Crane, an obnoxious jock who spent more time making Benjamin’s life miserable than he spent on the football field, was sauntering his way up the aisle. He had several of his teammate buddies with him, and they were all sneering triumphantly.
“Hey Ben Dover, whatcha doin’? Pickin’ up books, huh? You have to bend over to do that, don’t you?” His friends guffawed and high-fived each other at the lame joke, and Benjamin rolled his eyes.
“The children’s section is on the next aisle,” Benjamin managed to retort. His tongue found a previously untapped vein of bravery, and for the first time he dished out a little of what he put up with every day. “But I don’t think I have enough picture books for all of you. Sorry.”
Benjamin heard the slightest laugh emit from the girl, who had laid her magazine on a nearby shelf. When he glanced over at her, she was trying to fight off a grin and her arms were crossed in front of her. However, the football team was no longer laughing.
Richie’s face had turned from a grin into a grimace, and his whole body was bent forward slightly. Benjamin feared that he had just made a terrible mistake, that he should have let them have their fun as usual instead of mouthing off.
“So, your little girlfriend thinks that’s funny, does she? And you, well that‘s the first time you‘ve ever even said anything back. I’m almost impressed, Benny. Little girlfriend making you brave, eh? And I don‘t see the old man around, either. You‘re gonna learn the hard way that I don‘t like backtalk.” Richie cracked his knuckles and began closing the gap between himself and Ben.
Benjamin was almost overcome with a mixture of rage and fear. He was unable to speak. Richie moseyed over to the girl, stepping in between her and Benjamin, forcing him to squeeze against a wall of paperbacks. He draped a heavily muscled arm around her and stared pointedly at her chest. She looked positively revolted but didn’t move. “I gotta hand it to you, though, Ben Dover, not bad.” His fingers coiled through her hair and touched her neck.
She instantly reached up and slapped them away and jerked his arm off of her shoulders. The jocks started laughing again, but this time it was at Richie.
“Hey, shut up!” he bellowed at them, and grinned disgustingly down at the girl. “She’s just a little shy, that’s all. Aren’t ya, honey?”
The girl didn’t answer, only shuddered a little. She stared at the lights in the ceiling directly above Richie‘s head. Her fingers were tapping the crooks of her elbows in a steady rhythm. Her face was completely blank.
“Dude, leave her alone,” Benjamin said, and he hoped he didn’t sound as scared as he felt. “She’s just a customer.”
Richie slowly turned his face back toward Benjamin, his mouth a leering twist. He scoffed. “Yeah, I should have known. There’s no way a loser like Ben Dover could land a girl that looks like this. Wouldn’t even know where to start, would you?”
Ben said nothing, just burned.
“You know, I would say that you are one of those guys that sits in your mom’s basement looking at porn all night, but since we all know that trailers don’t come with basements, and I’m—”
A high-pitched humming sound emerging from the ceiling interrupted Richie’s tirade. Benjamin stared at the brightening halogen bulbs over Richie’s spiky blond hair. The jocks were watching it, too. The hum began to crescendo in pitch and the light was growing into the brightest and whitest he’d ever seen, bright enough to keep him from seeing Richie clearly. Everyone was holding their hands up to the light and squinting, except the girl. She hadn’t budged, except the rhythm she was tapping into her elbows had become very rapid. Despite the violent brightness, she was staring into the lights.
“What the hell …” Richie started to say, but his question was drowned out by an explosion.
Benjamin felt himself being pulled down to the floor by his wrist. Even in his stupor of fright, he realized it was the girl. She threw her arms over his head, her long black hair draping over him like a fire blanket, just in time to stop the rain of sharp halogen pieces and ceiling tile debris from pelting him. Hot wind blew waves of incredible heat, and despite the cover, he felt stinging the skin on his neck and hands. He started to sweat instantly. The air he breathed felt hot in his throat.
But Richie wasn’t so lucky. He was caught on the face and hands by shards of heated broken glass. He screamed and waved his arms maniacally around his head, and batted furiously at his hair. Tiny pinpricks of crimson were appearing on his face and hands, and small rivulets of blood were trickling down his neck and off of his fingers. His teammates rushed forward and grabbed him, pulling him frantically toward the door. They were all yelling.
“What the hell was that?”
“Let’s get outta here!”
“Richard man, are you okay?”
Benjamin couldn’t see who was saying what; the girl still had him covered with her arms and hair. He suddenly became painfully aware of her body pressed against his shoulder and how close every inch of her was to every inch of him. He vaguely wondered how she could be so calm. He heard the yelling of the jocks begin to fade and then completely disappear with a jingle of the doorbell. It was utterly silent, aside from a slight sizzling sound hanging in the air and his deep, shaky breaths.
She lifted herself up and stuck her hand out to help him up. When she’d pulled him down, his legs had crumpled under him and he was somehow sitting on one of his ankles. He took her hand and she gave a good hard pull, yanking him into a standing position. She sighed and casually brushed off her tank top and jeans while Benjamin stared at the gaping hole in the ceiling.
The bulbs had been blasted clean out of their little metal holders, and the ceiling all around them was singed black. Chalky dust and smoke circulated slowly through the air, giving everything a hazy appearance. Small purple bursts shot occasionally through the remaining metal ends of the bulbs. When Benjamin stepped right underneath the hole, he could see clear up to the roof support beams. He blinked and turned slowly back to the girl, who had gone back to picking up books off the floor.
“Can you believe that?” he asked incredulously. “The bulbs! They just, just blew up!” he cried, glancing quickly between the hole and her. “Are you okay?”
“I‘m fine, thanks. You?”
“Yeah, I’m good. But can you believe that?” he repeated, his eyes bulging.
“Yeah, it was really something,” she mumbled, not even looking up from the books.
“Really something? That’s all you can say?” Benjamin demanded, now with his eyes on her. “It just rained light bulbs in here!”
She shrugged, and he continued staring at the giant, smoldering hole in the ceiling. “Wow,” he said, then whistled. “Jesus man, I mean, what else can I say? Wow. I suppose we‘re lucky nothing caught fire.”
“Nothing would have caught fire,” she said abruptly, sounding slightly offended. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and stood up, glaring at him. Her hands were on her hips, and her jaw was set in stone.
His confusion gave way to irritation. “And how the hell do you know that? This whole ceiling could have fallen in!”
“For crying out loud, that certainly would not have happened either!” Her chest was now heaving. Benjamin eyed her suspiciously. An odd thought, an impossible thought, had crept into his mind, and he was unable to stop his mouth from opening.
“You did that, didn’t you?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. “How did you do that?”
“I must get going,” she announced abruptly and gave herself another quick dusting. Smoke was still spiraling slowly in the air. She grabbed the magazine off the now very dusty shelf and showed it to him. “Are you going to ring me up or what?”
Benjamin gaped at her.
“I suppose not.” She stomped by him, crunching glass under her feet. He whirled around to follow her, but he was a second too late. She had thrown some money on the counter, and she was gone.
Benjamin had a hell of a time explaining the events to Mr. Bagsley, who had come barreling up the aisle, his lower back cradled in his hands, the exact moment the girl disappeared. Benjamin had chosen not to say anything about her. Once he mentioned, however, that the bulbs had exploded on those guys that are always picking on him, Mr. Bagsley became convinced that the jocks had set a booby trap for Benjamin, and that it had backfired on them.
“Damn future convicts, is all they are,” Mr. Bagsley had spat, then howled with laughter. “They ain’t worth what you’d scrape off the bottom of your shoes.”
They spent almost an hour after closing cleaning up and duct-taping a poster board over the hole in the ceiling. Mr. Bagsley said he would call the owner of the building in the morning.
Benjamin’s drive home was quick and uneventful, and when he turned down his street, he let out a long, slow breath. Despite the dirt and clutter of Lakeland Heights trailer park, he was happy to at least get to something comfortably familiar and safe. He glanced at the house across the street from his and noticed that the moving truck was gone. The new people had already put their name on the mailbox.
It said “LIGHT”.
The events of the afternoon came back to him in a rush, and he was so distracted by the mental image of exploding bulbs that he almost rear-ended his step dad’s truck in the driveway. That certainly would not have gone over well.
When he got out of the car, he could hear shouting from inside. Another damnable characteristic of trailers is their thin walls. No doubt his mom and step dad were having another blazing fight. He decided not to go in. He bit his lip and tried to make himself nine years old again, but knowing that was fruitless, pulled out a cigarette instead. This pack was the first he had been able to procure legally. He lit one up and pulled a deep and heavy drag, filling his lungs up to the top of his throat with smoke. Benjamin resigned himself to staying outside in the cool evening air until the fighting was done and the make-up sex well underway so that he could slip into the house unnoticed.
He stared at the LIGHT mailbox and tried very hard not to think. It didn’t work. The smoke and tiny glow of the cigarette only made him remember the scene in the bookstore more vividly, so he began to watch the trailer itself. He scrutinized the shadows closely, to see if there was more than one, but that was all he saw: one shadow that would appear in a front window and then disappear, only to reappear in a side window a few seconds later. He couldn’t help but wonder if it was the girl. The curtains distorted the shadows too much to tell anything about the new neighbor.
Complete dark was fast approaching but Benjamin paid it little attention. He had spent many nights outside until almost dawn, watching the stars perform their silent march, especially this time of year. The cool air and ink-colored sky were too much to resist, and he raised his head to the brightening stars, hoping to find some mental peace.
He contemplated crossing the street and giving the neighbor a good old-fashioned welcome, but decided against it. This was the 21st century; no one did that anymore. What was he supposed to say, anyway? Hi, welcome to the trailer park. Got a beer? It’s been a helluva day. Benjamin shook his head, and fished out a fresh cigarette. He fired up a new one, then crudely tossed the butt of the old one into the street. He watched it slowly wink out in the dark.
As the flame hit the filter, just when it was down to the last possible ember, he heard a slight humming sound that seemed to be coming from the street itself. He recognized the sound and his heart began to pound. His eyes strained in the dark for the girl. The humming sound grew slightly in pitch, and Benjamin flinched when the cigarette butt burst into tiny flames. The orange arched up a bare few inches, but it was enough to illuminate the silver buckles of combat boots hiding behind a tree.
“Come on out, I see your shoes,” he said shakily, raking his fingers over his hair. A quick glance toward the windows told him that the trailer was now empty, and its occupant was now outside. She stepped from behind the tree in one lithe movement and began her wide stride across the street. There was very little light around them: a dingy street pole a few houses down, lamps behind curtains in windows, and the small glow at the end of his fresh cigarette. She stopped only a foot or so from in front of him and smiled.
“Sorry I ran out on you like that,” she said coolly. “I was a little embarrassed that I’d let my temper get the best of me.”
He simply stared at her for a moment. Then,
“Oh, so it was your temper that did that? Blew a hole in the ceiling?”
“Well, yes and no,” she explained. “I meant for the bulbs to blow out, but not blow out like they did. That part was an accident.”
“And you expect me to believe that?”
“And if I don’t?”
“Well then, I guess we can’t be friends.”
Benjamin’s mouth fell open slightly.
“But how did you do it?” he asked, quietly.
“I just concentrated really hard on the bulbs,” she replied, “but I kept getting distracted and then getting angrier at the stuff that guy was saying, so it got a little out of hand.”
Benjamin’s mind was doing cartwheels. This was not possible; people can’t just cause explosions like that. He squinted his eyes to look into her face for a clue, but it was blank, almost serene. She spoke as if she was talking about something insignificant. He heard another shout from inside his trailer, followed by a loud thud. He suddenly realized he desperately wanted to believe her.
“A little out of hand?” he asked, hoping he wasn’t making a fool of himself by buying into this. You blew a hole in the ceiling clear up to the roofing!”
“It wasn’t supposed to blow a hole in the ceiling!” she said exasperatedly. “It was only supposed to burst the bulbs. I’m sorry.” She breathed in deep, and let out a long sigh. “I’m sorry,” she said again, in a much quieter voice. She took a tiny step toward him.
Benjamin wanted to kick himself. The cigarette in his hand had a long tail of ash hanging off of the end; he flicked it off and brought the cigarette up to his mouth. The yellowed streetlights hadn’t kicked on yet, but even in the encompassing darkness her eyes glittered. He could smell mint on her breath. “I hope I didn’t get you into any trouble.”
Benjamin softened. “No, you didn’t get me into trouble. I was able to convince my boss that those dumb guys had done it somehow. Hopefully the building insurance will cover it. Faulty wiring or something.”
She nodded. “Okay, good.”
An awkward silence fell between them. Benjamin shuffled his feet in the gravel driveway and finished his cigarette. She stared down at her boots, her hands shoved deep into her pockets.
“So, is your name really Ben Dover?” she asked in an almost sympathetic voice. Benjamin laughed humorlessly.
“No, no. It’s actually Wynne. That’s just what the jerks at school call me,” he shifted his weight uncomfortably. She was standing too close.
She smiled. Benjamin felt a familiar rush of blood to his face. “Well, maybe they won‘t pick so much now,” she offered with a shrug. “Oh, by the way, my name is Anna. Anna Light.”
She stuck out her hand. He reluctantly took it and shook it. Her skin was baby soft.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, and struggled to return the smile.
“Same to you,” she replied with a nod.
Benjamin’s thoughts were a blur, and he found it difficult to focus on just one thing: the sheer oddness of the day, the fight inside still roaring, and the pretty girl standing in the street in front of him, her hair flowing gently in the cool wind.
“Where are you from?” he asked finally.
She shrugged her shoulders and pushed her hands deep into her pockets. “It’s hard to say, really. I don’t exactly have a home town if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t stay anywhere very long.”
“Oh, various reasons”, she replied nonchalantly. “Sometimes, it’s just time to go. Other times, it’s because someone finds out, somehow or another, about my little secret,” she gestured to the minute pile of cinder that was the cigarette butt. “This is the soonest anyone has found out, though. Please don’t tell anyone.”
Benjamin thought he detected the slightest bit of fear in her voice.
“I won’t,” he promised.
She suddenly stood on her tiptoes, and leaned forward. She kissed his cheek. Benjamin felt his skin warm painlessly as soon as she touched it with her lips, and the warmth spread down through every inch of his body, like water from a hot spring tumbling through his veins.
He placed his fingers on the side of his face, and could still feel the gentlest heat there. He wondered if his skin was pink.
“Is that another little secret too?” he whispered.
She grinned. “It’s one and the same, really.”
The darkness around them was complete, and the streetlight finally kicked on in faded orange flashes. The effect cast long shadows on her face that made him wonder how old she really was.
The wind gusted and rustled her long black hair, swirling it around her bare shoulders, and she turned toward her mailbox. “Do you want to come over for a while? It’s getting chillier out here.”
Benjamin nodded, and followed her to her trailer. His heart was pounding. It was about time things looked up for him.