“I can help you over–“
I don’t manage to spill a full sentence from my lips before the next customer dumps an armful of merchandise onto the counter. My eyes flicker over the pile; boxes of candy canes, a poorly-stitched Rudolph stuffed animal with a light-up nose, and handfuls of cards and off-brand soap collections. The usual last-minute gifts.
“Did you find everything okay?” I ask in a monotone, my hands reaching to scan each item with mechanical motions. Grab, scan, bag. Grab, scan, bag.
“Sure did,” the middle-aged woman across the counter replies, wiping her palms on her coat. Her hair is frizzing at the edges, and she licks her lips impatiently every few seconds. Behind her, the line snakes through the queue and into the decorations aisle, the shelves half-empty and disheveled. It’s Christmas Eve. The staff has bigger problems than organizing the aisles, just to have them desecrated two minutes later.
I scan the last item and hand the bag over the counter. “That’ll be fifty-four dollars and eighty-three cents.”
“Just put it on my card,” she says, swiping her credit card and snatching the bag from my hands.
“Happy Holidays from all of us here at Smart Drug,” I recite emotionlessly.
She’s out the door before I finish my sentence. Typical.
I reach a hand up to my neck and pull at the collar of my store uniform. It’s an ugly navy color, and made of the cheapest material on the market which means it itches like hell. “Next in line, please!”
“Hi there.” A teenage girl steps up to the counter, smiling from behind large, wayfarer glasses. She places a sparkly eye shadow palette, a tube of crimson lipstick, and a silver eyeliner pencil on the counter. “I’d like to purchase these, please.” She withdraws a red lipstick tube from her pocket and wiggles it in the air. “And I’d like to return this.”
“Do you have the receipt?” I ask.
“Yes, right here.” She produces a crumpled piece of paper and smooths it along the edge of the counter before handing it to me. I barely glance at it before running the barcode under the scanner.
“Has the product been opened?”
She bites her lip, and her eyebrows furrow slightly. “Yes. Is that a problem?”
I sigh and pop open the register, counting out her change. “No. We have a complete returns policy.” I hand her the money and she gives me the lipstick tube, which I toss in the bin behind me, along with every other unusable returned product.
The girl cranes her neck to get a look at the bin. “What do you do with all that stuff?”
I give her a sideways once-over, taking in her black coat, fluffy white scarf, and coily ponytail. All her questions are breaking my usual routine of streamlined customer interaction. “Uh, it just gets thrown away, I guess. We can’t resell it if it’s already been used.”
She frowns. “But I didn’t even use it. I just opened it and realized I’d bought the wrong color.”
I shrug. “Sorry. It’s store policy.”
As she watches me ring up her makeup, her frown quirks up into a smile. “I’m going to a Christmas party tonight,” she informs me, bouncing on the tips of her toes. “That’s why I’m buying all this stuff.” She sighs happily. “I love Christmas. Everything is just so much better, you know? It’s like life is … enhanced.”
A scoff slips out of my throat. I quickly try to disguise it as a cough, but she’s already heard me.
Her eyes narrow slightly. “What? Do you not like the holidays?”
I plunk her purchases into a bag and slide it over to her. “You wouldn’t either, if you worked here.”
Her expression softens, and she accepts the bag. “Merry Christmas …” Her gaze flickers to my nametag, “… Valentina.”
Before I can react, she turns and strides out of the store, ponytail swinging. My eyes follow her through the sliding doors and out onto the street.
“Excuse me? There’s a line here.”
“What?” My attention recoils back to the chaotic scene before me. An irritated-looking man is snapping his fingers in my face, a pouting child sulking in his arms.
“Oh. Right. I can help you over here.”
I can feel my collar chafing against my neck. The day I finally escape this pit of despair, the first thing I’m going to do is burn this demonic uniform.
“Please, I just need to buy a toy for my niece! It’ll only be a minute – everywhere else is closed.”
“So are we!” my manager, Lola, snaps, shooing the distressed straggler out of the store. There are always a few customers that ignore the overhead announcements calling for their evacuation, but it’s even worse during the holidays. These people are persistent.
“That’s the last one,” Lola declares, as the woman finally retreats out into the night. She purses her lips and shuts her eyes for a moment, running her hand roughly through her hair.
“Get the hell out of here, all of you. We’ll deal with the cleanup on Monday.”
Every employee breathes a collective sigh of relief, and people begin shuffling on coats and trudging towards the door. I collapse against the counter, letting my arms rest against the cool surface.
“What are you going to do after this?” Josh asks me, slipping his leather jacket over his shoulders. “I’m heading to my girlfriend’s house. She made hot chocolate and we’re going to watch ‘Elf.’” He smiles a little at the thought. I try to picture having hot chocolate and a significant other to come home to. I can’t.
“I don’t know. I’ll probably just go home and fall asleep,” I reply.
He nods sympathetically, then turns towards the exit. “See you Monday.”
I wave half-heartedly. “Yeah. See you.”
He heads out the door, just as the overhead speakers cut out, replacing the incessant loop of Christmas carols with dead air. I couldn’t stand hearing that music all throughout my shift. But now that it’s gone, the whole store feels a little sadder, the untidy aisles and flickering fluorescents no longer masked by cheery jingles. It’s just another lonely pharmacy on Christmas Eve. And I’m just another burned-out employee with nothing to go home to.
I hesitate. Then I turn around and drop to my knees beside the returns bin. It was hours ago that that girl returned that lipstick tube, and I’ve tossed plenty more items in here since then. But a little digging turns up the tube, the makeup inside still red and untouched. I grab it and slip it into my pocket, then pull on my coat.
I clock out and head outside. It’s cold and pitch dark, but the streetlamps illuminate the white snowflakes fluttering by. I walk a few feet to the next storefront, and turn to face the window. All lights are off inside, and I can just make out my reflection in the glass pane. I reach behind my head and remove my hair elastic, letting my locks spill over my face. I fluff them a little, then withdraw the lipstick tube and pop off the top.
I haven’t worn lipstick in months. My lips are slightly chapped, and it takes a few swipes before my fingers remember how to hold the tube correctly. I carefully apply the makeup, my eyes wide in the windowpane.
I step back, rub my lips together, and then take in my reflection. Something inside me lifts a little, and I smile.
I think I’ve got a little hot chocolate somewhere in the cupboard at home.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.