[This is a work in progress.]
I move quietly, slowly, as my eyes are roaming and taking in the neon-hued sights. Bright glowing fishes watch me, single and in pods, but they are in their own worlds, their attention is fleeting at best. I move past the red and blue tetras, awkward little guppies, a handful of bettas, utterly forgettable goldfish, strange angelfish, rainbowfish who are true to their name, and of course the catfish.
I turn and walk past the salt-water aquariums and start testing my memory there. It's a bit more complicated, but I've long ago memorized the species, even named some. I go through the list anyway: lunar lyretail wrasse, red-toothed trigger, blue hippo tang, and so on and so forth.
It's some time after six, but I haven't looked at the clock in a while, I'm fighting the constant pressure to see how much time is left on my prison sentence.
The shop is empty save for me. No one needs to get a pet fish at 7pm, least of on a Saturday night, and I've said as much to the management, but orders are orders. So I meander through the neon-lit aisles and pretend I'm snorkeling in Hawaii. Not that I've ever been, but I'd like to imagine.
The door bell rings, there's a customer!
I rush over to the front, but it's just a delivery person. An unexpected shipment of angelfish, two of them, sign here please. And just like that, I'm alone again.
I transfer the fish to an empty tank in the back, leave them in the plastic bag until the temperatures equalize. I then enter the fish into the store's database, "Angelfish" x2, then go back to the register.
Less than half an hour to go. I get on my phone and scroll through a list of stories I'd seen a dozen times already. Nothing new since I last checked, something like fifteen minutes ago. Sigh.
I scroll mindlessly for a minute or two, but it's pointless.
I look out into the parking lot. It's a small strip mall, a bank and a teriyaki place, but it's Saturday, so the bank is closed, and the teriyaki place has been shut down ever since the food inspector found a rat's foot. There's no one around, unlikely that anyone's going to show up.
To hell with this, some childish part of me pipes up and I start to close up. No one is going to complain that we closed twenty minutes early, I tell myself. I lock the front doors, switch off the neon "OPEN" signs, and head to the back office to set the alarm.
The phone in the back rings and I curse everything. I was so close!
I stand there glaring at the phone for a few rings, then the answering machine kicks in.
"Hey, uhh, Zen Pets? Ummm. So..." The voice is shaky and unsure. I've heard these calls before, the guy is about to say that he accidentally microwaved a goldfish or something, and is wondering if we have a replacement with a particular pattern of dots on the left side. "This is Tom N---- at Pacific Courier. You, umm, received a couple of angelfish. We, uhh, we need those back. There was a... mix-up on our side, and we, uhh, sent you the wrong fish. Please call me back when you get this message. We'll have someone stop by... stop by in fifty minutes. Please hold on to those two peppermints. My phone number is..." The caller leaves a number and reminds us not to sell the angelfish.
I've got my backpack on, my hand is on the door knob, but I'm just standing there. That voice has me hooked. Tom is having a freaking panic attack. Someone is getting fired over this little mix-up.
I pull out my phone and use a fish identifier app. The caller said "angelfish" and "peppermint", so I scroll through a list of angelfish until I find the peppermint variety. The ones on the screen match what we have in the back: five white vertical bars on a reddish background, translucent caudal fin, white face and chin. Yup, that's a match. I click the "Find nearby" and get back zero results. Guess these guys are pretty rare.
I pull up a browser and search for the fish on eBay, and nearly drop my phone. A listing from two months ago shows a final sell price of $42,000. And we've got two of them with an "Angelfish" label and a price sticker with just 3 digits: 5.99.
42 grand! What does that kind of money mean to me? It's enough to give me a start at a new life, somewhere as far away from here as possible. I could move away, pay the first and last months' rent on a small one bedroom apartment on the beach, apply at one of the tech giants in the area. But of course I'll settle for a third-shift lab-tech job, if all else fails. There aren't many such positions in my neck of the woods in Sebastopol, Mississippi. We're an hour north of Jackson, if that says anything.
And what would happen if I was caught? That's theft, grand theft perhaps? I'd definitely be fired from this job, would be stuck in Sebastopol, and not amount to anything in life. Yay.
A sudden awareness of surveillance descends on me. I hold my body still and move my eyes up and to the side, to the corner of the room where Dave installed the cameras just last week. He can see everything. I look up at the clock.
I close up, turn off the lights, turn on the alarm, lock up.
I'm sitting on the hood of my car, on the far side of the plaza's parking lot. The highway is a scattered mess of moving lights just a few miles away. My glasses are off, though, so all I see are blotches of various shades of yellows and whites. I watch the familiar scene and consider reality.
Countless times I've sat here, watched the road after work, pondered where the various cars and trucks were heading, following them in my mind, a huge imaginary phoenix flying just a dozen feet off the ground, hovering over ignorant commuters and freight movers.
Tom from Pacific Courier will soon be one of these blotches, one of the rare breed of people who are travelling to Sebastopol, MS, not away from it. At 6:52 he said "55 minutes" on the phone, in the voice of someone relying on Google to get them places. He should be here around 7:47.
I pull a red-and-white cigarette pack from the glove compartment, then fish out two joints and put one behind my ear. I take out most of the cigarettes and leave just two in the pack. Then I get to work.
The tray is under the passenger seat, and that's where I store the grinder and the papers. I get these out, carefully break apart a couple cigarettes and one of the joints, toss their insides into the grinder and give it a quick spin. The shredded tobacco and weed goes into the tray and I roll the combination back into cigarettes. Into the very tip of the smoke I put tobacco, no green, so the whole thing looks like a regular old (and crumpled) cigarette.
I toss the joint from behind my ear, and the three newly-rolled spliffs, into the red-and-white cigarette pack, then seal the unused ingredients in a plastic container and put this back into the glove compartment. (Politically, MS is still not on the Mary Jane bandwagon, but it seems to be mostly a traditional thing: nobody around here seems to give a shit if you light up once in a while, and the small-town cops may even ask for a drag. But none of the politicians want to anger the old conservative fogies, so here we are.)
Twenty minutes to go. I jack up the heat in the car and warm myself up.
A light peels off from the highway and sails into the darkness. It's heading in the direction the store, the lights are slowly getting brighter as they rotate toward my eyes.
"That's got to be Tom," I mutter. Then I turn the car off and hop onto the hood of the car. I pull out one of the regular cigarettes and light up.
About two minutes later Tom's red rental rolls into the plaza. He pulls up to the front of the pet store, across three parking spots, and runs toward the door. He shakes it back and forth, but without much conviction, just a desperate man going through the motions. As he reads the hours, Tom understands his predicament: Zen Pets is closed Sundays, so he'll have to come back Monday. I wonder if he paid for the rental himself, just so he could keep this little jaunt off the company books.
Tom's pounding on the glass, calling desperately to anyone who might still be inside. I know there isn't anyone there.
"They're closed!" I yell. I'm on the edge of a light cone, and I wait until Tom's turned around, then start slowly walking towards the shop.
The first thing Tom probably sees are the sparkling boots, then the tight-fitting black jeans, the way-too-big flight jacket, then finally he notices my glasses and smile. Tom's shoulders move back and he stands up a bit straighter when he realizes that I'm not a threat, but in fact an attractive woman. Mission accomplished.
"It's after seven, they closed up," I repeat, but this time I'm not yelling. Tom moves a couple of steps toward me, tentatively, probably trying to figure out how much to confide in me. "Pet hamster died?" I make an obvious guess.
"No, no. There was... a mix up with some shipping. Wrong fish got sent to this store."
"Wrong fish? Some kid gonna get a pet piranha?"
"Uh, yeah, something like that." Tom's eyes follow the cigarette as I lift it to my mouth and inhale.
"Need one?" I ask him and hold the cigarette up questioningly.
Tom just nods. I think he quit, recently, but the events of today really call for a good old smoke.
I pull a regular cigarette out of the red-and-white pack, hold it up for Tom. He comes closer, take the cigarette into his shaking fingers and accepts a light from me. For a minute we just stand there and smoke. Tom's inhaling deep, like he hasn't smoked in a while and needs this badly.
"Jessica," I say and offer my hand.
"Tom," he returns and shakes my hand. He's shaking and clammy.
"So, Tom, what happened?" He looks down and away, shame and fear radiating from his hunched form.