The last decision Danica Ellis made in her ordinary life—the life in which stress meant playing chicken with the rent due-date, and wondering if going back to school was another slow-motion train wreck of a mistake—was whether to buy sixty-watt or hundred-watt light bulbs. As choices went, it wasn’t exactly roads diverging in a yellow wood. The prices weren’t a hell of a lot different, and probably the electric bill wouldn’t be swayed much, either—a few dollars per month, maybe. But a few dollars could matter. It had come to that once or twice already this year, and probably would again before she had her new degree and—fingers and toes crossed—some kind of career related to it. She grabbed the sixties off the shelf and tucked them into her cart beside the ninety-nine-cent white bread.
It was two in the morning and she had Kroger almost to herself. She’d passed a single bored cashier on her way in, and had seen no more than three other customers making lazy rounds among the aisles. Even the stocking crew had finished up and gone home for the night.
Danica moved on from the light bulbs. She rolled her cart into the broad lane that ran the length of the store’s back wall. At this hour the open refrigerated displays seemed to radiate a deeper chill than they would have during the evening rush. Maybe it was the absence of dozens of warm bodies.
Just ahead, a man stood looking over the orange juice racks. Danica had seen him browsing paperbacks a few minutes earlier. He apparently hadn’t found one to his liking; he had nothing in his hands now, and no cart, either. He was lean and attractive, and well-dressed for someone buying groceries in the middle of the night. Maybe he’d just come from a party; he was thirty, give or take.
Ten years closer to the cradle than you are, sweetie.
Jesus, since when did checking out a thirty-year-old make her feel like a leering pervert? Being forty-one didn’t qualify you as ancient, did it? Especially if everyone said you were a young forty-one, and everything that had been perky in your twenties was still pretty damned perky, thank you very much.
Tell yourself whatever keeps your confidence up.
As Danica passed the man, he glanced at her and acknowledged her with a quick smile. She returned it, then found her eyes going to his left hand to check for a ring. He wasn’t wearing one. Past him now, heading for the produce section at the far end of the store, she wondered if he’d seen the glance and understood its meaning. The notion made her cheeks flush, the feeling distinct against the cold rolling off the open cases.
You’re out of practice at all this. Way out.
No argument there. Before now, the last time she’d been single she’d been thirty-give-or-take herself. A lot had happened in the intervening decade. Very little of it had been good.
She took a head of lettuce from produce and made her way to the checkout. She’d just finished setting everything on the conveyor when the same young man stepped into place behind her with a small bottle of orange juice. It crossed her mind to wave him ahead of her, but then the scanner beeped as the checkout girl passed the first item over it.
Danica glanced at the man again. He reminded her of Jake Ryan from Sixteen Candles, a reference that made her want to cry. Though she’d only been seven when that movie came out, this guy would have been, what, negative four?
After the glance, she kept her eyes on the groceries on the belt, though in her peripheral vision she took note of the guy’s body language. Something about it gave her the sense that he was nervous. He kept turning his head just slightly, maybe halfway toward her, like he wanted to say something but couldn’t quite do it.
The implication—the possibility, anyway—hit her like a drug. Was he interested? It wasn’t entirely unthinkable. She really did look young for her age. How many times had her friend Carrie told her she looked thirty, with just enough angst behind the compliment to give it credibility? The thing was, Danica did feel pretty good about her looks. Even these days, grinding along at rock bottom in terms of self-esteem, she was happy with the picture in the mirror. She liked her eyes—big and brown and unable to hide anything she felt. Anime eyes, Carrie called them, with that same angst. She liked her hair, too; she had spent the last twelve months growing it long again, ditching the pixie cut she’d worn for years. She got compliments on the new look all the time. So why shouldn’t this guy be interested? And what if he looked younger than he was? What if he was thirty-five? What if he didn’t care about the difference, anyway? Not every guy was obsessed with—
A woman’s voice—more like a girl’s voice. It came from somewhere behind and to Danica’s left. The Jake Ryan lookalike turned, and Danica turned with him. The newcomer could not have been older than twenty-five, and she could’ve posed for any of the fashion magazines lining the rack above the conveyor. She had a plastic bottle of Midol in her hand. She crossed to the young man, reached past him to set the bottle next to his orange juice, then shut her eyes and leaned into him, seeming to block out the whole world beyond the shirt fabric covering his chest.
He kissed the top of her head and spoke softly. “You’ll feel better by the time we get home.”
The girl nodded against him. She put her arms around his waist and held on tightly. To Danica’s right, the cashier scanned the sixty-watt bulbs and stuffed them into a bag.
* * *
The parking lot was seventy degrees and heavy with a night mist that wasn’t quite fog. Beyond the lot’s edge the land dropped away in shallow steps to the Pacific, three miles west of Kroger. Spread out across the sloped terrain between them lay the western expanse of Brookings, Oregon, its pink-orange streetlights spectral in the haze. Danica liked seeing the town from up here at night. Working double shifts and getting her groceries at two in the morning was almost worth it for this view. Even now it was helping her mood—a little.
She angled to her car, at first hidden by a full-sized van someone had parked beside it. She popped the trunk and set the grocery bags inside. Twenty yards behind her she heard the store’s automatic door slide open—the young couple coming out. She finished stowing her things, pushed the empty cart to the corral two spaces away, and got back to her car just as the couple reached the van. There was an awkward instant when all three were clustered at the mouth of the channel between the vehicles. The young man, a pace ahead of the girl, halted and left the space open for Danica.
“You were first,” he said.
Danica thought of letting them go ahead anyway, then just shrugged. Losing three seconds wouldn’t ruin their night. She stepped past them, went to her door and put her key in the lock, and felt an explosion of pain beneath her ear as the man’s fist slammed into her neck.
Her knees gave. She dropped. She thought to grab her side mirror for support, but her arms and hands were useless. The punch had hit some kind of pressure point, like a kill-switch between her brain and her limbs. She landed on her ass, the impact jarring her spine and clacking her teeth together hard. Her body pitched forward until her head thumped lightly against her door, and then she tipped all the way over on her side, on the damp pavement.
They were both standing over her now, crowded and hunched in the space between the van and car. The young man dropped to a knee and leaned in close above her.
“Don’t fight,” the man said. His tone was calm, as advising as it was threatening—as though he’d done this before. “Don’t fight, you’ll be fine.”
Danica saw a gun in his hand, not quite aimed at her. He braced his other hand on the asphalt, pushed himself back up to a crouch and withdrew. He spoke to the girl. “Get her wrists. I’ll cover.”
Copyright © 2019 by Patrick Lee