fiction by Sarah K. Stephens
People come in with the astringent ding of a bell, the soft pseudo-decontamination of the hydraulic pistons on the sliding door, and think that this place is a sterile fortress. No one associates smells with convenience stores—they’re not in them long enough to register the waxy melt of the nacho cheese or the slight acidic taint that bleeds into the air when someone doesn’t fully push the lever on the soda dispenser.
I only notice it because I’m here for longer than it takes to nuke a corn dog. I stand here quietly, benevolently, helping people make change for their snacks or directing them to where the popular essentials for harried travelers are located: Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, condoms. I smile back when mothers with young children use the bathroom and then skulk out without purchase to the waiting family vehicle, offering only a sheepish grin in lieu of actually stopping to commiserate with me.
Not that I have children.
I have a pet rat.
I used to bring Snowball (she’s a white rat—obviously) to work in a small plastic traveling cage, and she fit perfectly between the cigarette stacks and Western Union clipboard, but then my manager caught wind of it from a spooked customer and all of the predictable diatribe (filth, fleas, plague) followed. It wasn’t worth it to explain that rats are very clean creatures. And they don’t smell. Snowball doesn’t even smell like ice. Sniff her and you get a whiff of just—nothing.
My store didn’t have regulars, which might surprise you. But it shouldn’t. People buy gas right at the pump with a credit card now—no need to stop in for a little light banter. Everyone who lives in town goes to the BiLo for snacks and food and pain killers. My customers who come inside stop here off the freeway, a quick catch of their breath before getting back to somewhere else.
And lucky them, because outside the store, if the timing’s right, that breath in might remind them of Toll House commercials on Saturday mornings in your pajamas. Of arriving home to the smell of food cooking.
The chocolate factory blasts out perfumed exhaust at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and 3 a.m., so sometimes when I’m coming in for one of those extended witching hour shifts, I get the pleasant greeting of cocoa. I’ll stand in front of the door sensor for a minute or two and let the sweet scent drift in and overtake all of the other smells. If no one stops in for a while, the faintest hint of sweetness lingers for hours as my company. But it never lasts.
Dana started coming three weeks ago. My nose told me she wasn’t in-transit, but I checked the clock just to be sure. 11:15 p.m. Chocolate chips, melted for just 30 seconds. Perfectly tempered. That’s what she brought with her.
She bought a big cup of coffee in my largest Styrofoam cup that night. Five nights on, two off, B shift runs 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. I discovered. She’s drunk fifteen coffees so far, but I haven’t mentioned our travel mugs available for purchase. Her nails are always done really nice, and one time I suggested she check out the nail polish we have. There’s a bright red that I’d thought might look nice on her, but she just smiled and said she already had 20 half-used bottles at home. She didn’t need a new one.
I almost said that she should treat herself, but it occurred to me that maybe she’d already had too many treats.
One time Dana was standing in line—some school trip was coming through from somewhere else on its way to not here—and one of the teenage boys behind her leaned in to sniff her hair. She still had on her uniform from the factory, five different shades of brown in one shirt, plus white stitching for her name in cursive script. Dana leaned back just at the right moment, and his lips bumped into the crown of her head. They smiled at each other for a moment, awkward and friendly, and I rang up more Starburst for the boy’s classmates.
Dana arrived one night without enough money for her coffee, and so I spotted her the 99 cents. She stayed and chatted for a bit after that, and I told her about Snowball and my apartment. She said she didn’t remember me from high school, and I told her that she wouldn’t have because I was home-schooled. She seemed to like that, told me that home-schooled kids had it the best. She waved her arm around in a 360 degree arc, and said maybe she’d have her own business if she’d been home-schooled.
I didn’t tell her I wore a shirt and tie because I wanted to, not because I had to.
I just smiled, and told her my mom did a really good job with me.
“I bet she’s real proud.” Dana smiled then, and I could see her gums were bleeding a little, just at the tops of her teeth. She took a sip of her free coffee but didn’t wince. After that, I started buying her coffee each night after her shift, and she’d always stay to chat for a few minutes. Of the fifteen coffees, I’ve bought ten.
When she leaves after our chats, I can smell coffee, and chocolate, and blood for almost an hour afterwards, longer if nobody else comes in. They say smell is the best way to trigger memory, you know.
So I go to the BiLo and I buy chocolate chips, and flour, butter, sugar, eggs. I don’t have a cookie sheet at my apartment, so I have to make the cookies using the pizza tray I bought a while ago. It has holes in it, but seems to do okay. The cookies are just going in the garbage, anyway.
Before I start, I make sure all of the windows are closed. I put a towel in front of the door and make sure Snowball’s cage is as close to the stove as safety will allow. She doesn’t seem concerned, and takes a sip from her water drip.
Twenty minutes later the cookies are done, and the aroma has enveloped the entire house. I wait another 20 minutes before I dare to go into my bedroom and close the door. I bring Snowball with me and, ever so gently, I reach in and take her out of her cage, holding her soft white fur up to my nose.
It is immediately clear that I failed. She smells exactly the same. Like nothing.
I go to work the next day knowing that I won’t buy Dana her coffee when she comes in. Instead, I’ll try to distract her by asking what her favorite candy is to make.
I think she’ll like telling me about that—after all, she chose her life.
SARAH K STEPHENS earned her Doctorate in Developmental Psychology and teaches a variety of human development courses as a lecturer at Penn State University. Although fall and spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short story “Boys” can be found in Five on the Fifth’s March 2016 issue and her flash fiction piece “In Concert” was featured by The Voices Project. Beginning in April 2016, Sarah also now serves as a Fiction Reader for Five on the Fifth. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, will be released in Winter 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.