a joke to behold
Shades stood in full uniform, a joke to behold.
A total contradiction of his style, as well as most of what he stood for. White shirt. Black slacks. And that dorky-looking vest with the nametag. (The word Shades inscribed on it being the only lingering trace of his persona.) He had been forced to get a job at DepartMart ever since Master Al was forced to sell his shop as the never-ending influx of wealth from California turned both tax code and real estate rates against him. So he had had about half a year to contemplate why bosses in major chains were so determined to make their subordinates look retarded next to them.
Just sellin’ out to The Man.
Though he had to admit that he had borrowed most of his theories on boss psychology from Vince, who had spent over a year at Happy Burger perfecting his ideas in the first place.
The first thing he did after taking off his helmet was don a pair of “prescription” glasses before he walked in the door. He needed a source of income, had a choice between this and fast food, and these days he sometimes wondered why the only choices he could find were between bad and worse. The one thing he had learned that he could bring to future jobs was the knowledge that he wasn’t cut out for customer service. Those darkened lenses were sometimes the only thing standing between various customers and supervisors and his true feelings; his eyes often betrayed too much.
Shades had barely made it into the parking lot before it started raining, and by the time he got inside it was coming down steady. Thanks to Carlos’ little stunt, he had barely had enough time to talk to Gus at the Army Surplus Store for all of five minutes. Gus was an amicable enough fellow, an old associate of his father’s and a veteran of several campaigns in Southeast Asia, who was quite knowledgeable about unconventional fighting tactics. Just sitting downstairs with his wagon-circle of counters laden with martial arts weapons. He barely had enough time to take care of business before he had to breeze back out the door.
On the way out, he was cut off by a black van with deeply (probably illegally) tinted windows, and a brief glimpse of vanity plates reading POWRSRJ. It was a phrase he had heard somewhere, and it had given him a weird feeling, but he had been in a hurry, had a lot on his mind. He cast his mind back to the whip now resting among the items in his backpack. If Carlos wanted to up the odds, so could he.
Ever since his eighteenth birthday, he had enjoyed using his martial arts certification from Master Al to buy fun new weapons. Since he had first started training, he had aimed to expand his proficiency with various weapons, mostly for the hell of it. Off and on since childhood, he had felt an inexplicable need to know these things, as if they might somehow be as vital to his future as everything he had gleaned from hitting the books all these years. And although not terribly practical in combat, he had been watching a lot of old adventure movies with Sandy’s friends lately, and a whip looked like a fun weapon, just to fool around with.
On the job, Shades had mastered two specific skills. One: he had learned the particulars of the store better than most of his fellow employees, so it didn’t matter whether or not it was “his” department. And two: he had continued to cultivate the art of stealth whenever his “asshole sense” (as he thought of it) started tingling; he had gotten pretty good at seeing rude customers from a mile away. He knew it was his job, but also believed it was his sacred duty to keep his fellow employees— especially those who had worked here longer than himself— on their toes.
Becky Chandler was the bassist in Sandy’s band, and a friend of hers who claimed to practice magick (and who adamantly insisted that it was spelled with a K) once offered to ensorcel his vest to deflect people’s attention and make him less noticeable. Anymore, he was seriously thinking about taking her up on it. After all, the worst that could happen was that it wouldn’t work.
In the meantime, Shades ducked whenever a particularly determined-looking customer came through. He knew it would take longer to finish stocking CDs, still he also knew he wouldn’t lose nearly as much time as he would to some people’s parade of questions to which he had no satisfactory answers. Where is the…? (always some obscure item he didn’t know DepartMart even carried in spite of his time here), or You’re all out of… (something he had no control over), Would you order more? (hell no— the computer in the back handled all the shipping, and Shades doubted it was even programmed to take orders from its own creators), or his personal favorite, Where are the restrooms? (as they had to walk right past the damn things on the way in). And always weird questions he could never have the right answer to.
Again he reminded himself that he only needed to hold out for about two more months, then he could find a new job. Just until after he and Arthur had made their long-planned road trip to Alaska this summer. Gary LaRoch had done some lucrative business deals up there and made a small fortune, perhaps his luck would rub off on them.
And again, he wished he was still working for Master Al. Granted, this job paid about a dollar-an-hour more than Al’s under-the-table wages, but there were seldom rude customers. Even after he had finished paying off his motorcycle, he kept a good chunk of change. Of course, Al had practically given it to him for a song, being a sixteenth birthday present and all, Shades had spent that summer at his first real job paying it off. It was certainly more than his mom could have afforded.
Then again, ever since Sergeant Douglas MacLean disappeared in action, during an operation whose exact nature no one could even account for, in the Amazon Jungle nearly eight years ago, there had come to be lots of things Mom couldn’t afford. Despite moving up in the world after it left her to fend for herself, the Great California Invasion marched on, and over the years, the price of everything kept climbing as outside incomes outpaced the more modest local standards. Many times she had spoken of leaving the increasingly expensive Flathead Valley.
But in the end she had backed down, apparently deciding to stick it out and let her son finish high school with his old friends.
Shades figured she thought it was the least she could do since the world had taken his father away under such mysterious circumstances. Though he had disappeared without a trace, all agencies listed him as dead, despite none of Dad’s old connections in the military being able to even confirm whether or not there had been an investigation. Shades suspected he wasn’t supposed to have heard that part of the story, but he had anyway, as children seem to have an uncanny knack for doing.
And had never forgotten. The time was fast approaching when he would have to find a real way to support himself, and though some of Dad’s old friends had made offers, and despite his breaking a long-standing family tradition, Daddy’s little GI Joe had decided that whatever his future held in store, the military would have no part of it. Aside from that, though, he didn’t have much of a plan; he was going to do something, and it wasn’t supposed to involve being a wage-slave.
As he thought about the day’s events, he continued stocking, wishing he could (officially, at least) join his friends’ boycott, pending the elimination, or at least special marking, of censored CDs.
Fortunately, alphabetizing was not a terribly taxing task on his mind, for tonight it mostly wandered back and forth at will between tomorrow’s hike, his conversation with Amy, and his altercation with Carlos. John’s family’s house had come with a large swath of land on the other side of the creek, the same creek that ran past Shades’ old home farther downstream. Just a rickety old plank bridge between them and that fabled gold mine. Not that any of them had ever found even a trace of it.
Not that they let that stop them, either. Of course both of them knew the mine was just an excuse to get out there; what they really sought was adventure. Given how little of it he had found in the real world, Shades had come to surround some of the odd things they found out there with a certain mystique, imagining bizarre and extraordinary circumstances under which they might have ended up out there.
He had already made up his mind that if Amy wanted to hang out with him, he would invite her out hiking some time. If things played out well, maybe even to that barbecue John was talking about. And so Shades’ thoughts kept recycling the same three subjects for the duration of his shift.