My last customer of the night is a woman and her baby. Actually no, not a woman, a girl. She doesn’t look much older than eighteen, and she’s clutching the handle of her baby’s carrier so hard that her knuckles turn white. She places five items on the counter: cigarettes, bananas, a loaf of white bread, a jar of peanut butter, and diapers. Her sharp, pink nails make that satisfying click-click of acrylic on metal as she drums her fingers against countertop. Her baby begins to fuss while I start scanning her items, and as she reaches down to tend to him, I can’t help but notice her shirt riding up to reveal an intricate tattoo of blue roses that begin at the curve of her waist and disappear down into the baggy waistline of her artfully torn jeans, which are barely held up by her studded black belt. I wonder how such skinny hips could push out such a plump baby. They aren’t the only part of her that protrudes; her collarbones jut out, and as she straightens up, her ribs press against her tight T-shirt. Her malnourished face reminds me of the expressionless, anorexic models of the ’90s. She keeps rubbing her chapped lips together in a way that makes her skin somehow stretch even tighter.
“Any gas for you tonight?” I ask.
She hesitates, then cranes her neck to peer around my register. “How much did you say all this is?” Her voice is the deep and raspy tone of a forty-year-old smoker, not what I expect from this fragile wisp of a girl before me.
I glance at my screen. “Your total before gas is twenty-six seventy-eight.”
The girl gulps and glances out the front windows at a rusty-looking Sedan parked at pump three. She opens her wallet and stares forlornly at a lonely twenty-dollar bill. “How much would it be if I took off the cigs?”
A rush of pity overcomes me as I take off the Camels. “Your new total before gas would be seventeen ninety-eight.”
The girl runs her fuchsia talons through her scraggly, shoulder-length hair. Since she first walked into the station, I’ve been trying to figure out what color it is. At a first glance, it looks like a dull gray, but this girl is definitely too young to have a full head of gray hair, and there are dark brown roots growing in anyways. As she leans her head back to crack her neck, the light makes it look the color of a frosted-over pond. I decide that a couple months ago it had been light blue and weeks of neglect left it this slate color.
She lets out a sigh that turns into a hacking cough and shifts her grip on the baby carrier so that she can cover her mouth with her elbow. “You know what, just scratch everything but the diapers, then whatever money is left over I can use for gas. Sorry for inconveniencing you.” She gives me a wane smile, pushing silvery bangs out of her black-lined eyes, which are the same color as her hair. I wonder if she did that on purpose.
“No worries, happens all the time. Okay, so the mini-pack of diapers is twelve forty-six with tax, so if you pay with a twenty you’ll have—”
“Seven fifty-four left for gas,” she finishes, her smile growing by a centimeter.
I calculate it on my register and glance at her in bemused surprise. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Always been good with numbers, she mumbles, blushing. She gathers up the food and turns around to put it back on the shelf.
“You know what,” I say, “Don’t worry about it. Just give me the twenty for gas and I’ll cover the cost of the groceries and what not.”
She freezes, back turned towards me, and slowly turns on her heel. The blush is gone as she looks at me directly with that frosty gaze. “No, you don’t worry about it. I’ve got this, I just forgot the rest of my cash at home. Besides, none of what I buy is really your business anyways.” She says all this without looking at me, quickly and under her breath, but when she glances down at her now-sleeping infant, the crease between her brows eases. I watch as she walks down our pantry aisle and begins putting her food back, careful to set the peanut butter jar and the loaf of bread in their proper locations. On her way back up to the register, she drops the bananas back in the fruit bin. Once she reaches the counter, she reopens her wallet, fishes out the twenty-dollar bill, and sets it in my hand. I flush and open my drawer.
“Sorry, miss, I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to see if I could help.”
She gives me another sad smile. “I know you didn’t. I can help myself, though.”
I manage to smile back. “Enjoy your night.”
She utters a soft laugh, scooping up the small package of diapers and tucking it under her twig of an arm. “I’ll try.”
I’m unable to tear my eyes away as the girl walks back to her car, secures the baby in the backseat, and fills up with seven fifty-four worth of gas. My chest fills with a sort of hollowness as she drives away. I glance at the clock hanging to my right: 11:59 p.m. My shift will be over in one minute. I pull my wallet out of my back pocket and pick the pack of Camels up off the counter that the girl intended to buy. I run it under the scanner, shove my ten into the proper slot, and make my change. I really need a smoke.
Caitlin Brug is a senior English major at UW-Parkside studying literature and creative writing. She lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin.