**This is one of the three stories I did for my creative writing class last summer (all of them out of my comfort zone). Since the move, I haven’t been able to find all of my class notes, so I’m not positive who or what we were studying at the time of this assignment. By the dates on my files, it looks as though we were going over two authors, Raymond Carver (“Cathedral” and “A Small Good Thing”) and Flannery O’Connor (“Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”). I’d hoped to include what the exact assignment had been, but this is the best I could do. I’d say the hardest part of all my assignments was the limitations. We had to hold our stories within a set amount of pages, which meant most of my stories went through huge cuts. The time constraints were hard too. I like to let a story sit before I edit, and there wasn’t time for that.**
The Last Customer
My phone vibrated in my pocket. I unlocked the screen and found a message from mom, “Meatloaf tonight. Love you!” followed by all the heart-related emoji she could find. I shook my head and slid my phone back into my pocket. The meatloaf made me happy but not as happy as the time did. I grabbed the intercom on the nearest column and said, “Attention shoppers. We’ll be closing in five minutes. Please make your final selections, and as always, thank you for shopping Duncan Pharmacy.” I swept my bushy, dark locks into a ponytail, ready to end my shift. Jeff waited beside the column, his pencil-thin frame concealed from view. “Ready?” I asked. He nodded. We turned the corner at the end of the aisle and spotted a man leaning against the shelves, eyes closed against the bright, fluorescent lights.
Jeff stepped up beside me and did what Jeff did best. “Sleeping on the job is considered theft against the company. In 2013, all Duncan Pharmacies added a section to the handbook declaring theft of company time a fireable offense,” he said, adjusting his glasses.
Clay crossed his arms in front of his chest and puffed up like a marshmallow on a bonfire. “My head hurt, and I closed my eyes for a moment. We’re allowed to take measures for our health. I remember that from the handbook,” he said, turning on Jeff.
Jeff nodded his head in agreement. “True but I could hear you snoring all the way over there,” he said, pointing to the end of the aisle.
“You heard me deep breathing. You know, allergies and all.”
“I’ll inform the manager of your condition,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Now get back to work.” Clay shrugged and jerked a box of tampons to the front of the shelf. “Jeff, why don’t you stick around here and make sure Clay remembers all of his training.” Jeff nodded and set to work. Clay wasn’t my only worry though. End of the night, everyone’s thoughts were on hitting the door at a full run, but the store wouldn’t close itself.
Jessie stood at the front registers, her short mop of curls, bouncing as she spoke, “I don’t know what his deal was. He kept screaming that his card wasn’t the problem.” She rolled her eyes as I passed. “Told me I was too stupid to figure it out, so I told him to scan it.”
“I’m sure that went well,” Tina said, giggling as she keyed a code into the register. The machine printed out a long curl of receipt, and she let it coil in her hand.
“You must have done something, you stupid girl,” Jessie mimicked. The women chuckled.
At least they didn’t have to deal with the pharmacy patrons. They could be vicious back there. “Jessie, go ahead and run your reports. I don’t think we’ve had a customer in twenty minutes.” She nodded, keyed in the proper number, and resumed her conversation.
I turned left at the end of the aisle and headed for the photo department, making my rounds. The intercom boomed, and my shoulders sagged. “Management to the pharmacy. Management to the pharmacy.” I hustled to the back of the store. The door opened as I reached for the handle, and I found myself staring at a pale, redhead in blue scrubs.
“We had a fake script come through. Can you leave a note for whoever’s working tomorrow?”
My eyes widened. “Wow. We just had one a couple weeks ago. That’s not good.”
Stacey shrugged. “It’s the pharmacy. Nothing back here is good.”
“Sounds like you’ve had a fun night?”
“The usual. Somehow, I’m too much of a moron to count pills, but also the mastermind behind their insurance denials.”
Chuckling, I patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry. I know. It’s why I got out of there.”
“We’re all ready. Carol’s running reports and I’m counting the last of it now,” she said. I stuck out a fist, and she obliged me with a bump.
I motioned for people to finish up as I moved through. No one would be slacking off now. I turned down Clay’s aisle and found my trusty sidekick hard at work. “Jeff, will you snag pharmacy’s drawers for me?” He nodded and hurried toward the back. Two minutes. I hustled to the front. “Tina, check bathrooms. No stowaways.” I had no intention of coming back here in two hours because somebody decided to try a fast one. My phone buzzed in my pocket again, and I headed for the doors, yawning. Jessie stood at the registers, gathering the receipt papers. I raised up on my toes and flipped the switch, shutting off the automatic doors. The door didn’t want to slide, but I put my back into it and heaved it across the track, inch by inch.
“Erika,” Jessie shouted, looking past me. She dropped everything and ran toward me.
I turned back to the door. A man dressed in black, his face covered with a ski mask, sprinted toward me. My eyes didn’t focus on him though. They landed on the gun in his hand. I pushed on the door with all my might, my breath coming fast and shallow. The glass in the doors wasn’t bulletproof, but it might slow him down. Please. Please. Please close.
“Run! Get out of here,” Jessie yelled from behind me.
Almost. The black shape blotted out the lights in the parking lot. Oh God, no. My chest thundered as his heavy, booted foot slammed into the threshold. We struggled, but the door sprang open. A fist flew through the opening, catching me in the side of my neck and head. I rocked back, stunned. Pain blossomed across the side of my face. The man lunged forward and wrapped his arm around my throat, his forearm hitting me hard. I coughed, my throat on fire. The barrel of the handgun prodded me in the back. I froze like a cat being picked up by its mother. My body trembled as my situation became clear to me. Jessie froze near the end of the aisle, eyes wide and locked on me and the gunman.
The man turned toward Jessie, his nearest threat. “Come any closer, and the first shot will be through your head,” he said, his voice wriggling in my ears like a nest of snakes.
Jessie’s jaw tensed, and she took a step back. “Take whatever you want.”
I took a deep breath. I can’t lose it right now. This man could kill every one of my coworkers. How many were still in the store? The image of Jessie’s body dropping to the floor, blood running from her head, flashed across my mind, and I bit my lip to keep from crying. No. I wouldn’t let that happen. Give him what he wants. Just like they trained us.
“Whatever it is you want, we can get it for you,” I said, my voice no more than a whisper.
“Pharmacy,” he said into my ear, jerking me toward the back.
Just let him have what he wants. Get him in and out like any other customer. I turned away from Jessie and concentrated on my walk. Please, God, let me see my mom again. Right foot. Give her the chance to holler at me for leaving dishes in my room. Left foot. Her smile popped into my mind. The smile that spread across her face and made her eyes sparkle. Right foot. The gun bit into my back, and I whimpered.
“Faster,” he said. “No games.”
My pace increased along with my mind. Any delays would only aggravate him. I heard the beep of a keypad, and someone darted through the door to the stockroom. Good. Go. Another, Tina maybe, crouched in the makeup aisle, hands over her head as if her arms would stop any unwanted rounds. No. I can’t think like that. Head in the game, Erika. We approached the little counter in the pharmacy. Stacey’s red hair bounced around the corner.
“Hey Erika, Jeff took the drawers—” she stammered, eyes going wide as she took in the scene in front of her. She raised her hands and stared at us like a deer stuck in headlights.
“Reach into my left pocket and grab the list,” the gunmen said, squeezing the arm at my throat.
My hand shook as it searched the man’s hip for a pocket. A finger snagged on the edge of a seam, and I felt for the opening. I pulled the list free and held it out in front of me. Stacey didn’t move. Her wide eyes stared without really seeing the paper. “Stacey,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. She blinked her eyes and shook her head as if in a daze. “Stacey,” I repeated her name, drawing her attention to my face. “Pull it together, hun. We have an order to fill.” I waved the blue, folded paper in front of her.
She blinked her eyes again, nodded at me, and grabbed the paper from my hand. “I don’t have access to these. I’ll have to call the pharmacist,” she said, looking up, page trembling in her fingers.
“Call for Carol,” I said, eyes locked on the girl. “Call for Carol, so we can help our customer out, and he can be on his way.” Give him what he wants, and no one gets hurt. The gun bit into my back, and a yelp escaped my lips. Please. We need to get him in and out. “It’s a safety procedure. The techs don’t have access to any narcotics. Only the—” I said, before the barrel bit into my back again. I arched trying to relieve the pressure, but he tightened his hold around my throat. I coughed and clawed at his arm.
“Call for Carol, Stacey,” the man said in a slow, deadly whisper.
A small woman with a short mop of black curls wobbled in front of the counter. Carol looked at Stacey’s upraised arms then to me. Her jaw tensed but otherwise, she showed no signs of distress. Carol took the paper from the woman. “Go finish the count,” she said, reading the list. “Well, do you have a backpack or a duffel bag or something?”
“Use one of the store’s,” the man said, jerking us to the side to see behind the counter.
“Sure, sure. Now, these are bigger than your average prescription bottles. How do you want this?” She asked, flipping over the list and holding it in front of him.
“Carol, what are you doing? Just fill a bag,” I said, eyes wide and imploring.
“Didn’t want to come back with four bags of drugs. He can hardly hold a gun on you and carry a bunch of shopping.” Yes. Oh, I love you, Carol. Make him choose. My hands clenched and unclenched. I swallowed, trying to keep the burning in my throat to a minimum. Please be greedy.
“One bag,” he said, giving his arm a squeeze.
I coughed, stars dancing in front of my vision. My heart pounded. Carol didn’t miss a beat. She watched my situation and the man with the same robotic stare she used with every angry customer set in front of her. “You have a preference?”
“Top three on the list.” He released the pressure on my throat and jerked us around to face the front of the store. Jeff stood at the end of the aisle to our left, crouched and alert. Clay stood two aisles over, creeping around the end. Clay’s eyes widened when he spotted us, and he darted for the storeroom.
The thief’s arm brushed against my right arm as it came up. A loud noise burst in front of me, and my body jerked to get away from it. Clay screamed and fell to the ground. The thief brought the end of the gun in line with Jeff. Clay groaned on the ground, his hand reaching out in front of him, clawing at the tiles. I bit my lip and kept on biting, but the tears came. Thoughts screamed through my mind too quick for me to focus. He shot Clay. Clay. So much blood.
“Wanna join him, hero?” the man said with that same slippery tone that slid down your spine. Jeff didn’t speak. He jerked his head side to side and stared at Clay’s back.
Clay settled into a small puddle of moans and whimpers. I tuned him out. I can’t. Not now. Clay will die if he doesn’t get help soon. Hell, he might die either way. A bag thumped on the counter behind us, and the man spun us, his gun arm searching for the new threat. Carol stood at the end of the gun. Her face as blank as the wall behind her. My chin quivered. The man pushed me out in front of him as he stepped forward.
“Grab the bag,” he said into my ear. I grabbed the bag, and he tightened up on me. I coughed, throat burning. He had what he wanted. Almost there. “Move.”
He pushed me ahead of him, moving me down the aisle at a quicker pace than before. My feet always in danger of stumbling but pinned upright by that elbow of his. His gun stayed against my back, directing me, motivating me. He spun me to the side, checking our rear, and my feet caught. He lifted me by the neck and righted me. I choked and clawed at his arm. The bag slammed off my chest, rattling the pills in their big, plastic bottles.
He didn’t waste time on threats. The gun jabbed me where he wanted me to go, and I went, counting the distance to the door, watching the ads on shelves as we passed. Seven ads. He’ll release me, and this will be over. We’ll call an ambulance, and Clay will be fine. “Ninety-nine cent chapstick! This week only!” The ad screamed to us. Five ads. The gunman’s arm came up, and I froze. He pointed it down the cross aisle, but no threat existed there. The barrel bit into my back, and I strolled forward once more. Four ads. So close now. I could see the “QuikMart” sign through the gaping door. “Don’t let wrinkles get you down. Try FaceUp for an instant lift.” My breath came shallow and quick. I tried to suck in more air, but I couldn’t force it into my lungs. Just one deep breath. Two ads… one ad.
I did it. His arm came up again. Something heavy and hard smashed into my head and my legs ceased to function. I dropped to the ground with a heavy thud. I laid there. My face pressed against the cool, white tiles, watching the man’s heavy booted feet pound across the floor and out the door. My head felt heavy. I could hear screams and footsteps but moving seemed a bit much at the moment. Clay. I failed him. And they failed me.
Mom slid a plate in front of me, hugging me as she left the table. Three weeks ago, I would have rolled my eyes at such a hug. She doesn’t want me to go back to work. She screamed at my boss for an hour straight when my manager checked on me. An hour. I don’t think I could do that to her even if I wanted to go back. I watched her mill about the kitchen, humming a tune. A solid hour. She was right. They hadn’t protected us.