Max (Carolina Cold Fury Hockey)(3)

By: Sawyer Bennett

With firm but gentle hands she turns the little boys toward the room and pushes them inside, disappearing behind them. Immediately, I hear a horrible crash, another shriek, and the woman I know to be named Julianne curses loudly, “Son of a bitch.”

One more screech from what I’m thinking might be a psychotic pterodactyl and my feet are moving without thought. I round the edge of the counter, step behind it and head toward the door. When I step over the threshold, I take in a small room set up to be a combo office/break room. There’s a small desk covered with papers along one wall, another wall with a counter, sink, and minifridge under it, and a card table with rusty legs and four folding metal chairs to its side.

It also suddenly becomes clear what manner of creature was making the noise that rivaled nails on a chalkboard.

A little girl, smaller than the boys, is tied to one of the chairs with what looks like masking tape wrapped several times around her and the chair, coming across the middle of her stomach. Her legs are free, and the crash was apparently a stack of toys she had managed to knock off the top of the table.

“Rocco…Levy…you promised you’d behave,” Julianne says in a quavering voice as she kneels beside the little girl and starts pulling at the tape. The little boys stand there, heads hanging low as they watch their mom attempt to unwrap their sister.

I can’t help myself. The tone of the woman’s voice, the utter fatigue and frustration, and the mere fact that these little hellions taped their sister to a chair, has me moving. I drop to my knees beside the woman, my hands going to the tape to help her pull it off.

Her head snaps my way and she says, “Don’t.”

My eyes slide from the tape to her, and I’m almost bowled over by the sheen of thick tears, glistening but refusing to drop.

“Please…do you mind just waiting out there. If any customers come in…just tell them I’ll be out in a moment,” she pleads with me, a faint note of independence and need to handle this on her own shining through the defeat.

“Sure,” I say immediately as I stand up, not meaning to further upset this poor lady with the beautiful tear-soaked eyes. She clearly has enough on her plate without me adding to it.

She turns back to tearing at the masking tape, being extremely gentle, I notice, with the pieces on the little girl’s arms. I glance to the two little boys, and although I see their heads are bowed down in what looks like apology, they both have slight smirks on their face.

Little hellions for sure.

I back out of the break room and consider just leaving my snacks on the counter, but I dismiss it. I want to make sure everything is okay, because unless I’m mistaken, that beautiful lady is on the edge of a serious meltdown.

She doesn’t keep me waiting long, only a few minutes before she’s backing out of the door and pulling it shut behind her. She gives a final plea to the kids inside: “Will you please just behave for the rest of the night, and if you do, we’ll go shopping for a new toy for each of you this weekend, okay?”

Nice. Bribery usually works with kids.

I don’t hear any type of response from the inside, and with a mighty sigh, she pulls the door shut and turns to me. She jumps slightly, maybe so lost in her thoughts that she forgot I was there, but then her eyes dart down to the items on the counter.

“I am so sorry you had to witness that,” she says as she rushes to the register, then rings up the rest of my purchases, which she hadn’t gotten to before the hellions busted loose.

“Not a problem,” I say with a chuckle. “You handled it well.”

She blows out a gust of frustrated air upward from her mouth and her bangs lift slightly before falling down. “They can be trying at times.”

Finally, she looks me in the eye and says, “That will be seven dollars and fifty-nine cents.”

Wordlessly, I pull my wallet out, grab a ten and hand it to her. She just as wordlessly takes it, makes my change, and then quietly puts my purchases in a plastic bag. It gives me an unfettered moment to study her face more carefully, which looks not only pale from what might be exhaustion, but has a blue tinge underneath her eyes clearly denoting lack of sleep.

I’m not sure why, but this tugs on my heartstrings a bit and I open my mouth to ask if she’s okay, but the glass door to the convenience store flies open and two teenagers walk in, one of them laughing loudly at something the other said.

The crinkle of plastic gets my attention and I turn back to find the woman behind the counter holding my bag of purchases across to me.

“Have a good night,” she says with a tired smile, and when I take the bag from her, she immediately dismisses me and her eyes go over my shoulder to watch the teenagers as they peruse the sodas in the glass coolers at the back of the store.