Kelly was well aware that she hasn't been the most pleasant of clerks today, but then again people don't expect manners or polite conversation when they draw up at the scrubby Gas 'n' Go. Still, Kelly likes to make an effort, ask where people are headed, make a little small talk, isn't it horrible weather we're having, that's a fine ride you've got there ma'am, anything else I can get you? Usually she likes to make people smile, ‘cause if that’s the only real good she can do in this world then she’s damn well going to do it.
Not today though, because Kelly has had it to here with today. Everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong.
The light above the cash desk flickers jarringly, and Kelly sighs through gritted teeth. She shifts on throbbing feet and runs an impatient hand through her bangs where they fall grimy and greased in her eyes.
It's getting late, 10pm, and she's thinking about calling up Jamie to ask if he can start the late shift early when the entrance door bleeps and two kids walk in, the surprisingly cold April chill gusting in behind them and sweeping up the aisles, making Kelly shudder.
Kelly frowns, clocking the security camera on the desk to check and make sure she's seeing things right.
Yep. Definitely kids; not the usual teenagers who sometimes stumble in around this time, eyes glazed and clothes on inside out looking for more drink. This was a boy and a girl. They don't look like trouble, far too young for that, and they're apparently alone too, seeing as Kelly hadn't heard the familiar crunch of gravel that signaled a car arriving.
The taller girl rounds the aisle nearest to the cash desk, tugging the little one, presumably her brother, behind her by the hand. She can't be much older than 9, Kelly thinks with an unsettled twinge in her stomach. The little one looks to be about 4 or 5, unruly dark curls falling into a round babyish face.
“Hey kids, can I get you anything?" Kelly called, smiling at the older girl, because she may be near-sleeping standing up, feet aching in her trainers, but something about this is setting off all sorts of warning bells and she's suddenly feeling very awake.
“We’re good. Thank you ma’am.”
They are good looking kids. The girl has electric blue eyes that can be seen from a distance. They wore sturdy clothes, that were patched messily in a few places and there was something about the dullness in their expression. A tired, distant look that Kelly’s never seen in her kids and never wanted to see in her kids.
The younger boy, never for one second let’s go of the girl’s had.
“Alrighty then. Just shout if you need anything.”
Kelly watches them on the security camera feed as they make their way around the store, pausing in the Essentials section to pick up some milk, the older girl ducking down to the bottom shelf of cheap basics that are mostly out of date. They stop frequently, the little one crouching to peer at certain items, thumb in mouth, eyes wide and curious, his sister waiting for him, watching him, sometimes offering a smile or a quiet comment that Kelly can’t quite hear. She’s a picture of parental patience, but there’s something innately wrong about seeing it in the actions of a kid who hasn’t hit double digits yet.
As they're passing the candy section, the younger boy pauses again, little sneakers scuffing on the ground as he pulls out of his sister’s hand, forcing her to stop and turn. He reaches out to the chocolate bars, makes a grabby hand gesture, and then looks up at the older girl, big brown eyes imploring. The plea is obvious, universal, and Kelly’s seen that exact same puppy-dog-eyed look on her daughter so many times that she feels a sudden, overwhelming rush of affection and an acute desire to close up as soon as these boys have gone and get home. Damn she misses her own kids after long days like these.
The older girl, however, seems well-attuned to this particular technique and just rolls her eyes, a smile quirking her lips.
“You greedy guts. You ate, like, four o’ those the other week.” She teased.
The boy mumbles something incoherent and reaches up to tug at his sister’s jacket.
Kelly watches, caught between incredulous disbelief and a faint sense of horror as the older girl’s face closes up in response to whatever her brother just said; the flash of childish teasing vanishing as though it had never been there at all. Boarded up behind the same deep-seated tired look that seems to haunt this kid.
“You know why we can’t Mike.” She said quietly, and even her voice sounds tired, faintly hoarse, as she holds out her hand.
Mike doesn't ask twice, doesn't whine or gripe or throw himself to the floor in a screaming, red-faced tantrum like Kelly’s daughter used to do. He just ducks his head all-forlornly like and takes the older girl’s hand again, quiet as the grave.
And with that Kelly decides that the situation going on here is far from a-okay, and she steals herself as the two approach the counter, determined to find out exactly what's going on.
“Little late for you two to be out all alone isn't it?" She says pleasantly, as she helps the older sister stack up their few, measly, squashed-box and cut-price items on the cash desk. "Your mom sent you in here to pick up some things for her?"
As if any mother in their right mind would send kids as young as these two out on their own at this time of night.
The older girl stiffens slightly, her face closing off again, eyes flashing to Kelly dark and defensive. "Our dad's out of town for a few days. We just ran out of a couple o' things."
Kelly attempts to mask her horror and bites her tongue. An 8 year old left alone to care for a preschooler?
“He's home tomorrow so it's no big deal," the girl says, firmly this time, as though she’s reading the judgment on Kelly’s face.
“Sure thing, dear.”
Mike is staring at the cash desk display of Hershey bars, thumb in mouth, eyes just level with the edge of the counter. He's a little paler than his sister, cheek bones a little gaunt, but he had some baby fat making him look round around the face like an adorable chipmunk.
“Your Mike right?”
The boy looks up at her with a jolt. “Yes,” he admits, and the he adds, “and this is Nancy.”
Kelly laughs, and plucks the Hershey bar Mike had been eyeing from the display, dropping it into their shopping bag. She can afford a dollar for this kid.
“You don’t have to do that. We don’t need -“ Nancy begins, but Kelly cuts her off.
“I know you don’t need my charity. But this is just a little something extra on the house for your brother.”
Mike reached up over the desk to grab Kelly’s hand carefully with a small, grubby, chubby fingered-palm- “Tank you.”
Mike seems to go a little shy then, and ducks into Nancy’s side, tucking his face under his sister’s elbow.
“He's just tired," Nancy says, softened by Mike’s sudden show of wariness. She ruffles Mike’s black, cowlicked curls with her other hand and then reached into her pocket to put the money on the counter.
Kelly counts it over quickly. They're 70 cents short, but another instinctive surge of feeling tells her that these kids are down to their last dime, so she doesn’t mention it, just slides the crumpled notes and quarters into her palm.
Kelly watches them go, chewing her lip hard, fingers twitching on the counter top. She's in half a mind to call out, to stop them, invite them over for some proper food, a night in a room that isn't the dingy motel in town, but she can't quite summon up the courage.
And that's when she sees Nancy sliding a packaged cake from the shelf surreptitiously into the shopping bag, barely even pausing as she heads to the exit, pulling Mike along with her a little faster.
“Hey!" Kelly yells, instinctive, rounding the counter in a second, "just what d’ya you think you're doing?!"
Nancy speeds up, acting as though she hasn’t heard, breaking into a near-jog trailing Mike behind as they hit the final aisle.
”You stop right there!” Kelly hollers, and breaks into a run too, she shoulda known, shouldn't have fallen for such an easy trick: two cute kids, rough themselves up a bit, act out a sob story a blind man could see through and whaddya know, the perfect cover for theft. Kelly half-runs, half-stumbles to the end of the aisle, blocking their path, opening her mouth to start a lecture, ready to start demanding the truth this time, whether they really are just theieves or whether their Dad is in on it too- probably his idea in the first place-
But then Mike trips, too-short legs failing to keep up with Nancy’s pace and he hits the ground with his hands and knees hard, crying out.
Nancy skids to a halt meters from the doorway and scrambles back to her brother, falling clumsily on her knees as she goes, dropping the shopping bag and sending food skidding across the floor, the milk crushed into a slippery mess and soaking through her jeans as she pulls Mike up from where he’s curled up -
Mike’s not crying, even though his little four-year-old face is screwed up in pain, and somehow that just makes the aching hole Kelly can’t help but feel for these kids grow all the larger.
But they are thieves. And there is no getting around that.
“Hold on, sugar.” She said as she went to the back counter to grab some band-aids. “I’ll patch up that cut.”
As she rounded, the counter she pressed the little button that indicated a crime was being committed. The cops would arrive soon enough.
“I’m so sorry.” Nancy said, as Kelly returned with some band-aids.
She’s kneeling in front of Mike, one hand keeping the younger boy pushed behind her, but it's Mike who catches Kelly’s eye.
He's not looking at her.
He's looking up at Nancy, expression confused, anxious in the face of Nancy’s fear and desperate pleas, and with a shuddering, hitching breath, he begins to cry.
Not loudly, just quiet hiccuping sobs half-brought on by tiredness no doubt and Kelly’s anger melts instantly away.
At the first sob, Nancy’s face just crumples.
Nancy pulls him tighter into her chest, shhing him, right there on the floor in the middle of the grimy Gas 'n Go, spilt shopping strewn everywhere, a growing puddle of milk extending around them, and Kelly’s throat goes tight and hot and she feels horribly out-of-place, as though she's intruding on something she has no right to witness.
Nancy stays like that for a while, murmuring softly to Mike who stays wrapped tight in her arms, stroking his back and hair with a trembling hand, letting Mike scrub his tears into Nancy’s shirt.
Nancy doesn't do a thing about her own tears, tracking silent paths down her cheeks.
They look for all the world as though they’re barely keeping it together, the two of them, as though they’ve seen and done more than either of them can really understand. Maybe, hopefully, the cops can help. Maybe call social services and help these kids get a better life, it’s what they deserve.
A week later Kelly got the whole story from her local police chief. Apparently, the two kids had been living on their own for three months after their mother and father dropped them off at a hotel and then vanished without a trace. There was a note found in the hotel room that said, ‘take care of them.’
In other words, the parents didn’t want to be found. They vanished on purpose, abandoned their young children in the middle of nowhere. A few days later they were pronounced dead. A drunk driver missed an overpass. Now the kids were in a group home, waiting to be put into the foster system. Kelly can only hope their foster home will be kind.