An Unlocked Mind

By: K.C. Wells & Parker Williams

Chapter One

January, 2017

“EXCUSE ME, young man, I wonder if you could help me. You do work here, don’t you?”

Rob Daniels looked down at his uniform—a blue-and-red checked shirt, over which he wore a garish purple apron he’d had to borrow from Heather because he’d left his at home. The ghastly thing bore the supermarket’s logo across the chest, and the wide front pocket bulged with tape, a mountain of slim cards for shelf-edge pricing, several lists of what was on special offer, and a number of permanent marker pens that always seemed to end up staining his fingers. He bit his tongue, fighting the urge to voice his first thought—Why, yes, madam. What gave it away? He really didn’t need that kind of trouble. Thankfully his days off were coming. One less day to endure the crap he dealt with on a daily basis.

He instead gave a terse nod and a mumbled, “Yes, madam.”

Her eyebrows shot up briefly, but then she schooled her features. “I’m looking for something that’s gluten-free, but it also needs to be dairy-free and vegan.” She stood there, her bony arms crossed, waiting for him to answer.

There was that urge again. The one he’d had to repress ever since he started working at Watts supermarket. He wanted to snap and say, Hey, I know just the thing! How about a fucking glass of water? But Rob wasn’t that stupid. He needed this job, which right then called for tact and diplomacy. So that meant burying his anger under yet another layer of false niceties.

He gave her a cheery smile. “Let me show you to our specialty foods aisle. You’ll probably find what you’re looking for there.”

He led her around the store, past the bakery, where the enticing aroma of freshly baked bread caused his stomach to rumble, down the sweets and chocolate aisle, and finally to the area where Rob was certain there would be nothing to satisfy her.

He indicated the shelves with an outstretched arm. “Here you are. Everything you need should be in this area.”

He turned to go back to his task when she cleared her throat. “Can you tell me anything about these products?”

He groaned inwardly before facing her with his best smile glued in place. “What would you like to know?”

She pointed at a colorful box of pasta that declared itself to be gluten-free. “Well, how do they taste? If you were making it, what kind of sauce would you use? What kind of wine would go well with it? Things like that.”

Rob opened his eyes wide. How the fuck would I know? He’d never eaten the stuff before. And besides, no one had ever asked him things like that. Well, mostly no one—there had been a couple of awkward moments. He looked around for another person who might know, but there wasn’t anyone in the vicinity. Typical.

When he returned his attention to his customer, her expression was smug, and he went from being annoyed by her to actively disliking the old bat. It was as if she knew she was getting on his nerves and was playing it up.

“I’m afraid I’ve never tried them,” he said, keeping the because I have taste comment locked firmly in his mind.

She huffed, and her sunken cheeks went bright red. “I want to speak to your manager. The level of service here has become very lax of late, and this is completely unacceptable.”

What the hell? In his mind, her reaction was definitely over the top. All this over a box of fucking pasta?

“I could try to find someone else to help you,” he said, hoping to placate her.

It was obvious from her expression that that line wasn’t going to work. “This is just not good enough, but frankly it’s typical of the kind of attitude one sees so often these days in retail. This is your job, isn’t it? Every employee should be able to answer my questions immediately. Not only did you not have the answers, you’ve made me wait. That’s unacceptable. I want to speak to your manager.” Her voice was brittle, with a slight quaver.

Oh, great. Rob had visions of yet another job going down the toilet, and for what? He’d tried to help her, he’d been nice to her, and now she was going to complain to his boss?

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Let me get Mr. Peterson for you.”

He shuffled off in the direction of the office, knowing his shoulders had slumped. If it hadn’t taken him four weeks to land this job, Rob would have told her and the store manager where to go, and then walked out, his head held high. But this month’s rent would be due soon, and tonight was his weekly thrill of “face the bills.”

He went into the office and stood at the desk of Mr. Peterson, his direct supervisor.

“What can I do for you, Rob?” he asked without looking up.

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