by Anna Yeatts
The ting-a-ting-clank announcing a customer caught me off guard. No one came in Moore’s Gas & More in July. We didn’t have air conditioning. Even the taffy got squishy.
I popped up from the candy row and gave my jeans a yank. “Can I help you?”
I squinted at the customer standing by the corn chips, backlit by the window. I guessed woman because she was short. I figured she wanted the john.
“Back there.” I pointed past the air filters. “Only got one. Uni-sex and all.”
She stared out the window like a little kid, her fingers hooked over the magazine racks.
“I’m Cinny if you need anything,” I said.
I resumed my candy shelving, singing Gloria Estefan under my breath. I had a good set of pipes. Mama said my voice was sweet enough to soothe baby birds out of the nest, whatever that meant, only I was too awkward to sing in front of folks.
The customer scuff-scuffed into the candy row like she didn’t know to pick her feet up. I turned and I figured out she was a he, and the strangest little he I’d ever seen.
“Oh.” I sat back on my heels. My rear hung out of my jeans, but I was too frozen to scootch my britches up.
He was shoulder-high to a normal person, so boob height on a freakishly tall gal like me. Petite, mama would say, but good looking with curly black hair, cut short, and skin the color of graham crackers. He was bare-chested and bare-footed, but we got that a lot with no A.C. and all. His pants were muddy red and flowing like video game ninja monks.
But his eyes, white as curdled milk? They gave me the heebie-jeebies. I figured he might be blind.
“Want me to show you where the john is?” I stood, yanking my pants.
His eyes followed, easy-peasy.
Not blind. My cheeks burned. “Because I show everyone. ‘Cause it’s hard to find.” I backtracked, nearly taking out the beef jerky. “This place being so convoluted.”
We’d dissected cow eyeballs in tenth grade and they had the same bluish sheen, a dead membranous glow that made my belly itch.
I wanted to run away from little dead eyes, but I was a people pleaser, mama said. “Can I help you find something?”
“Laundry soap,” he said, in a deep baritone that gave me chills like the great Italian tenors on CD.
“We’ve got that,” I said.
He scuff-scuffed behind me. We had fabric softener, a jug of Clorox, and Drain-O. No laundry detergent.
I turned and jumped. Little fellow stood under my elbow, peering into the rickety shelf, nothing to see but dust bunnies rolling across the back.
He smelled odd, like hard boiled eggs and burned toast, and he was pulling a granite chunk wrapped with twine.
I was all for unconventional pets. I’d had a chia pet named Hairy Larry before he wilted, so I knew that flavor of cuckoo. But I’d never taken Hairy Larry for a walk.
Little fellow straightened up, looking sadder than a hound dog.
I thumbed through a box of foil packets next to the Clorox, and found a sample of Woolite. “Maybe this’d work? If you just need to do a load or two?”
He plucked the packet from my hand. “No fade?” He dropped his rock twine, ripped the packet open, and squirted the pink gel into his palms. Slapping his hands together, he rubbed the powdery fresh goo over his chest.
“Hey–” I started, but he’d lathered his face and was ready to yank down those ninja pants when I grabbed him by the waistband and tugged his britches up. Slippery as a carp in Crisco, he twisted, screeching.
I’ve watched wrestling since I was big enough to drink sweet tea out of a bottle. I know more ways to toss a man out of the ring than you can count. I flipped little fellow under my arm, stomped up the aisle, kicked the door open, and shoved him out.
Little fellow pinwheeled his arms and kicked his baby feet, but I had an easy hundred pounds on him. He hit the gravel and rolled before flopping onto his back.
I shut the door, cranked the bolt, and flipped on the floodlights so he couldn’t sneak up on me in the dark. I smelled like a jar full of daisies, and you could’ve blown bubbles in my armpits. Little fellow pressed his face against the glass between the “Live Bait” and “We ID” signs. He poked his finger against the glass, making an oval smudge. I followed the direction of his finger to his pet rock.
The cantaloupe-sized chunk of granite was pockmarked, each tiny starburst ringed in silver. I poked it with my toe. Outside, little guy squirmed. In the floodlights, the Woolite made shiny streaks over his skin. He flickered once, then again — like putting a towel over a flashlight then flipping it on and off.
My heart crawled into my bladder to hide for a spell. No way did I want to open that door and hand out that rock. Because I knew, sure to Moses, that humans don’t flicker. Ever.
But Mama said, we had to help each other. So I dragged the rock over and unlocked the door. My fingers shook. I could barely flip the bolt. He knelt, waiting, with curdled milk eyes and Woolite-blotched skin.
“Gonna sit out there all night or come in?” I asked, stepping back. He stood and smiled, but I didn’t trust him.
Nervously, I straightened the chewing tobacco rack next to the register. “What’s your name?”
His eyes roved around. “Apple Jack.”
“Like the chewing tobacco?” I laughed.
Apple Jack flickered. He looked a shade peaked with his cheekbones pinched and his lips flaking.
I rubbed my eyes. “You’re like a Martian, right?”
Big white eyes stared, expressionless.
I zoomed my hands, bleep-bleep-whoosh. “Space man?”
He picked at his britches. “Fallen star.”
“Stars are gas-balls.” I snagged a roll of paper towels from behind the register and handed them to Apple Jack. “You’re no more a fallen star than I’m the Statue of Liberty.”
Apple Jack cradled the paper towels.
I snagged the towels and swabbed off the pink soap. “Why laundry detergent?”
“No fade. Sign said.”
I laughed, a hard peg in the gut laugh that made me cringe. “You mean—”
Apple Jack picked up the twine to his rock and twisted it around his fingers. His neck lit up when the fade hit him. His scalp glowed golden through his hair and he spasmed. I’d seen my uncle yank a frayed light cord once and he’d quivered just like Apple Jack did.
The flicker didn’t last longer than a second, but as the glow left, all the color washed out of him. His freckles stood out like ink blotches.
“”We’ve got to fix you,” I said. “And it’s not going to happen watching you blink like a broken Christmas tree.”
“Maybe—” His idea was cut short when he lit up again, eyelids fluttereing.
I shouted his name. Four seconds, five, the fade held onto him, I didn’t know.
When the light went out, he fell. I grabbed him, hauled him against my belly, and we both sunk to the floor. His hair in my mouth tasted of toast and wood bark. I spit it out and patted his clammy cheek.
I didn’t know what kind of first aid to do on a star so I gave him a shake. His arms wobbled on either side of mine, two tiny man arms flopping overtop of my fleshy girl ones.
His pet rock sat by the counter. I eased Apple Jack off, propped him against the tobacco rack, and hooked the rock with my sneaker, scooting it over. I tucked it beside Apple Jack’s leg and sat his hand on top of it. The rock glittered around the edges.
I sang a few bars of Gloria Estefan and poked at the rock. It was warm. A star rock from the Big Dipper, maybe, it’d gotten heated up during re-entry.
A warmth flowed up my arms and into my throat. Sugared words and every heart-rending melody I’d ever learned wanted to pour out of my mouth. I couldn’t help it. The notes dripped with goodness
A hand squeezed mine. Apple Jack smiled, weak as a two day tea-bag.
The fade lit Apple Jack pure white. It sucked the life from both of us, our hands connected, and me too stunned to yank away.
A guy used to come in the gas station missing a lower leg. He said his missing leg ached the fiercest because there was nothing to soothe. The fade was like that. It took a piece and didn’t leave anything to soothe.
When I peeled my eyelids open, I lay on top of an unconscious Apple Jack. Bile slid my throat. “Still with me?” I tried to sound like we’d get through this together but I wasn’t so sure. His lips were dry and flaky but they moved. I leaned down. His breath was sweet as summer peaches on my cheek.
I hadn’t realized how long his eyelashes were, black and curling up on the tips like moth antennae. I wanted to touch them with my finger.
His throat strained and he didn’t open his eyes. “Stars,” he said.
I scooped him up in arms, twisting the twine around my fist. He leaned his head against my shoulder. He was no more than skin and bones—if stars even had bones. For once I was glad I was tall and long legged, with strong arms and soft shoulders.
I flipped off the floodlights with my elbow. I took Apple Jack out through the rear door. The store backed up to a copse of pine trees with an empty field to the right of the store, no more than scrub brush.
I tugged the twine, and Apple Jack’s rock scuff-scuffed, bouncing over the concrete. He stared at the sky. We crossed the field, and the rock swished through the dry summer grasses. I stomped around and flattened a little nest. Kneeling, I eased Apple Jack onto the ground.
He lifted his arm, reaching for the sky as if he could touch his brothers and sisters. He sighed, nothing more than a rustle of breath. I wouldn’t have heard it if I hadn’t had my ear next to his face.
Spiny grasses poked through his dark hair. His pants hung off his skinny hipbones. Holding the twine, I reeled in the rock, then nestled it against his hip. “What’s the rock for?” I asked.
His eyes were enormous, eating up his entire face. “Part of me.”
I must have looked confused because he gave me a crooked little grin. “I split,” he said. “Rock, body.”
“You’re a …” I laughed. Then I shut it down.
But Apple Jack laughed. “Yes, rock is me.”
When the fade took him, he kept his eyes on mine. The wash of light blazed brighter than I’d imagined. My eyes burned. I clutched fistfuls of grass to keep from grabbing him and holding him tight.
The fade passed and the light dimmed and Apple Jack was gone. Only a flattened patch of grass and a wad of brown fabric remained. I gathered up the crumpled pants and hugged them against my chest. Taking up the piece of twine, I wrapped it around my hand. The stars shone overhead, silvery pinpricks I’d never noticed until tonight, not the way I did now.
I walked back into the parking lot, taking Apple Jack’s rock, or Apple Jack himself depending on how I looked at it, with me. He scuff-scuffed along, skidding over the asphalt.
In the muggy night, I couldn’t tell if the salty drops running off my nose and sliding under my chin were sweat or tears or both. Scooping Apple Jack into my arms, I opened the front door as wide as it would go and held it there, the bell overhead making its tink-a-tink.
A breeze ruffled my hair, tossing the twine around my legs as I bent down and nestled Apple Jack’s rock at the base of the door. The aluminum frame clinked against the granite but Apple Jack’s rock stayed in place, letting the fresh air fill up the store with the scent of pine trees and sweet clover.
Reckoned we could work on my singing. Not like Apple Jack was going to complain if I hit a wrong note here and there. And all great musicians needed a muse. Apple Jack had Hairy Larry beat—seeing as there were no good songs about chia pets. But a star and a shopgirl together had potential.