Prologue Pt 2
With the store in sight, I caught Ms. Ann Lee herself at the entrance; engaging with her customers. 'A 38 year old woman that didn't look a day over 25' is how my mother always described her. She was quite a sight. Her brown hair rippled down her back in its worn black tie. The white blouse painted on her body showed off her great bust through its thin lace. Even her green skirt was suffocating. We suffered enough in my opinion, but sometimes I think Ms. Lee was trying to kill herself. I could never see myself or my mother wearing clothes like that or her white 3inch heels.
"Thanks for shoppin at Lee's Family Foods ma'am. Thanks! Come again! We appreciate yer business. Welcome to the family. Welcome. Hello, how are...? Oh! 'Xcuse me hon!" Ms. Lee nearly knocked over a bony blond girl that couldn't be but a year or so older than me. The girl scoffed at Ms. Lee over her shoulder as she caught herself against another passerby. Ms. Lee paid her no mind. I doubt she even valued the girl's existence in that moment. Instead, she honed in on a dark man weaving through the crowd. He kept his head turned from her direction. The toned man tried to blend in with a group entering the store, but Ms. Lee was quick and persistent. She shoved through the crowd and pressed up against him.
“Oh, my, my, my. Mister William Jones! How are you this lovely day?” Ann's hands flowed down the man's chest and around his abdomen. She pulled him in by the waist.
"Ms. Lee! I-I'm doing well. Just came to get some food... for my family and my wife." He staggered backwards with his hands on her shoulders. William looked to everyone in passing in distress. Women either laughed or rolled their eyes. The men quickly ran in or out; avoiding the entire situation.
"Good enough to eat! And y'all know I love me some chocolate!" She wrapped a hand around his lower back and spanked him with the other.
"Yeah, I think you told me that before." William managed to turn his body around and grab onto a leaning sign beside the shop. Ann hugged him close around his waist.
"I got some other thangs I wanna say too!" Ann pressed her breast into William's back. He pulled himself away with one hand on the sign and the other trying to remove Ann's hands.
"Ms. Lee you do remember I told you I was married... and had kids! Ann!" Ann's hands danced up and down William's body and found their way under his shirt against his swiping and pulling away.
"Oh boy you know I'm just playing." William stumbled forward as she released him. He caught himself on the brick red wall. Ann gave him one last slap on the seat of his pants and bit her lip. William spun around with wide eyes. He felt his way along the wall to the entrance of the shop and dashed in.
"Good morning Rinko!" Her smile was blinding as she turned to greet me. The sun brought out the emeralds of her eyes.
"Good morning Ms. Lee." It seemed like she towered over me in those heels. She was just barely taller than my mom at 5'5" and wore her 200plus lbs like a diamond ring. There was no shame in her life.
"Oh child, I've told you only bout a hundred times to call me Ann baby." She placed her hands on her hips and furrowed her brow at me. I would have taken her seriously if she wasn't poorly forcing back a grin.
"I'm sorry Ms. Lee. I forgot again. How's Lexi?" Alexis, her 12 year old daughter, was my best friend. She was a little taller than me and a little bigger in weight, but it was mostly muscle. Like me, she was a mix breed; half white from her mom and half whatever her tan father, Rubio Gonzales was. You'd never tell from looking at her though. She was as pale as a ghost and hated every bit of it.
"Oh she's doing just fine. She's over her cold and now she's just sleeping away like a baby. When she wakes up I'm thinkin I'll fix her a big meal. Ya know, like pasta and chicken with some tacos and pop on the side." She laughed at the thought. Even if she had the food for it, I doubt she'd waste it. There was no guarantee that we'd eat tomorrow so what we could afford to save today was worth saving. All and all she was a loving mother. She placed a hand on my back and led me inside the small shop.
"That's good. I miss her." I had to clear my throat as we entered the shop. I could feel a tickle deep in my throat. You could see the dust fall kicked up from the white-tiles-painted-black-and-brown from the heavy traffic in the light beaming through the holes in the walls. The chipping blue paint uncovered the concrete base of the wall, making the entire store look like some sort of prison.
"What yer lazy momma sendin ya for this time honey?" Ms. Lee leaned on the wooden counter to the left of the entrance. Behind her hung several photos of her and Lexi, my mom, me, and the twins.
"A half-gallon of milk and two loaves of bread." I decided to go for the bread while Ms. Lee went for the milk in the large freezer against the back wall across from the entrance.
"That's all that Mari can afford this time 'round huh? These times we living is just a hot mess." She shook her head as she stared at the nearly barren freezer. There was one whole gallon of milk and three half gallons spaced out between two half empty packages of hot dogs and four slices of a whitish-green cheese.
"She's trying really hard." The bread was on a table in the center of the shop with a pack of nuts, two jars of PB & Jelly, and a can of formula. There was only six loaves left and most of them were half empty.
"Oh honey you ain't gotta tell a gal twice. All we can do is try. Try and pray. Y'all gon see. God always answers our prayers, now." She nudged the milk at me and turned towards the counter. "He will Ri. Just gotta give it time. Time and patience. His power knows no limitations."
"I know. Things will get better." They had to for my mom and my brothers. I can't continue to watch them suffer. A cough forced it's way up and out of my soul as I spoke. The air in the shop was humid, but the area around the table was particularly suffocating. Behind me was the produce table. Or what was left of it. The cloth covering the table was damp. The floor around it formed its own puddle out of the colorful dripping fluid on the cloth. Everything on the table was either shriveled, black, green, fuzzy, bleeding or all of the above. That would easily explain why my stomach was turning inside out. I quickly grabbed the one untouched loaf and a half loaf of bread that didn't have as much mold as the others and retreated. On the way to the counter, I passed by the meat cooler on the floor against the store front wall. The food was covered in blood and flies. It was hard to believe that anyone would eat it, but then again... A man quickly rushed the counter where Ms. Lee was placing my milk in a plastic bag and demanded something to eat. He was stumbling all over the place and using the counter as a means of balance. Ms. Lee held her nose as they talked. The problem became clear to me as he approached the meat cooler next to me. The smell of alcohol oozed from his body. He was covered in so much filth it was hard to distinguish his skin color from his filthy rags. And just as quick as he was in, he had snatched up a pack of meat and was out. I didn't see what he threw at Ms. Lee for payment, but whatever it was she didn't bother to touch it. Instead she used one of the plastic bags from her stack and slid it on the floor behind her. At the counter I laid the loaves down and started fumbling around in my pockets for the money my mom gave me when I heard it. Behind me hung a new small screen TV on the wall by the entrance. It cut on suddenly and a very young, very thin blond woman appeared on screen.
"Avilon City, a place where dreams come true and success is made easy. Bustling businesses and great prices has made Avilon City the number one city in the Druggon District. With its safe family environments and exemplary school zones, Avilon..." The woman spoke over clips of happy, clean children playing in grass covered parks and a woman in a colorful flowing dress. There were men in suits gathered around at tables discussing who knows what with laughter and glee. The meat in the ad was a lighter shade of brown than I had ever seen here and the produce looked like it was grown somewhere nice. I had never seen a table so lively in any house more so than the one that was shown. A woman and man sat at a table with three children, in descending age I assume, around the table. Each person had their own individual cup and plate along with eating utensils of all things. Each plate had some white fluffy looking food covered in a brown sauce. There was a chicken leg on every plate right beside a tiny green tree and what looked like picked apart corn. In the middle of it all was even more bowls and plates of food. Talk about a waste of resources!
"That TV plays the same damn thang over and over again. Showing pictures of the 'beautiful city an all it has to offer'. Those Rats brought it in earlier with my shipment of what they trynna pass as groceries from the capital. Like the boxes in our homes ain't good enough anymore; now they gotta remind us what we working so hard for. Show us what life is all about. Ain't nut'in, but a load of hobo sweat if ya ask me. An excuse for someone to come an rob me blind is what that is! And Imma be the one who's getting in trouble behind it. Just repeatin the same 'ol thang every hour." She was putting the bread into a paper bag behind me.
I understood what she was saying, but that was it. That was the life my family longed for; what they needed. The women were gorgeous. Their skin was without deformation. Their eyes sparkled against the jewels in their ears and around their necks. There were smiles on every face. The size of their homes could only be bested by the unnatural amount of food they had. And to top it off the grass was green, the trees were growing, and the pavement was all smooth. There wasn't a crack, scratch, or fade of color on a single thing. Even the clothes the people donned were without shade.
"We'll never live like that. They ain't interested in people like us. A symbol of perfection is what they want. People here too much of a threat to their prefect society." I turned to give her the money. Staring at the TV too long would start to hurt. Ms. Lee had her hands on her hips, glaring at the TV. If her lashes were loaded, that screen woud've been full of holes. I think that was the first time I genuinely saw her upset about anything besides family.
"Twenty bucks suga," she held her hand out towards me as she greeted two young men that waked in. I gave her the twenty and asked if I could have a candy bar with the five I had left. Candy was the most expensive of all the things in any store. It usually never spoiled or melted and regardless of the rotted teeth that came with it, it was satisfying. Ms. Lee kept the candy she sold locked in a metal box under a tile behind the counter. She smiled and pulled out two Stanford Bars.
"You share that extra one with your block-head brothers now Ri. I know they like them some chocolate too. An' you tell Mari I said 'Hey', kay?" She blew a kiss as she said it and laughed. Her cleavage jiggled over the counter as she leaned on it. Before I could even think to head for the exit I ran around the counter and squeezed her as tight as I could. Her hold was even harder. At the entrance I turned around to thank her and say good bye.
"Oh and Ms Lee..."
"What you call me now Ri? She squinted at me as far as her eyes would go without completely shutting.
"Oh. Um, Ann?" Her smile was more than an approval. I could feel its warmth from the door. Her teeth were sparkling. "Would you please..." And then it hit me... hard. In a matter of seconds there was three Ann Lees behind the counter fading in and out of each other.
"Um... Would you please tell..." With all my might I pulled as much air as I could into my lungs, but it wasn't enough. My chest was caving in on itself. A cough manages to slip through, "...tell Lexi..." My legs were struggling to hold the rest of me up. They were expelling more energy quaking, than maintaining my body weight. A few more coughs stabbed my throat as they pushed their way up. I tried to fight through it. "I...that I said..." I was forced into a hunched position by my stomach receding into my spine. My hands involuntarily clutched my chest.
"Sweetie you okay?" Ms Lee rushed over and flung her arms around me.
"I'm okay." It took a minute for the air to clear. I clutched my chest as I caught my breath. "I go through it everyday. I'm fine." I wasn't fine. My legs were burning. My body was on fire. The shop seemed hotter than it was a moment ago. I forced a smile. "I wanted Lexi to know that I said hi and that I can't wait for her to get better.
"Of course I will Rinko. You're like sisters after all." Her tone said relieved, but her frown and watery eyes lingered on her face. I understood why. The last time I did that in front of her I collapsed and stopped breathing altogether. A man that happened into the shop gave me CPR and when I awoke she was in tears and Lexi followed suit in her arms. I hated making them feel that way.
"I better hurry on home." I hugged her again; not just for myself, but for her too.
"You need me to go Ri? I could wake Lexi. You ain't gotta go it alone." Ms Lee was walking and talking. She was already coming back from around the counter with sandals in one hand, while she started removing her heels in the other. I know she was worried, but I couldn’t let her do that. Lexi was recovering from being sick and if she left her store would get robbed for sure.
“No. I’m fine really. It was just a brief fit. I’ve been doing a lot better lately. I promise. You don’t have to worry.” I smiled at her and quickly headed out the door. I was already out of earshot by the time she switched shoes and made her way outside. I assume she understood that there was nothing she could do, since she just stood their waving bye to me and welcoming someone else in with a half smile that was much less inviting.
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