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She could hear his laboured breathing and laughed inside. ‘That’s what you get for eating so much PEZ and ice cream, wonder boy,’ she thought triumphantly. She was gaining on him. In just another moment, she would have caught him…
The voice was a nasal teenage twang – the tone that annoyed her most. Unfortunately it was also the type of voice most frequently heard in the clothing boutique where she worked, which did, after all, cater to the teenage market.
“Excuse me, do you have this in a size six?”
Mehgan Jamison reluctantly came out of her favourite daydream and looked up from her position on the floor, where she was sorting a box of newly arrived stock, at the two girls standing next to her, one of whom was holding a pale blue blouse.
“I think so,” she offered. “Let me check.”
Standing, she was pleased to find that she was more than a head taller than either of them as she stalked off to the storeroom. Finding what she wanted, she came out in time to see a woman emerge from the change room in a red skirt, which was so tight that the button around the waist was straining to stay done up.
“What do you think?” the woman asked anxiously.
‘Well, it’s better than nothing!’ was the first thought that came to mind, and ‘No, please God, no!’ was the second. However, as she caught her supervisor’s warning glance, which reminded her of a meeting she had recently had with the manager, she tried to come up with something more appropriate.
“Maybe I can find you something more suitable,” she suggested. “That collar doesn’t really suit, does it?”
The customer anxiously examined herself in the mirror. “Well, maybe not,” she agreed slowly. “I need a size eight.”
‘In your dreams,’ Mehgan thought, but held her tongue and went out into the main part of the store, handing over the shirt she had fetched and getting two other dresses, in a size eight and a size ten.
“Good job, Mehgan,” Jarod Charles, the supervisor, murmured as she passed.
She handed over the dresses, thankful to have avoided another unpleasant scene. Sydney Green, the store manager, was a nice enough man, but you certainly knew when he wasn’t happy with you.
“Look, I appreciate that you’re an honest person,” he had said during their last meeting. “But we’ve had a number of complaints about your attitude. I’m afraid that, unless you can tone down those comments a little, we might have to reconsider your position here.”
“You mean I have to lie,” she said flatly.
“No,” Sydney said with a tiny smile. “Just don’t be so brutally honest next time. For instance,” he reached forward and pulled a letter out of the folder in front of him, “telling one woman that the only way the garment would look good on her was if she became a spokesperson for Jenny Craig isn’t exactly going to encourage her to buy from us again, is it?”
“It was true, though,” Mehgan muttered.
“Perhaps so,” Sydney replied firmly. “But try to keep those sorts of comments to yourself and use more constructive criticism in future.”
Five minutes later, the woman was leaving with the larger-sized dress in a bag slung over her arm and Mehgan was returning the others to the appropriate racks.
The door beeped, announcing another customer, and Mehgan barely suppressed a groan as she saw that it was an older man, his grey hair neatly parted, a middle-aged woman with blond hair and very dark roots, and a child. She hated having children in the store, and was already gloomily anticipating returning half the stock to the shelves as they began to browse.
“Can I help you?” Jarod's voice asked, and she was at least grateful that he had saved her from having to help the group.
“D’you have pants to go with this shirt?” the teenager who had wanted the larger shirt asked.
Mehgan pointed her in the right direction, trying not to look at the buttons of her shirt, which were straining to stay done up. The shirt was tiny, and the pants she wore were very low slung, in the supposedly fashionable way. But, to Mehgan, that just gave an excuse for people’s love-handles to bulge out either side and, if things were particularly bad, out the front, too, rather like a great blubbery white whale trying to escape from their pants.
That was bad, of course, but worse were those customers who wandered around the store until she was about to approach them, before leaving without buying anything. It was no wonder that, at some stores, the assistants leapt on the customers as soon as they entered. At least you knew from what they said whether they were really planning to buy something or not.
The sound of retching made her look up again, just in time to see the child bring up its last meal all over a pile of clothes that were waiting to be shelved.
“Oh, Angelo,” the mother wailed, her accent slipping from British to American in the heat of the moment. “Oh, what a nuisance you are!”
“Well, I told you not to give him that candy apple,” the man growled, before turning to Jarod, his expression apologetic. “We’ll pay for that, of course.”
“If you’ll come with me,” Jarod suggested, as the woman picked up the child, who was now crying, urging them into the back office, “you can discuss that with the manager, Mr…”
“John. John Parker,” the older man informed him. “These are my wife and our son.”
“Fine, fine, do come this way,” Jarod told him, before glancing over his shoulder. “Mehgan, will you call Lyle and get that mess cleaned up?”
She nodded and moved to the phone to make the call. The cleaner appeared several minutes later, complaining, as usual.
“Kids,” he snarled. “Pesky little kids. Why’d anyone have ‘em? I don’t know.”
Usually Mehgan wouldn’t have stayed around to listen, but she caught sight of a plaster cast on his left hand and stopped.
“What have you done to yourself?”
“Broken my thumb,” Lyle grumbled. “Mud wrestling, if you want to know how. What do you do at night?”
“Excuse me,” the teenager whined again. “We’d like to buy these.”
Thankful to get away from Lyle and his complaining, Mehgan turned to the cash register and ran up the sale, glad to see the girls flounce out of the store with the shirt and two pairs of pants.
She returned to sorting stock, but was interrupted again by the sound of squeaking behind her, turning in time to see Willy, the delivery boy, coming up with another trolley-load. He was hardly a boy, being well into his fifties and prematurely bald, but Jarod had applied the label and it had stuck. As he drew level with her, the wheels of the trolley squealing and the sound setting her nerves on edge, he puffed and wheezed as if he was in constant need of an oxygen tank to help him breathe.
“Here you go, Miss Jamison,” he announced breathlessly. “Another load of stuff for you. Where do you want it?”
“Over there,” she announced, waving to the far side of the room and hoping that he would go away and leave her alone.
“Mehgan,” Jarod's voice announced at this point. “Want to come and sign off?”
She stood up and hurried out, thankful to get away. The book was waiting in the room and she put in the details of her breaks before signing it and picking up her things. Moments later, she was in the parking lot and getting into her car.
By the time she got home, having hit peak hour almost as soon as she left the shopping mall, she was ready to hurl her shoes into her bedroom and go off in search of something that would cheer her up and ease the headache that was starting.
An asinine television program gave her a chance to stop thinking about the asinine customers she had had to deal with during the day, and she was able to respond almost cheerfully to the person who arrived home two hours later, as frustrated as Mehgan had been upon her arrival. They were just beginning to prepare the evening meal when the doorbell rang.
Jarod was leaning against the doorframe when Mehgan opened the door, and grinned at her.
“Ready to go?”
“Go?” She stared blankly at him. “Go where?”
“Dinner, remember?” he urged. “You. Me. Pick you up at seven thirty. If we hurry, we’ll even get the best table.” ‘That is, if Broots remembered to keep it for us,’ Jarod thought to himself, remembering his hurried discussion with the balding waiter an hour or so earlier.
“Oh.” She still couldn’t remember, but wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to go out with the guy who gave every other woman at the store weak knees. “Yeah, sure. I can be ready in five minutes.”
“You can have ten, if you need it,” he replied, his dark eyes twinkling as he followed her into the house. “I’ll wait.”
She showed him into the living room and disappeared in the direction of her room. Jarod looked up as a head poked out of the kitchen.
“Hi, Jarod. Want a drink?”
He smiled. “No, thanks, Catherine. We’ll be going as soon as Mehgan’s ready.”
“Well, that could be hours,” Catherine Jamison laughed. “Still, she might hurry, knowing that you’re waiting for her. How’s everyone at home?”
“Really good,” he smiled. “Dad’s just got back from another trip, but he’s got a few more days until his next trans-continental flight. Kyle’s just applied for a new job, and Emily’s almost finished her course at college. She’s graduating next month.”
“And your mother?’
“Oh, she’s fine.” Jarod smiled. “And you?”
“Busy, as always.” The woman rolled her eyes. “Very busy.”
“Well, I won’t keep you from whatever smells so good,” the man laughed. “I can entertain myself quite well until Mehgan arrives.”
“Thanks.” She grinned at him and then disappeared back into the kitchen.
Once Jarod was sure she wasn’t coming back, he moved over to where Mehgan’s workbag lay on the floor and bent down to extract her diary. Opening it to the relevant page, he took a pen out of his pocket and swiftly scribbled the details of the ‘dinner date’ on the relevant page, forging her handwriting. On top of a pile of letter that lay unopened on the coffee table he added one that contained Mehgan’s work schedule for the next two months – all shifts on which he was also working. Tucking the diary back into the bag, he pocketed the pen and then strolled over to the fireplace, admiring the framed photos arranged on the mantel, whistling softly as he waited for his date to appear.