November 19, 2012 by Vee Villarreal
“Kopi, why don’t you take off early today? We’re not gonna get any busier.” Mr. Murtugh smiled as he spoke.
Kopi had no idea what bosses we’re supposed to be like, but he figured Mr. Murtugh was a pretty good one. He’d found that not too many people were apt to hire a sixteen year old with no previous experience, especially one with his background. Despite that, he’d found two jobs since Auntie told him he needed one; ‘that’s what people do,’ she’d told him, ‘they work.’
His first job was at a local ranch; Kopi got up before the sun six days a week and walked the three miles to Gavington Ranch, where he’d haul feed and hay, helped with branding cattle, milking cows, or planting and weeding the fields. It was hard work, out in the sun all day or in the rain, as it was more often than not now that it was spring, but it suited him, keeping his mind off other things. The smell of hay and cows, leather and sunshine, was reassuring and reminded him pleasantly that he was free. In the first few months after their escape from the camp idle time had been his worst enemy, giving his mind to nightmares and wicked reminders of his horrifying experiences. Once he got done at the ranch he’d walk to Murtugh’s General Store, where he stocked shelves and swept the floors in the afternoon. It was quiet amongst the racks of goods at Murtugh’s and most people just ignored him, which he preferred. The manager, Henry Murtugh, was a homely, but happy man in his mid-forties, who was kind to Kopi, despite his odd and often off-putting nature.
Sometimes, Kopi had to walk the customers’ purchases to their bikes or cars and, on occasion, all the way to their house if they were within town. That was the only part of his work he didn’t like. People had the annoying need to fill empty voids in conversation, usually by asking questions. One customer in particular, a young girl, came in several times a week to pick up a few items and she always requested for Kopi to walk her home, which was just a few buildings down from the shop and on the way she would ask at least a dozen questions of him, chattering endlessly about nothing in particular.
Today, just as Kopi was readying to leave the store for the night that very girl walked in, the small brass bell on the door announcing her arrival. Kopi heard the bell ring and Mr. Murtugh touched his shoulder.
“On second thought, best wait until your little friend is done. I’m sure she’ll want your help home.” The manager grinned at him and blinked one eye quickly in a strange and purposeful way that Kopi didn’t understand.
“Yes, sir,” is all he replied.
He waited off to the side of the register for her to finish. He watched her quietly as she made her selections; he was mildly fascinated by the opposite sex, having gone almost five years without seeing a single female in the compound. In truth, a few of the white coats had been woman, but they had all been much older than him, and it was difficult to observe much about someone from the vantage point of being strapped into an exam table. The girl was shorter than him, the top of her head only came to his chest, and little, he could easily carry her if he felt so inclined, which he didn’t. Her hair was long and jet black, reaching down to her lower back. It looked wet and shining in the afternoon sun, he was tempted to touch it to see if it felt wet too.
Every so often the girl would look up at him with sweet, ebony eyes. She wasn’t quite smiling at him, her expression was soft, just a minute raise to one corner of her mouth that gave her an inquisitive look. When she reached the register with her purchases she greeted the manager kindly then turned to Kopi, blushing a faint, rosy pink before speaking.
“Hello,” he responded in a muted tone at the floor before gazing up at her through down-turned eyes. Mr. Murtugh finished ringing her up and she paid for her purchases.
“Would you mind helping me carry this home?” The girl turned to him to ask; a tress of her hair fell carelessly across her face, he wanted to reach out and push it back in its place, but he wasn’t sure if that was an acceptable action given the circumstances so he resisted. Instead he nodded curtly in reply and began untying his smock and hung it on its peg by the door.
“Go on, son. And you can go on home once you’re done, I’ll close up.” The manager closed the register with a clang, that puzzling look was on his face again, like he knew something about the situation that Kopi didn’t.
“Yes, sir,” he replied. Kopi grabbed the cloth bag with his soiled work clothes from behind the counter and gathered the two surprisingly light paper bags with the girl’s items in them. He walked her to the door, jimmying the knob with his elbow enough to push it open with the flat of his back, letting her pass through before allowing it to shut behind them. Auntie had instructed him that it was expected for men to open doors for women whenever possible, though in these instances it seemed entirely unreasonable to him; her arms, unlike his, were unburdened after all.
They walked side by side in the brisk afternoon air, Kopi’s feet kicked up little clouds of dust as he strode. They continued half a block in silence before she breached the calm.
“So how was your day?”
“Just fine? What did you do?” She urged him for more.
“The same as most every day.” His reply was matter-of-fact, but he could see from her expression that this was insufficient. He sighed impatiently to himself, already regretting the decision, and placated her by continuing the discourse. “How was your day?”
His question seemed to please her; her eyes brightened noticeably and she smiled at him as they walked. He noted that the tightness in his chest eased a little at seeing her delight. “Well I helped my momma with the laundry and took the little ones for a stroll on the beach, and then I came to your shop.” She giggled, covering her mouth with one small, delicate hand. He wondered to himself why she would make such a gesture, obviously there was something offensive about her mouth that he wasn’t supposed to see.
“It’s not my shop. It’s Mr. Murtugh’s.” He stated, wanting to clear up any confusion she might have on the issue.
“Uh, I know that, silly. It’s just- oh, nevermind.” They fell back into silence. As they approached her front door, he glanced over and found her chewing on her lower lip. The motion caught his attention and he found himself wanting to do the same. Watching her worry away at those supple, pink, pillowy lips he was overwhelmed by a new and troubling sensation, one that pulled tightly at his stomach and made it hard for him to catch his breath. He forced himself to look away. They paused in front of her door and he held the bags away from himself a bit, so she could easily grab them. Instead of reaching for her groceries though, she stood there staring at him with a perplexed, but mischievous expression on her face.
“You’ve never asked me what my name is, you know. All these times you’ve walked me home and you don’t even know what to call me.” It wasn’t exactly a question, he pondered over what she’d said and of how he was supposed to respond before settling on a question of his own.
“Should I ask?” The face he made must have been comical, because she burst out laughing at him.
After a moment or two she caught her breath. “Yes, of course.” She was holding her hands behind her back, still in no hurry to take her bags and retreat inside. He shuffled in front of her, pulling the bags back against his chest in frustration and making the crisp paper crinkly noisily beneath his hands.
“Okay, what’s your name?” He asked cautiously, expecting some social pitfall, but furiously hoping that this conversation would end soon either way.
“Lucy. My name is Lucy.” She bit down on her lip again and he fought the urge to pull it free with his fingers.
“Oh.” He tried to appear interested in their banter. Not that he wasn’t interested, he was, but he wasn’t sure where to go from here. He felt uncomfortably open to her probing inquires standing there on her porch, captive until she took the bags from him.
“Oh.” She repeated playfully to herself and smiled. “Most boys would have asked me my name a long time ago. They’d probably have asked me out on a date too, but certainly they’d have asked for my name.”
“Do you want me to ask you on a date?” He panicked a bit as the words escaped his lips. He wasn’t entirely certain what a date was, just that it involved two people participating in some sort of intimate social activity that usually lasted several hours. Something he was not well equipped for, especially if it involved more conversation like this. He got the suspicious feeling that he was walking into a trap.
“If you want to,” she replied coyly. He tried to decide if she was being vague on purpose to confuse him further.
“Why would I want to do that?” Bewildered and journeying into totally new territory, he responded honestly and with a shy curiosity. It must have come across to her, because after an initial moment of shock she began to chuckle softly.
She thought for a moment and then looking down at her feet she answered him. “Because I like you and I’m pretty sure you like me too.”
“I do?” He was utterly dumbfounded by her observation; he was certainly not under the same impression.
“Yeah, you’re always watching me at the shop and you walk me to my house, even though I could easily carry those bags by myself.” She took the bags from him then to demonstrate her point. “Plus, you put up with all my talkin,’ so you must like me, at least a little.”
He thought over what she was saying feeling flustered. Did he like her? He didn’t not like her, that much he was sure. She did have a strange way of making him feel uneasy and slightly sick, like his stomach was full of tiny fluttering birds and that any moment they would try to escape out his throat. “Um, okay,” he said flatly, unable to stop himself.
“Okay,” she smiled widely, “How about tomorrow night?”