Craving Candy: Chapter 5

A woman came into the 7-Eleven and Laura slid her study notes surreptitiously under the till. If there were no customers, she should be cleaning. At least according to her boss, “There is never nothing to do, Chen!” she heard his aggressive voice booming in her head. But if Laura didn’t study during her evening shift then she’d never get the work done.

She was simply doing too much casual work for someone trying to do a Masters in Data Science. What she needed was a stable part-time job, not this hodgepodge of underpaid causal shifts. But permanent jobs were rare beasts before Covid and now they were drying up like grasslands during the summer.

It was Monday so the 7-Eleven was achingly empty; its crowded narrow shelves of junk food, travel supplies, coffee drinks and a neglected slushie machine reminding Laura of a post-apocalyptic film. The shop was antiseptic in the harsh fluorescent light and felt hermetic after dark, sealed off from the rest of the world. It was as though time didn’t exist here. It was no wonder she preferred the console job. Most of the time anyway. 

She winced as the dull thudding headache she’d been trying to ignore twisted its way back into the front of her thoughts. The pain – dull and unrelenting – radiated out from her black and yellow nose and swollen eyes. Not broken, thankfully. Just dented like her pride and self-respect. 

Good God, that man had been beautiful. Luminescent. Her childhood of surf lifesaving and swimming had programmed her to find a certain type of man attractive. Blonde. Tan. Blue Eyes. Tall. But for the first time she’d looked into deep brown almond eyes and felt like she was swimming in chocolate. 

Yes he was gorgeous. And a total asshole. (Mentally her mother shook her head at her swearing). He was a male creature that would be an asshole if she used that sort of language. She shook herself as she remembered the contemptuous and supercilious look he’d cast her as he tried to wipe blood and dirt off his expensive business shirt. He’d shown no concern for her whatsoever. So gorgeous or not, she needed to stop thinking about him.

The woman looked tired and even a bit disorientated; her grimy eyes blinking in the harsh light. She had the glazed look of someone who’d been travelling, someone who’d stumbled out of the hotel next door in search of food and found nowhere else open. She stared with little enthusiasm at the pre-packaged food for a good five minutes before turning around and walking out.

Hunger it seemed was preferable to convenience store sushi and day old sandwiches.

Laura wished she too could walk next door and go straight to bed, to sleep. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d just gone to sleep because she was tired. 

She momentarily wondered where on Earth this woman could have come from or been going to. She supposed people could travel again now that Covid was under control. If they had somewhere to travel to. And money to do it. What a thought.

Even if she had time she didn’t have money. Or if she had money she wouldn’t have time. Her cousin, the extraordinary bright blaze of colour that was Mei Chen, had complained she either had time or money but never both. Mei was a lecturer in Chinese literature. Laura Chen quietly wondered how Mei would feel to have neither time nor money. To work endlessly but never get anywhere. To be stuck here at the bottom on minimum wage. (Or below it if the current class action against 7-Eleven was anything to go by). 

Her phone rang. It was her father. She smiled thinking how rare it was for him to pick up the phone and call her. Usually he was happy to sit on the line while her mother talked at her; adding in a soft comment or aside every now and then. Sitting silently and calmly beside his wife in zoom calls, waving every now and then but saying little. 

“Ba,” she said happily as she took the call. 

“Hello my possum,” he said in his soft voice, “Are you at work?”

“Always,” she said, trying to keep the tiredness out of her voice. “What are you doing?”

“I was gardening,” he told her as though gardening was not the only hobby he’d ever had. If he wasn’t gardening, he was walking. Lately the time he spent walking had gotten longer and longer until her mother worried he was never going to make his way back. He’d retired to start the cleaning business but now everyone was working from home, cleaning their own homes. And the large buildings had cut their cleaning contracts by half as they herded their few in-office employees into the same area and mothballed entire floors. Worse even than that, a crop of predatory cleaning firms had flooded the market undercutting existing operators and taking advantage of the new cohort of desperate unemployed.

So he walked. And walked. And walked some more.

“Did you eat?” 

“Yes, Dad, I ate,” she told him with a smile. It was a lie. Her appetite had gone with her swelling face and burgeoning headache. All she’d had to eat all day was soy milk sipped through a straw and a coffee drink that hadn’t settled properly.

“Call your mother,” her father finished, “Goodbye, possum.”

She put down the phone with an affectionate smile and looked up to find she was no longer alone. There was another woman in the store. A woman who shouldn’t be there. She was her mother’s age or maybe a little older. Mid-50s perhaps and dressed head to toe in expensive, exquisitely-cut, designer-label clothing. Laura didn’t have much time for fashion but her mother and grandmother were obsessed with Chinese and Taiwanese dramas and over the years she’d developed an uncharacteristic eye for it.

The outfit was finished with tasteful – probably real – pearls and tasteful – probably real – diamond rings. She was maybe south-east Asian. Her hair was cut and styled with perfection. Her makeup was flawless. And she was standing in the aisle of the tiny store looking intently at the travel toothpaste and deodorant. A blinding contradiction.

As Laura looked over, the woman glanced her way and their eyes met. And Laura had the strangest feeling she was being appraised. She was suddenly deeply aware of her black and blue face and cheap work uniform. But though every instinct in her screamed at her to look away, she didn’t. She wasn’t going to be made to feel worthless by this strange woman who, despite her obvious wealth, had decided to walk through her front door.

Everything about Laura from her cheap generic clothes, comfortable shoes, and battle wounds were the result of work. Hard work. And that was something she refused to feel ashamed about. 

Laura was almost certain she saw a small smile form at the edges of the woman’s lips but then it was gone so quickly she wondered if she’d imagined it. The woman’s face froze into haughty stone and she dropped the toothpaste as though it was something disgusting and she swept out of her store.

Laura shivered despite herself and hoped she’d never see her like again. 

And on her phone near her hand down beside the till, a text popped up from her distant relative Cynthia MacDonald.

Call me! I might have a job for you.

5 thoughts on “Craving Candy: Chapter 5

  1. So, now that I have Dean in my mind’s eye, you don’t even deliver him. Boo.

    I’m liking this a lot. And you’ve nailed the early morning service station feel of dingy weirdly lit otherworld.

    Liked by 2 people

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