The bells over the door chimed and the old man looked up and grimaced. His hearing aid was up too loud and everything came at him like giant screaming children in Hell. He turned his attention to the teenager at the register and shook his head as he saw that the young man was far too engrossed in his phone to notice a customer in the otherwise empty convenience store. Frustrated, the man waddled down the closest aisle towards the back of the store, his hips aching something awful, which usually meant a storm barging its way into town.
“Uh, the Doodle Bars are on sale, buy four get a fifth free.”
The register jockey spoke from behind a veil of hair and didn’t look up once. The man shook his head and stopped in front of the long cooler. Milk. Specifically chocolate milk. That’s all he wanted. Chocolate milk. Not beer. Not wine. Not a soda. Not an energy drink. Not a damn energy beer. And not a wine-soda. Just some damn milk. The walked down past the coolers once then turned around and walked back the way he’d come, and then he turned around and walked down them one last time. He saw a million different things but no chocolate milk. The man looked up at the boy at the register and shook his head again. His mother would have swatted him on the back of the head for what he was about to do but he had no interest in walking all the way up to the counter just to turn around and walk right back here.
“Uh, young man. I say, young man. YO! KID!”
That got the boy’s attention and he looked up slowly and rolled his eyes.
“Where would the chocolate milk be?”
The kid pursed his lips as he shrugged.
“In the trash.”
“In the..what?” The man put a hand on his sore hip.
“Trash. The night shift hadn’t been checking Sell By dates and we had to throw all the milk out when someone bought an out of date bottle and got sick.”
“Well, why the hell didn’t you check on the bottles?”
“I wasn’t here last week. I was on tour with my band.”
“Ahh…another rock star in the making.” The man chuckled to himself.
“Um, no, actually. Blues. I play drums for Steel Toes Montigue. We did a tour of some clubs in Chicago. It’s a better scene for blues than, well, here.”
The old man took a step backward as if pushed. Son of a bitch. He smiled despite himself.
“Well hell then, ain’t that a thing? I saw old Steel Toes about twenty years ago in Detroit. Good show. He opened for B.B. King I think. Hell of a show. Well, I guess that’s that though. I thank you for the info. I had really wanted some chocolate milk but…”
The kid gave the man a crooked grin and put his phone down and walked out from behind the counter and started moving back towards the coolers.
“I’ll tell you what, my girlfriend brought me a couple Cool Moos when I came on shift. It’s not a full gallon or anything but I know how it is when you need your chocolate milk fix so you can have one of mine.”
The kid disappeared through an open door and the man heard the sound of movement and in a matter of moments he had reappeared with a small bottle of brown liquid with the words Cool Moos on the side above the image of a skateboarding cow. Funny.
“Here you go, sir.” He held out the drink.
The man furrowed his eyebrows and put his other hand on his hip.
“Come on. I am serious. Like I said, I understand the woes of a chocolate milk junkie. It was rough being on tour for a week and everyone wanted to go over to the bar after our gigs and all I wanted was a cold glass of brown gold. Here, take it.” The kid shook the bottle and the man lifted a hand from his hip and took it reluctantly then started to reach into his pocket with his other hand for some money.
“Nope. This one’s on me, sir. You can buy the next. I got the boss to start stocking Cool Moos so we should have some in this Saturday morning. I work next Monday. You can come in and hit me back then. Deal?” The kid shook his long hair out of his face and smiled.
“Deal. I will be here on Monday and we’ll share a drink and you can tell me about your band. For now I need to get back home to finish up a project. And truly, from the bottom of my heart I thank you. I coulda found another milk somewhere else but you saved me a lot of time and a lot of trouble and for that you have my sincerest thanks. What was your name, by the way?” The man held his free hand out.
“Louis, sir. Louis Monroe.” The kid smiled again.
“Well, Louis Monroe, it’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Reggie. Reggie Samson. Now, I bid you adieu, Louis. I am off to finish my business. I will see you Monday.” Reggie gave a wave and turned and started waddling out of the store. It had been a miserably long day and he knew there was a long night ahead of him and he appreciated the milk more than the kid knew.
“Thank you mister Samson. I’ll see you next week.”
With the shrill ringing of the bells the man exited the store and hobbled towards his van. The van had seen better days. Much better days. It was an ugly 1990s family van that he’d found from an internet ad but it worked, and it was reliable and for the work he had to do that was key. He had a car back at home but rarely drove it these days. The work had become everything. There was no wife at home, no kids, no animals, and after a forced retirement his lifelong hobby became The Work. Now that he was 73 there wasn’t much else left. It was all he thought about. It was the reason he got up in the morning and the thing that made him take care of himself. In the end it was probably the only thing that kept him alive.
The man pulled his keys out, gave an absent wave towards the store and then opened up the van and got inside. It was hot inside, despite the cool weather of the day but this was a problem he was used to and ready for, despite the fact that it always took his breath away to realize how very hot it was inside. He put the key in the ignition and started the engine and immediately turned the defrost up before closing the door. He let out a long sigh and opened the milk and smiled as he took a long drink of it. As soon as he had drank half of the bottle he started to feel a little better. He stopped to take a breath, shot a look over his shoulder and into the back of the van and then finished it off and let out a long sigh. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and put the lid back on the bottle and dropped it onto the empty passenger seat. Reggie put his hands on the wheel and started humming a song to himself. A sudden sound from the back of the van brought him back from the day dream that had been forming and he was back inside the very hot van and it was time to get back to work. He let out a long sigh and turned around.
The old woman was ripe and the heat coming off of her made it seem as if she was on fire. He had left her hog-tied and beneath a blanket when he’d gone inside but she’d managed to get out from under the blanket and had part of her gag out. He reached over into the passenger seat without looking and grabbed the bottle and threw it at her and hit her in the head. The glass bottle bounced off the old woman and rattled into the corner of the van. The old woman let out a long moan and looked at Reggie with tears streaming down her face. The woman’s gray hair clung to her forehead with sweat as it ran down her face and beneath her eyes were deep purple bruises that were just starting to deepen to black. The woman frowned and whimpered as she stretched against her ropes. Reggie would have laughed at the ridiculousness of the old woman lying on her back and trying to look so weak and pathetic if he didn’t have one of his headaches setting in.
“You know that won’t work on me. I’ve seen that look, what is it, a hundred times now, a hundred and twenty? You know it won’t work.”
The woman let out a long moan and stretched again and Reggie heard the rope as she strained against it and knew he better take care of this before she got loose. He let out a long sigh and got up and moved into the back of the van towards the woman. Reggie came within three feet of the woman and painfully went down onto his haunches and stared into her blue eyes. She whimpered more loudly and he pushed the familiar questions aside and focused. Focus, he thought. Focus or you’re gonna get yourself hurt again and you ain’t young enough to recover like you was last time. He forced himself to look at her, to look at the old woman and to see her and then to see past the veneer and to what she was.
“You don’t fool me. You never fooled me. None of you did.”
One last whimper.
Reggie shook his head at the woman and her whimpers stopped and she became still. That was better. As he stared at the old woman her eyes began to change from blue to yellow and her breathing slowed until it was barely audible at all.
“Good. You know how much I hate games. Now then, you gonna behave or…”
From beneath the gag came a growl.
“Have it your way.”
Reggie reached into his back pocket and pulled out a pair of pliers and then began crawling towards the old woman slowly as she growled at him. And as Reggie grabbed the old woman’s hair in one hand and raised the pliers with the other he turned his mind back to the milk and smiled for the fleeting moments that reminded him of why he worked so hard.