Julian didn't bother to comment when Caitlynn jogged into work twenty minutes late. It wasn't on time, but it was better than it had been in the past.
For a change, Caitlynn was at least aware of her own tardiness. She trotted around the magazine rack and made an apologetic face, "Julian, I'm really sorry. I swear. I was all ready to come on time. My alarm clock didn't go off. The whole neighborhood is blacked out."
Julian looked down at Caitlynn. Her long, red hair was wet, like she had towel-dried it in a hurry, then run out. Surreptitiously, he traced his finger in a drop of water that had sluiced dripped off of her hair and landed on the counter. It was ice cold, even though it had been easily over one hundred degrees out earlier in the day.
He smiled at her, "Don't worry about it."
Caitlynn smiled back. It was a sight that would have melted Julian's heart if everything about him wasn't melted already from the heat.
"Does James totally hate me?"
Julian shook his head, "I sent James home at eleven. He had a party to go to."
Caitlynn nodded and said wistfully, "That would be Doug Draber's party down at the lake."
Julian smiled, "Work cutting into your busy social life again?"
Caitlynn frowned and gave her head a half-shake, "Nah. I wasn't going to this one anyway. What's on the schedule, boss?"
Now it was Julian's turn to frown. He didn't like being night manager, having only taken the added responsibility because he couldn't say no to the extra money. Given his druthers, he would have rather been at Doug Draber's party, too. If they were anything like his older brother Jake's, it would be a lot more fun than keeping track of a convenience store.
"Why don't you go in the back and dry your hair," he said. "After that, you can watch the register while I stock the cooler."
Caitlynn leaned across the counter and batted her eyes at Julian, "Is there any chance you could keep working the register and let me do the cooler?"
It was all Julian could do not to stare down the v-neck of Caitlynn's top when she leaned forward like that or, for that matter, when she did any one of a thousand things she seemed to do during an eight-hour shift that gave him a panoramic view of her chest. Even after more than a year of working together, he still found himself constantly tempted to look. Instead, he turned away and said, "Do you want to get out of the heat that badly? With the air conditioning, it's actually pretty pleasant in here."
"It's not that," said Caitlynn. "I'm just betting that Doug's coming here to try to buy beer and I don't want to have to tell him no."
Julian nodded, "Are you sure? Doing the cooler is a lot of heavy lifting."
Caitlynn pulled up her shirt sleeve and made a muscle, "I've got it covered. Feel that."
"All right," said Julian, laughing. "I'll take your word for it."
Caitlynn made an odd face, "Boss, when a lady asks you to feel her muscle, the polite thing is to do what you're told."
Julian laughed again, reaching out over the counter and gripping her forearm. To his surprise, she really was quite muscular--not in an unfeminine way, but there was real definition in her arms.
"Wow," he said earnestly. "You been working out?"
"Yup," said Caitlynn, pulling her arm away. "Check out my abs." She lifted her shirt up so that Julian could see everything from her waistband to the bottom of her bra. Sucking in her gut, she showed him a well-toned stomach.
Julian didn't realize he was staring until Caitlynn said, "What do you think?"
"It's ... um ... very impressive," said Julian.
"I'm glad you appreciate it," said Caitlynn. "I gave up a lot of parties to look like this."
Julian smiled gently, "I'm sure Brian appreciates it."
Caitlynn gave the frown and half-shake again, "I gave up Brian to look like this, too."
Before Julian could respond, Caitlynn pulled her shirt back down, "I'm going to go dry my hair before a customer comes in and catches me flashing you."
Once she was in the back room, Julian frowned in puzzlement. As he went back to absentmindedly wiping down the deli slicer, he let his imagination wander. He'd always liked Caitlynn, ever since she'd transferred to Kenshee High School at the beginning of his junior year. While they'd never been friends, they'd hung around with all of the same people.
After Julian had graduated, he'd come to work nights at the town's only 7-11 for a year, saving money towards college. At least, that had been the plan. He'd come to discover that, even as a night manager, he was lucky to put aside a few hundred dollars a month after paying the expenses of living alone. After two years, he'd finally managed to put away enough money to be able to attend the local community college, so long as he kept working.
Last summer, Caitlynn had started working nights with him. She was, as he remembered from their time in school together, a bit of a party girl and didn't always make it to the store by eleven o'clock like she was supposed to. It didn't bother Julian much. He only had to work with her. The people who worked the 5-11 shift got upset with her, though, because they couldn't leave until she clocked in. Julian had found himself going to bat for her almost without meaning to, promising that she would be on time. At the same time that he wondered if he was being played for a sucker, he found that he really liked working with her.
The reason he didn't believe he was being played for a sucker was that Caitlynn didn't flirt with him more than she did anyone else. In other words, she flirted with him constantly, but never in such an overt way that she lacked plausible deniability were she called to task on it. After realizing that Julian wasn't going to rise to the bait, they actually developed a friendship. Some nights, they could go three or four hours without a customer. As such, they spent a lot of time just hanging out and talking.
Now that she mentioned it, Caitlynn hadn't talked about a party since the "Spring Fling" the high school had thrown. It had been a miserable experience for her. She'd drunk too much and ended up making out with another boy other than her boyfriend Brian. She wouldn't tell Julian who the other boy had been and Julian suspected that it had gone a lot farther than "making out," but decided that what she decided not to tell him was her own business.
Julian suspected that he knew who the boy was anyway. Ryan Schwartz had started hanging around outside the store at night shortly thereafter. Caitlynn had asked Julian to be the one to empty the trash cans into the dumpster at about the same time. After about a week, Julian had decided to chase Ryan, who had now gathered a half-dozen friends to join him on his nightly vigil out of the lot. He allowed a certain amount of slack to the no loitering policy, but they were pushing their luck.
Julian would have followed that line of thought, but a customer came in carrying a half-dozen party bags full of ice. He laid them down and started picking up disposable styrofoam coolers.
"Good evening, Mr. Flattery," said Julian amiably. "Having a party?"
The customer shook his head, "No. Our power just went out about ten minutes ago. I'm trying to save all the meat I just put in the cooler."
Julian nodded as he rung up the purchase, "Oh, yeah. Caitlynn mentioned something about a blackout. It hit your neighborhood too?"
Mr. Flattery nodded again as he got his money out, "Yup. Hit my sister about two hours ago. It seems to be moving east to west."
Julian nodded absentmindedly, "I hope the ice holds out, then."
"You'd better hope it doesn't hit the store," said Mr. Flattery. "You're right in its path."
"It shouldn't," said Julian. "The blackout two years ago stopped right across the street. I think we're on a different grid or something."
Mr. Flattery looked doubtful, "Well, best of luck."
Soon, other customers began trickling in, buying ice, batteries, and other sundry supplies for a blackout. There were a half-dozen people on line when Caitlynn emerged from the back room, her hair freshly blown out and dried. Without having to be told to, she started working the second register. It took about a half hour before they were alone in the store again.
"Boy," observed Julian. "It must suck to be without air conditioning tonight."
Caitlynn nodded emphatically, "It was still like ninety-five degrees out when I left for work and the AC in my car is still busted."
Julian raised an eyebrow, "I thought you were getting that fixed."
"I was," Caitlynn sighed. "But, the stepbitch has been making it pretty damned clear that she wants me to move out now that I've graduated. So, I've been saving up for first, last, and one month's deposit."
Julian said evenly, "I bet you'll be glad to be out of there, though."
"Yeah," said Caitlynn. "I just wish she'd given me a hint like back in April when you needed a roommate."
"Actually," said Julian. "I need a roommate again. He ... didn't work out."
Julian shook his head and began counting cigarettes to restock, "I'd rather not talk about it."
Caitlynn came up behind him and placed a hand between his shoulder blades, "I think I should know. If we're going to be roommates, I want to know if you're going to go all psycho on me in a few months."
Julian crouched down to get a carton from under the desk, "Who said we were going to be roommates?"
Caitlynn ignored the customer coming in the front door, "I did. I need a roommate. Unless I move like forty-five minutes away, there can't be more than a half-dozen options in the area. We're friends. What could be a better solution?"
"Excuse me," said the customer. "How much is the ice?"
"A dollar fifty nine a bag," said Caitlynn without turning around. Then, to Julian, she said, "What do you say?"
"It would be weird," said Julian.
"Why?" asked Caitlynn.
"Well..." said Julian, "we work together."
"Do you have any more in the back?" asked the customer.
Caitlynn turned to face him, "Any more what?"
"No," said Caitlynn. "Whatever's out front is what we have."
"What about what's in the soda machine?"
Caitlynn sighed, "That's for soda."
"Can I buy a bag of it?"
Caitlynn turned to Julian, "Can he, boss?"
"Sure, Mr. Collins," said Julian. "I don't have any ice bags for it, though. Will a shopping bag do?"
Mr. Collins grunted. Julian went down to get a bag from under the counter. As he went past Caitlynn, he whispered in her ear, "Make a couple of signs that say 'NO ICE.' Stick them on the cooler outside and on the inside of the front door. Make them big and clear in block letters."
Caitlynn nodded. While Julian filled a shopping bag with ice for Mr. Collins, she went in the back, emerged with an out-of-date window display and began tearing it in half.
While Julian was still filling the bag, two more customers came in looking for ice. He wound up having to fill shopping bags for them, too. They were walking out when another customer came in. By the look the new customer gave their bags of ice, Julian knew he wasn't done. It was seven more customers before the signs were up and Julian could stop filling bags--not because of the signs or a stop in the flow of customers, but because the soda machine ran out of ice.
With only two customers in the store, Caitlynn asked, "Do you want me to keep working the other register or get to work on the cooler?"
"Go ahead on the cooler," said Julian. "I'll holler for you if it gets crazy."
"Okay," said Caitlynn.
"Have you done the cooler before?"
"Okay," said Julian. "If you have any questions, come out and ask me."
The next hour and a half were a steady flow of customers. After the ice went, the batteries went next. In a span of ten minutes, Julian got to hear people complaining about how exhorbitant the prices of their batteries were then to hear them offer him ridiculous amounts of money if he would, "go in the back and find them some batteries."
Several times during those ninety minutes, Caitlynn came out to ask him a question. In spite of the controlled frenzy, Julian couldn't keep from losing his train of thought when she stepped out of the cooler, her nipples obvious through the khaki-colored t-shirt. Based on the breaks in conversation, his customers were having the same problem. Caitlynn, for her own part, seemed oblivious.
As luck would have it, there was a lull in the flow of customers around five minutes to two. That was when the overhead lights flickered off, momentarily dropping the store into darkness. After a couple of seconds, the emergency lights came out, bathing the whole store in an eerie red light.
"Julian," shouted Caitlynn as she rammed the cooler door open with her shoulder. "The lights in..."
Julian said, "Out here, too."
Caitlynn shut the cooler door, "So, now what?"
Julian hit the manual release on the cash register, pulling out the cash drawer. From the empty space behind the drawer, he extracted a key. Going to the front door, he locked it.
"We can lock the doors?"
"We can lock the doors."
"I thought we were open twenty-four hours."
"We are," said Julian. "We've been open at least that long. Now, we're closed."
"Can you do that?"
"I have to do that," said Julian. "It's what I'm supposed to do."
"They told you this at super-secret manager training?"
"Yup," said Julian. "And now that you know, I'll need you to take a blood oath of silence or you'll never leave this store alive."
"A blood oath?"
"That's the rule."
"All right," said Caitlynn. "As soon as the deli slicer is working again."
"Fair enough. Now, I need to call Tony."
"More super-secret manager stuff?"
"Yup. It's time to find out if this is an ordinary black-out or the beginning of our plan to take over the world." As he spoke, he reached for the phone. It rang about eight times before the store owner picked up.
"Rlerm?" came the voice on the other end.
"Good evening, Tony," said Julian pleasantly. "We're having a power outage at the store."
"No shit," said Tony. "The power's out here, too. And it's like a million fucking degrees. I just got to sleep. What the fuck are you calling me for?"
"That's my job when the power goes out--lock the store and call the owner for further instructions."
"Fuck," moaned Tony. "You know how the fucking store works better than I do."
Julian smiled to himself, "What I know is that I'm supposed to call you for further instructions when the power goes out."
Tony grumbled, "Lock the door."
"Already did that," said Julian.
"Don't let anybody in," said Tony.
"I would think that locking the door would be a fairly effective deterrent," said Julian.
"I mean don't open it for anybody, smartass. Nobody gets anything from the store until the power comes on. It doesn't matter what they need. No ice. No batteries. No nothing. All I need is some jerkoff slipping on a roll of Mentos in the dark and suing my ass."
"Should we go home?"
Tony groaned, "Give it an hour or two. If the power's not back, go home. I'll come in at seven and open the store."
"Anything you want me to do while I wait?"
"Get some ice from the ice machine. Pack all that expensive shit from the cooler in a box full of ice--the bacon and that imported cheese the fuckers at Southland insist we carry."
"That's it. Let me go back to sleep."
"All right, Tony," said Julian. "Sleep well."
"Fuck you, too," said Tony without rancor. He hung up.
"Well," said Julian. "Tony wants us to pack a few things from the cooler in ice, then wait a couple of hours to see if the lights come back on."
Caitlynn grunted. Julian said, "If you want to go home, I can take care of this."
"If the lights come back on, there's going to be a lot of work to do."
"Probably," said Julian. "But, the lights still seem to be in the process of going off. I can't imagine they'll be going on again real soon."
"I don't mind staying," said Caitlynn.
"Okay," said Julian. "Keep an eye on the front while I go pack things in ice."
"It's pitch dark back there," said Caitlynn.
"I'm going to go in the back room and get the flashlight," said Julian.
A pair of headlights scanned across the front window. Julian tried to wave them away, but the driver insisted on getting out of his truck and rapping on the door. Julian went to the door and shouted, "We're closed. No power." The man tried to pantomime something, but Julian decided not to try too hard to figure out what it was and instead turned to go slowly enough that the man had time to walk away.
"It's pitch dark in the back room, too," said Caitlynn.
"That is the one flaw in my otherwise brilliant plan," observed Julian.
"Is it the flashlight sitting on the toolbox near the office door?"
"Yup," said Julian. "And there are a million boxes between the doorway to the store and there."
"I bet we can find it if we work together," said Caitlynn, grabbing a couple of boxes of matches from the counter. "Take some matches and come with me."
He did. Caitlynn lit a match and started walking towards the office door. Julian lit one and followed. As long as they kept some distance between them, the twin points of light were enough to give them a rough idea of where things were. Caitlynn bucked her shin and dropped her match about halfway across the room. A short, but frantic search revealed that it had fallen on the floor and gone out, not on anything flammable.
It took them about ten minutes to go twenty feet. During that time, several more cars pulled into the parking lot and pulled back out again.
When they got to the flashlight, Caitlynn blew out both of their matches with a single breath. With no windows, the entire room went pitch black.
"Whoops," she said, giggling in the darkness.
Julian could feel how close Caitlynn was standing to him, even in the darkness. Her breath was little puffs against his chest. The proximity made it hard to concentrate on the task at hand.
"The uh ... flashlight ... should be just below your left hand," he managed to say without much stammering.
He felt Caitlynn lay a hand on his chest for balance, then crouch down and begin feeling around for the flashlight. Then, suddenly, she was falling away. He reached out to catch her just as she swung at the previously open air to try to find purchase. Julian felt the back of her hand smack into his cheek, then lost his own balance and went tumbling backwards.
As soon as he landed, he asked, "Caitlynn, are you okay?"
"Yeah," she said after a second. "And..." Julian was suddenly blinded by the room lighting up, "I found the flashlight."
She peered at him in the glare, "Are you ok?"
Julian pressed the back of his hand to his face, "Yeah. I think I landed on a box of paper towels."
Caitlynn crouched in front of him, "I mean where I hit you."
Julian smiled, "It's only a flesh wound."
Caitlynn laughed, seemingly in spite of herself, "It looks like I scratched you pretty good."
Julian stood up and made his way carefully to the sink where employees were warned to wash their hands at every available opportunity. He looked at himself in the mirror. A thin line of red traced his cheekbone. And, even in the reflected light of the flashlight, he could see that he was probably going to get a bruise on his jaw line.
Caitlynn stood next to him, concern in her eyes, "Julian, I'm so sorry. I..."
Julian shook his head as he wet a paper towel, "Not your fault. Fucking Tony's worried about getting sued by customers, but he's got us climbing around in the dark to try to save his bacon." He pressed the paper towel to the scratch.
Caitlynn gave him a wan smile, "Well, maybe it will give you some street cred. You could say your girlfriend gave it to you in a moment of passion."
Julian smiled back, "That'll be great--until they see the bruise and realize she beat me up afterwards."
"You should put some ice on that."
"Later," said Julian. "Let's get this job done first."
So, each of them grabbed a bucket, filled it from the ice machine, and went back into the cooler. It took them about a half-hour to get the most perishable items packed in ice and put aside. When they were finished, Julian turned over a couple of milk crates and sat down on them.
"Now what?" asked Caitlynn.
"We go to the break room and wait," said Julian.
"In this heat?" asked Caitlynn. "Why don't we just stay back here?"
"In the cooler?" asked Julian.
"Sure," said Caitlynn. "It's stiflingly hot out there. This is probably the only place in the entire town under ninety degrees and ninety percent humidity."
Julian shrugged, "Fine with me."
"Good," said Caitlynn. "Now, sit still and let me put some ice on your face before you get a bruise."
Julian thought it was probably already too late, but didn't bother to say so. Caitlynn put the flashlight on the floor, pointing upward, so that it gave the room some small amount of illumination. She wrapped a few ice cubes in a paper towel, grabbed a couple of milk crates for herself, sat down, and placed the wrapped ice on his jaw.
"Is that the spot?"
"So," said Caitlynn. "Can I ask you a question?"
Julian nodded, "Sure."
"Why don't you want me as a roommate?"
Julian paused, then said, "I told you. It would be weird. We work together."
Caitlynn looked thoughtful, "It would certainly make it easier for you to make sure that I got to work on time."
Julian chuckled, "It's not just that."
"I didn't think so," said Caitlynn. "What else?"
"I just think that it would make dating ... awkward," said Julian. "Who's going to believe that I live with you and we're not..." He trailed off.
"Close your eyes," instructed Caitlynn, moving the pack of ice towards one of them.
Julian did. He heard Caitlynn reach back into the bucket of ice. Then, he felt her place a single, naked ice cube on his jaw. He gasped for a second, but only in shock. It felt good.
Slowly, she began to move the cube down his jaw. Then, she slid it back up. Once she'd traced his jaw line, she kept going, tracing it up past his ear and down the side of his neck. Between the heat and the work, Julian could feel it sluicing away a layer of sweat he hadn't realized he'd worked up.
He reached up to gently take her wrist, opening his eyes, "You didn't hit me there."
Caitlynn gave him a scowl of mock ferocity, "Hold still or I will."
Julian released her wrist. Caitlynn resumed her tracing, drawing the ice cube down his neck to his throat, then following the neckline of his shirt.
"Now, doesn't that feel nice?"
Julian nodded, his eyes closed again.
"Good," said Caitlynn. "Now, you do me."
Julian opened his eyes again, "What?"
Caitlynn stood up and got another ice cube, which she handed to Julian. He looked down at it wistfully, "Caitlynn, I'm sure we can work something out about the roommate thing."
Caitlynn took his wrist in both hands, "Julian, I talked to Amanda Adamson about you."
Julian looked at her, surprised. Amanda had been his prom date and secret crush throughout high school. That nothing had ever come of their prom night was one of his greatest regrests, "Why?"
"It was sort of her idea," said Caitlynn. "And sort of mine. We've been friends since she dated my brother. And, I wanted to ask her a couple of questions."
Julian looked puzzled, "And what did she tell you?"