Stocking Shelves

Annie knelt on the rough carpet and sorted through the bin on the floor beside her, trying to remember what went where in the store. The shelf in front of her held cotton swabs and cotton balls, and the bottles of hydrogen peroxide that she’d just finished stocking. At fifteen, Annie was young enough to still cringe at the thought of those brown bottles.

To the left of where she was kneeling, the shelf held first-aid stuff and the mini travel items. To the right were the baby care items. Behind her lurked the feminine products. Annie blushed at the thought of them. So far she’d avoided stocking that section. She’d seen that skinny, blond guy, she couldn’t remember his name, stocking that section the day before and had blushed for him. He hadn’t seemed to care, and she’d felt in awe of his maturity, even though he looked maybe eighteen.

The bin had only makeup and toothpaste left in it and Annie sighed, dreading moving the still heavy bin to the next aisle. Some of the other employees used the shopping carts to move the bins around, but that was against the rules. She felt too new to start breaking the rules already.

Just as she was about to get up, she noticed a woman standing a little way down the aisle, staring at the tampons. The woman’s face was blank and she stood still, one hand on her purse and one hand on the shelf in front of her. Annie’s mind flashed to the ‘anti-theft’ training video she’d had to watch on her first day of work. The video showed bad actors pretending to steal things or scam the cashiers. Most of it was ridiculous, but one part came to mind now. “If you see someone acting strange, such as standing in one section for too long, ask them if you can help them find something.”

Annie looked up at the two-way mirror that spanned the upper half of the wall at the back of the store. The office was up there and the manager, Richard, should be looking down at the customers, watching for ‘strange’ behavior himself. He was probably just doing paperwork as the store was always quiet at this time of day.

She didn’t want to talk to a stranger, but she wanted be a good employee. With another glance up at the two-way mirror, she stood up and approached the woman.

“Can I help…” She stopped speaking at the sight of a tear running down the woman’s face.

The woman turned, startled. “Oh! I… I’m fine, I just…” Her hand flew up to the side of her face and found the tear. She seemed about to speak again, but instead she squeezed her eyes shut, clamped her hands to her mouth, and crumpled to the ground, crying. Her shoulders shook, but no sound came out of her mouth.

Annie spun and took two steps to the travel items section and grabbed a mini-tissue pack, ripped it open and pulled out a tissue while taking the two steps back to the woman. But that didn’t fix anything because the woman didn’t, couldn’t see her.

A part of Annie’s mind panicked. It screamed at her to run away and find a grown-up. But another part told her she knew exactly what to do.

Annie knelt down next to the woman and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “It’s okay,” she murmured, the way her mother did the last time Annie had fallen and scraped a knee. “It’s going to be okay.”

They sat like that for only a moment before Richard appeared at the end of the aisle.

“Annie?” He looked the way she thought the skinny, blond guy should have looked when he was stocking the feminine products, eyes darting around, not wanting to acknowledge the awkward thing in front of him.

The woman took a deep, shuddering breath then pulled away from Annie. Annie offered the tissues and the woman accepted them.

“Thank you. I’m sorry.” She said, wiping her face and moving to stand.

Richard offered a hand and helped her up. “Are you alright, ma’am? Should we call a doctor or would you like some water or…”

“No, no, I’m fine, just… Really, I’m fine.” She tried to smile, but it was painful to look at. Annie moved away, back to her bin.

“Thank you, I’m terribly sorry about…” The woman turned and rushed towards the front door. Richard moved to the end of the aisle and watched her leave the store. Annie heard the familiar tinkling of the door chime.

Richard asked, “What happened?”

“I don’t know, she just started crying.”

He waited, maybe thinking there was more to the story, but Annie shrugged.

“She didn’t pay for the tissues.” Annie said.

Richard gave a little chuckle, “That’s okay. I think we can spare the 99 cents.”

He walked away and Annie turned back to contemplate her bin.