Never Would I Ever
If Charlene was superstitious, she’d blame the cashmere gloves with texting fingertips for landing her in Eugene’s office. Smooth as creamed butter, they slid over her chapped hands, enticing her to stop, to linger and to touch them. They belonged to someone brave, someone who didn’t dread moving out of the family bungalow—a world traveler maybe.
She might have popped into the gift shop twice. Okay, twelve times. Really, though, it was the security cameras accompanying Blissdale’s merge with Health Vantage that had her in a straight-backed chair across from Eugene and Health Vantage’s hatch woman, Madison Echolls.
Charlene didn’t want to guess…even think what would happen next. Whatever, it involved change. She hated change. Why couldn’t things just stay—same old, same old—safe? Elbows digging into her sides, she waited.
Madison’s blunt cut bob was the exact grey of the security footage printouts she spread across the desk—pictures of Charlene fingering the gloves.
The smile Charlene habitually wore wobbled. “I didn’t take the gloves. Check the gift shop. They’re there.”
A flush creeping under his freckles, Eugene chewed his lip.
“This isn’t about the gloves.” Madison launched another volley of security stills across the desk top–stills of Charlene entering or exiting bathrooms.
Bathrooms? What did they have to do with anything? When in doubt, be friendly her mom used to say. Charlene went for it. “Good. I’m hoping with the warmer weather, the gloves will go on sale, so I can snap them up.”
“You’re missing the point. Each of these is time stamped.” In rapid succession, Madison tapped the numbers displayed on the bottom of each surveillance picture. Her manicured nails caused the shots to rustle like dead leaves caught in the wind. “You’re punched in—working and yet, we find you in the gift shop, using the restrooms.”
“I have a thing about washing my hands, but we have a system. I come in half an hour early and stay half an hour late, so my duties always get done.” She tried to catch Eugene’s gaze, but he wouldn’t look at her. Her stomach clenched.
“Blissdale may have enjoyed your shenanigans; however, Health Vantage needs their Certified Nursing Assistants to be on task from punch in to punch out.” She cast a sharp glare at Eugene that signaled his job was on the line, too.
The pink under his freckles blanched to spoiled hamburger grey. Awkwardly, he came around the desk to plunk a banker’s box onto Charlene’s trembling knees. “We took the liberty of cleaning out your locker.”
“Couldn’t you let me off with a warning?” Charlene had to catch the box to keep it from tumbling floorward. “I’ve worked here since I was 16.”
“Exactly, you’ve had ten years to exacerbate bad habits. Eugene will explain your severance package and walk you out.” Madison curved her thin lips in the facsimile of a smile.
Apology in the drooping of his jowls, Eugene held open the office door, and motioned for her to exit.
Nothing she could do but pick up her box and walk through it.
As she did, he offered, “Look at the upside. You can extend your weekend getaway with Rupert for as long as you like.”
Rupert. Pretty much they’d dated on and off since she was sixteen too. Suddenly her same old, same old didn’t work for him either. Hence the breakaway weekend. Charlene swallowed hard.
Outside the glass door, Eugene plucked her id clip from her scrubs. “Sorry, we’ve got to turn these in.”
Was the tightness in his eyes regret? She could almost hear her brother’s voice in her head—demand a reference. Don’t walk out without it.
But… but she didn’t demand, and if he said no, she wouldn’t be able to keep her tears at bay. Instead, she nodded dumbly.
“Keep in touch, okay?” Eugene swayed over her.
Or maybe she was tilting as her whole world fishtailed.
Waiting for an open spot in the drop off lane at the airport, Charlene read and re-read her text stream while Ned drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
Rupert-K, I’ve waited ‘til the day of. Where R we headed?
Rupert – People go to Paris, Rome, Tahiti. Not Sylvania.
Charlene- Sylvania is 1 of the safest cities in US.
Rupert- Don’t want to be safe. Safe = boring. Count me out.
Charlene sniffled. Common sense screamed she should bail on the weekend getaway and tell Ned about her job loss. Yet, she couldn’t really look at him and not see the baby brother her mom had asked her to take care of. He had brown hair and brown eyes like her. Both were average, so average as to be unnoticed, people others’ gazes rolled off. Ned had straight hair from the father they’d never known whereas she had her mom’s wavy hair. Thick and wavy. Probably her best feature or it would have been if work didn’t require her to tug it back into a ponytail or a chignon.
Today, her hair fell over her shoulders. Talk about risk-taking, but maybe it was good she let it hang, ‘cuz it kept Ned from seeing how red her eyes were.
Her gaze caught on a sandy-haired stranger sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against a backpack, and jotting notes on a spiral notepad. He had a pleasant face, the kind a person might tell anything to. When their eyes met, he smiled like they were classmates who shared notes, but they weren’t.
Then a space directly in front of the sure-to-be-kind stranger opened up. Ned pulled the wagon into it, leaned across Charlene and yanked door handle. The door popped open.
Ahead and behind their station wagon, travelers leaped from barely stopped minivans and raced through automated glass doors. The polite Miss Manners inside her head prodded her— Move it. Don’t take up the time and space others’ need.
On automatic, she stepped out and collected her mother’s vintage Bermuda green Samsonite from the backseat.
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