THE LODGER BY MAURA LEE BEE

 

The guitar flared up against her eardrums, filling her mind with thrashing notes and heavy lyrics. The singer’s voice scraped against her thoughts, and her temples throbbed from the volume of the asthmatic screeching that came out of his lungs. The headphones, twice the size of her ears, engulfed the tiny flesh into the black openings where the sound was gushing out. She organized magazines and packs of cigarettes against the wall, oblivious to her surroundings, even as customers walked off with their carts and baskets of food and hygienic necessities sighing, shaking their heads as a sign of their great disappointment and loathing of the newest generation. It was a typical day at the Dairy Bell, and the bitter air of late fall was pulsating at the edge of the constantly opening, glass door. The tiny bell in the corner chimed, signaling the entrance of another afternoon customer, needing supplies for their daily life.

“Excuse me,” one woman said with great patience, “Excuse me, Miss.” The girl didn’t budge. The woman coughed, leaned over the counter, and tapped her shoulder, “Miss.” The clerk turned back, and her name tag, which had written on it in messy script the name Olivia, hung off of her white t-shirt, as if it were about to jump down onto the floor. The woman, in her southern drawl, asked for a pack of cigarettes. “Marlboro,” she requested, If she didn’t mind. Olivia stood on a pile of aged, rotting newspaper which slept behind the counter, and reached toward the top shelf to pull down what the woman needed. Sound leaked out of the headphones around her neck.

The woman thanked her and paid, playing with her lighter on her way out. She smiled at the only other customer in the store, another woman who had a baby in her shopping cart, and a toddler hanging off of her apron. Her opposite was clearly in the early stages of another pregnancy. “Martha, I don’t know how you do it sometimes.” She said. Martha laughed, her face pink with a certain amount of happiness. The little girl pulled her thumb out of her mouth and tugged on her mother’s clothes, asking for candy. Olivia put her headphones back on and looked at the clock. Her shift would be ending soon.

The other woman left, the smoke lingering behind her. Down the block, she passed Mister Withers, the old man who owned the lodge uptown. She smiled at his white beard, and he grumbled in response. She stopped and watched him continue down Walton Way as he usually did every Sunday. Something was off, but she wasn’t sure what. She took a drag of her cigarette and continued up the street as before, puffing out a mixture of steam and the stench of nicotine, taking little notice nor care in the bitter wind.

The magazines were rolled up in themselves under the twine used to tie them, and Olivia struggled with the string as she tried to set them free. The chimes of the door clanged furiously, but she paid no mind, mainly because she couldn’t hear them. She pulled out her pocket knife, in frustration, and made the incision, tearing the pile apart. The magazines tore, screeching like the thin, half plastic paper they were, and she groaned audibly. Martha looked in her direction. It was normal for any person to be concerned with the type of noise that came out of the young girl’s mouth, but she was promptly distracted by the tug of her little one’s hands. Her pigtails bouncing, she asked for the cereal with the toy inside. Her mother smiled reluctantly, ruffled her bangs, and grabbed the box. An old man slowly made his way past her, wiping sweat from the tip his white beard, and slunk over to the counter. Olivia, her back turned, pushed the, now taped, magazines into their appropriate slots, music blaring. “Excuse me.” He grumbled, his voice struggling for sound. The teenager paid no mind, and, in an unknown mix of what could have been fury, stress, and pure intolerance, out came the gun.

The sound of unlocking was just between songs, and Olivia jumped back against the wall, dropping the tiny knife, which clanged against the floor indefinitely. Martha pulled her children closer to her and hugged the wall of the cereal aisle. Mister Withers stared daggers through the adolescent, and by no means did she break the constant stream of eye contact. Moving forward, her hands up, she did what any sane person would have done, and opened the cash register with a look on her face that read, I’m the innocent one. Please take what you want and be on your way.

Mister Withers had just lost the lodge, and that much she knew. Her father had worked with him a number of years ago, and she and his daughter used to play on the grounds all the time. Martha looked back on that life as if it were a separate one. Anne had been gone for years, having run off with a history teacher from the local high school. They owned a newspaper together, somewhere in New England. They never talked, and she didn’t suppose her childhood playmate kept in touch with her father either. Perhaps that moment was when it all registered for him, what had happened so many years ago: The ending of his business was the end of an era. He began to speak.

“Put away your money.” He said, solemnly, but with a certain amount of frustration. She hit the cash register with her hip, closing it tightly. The little girl cried out, and her mother cooed her, reassuring that everything would turn out all right. Mister Withers paid no mind, and readjusted his crooked hands against the handle of the gun. In a state of panic, Olivia jumped down and grabbed her knife, curling up under the counter. She sobbed, out of a desperate need to express how she did not want to die, and shivered against the wood of the support beams. “I don’t want to hurt you.” He said. Something in Olivia’s mind told her to trust him, but she hiccuped through the rest of what he had to say.

“I have nothing left. Please.” He stared straight ahead, at the spot between the Carlton 100’s and the inappropriate magazines. “All you need to do is call the police. Tell them I have a gun.” He paused. “I have nowhere to go, and nothing to live for.” Beat. “Please.”

Olivia had already begun dialing. An operator told her to hold, but within a span of thirty seconds, she was talking to her father. He asked if she needed a ride home from work and she cried like a baby. She told him about Mister Withers being at the store. He had a gun. “You’re sure it’s him?” he asked. She nodded, even though he wouldn’t be able to see it. She swallowed, and he told her not to be so hysterical, and to remain calm. He and three officers would be down there in five minutes, hopefully less. She nodded again and told her dad that she loved him, hanging up as she clung the receiver and the cord close to her heart. She felt bad for Mister Withers, and didn’t want him to be sent away. She wondered what had sent him over the edge, but decided that it probably wasn’t any of her business to know. Looking over the side of the counter, she peeked over to Martha and her children. She smiled to herself at the image of a mother guarding her young, and took a deep breath as she turned back to the wall. Was it worth it to stand? She sat where she was, listening for the sirens in the distance of the mountainous slope of the town.

The cops were there shortly, in under four minutes, as they’d hoped. Mister Withers didn’t move, and continued to face forward. He hoped that they would put him away, somewhere north of the town, and far away from the bitter memories of the lodge. He regretted how he treated his girl so many years ago, and wanted nothing more than to see her again. He felt the cops disarm him, pull him into the car. They said he had a right to remain silent, and silent he was. He would be put away for at least three years for this, and that much he knew. Looking out the window now, toward the grange, he wondered if they would drive him over the edge, and toward the valleys and leaves of his daughter’s home. As the car pulled out, he sighed, and prayed for inner peace.

The Chief walked over to his daughter, who was under the counter still. He let his fellow officer talk to the mother and toddler. Kneeling down, he pried the phone and knife from her hands, and held her close as she continued to weep. He rubbed her back, telling her it was over. She shook her head. “Daddy,” she said, “Don’t hurt Mister Withers. He didn’t want to hurt nobody.” He said he knew, but she wasn’t sure on his answer. “Please.” The father hugged his daughter once more, tighter this time, and wanted so much to give her a straight answer. He didn’t know what would happen to Mister Withers, but he hoped for the best, and that he would end up being happy, wherever he ended up. He hoped there would be some closure as they sent him up north, and that things would be better, at least someday.

Olivia smiled as she finally pulled away, awkwardly wiping her face. Looking at the clock, she noticed her shift had ended, and Melissa was making her way inside. Standing up, she grabbed the broom from the closet and swept up any mess, the sound of the music rapping and beating against the floor from the hole of the headphones, signaling that time was just passing by, like normal again.

 

Read more of Maura Lee Bee’s work at mauraleebee.wordpress.com

 

 

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