It is a truth universally acknowledged that a store nearing closing without any customers will be the epicenter of employee mischief.
In the midst of re-stocking the latest airport thriller, Blood on the Tarmac, Brandy heard the pre-programed soundtrack skip. The classical piano and violin CD—which made her both ache to nap and also homicidal after a twelve-hour shift—changed, and a rhythmic beat rumbled from the three speakers crammed above the giant bookshelves.
Shaking her head, she resumed unboxing the books despite a smile climbing up her cheeks. Just when her arms were full, a head popped around the long corner. With windswept hair never tamed even by a comb, Marty was a wiry man in both stature and height, but his exuberant smile and deadly cheekbones more than distracted from it.
As the song rolled out of the musical intro, he mouthed along, “Snow falls from the skies, forgetful and pure…”
“It’s June,” Brandy said, but Marty ignored her.
He slapped a hand to his forehead and collapsed against the bookshelf. “I reach out to feel, glass cold as a grave…”
“Shouldn’t we be working?” she said and bit her lip to keep from laughing. Marty, not about to give her an inch of relief, started to shake his hips.
Hands extended far, as if he was stretching, he cried out along with the singer, “Reach for me, reach for me. Give me a chance. Sing me a hope, gift me a dance.”
Brandy doomed herself by turning to the man pleading for her attention. A glint struck his boyish brown eyes and he fluttered his fingers while straining for her. With a laugh, she dropped the paperbacks and accepted his hands. Together, the pair swung in a tight circle, the shelves pressing them so close he was nearly on top of her.
Marty dipping her caused Brandy’s no-nonsense ponytail to smack into the display of big-headed collectibles. One carrying a surfboard rebounded from its stand, falling into the arms—and giant head—of a woman in a parka. Ah, plastic love.
“Reach for me, reach for me,” Marty sang, his sweet voice barely competing with the artist’s baritone. Not that it mattered to Brandy, who laughed along while joining him.
His hands locked tight around her waist, the pair galloped up and down the walkways of the store. Brandy could barely keep up with Marty, who managed to raise his knees nearly to his chest with each step.
“You’re such a dork,” she called to the man twirling her with abandon. Marty waggled his eyebrows at her in response, too busy mouthing along with the song to respond.
They dashed through the shelves of thrillers and horror, hovered around sci-fi, and he gave her a deep dip at romance.
Brandy skimmed her palm along the floor, which needed a mopping by one of them later. But she didn’t care about work, not with her unending laughter trapped in a cascade of giggles and Marty sweeping her around in a circle. Marty kept her from smashing into him, but the two lingered barely a breath away from each other as the love song drifting through the air reached its climax. His gaze beamed into hers and he sang the final words in a gentle whisper.
“I reach out to hold a hand fit for mine. Hearts become bold, and our stars align.”
Brandy rose, staring in wonder at the lips singing to her. She reached out, about to touch his cheek, when a jangle burst from the front door. Marty opened his hands and she danced back, a silly blush burning up her neck. What was she doing? It was just Marty, who always acted like a fool nearing closing time. Good friend. Nothing more.
“I guess one of us has to do that work thing they pay us for,” he said with his smile in place. It’d never dimmed in the two years she’d known him at Turn The Page.
A loud horn erupted through the speakers, causing Marty to flinch. As the DJ for the local station launched into his spiel, Marty made the ‘I’ll just go and fix that, you deal with the customer’ gesture before skittering off to the back room.
Absently, Brandy tugged on her requisite green work polo. She glanced down the rumpled mess to find the ring she wore around her neck had displaced itself with Marty’s dancing. Tucking it back safely between her shirt and skin, she walked to the front.
Admiring the multitude of fliers for bands, lost pets and author signings stood a lithe man in a three-piece suit. His hair was gelled into an impenetrable helmet that neither rain, sleet nor hail could shift. A pair of glasses with thin gold frames perched upon his rounded nose and he kept pulling on the pomaded mustache below.
“…and word is Harty wrote that new hit about a mystery woman, who gossip believes to be—” The DJ’s ‘very interesting story’ snapped back to Für Elise on the cello. The disconnect caused the man to turn around in surprise and Brandy sighed.
“Where is he?” the customer asked.
Before she could respond, the answer rounded the shelves. “At least I beat it before they got to the daily fart…” Marty began, running a friendly hand across her shoulder before he caught who’d walked into the store. “Eldon.”
“Martin,” he responded, adjusting the cuff on his fancy linen shirt like he’d fallen out of a spy novel.
Staring from the tall, academic and slightly anemic Eldon to the short, bombastic and dusky Marty, it was impossible to believe the two were brothers. The fact that Eldon Dashwood moved as if he feared a single spot striking his suit while Marty all but bathed in mud drove the confusion home.
“Shouldn’t you be knee-deep in nougat right now?” Marty asked.
Eldon seemed engrossed in the tin of magnetic poetry on the counter. But he glanced over at Marty once to say, “There was a clog in the peanut mixer.”
“So? Say you invented a new peanut butter parfait flavor. It brings all the kids without deadly allergies to the yard.”
A soft laugh rose from Eldon, who wrapped a hand around his brother’s shoulders in a half hug and half strangle. “I will take it under advisement. But I don’t think management enjoys their QA department telling them what to do.”
“And you used your free day to come spend time with me? I’m touched, truly. It brings a tear.” Marty pointed at the edge of his eye and squinted as if to bring one out.
For his part, Eldon sighed and shook his head. His gaze drifted from his silly brother to the only other worker in the store. “Evening, Brandy.”
“Hi,” she called, feeling out of place amongst the family bonding. Eldon often stopped by, sometimes with ‘discount candy’ from the factory he worked for. And Marty would talk and complain about him. But that familiarity didn’t become family.
“Glad to see Martin hasn’t been left alone to man the store. God only knows how many days it would be until the entire place burned down.”
“Hey, that was one time and it wasn’t my fault. Fire Marshal said as such.”
Eldon shot Brandy a sympathetic look. “How you suffer him I will never understand.”
“He’s…he’s not so bad,” she said, catching the mock pain from Marty as he slapped a hand to his heart. It brought forth a laugh from her, which he always managed to do.
“Did you just come here to prod at my weeping self-esteem?” Marty poked at the packs of gum. “Because you’re slacking off on the job.”
“Ha.” Eldon always said it rather than laugh. A single, sharp ‘Ha.’ He shook his head, then slicked back the hair that didn’t move. “Martin, what day is today?”
“Is it someone’s birthday?”
Eldon clacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Nearly, with it almost being July. And what did you say you would do?”
The laughter evaporated to understanding and squeamishness as Marty tried to bury his face in the cash register. Brandy’s curiosity was stoked now. She drifted closer, pulling the old broom from the crook to swipe at the floor.
“I…I was going to, but I’ve been busy. Working. As one does when not suffering from clogged peanuts.” He said it fast enough that the t in peanuts vanished, causing Eldon to scowl deeper.
“You’ve had over two days to get it, Martin. You expect me to believe your boss had you working for forty-eight hours straight?”
“Oh yeah. Mr. Fensin chains us to the break room after dark. Feeds us fish heads from a slop bucket,” Marty tried. “Okay, I’ll get Mamá’s present after my shift.”
“I need to have it engraved, which means you need to get it now,” Eldon said, digging into the pile of self-help books.
“Why are we even…? Fine.” Marty threw his hands up. “I know better than to argue with you. About anything. Ever.” He pretended to yank off an apron and wadded the imaginary cloth onto the counter.
Increasing his exasperation pantomime, Marty slid in front of his brother with his hands on his hips. “One teeny, tiny, so-insignificant-you-won’t-notice-it problem.”
“What?” Eldon sighed.
“I don’t have my car.”
“How do you not have your…? What’s wrong with it?”
Marty held both hands up as if about to plead for his life. “Nothing. It’s good. Fine. I just, I want to do my part to save this big blue marble, so I’ve been taking the bus. Which won’t go anywhere close to Ol’ Micks. So, um…?”
“There isn’t a force on this planet that will ever cause me to loan you my keys,” Eldon declared, his arms crossed.
“Well, I don’t know what you want me to do. Last I checked, I can’t teleport. Beam me up? Hello?” Marty tapped at his chest. “Is this thing on? Guess I’ll have to stay here where there’s A/C. Such a shame.”
“You could borrow my bike,” Brandy said, causing Marty to wilt and Eldon to bloom. The latter gave his signature laugh and slapped Marty once on the back.
“There, problem solved. You can pedal to pick up Mom’s gift.”
A series of curses slipped under Marty’s breath. He cast a dark glare at his brother. “You are the worst. And since when you are in league with him?” he whined, jabbing a finger at Brandy.
With a smirk, she took the padlock key off her ring and passed it to him. “Here. Careful, the brake’s a little squeaky. And make sure to chain it back up when you’re done.”
“You’re a brave woman to trust him with so much responsibility,” Eldon said, easing to the door. He paused on the threshold, looking like he had a hat to doff to the pair. Instead, he gave one last glance at Marty. “Mamá would wash your mouth out if she heard your language.”
“Oh yeah, well…I don’t see why you don’t just get the gift yourself!” Marty shouted.
“Because it’s not my responsibility,” were Eldon’s parting words as he slipped back out into the blazing-hot day. A trio of tourists wrapped up in full Liberty Bell regalia stumbled past the odd man dressed for banking.
Marty stared in his wake, digging his fingers into the key trapped in his palm. “Well, I guess I’m off. I shouldn’t be too long, but if the boss arrives…”
“I’ll dress a mop up and say it’s you,” Brandy answered.
Marty winked. “I’d almost say I like you for that.” He dangled her traitorous key off his finger and added, “Almost.” With that, he vanished out of the door.