She peeled her eyes away from the cat videos on her brother's computer and looked down at the brown leather bracelet on her left wrist. She studied and admired the craftsmanship of the ornamental wolf head at the centre of the bracelet. With a wince, she rubbed it and closed her eyes, willing herself to breathe long and deep.
"Don't panic. He can't hurt you anymore. You need to forget him," she thought to herself. But forget him she could not. As much as she claimed to hate him, she couldn't bring herself to part with the bracelet. She remembered the time, the place and even the smell in the air when he had given her that bracelet and promised his heart and body to her.
She remembered how he had kissed her oh, so gently again and again, in front of everyone, not caring who saw. She remembered the feel of his fingers brushing her cheek, tracing along the edge of her ear and then her jaw. She remembered how he had cupped the back of her head and whispered, "You're the only one for me." She remembered...
"Excuse me! How much for the chocolate milk?"
It was a lady with her little boy in tow. They'd come into the shop while her eyes were closed in that masochistic reverie. Alex shook it off and rose to see what the customer was referring to.
"Oh, that's $2. We also have a bigger one for $3.50, if you'd like."
"In this economy? I'll stick to this one thanks," responded the customer. "You like this small one, don't you Jonah?" The boy nodded and grabbed the carton of milk as his mother paid. She was a little frumpy, but her son was dressed impeccably. He had new shoes, a perfectly ironed shirt and shorts and his little face glowed with health.
"Where's the big guy who used to be here, by the way?"
"Who, my brother? He's a little busy right now, so he asked me to man the shop for him."
"Your brother? You look nothing alike!"
Alex pulled the protective mask off her face and smiled next to the portrait of her brother mounted behind the counter.
"Okay, I see it now. You have the same smile. Same eyes too," said the customer. She went on to introduce herself as Shelly. She'd been a regular at the shop since it opened up at the height of the global lockdown.
"COVID really messed us up, for sure, but the one thing it did is it brought everything closer to us through your brother. Tell him I said hi, yeah?"
With that, she bundled up her son and left through the glass doors to the right of the counter.
Alex watched them from her perch and almost instantly fell back into her depressing reverie as her eyes followed the little boy's tiny steps. She remembered imagining what her and Darren's son would look like.
"Darren, that lying bastard." Shocked, she realised that she had shouted that out loud. She was now at the feminine products aisle arranging the lotion bottles. In the aisle across from her, she noticed another customer, Brian, looking at her amused.
"To hell with Darren. You'll get someone better, Alex." He hopped around to where she busied herself with the bottles and said, "Someone like me."
Alex laughed and looked at Brian's youthful face with the love of an elder sister.
"Brian, I'm too young to be a cougar, but I'm old enough to be arrested for cradle-robbing." Brian rolled his eyes at this. "Is that what you want? To come visit me in jail?"
Alex was laughing now, but Brian was dead serious.
"I'll be eighteen in less than two years, Alex. And you keep telling me I'm mature for my age. Why don't you give me a chance and see just how mature I can be."
He followed her to the meat refrigerator. "You know I like older women. My mother is an older woman. All my sisters are older women."
Alex frowned at this, but he persisted.
"As someone who has sixteen years and four months of experience with older women, I am more than qualified to be with a woman as mature, as beautiful and as exotic as you. To be with you, Alex."
They were at the cheese refrigerator now.
"Oh, Brian. I'm 22. By the time you're 22, you'll think of me as an old hag and you'll start chasing younger, prettier women," her face hardened, "like that lying prick, Darren."
"No! I am nothing like him."
Realising that she had hurt his feelings, she said, "Of course not. You're a good guy, Brian. I know you are, but you have to realise that as much as I love you and your family, and as much as your mom and sisters love me right now, they would kill me if I so much as entertained your advances."
She looked him straight in the eye. He caved. Together they walked towards the counter.
"Still, I'll never give up on you, Alex. Never."
He paid for the bottle of soda in his hand and started to leave. With a short pause, he looked back towards the counter where Alex remained, sad and gorgeous. Nothing in the world would ever make him hurt her like Darren did. Determined to try again when she wasn't quite so forlorn, Brian dashed out as the glass doors swung open. Already, he had a plan to make her see him as more than a boy.
As Brian walked away, he nearly knocked down a man at the curb by the main road. The man was surveying the store’s signage and after a second's consideration, walked up towards the other sliding glass doors that read “ENTRANCE”.
In her mind, Alex was convinced that she would be alone forever. She couldn’t imagine trusting anyone ever again. As she heard the glass doors slide open, she held on to the feeling of betrayal that Darren had caused in her. Determined to protect her fragile heart, she looked up to serve the newcomer, even as she vowed under her breath that she would never love again.