Never Would I Ever
Contemporary Romance Revision 2
To cover her cringe, Charlene said, “Your blunt cut bob is the exact gray as the images. Very stylish.”
Madison’s brow quirked over her skeletal forehead. “We’re not here to exchange pleasantries. Look closely at the pictures.”
Charlene curled her bitten-to-the-quick nails into her palms. She didn’t want to guess 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, and thought about the gloves. With the 60-degree Spring temperatures, it finally happened, they migrated to the clearance shelf, and after trying them on all winter, she’d snapped them up.
Smooth as creamed butter, they slid over her chapped hands, enticing her to stop, to linger and to touch them even though she had catheter bags to change, and patients to check on. The gloves belonged to someone brave, someone who didn’t dread moving out of the family bungalow–a world traveler maybe.
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.
Charlene’s habitual smile wobbled. She might have popped into the gift shop twice, five, maybe seven times a day, but, okay, too many times. Was this meeting about the gloves? “I didn’t take the gloves. I bought them. The receipt is with them, tucked in my locker.”
A flush creeping under his freckles, Eugene tugged at the tie he’d never bothered with before the merger.
“This isn’t about the gloves.” Madison launched another volley of security stills across the desktop–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. “You know there’s another pair if you’re interested.”
“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, visiting 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 tolerated your shenanigans; however, HealthVantage 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?” Her deflated heart sank, as if it wanted to disappear as much as she did. Charlene barely managed to keep herself and the box 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 woodenly through it.
The door closed behind her, and Eugene glanced at her. “Look at the upside. You can extend tomorrow’s 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, Ned’s voice in her head—demand a reference. Don’t walk out without it.
But… but she didn’t demand, and if he refused, 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 even if she couldn’t get her money back. She should 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. They both had brown hair and eyes and were so average that others’ gazes seemed to roll off them. Ned had inherited their unknown father’s straight hair, but she’d scored their mother’s thick, wavy locks. It was her best feature or would have been if work didn’t require it secured.
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 lodging 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. He looked up. When their eyes met, he smiled like they were classmates who shared notes, and her whole body warmed from her cheeks down to her always cold fingertips.
Then an SUV directly in front of the sure-to-be-kind stranger pulled out. Ned eased the wagon into the space, leaned across Charlene and pushed the door 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.