Tabitha was going back to school today, Mrs. Moore thought as she stared down at her hands folded in her lap. Hope she’s having a better time of it than I am here.

She had to hold her hands together to still them, because otherwise they would shake.

The sterile light of the Food Lion’s break room this morning was ominous and terrifying, and half a dozen polite good mornings had been exchanged with the other employees there as they started their day. Everyone on this shift seemed curt and for the most part the niceties offered seemed particularly hollow—Manager John explained that these regular coworkers took time to warm up to new hires, because it was rare that new people lasted longer than a few days.

His joke—if that was supposed to be a joke—was not comforting to her in the slightest, and though Manager John chuckled to himself at it, she was unable to muster up anything more than a wincing smile. Manager John read off parts of her welcome packet to her while skimming past entire swaths of paragraphs as ‘legal mumbo jumbo,’ and skimmed through the sections detailing her ‘first week of training’... as if standing near Tracy yesterday while she ran a register was more than good enough to cover those basics.

So, she was now outfitted in her collared blouse tucked into slacks, over which a Food Lion apron had been donned—the way it tied around her waist made her feel extra fat and exposed and grotesque, but she shoved all of those feelings deep down inside of herself before she could vomit. The break room she was sitting in felt even more tense than a hospital waiting room, and she was sure she stank of fear.

The clock read 8:42, and the scant minutes until the actual start of her shift now seemed an agonizing length of time.

Tracy arrived and took a seat, ignoring Shannon’s presence completely, and the stout old woman promptly began instead leafing through pages of newspaper advertisements. Then two more people in aprons arrived through the doors; the chatterbox young lady from yesterday—Cindy—and an older man with a stubbled face. To Shannon’s surprise, they both immediately came and sat near her.


“Hi! I’m Cindy, we met yesterday,” Cindy waved. “This is Frank, he’s in deli.”

“Shannon,” Shannon offered her hand.

“Nice to meet you,” Frank grunted, accepting her hand for a clammy handshake. “You started yesterday?”

“Um,” Mrs. Moore swallowed. “I was observing for a little bit, today’s my first actual day.”

“Whew,” Frank shook his head in apparent dismay, but his tone was light and humorous. “My condolences to you, then. No one cared enough to scare you off?”

“I… really needed a job,” Mrs. Moore said with a helpless smile. “Nowhere else would even call me back.”


“Yeeep, right there with ya,” Frank gave her a sober nod.

“I’m in the same boat; no qualifications or experience,” Cindy revealed with a chipper smile. “Dropped outta high school soon as I found out I was pregnant with Damien. Yeah, the pay here’s the absolute worst and the hours are terrible and the conditions are pretty bad, but, well—they really will hire anyone.”

“That’s… something, at least?” Mrs. Moore tried to laugh, but one didn’t come out.

“Yep,” Frank laughed. “This is all I can do. Larceny and D.U.I. charges, I’m on probation.”

“You’re kidding,” Mrs. Moore said. It was hard for her to put this young man in the same mental box she kept her brother-in-law in. “Really?”

“Oh, don’t let that fool you!” Cindy hurried to assure her. “He’s one of the nice ones!”

“Yeah, thanks,” Frank said with a roll of his eyes. “Now, the mean ones around here are in meat department, couple of them have done hard time. Those bakery crones are nasty, too. Everyone in produce and deli are real nice and friendly, though, can’t go wrong there. Hah, just… maybe don’t bother rememberin’ too many people’s names, around here.”

“Hahh, yeah. Don’t get too attached to anyone!”

To Shannon’s dismay, this Food Lion store’s high turn-over rate seemed to be a recurring conversation point that would keep popping back up, and both Cindy and Frank had a lot about it to say. Sometimes it felt like they were trying to warn her away, and at other times it was as though it was meant to put her at ease. After all, if she was worried about the blank fields she was forced to leave on her application, and the resume that was more gaps than substance… she could apparently put those fears to rest.

They hired anyone.

Springton Food Lion didn’t pay well enough to retain the good employees, it was forced to fire or suspend the worst ones, and everyone in-between seemed to be just any old warm bodies management could muster up to fill empty positions. Naturally, those folk would put in their two weeks notice the instant they found a better job, though most didn’t even give Food Lion that courtesy—they simply disappeared, no-showed for their scheduled hours, or quit and walked out in the midst of their shifts.

Thus, company culture here seemed like a bizarre atmosphere of cynical cheer and semi-repressed loathing. The abnormally high attrition rate of new hires turned things into an endless training montage for the regulars who did stick around, and any and all of the positions that paid even slightly better than average, such as the department heads, were described to her as a viper’s nest of nepotism and crony politics. Which of course resulted in personal drama, grudges, and long-running feuds between sections that apparently became downright Shakespearean.

“We don’t even have a seafood department at all, anymore!” Cindy added. “When someone jokes about ‘getting transferred to seafood,’ they just mean getting fired.”

“Yeah, they all got axed a year or two back,” Frank nodded. “Justin there got into one screaming match too many with Manager Phil, and finally took a swing at him. Big mistake, an’ they had to call in the cops. Apparently it’s a real bitch to pass food safety certification an’ inspections for all that anyways, and Springton here wasn’t ‘xactly clamoring for fresh seafood in the first place. Not at those prices! All that stuff’s just in with frozen, now.”

“Dairy and frozen’s all a bunch of dumb kids,” Cindy chuckled. “I think they’re all teenagers there. Bakery department is…wellll…”

“Um, if I’m a regular cashier, what department does that fall under?” Mrs. Moore asked. “Manager John just—skipped past all the stuff with the store areas.”

“Ah, you’re in with front end, for now at least,” Frank explained. “All that sales and service stuff up front, that’s called front end. Lot of churn in front end.”

“But, you might not be stuck there!” Cindy tried to sound optimistic. “If you were hired on seasonally, they might have you as a floater for a while. Pass you around to whatever department needs you most. Hopefully not bakery! Then, if one of the managers likes you, they’ll transfer you over into their area.”

“You ever run a slicer?” Frank asked. “Meat slicer?”

“Er—I actually have no job experience at all,” Mrs. Moore admitted in embarrassment.

“Well, no worries there,” Frank shrugged. “S’not exactly rocket science in the first place. Could teach a five-year-old to run that stuff. They’d probably do a better job, too! Some of these knuckleheads I get stuck with…”

“We’ve also got no floral department at all,” Cindy spoke up. “That’s what I wanted to be in when I started, I would’ve loved to work with flowers. We’ve got a pharmacy, but none of us peasants are allowed to step a toe inside—all that’s strictly lock and key. Since stuff at the Food Lion pharmacy in Elizabethtown kept getting nicked. We’ve got no beer and wine department, either—that one’s the real bummer.”

“Semi-dry county,” Frank grunted. “Municipality’ll only sell so many liquor licenses for Springton, an’ the beer distributor places gobble ‘em all up every year.”

“Ah, I did know that,” Mrs. Moore nodded in understanding. “We have a liquor store just here right at the end of our neighborhood.”

“Oh, do you live here in town?” Cindy’s eyes lit up with interest. “Where at?”

“I’m… I’m just living in the trailer park,” Mrs. Moore said with difficulty. “The one right here in town.”

“No kidding? Do you know Mary?” Frank asked.

“Mary?” Mrs. Moore blinked, thinking for a moment but then shaking her head. “No… I don’t think so?”

“Think she said she lives in that same trailer park,” Frank said. “The one back in behind that gas station, right? Gas station and the liquor store right there.”

“That’s the one,” Mrs. Moore blushed. “Sorry, I just—I don’t really know any of my neighbors.”

“Mary’s nice,” Cindy commented. “You might see her today, she’s in produce.”

“She won’t see her,” Tracy spoke up from across the room, wearing the same bulldog frown from yesterday. “They’ll have new girl stuck on register the whole day.”

“Well, someone should at least show her around, first,” Cindy said with a pout. “This is why we can’t keep anybody!”

“Bakery lost two more people just over Christmas,” Frank grunted. “Doug, and then that other new guy, what-was-his-name. The tall one.”

“Bakery’s awful! Claudia is the fucking worst, steer clear of that rotten old bitch,” Cindy swore, surprising Mrs. Moore with her sudden change of demeanor. “She tried to write up Doug for coming in two hours late, when he was only two hours late because she kept fucking around with the schedule there without letting him know. The rule is, they’re always supposed to call or give you notice if they change your hours on the fly like that. But nope, not her, she don’t care. Nobody cares.”

“Anything to keep the minimum wage pissants from ever getting our ten cent raise,” Frank muttered under his breath. “If Manager John tried to sell you on gettin’ bumped up ten cents every three months—you can forget it. That’s just flat out not happenin’, not no way, no how.”

“Not a chance,” Tracy agreed with her dour expression. “They’ll write you up for not havin’ yer smile big enough.”

“Hah! Ask me how many write-ups I’ve got,” Frank laughed. “They’re supposed to let you go once you’ve got three—I’m on eleven. Got written up for going over the hours I’m supposed to have, and I say—well, look here, John, I don’t write the fuckin’ schedules. Quit calling me in to cover people’s shifts if you don’t want my hours to go over. Nope! Suspended. During my suspension, guess what they do? They call me back in to cover someone’s shift! You can’t make this shit up.”

“I’d have hung ‘em out to dry,” Cindy growled. “They don’t want you comin’ in, then don’t come in!”

“No can do,” Frank said, shaking his head. “Got child support to pay. I’m takin’ all the hours I can get.”

“Do you have kids, uh—sorry, what was your name, again?” Cindy asked.

“Shannon,” Mrs. Moore said, feeling her throat constrict again. “I have a teenage daughter. We’re… separated, right now. We don’t live together.”

She didn’t want to lie to them while they were all being so forthright with her, but at the same time Shannon found herself hesitant to volunteer too much information. Her gut feeling told her that she was rubbing elbows here this morning with the gossip grapevine of the store, and anything she said would be repeated around to others the moment her name was brought up.

“Shannon, right,” Cindy nodded. “And—sorry, that sounds rough. I’m lucky, my little one’s just three. He’s not goin’ nowhere from his momma. Not ‘til he turns twenty-one!”

“I’ve got two boys,” Frank grunted. “They live with their mother over in Sandboro. Five and eight.”

“Mine are all grown up and gone off ‘cross the country,” Tracy snorted. “Good riddance to ‘em. Bunch of bums.”

“She don’t mean that,” Cindy confided in a loud whisper. “She’s just bein’ stubborn.”

Shannon was too ashamed to reveal her daughter was only fourteen and should still be living with her. She didn’t know how she would ever go about explaining the catastrophic circumstances of her home life, and simply prayed that saying they were separated was a strong enough hint that she didn’t want anyone prying for more details. It seemed plausible that some of the workers here would be either parents of high schoolers, or even high schoolers themselves! In a small town like Springton, everyone was connected, and word about who was related to who would get around fast once it was leaked.

Almost wish I’d just said I was new in town.

“Here we go—clockin’ in time for us, I think,” Frank quirked his chin in the direction of the clock. “Shannon—was nice meetin’ you. I’d say I hope you stick around, but hell. I’m not sure I’d wish that on anybody.”

“Oh, stop,” Cindy guffawed as they rose from their seats and shuffled one by one in front of the timeclock computer. “Shannon hon, are you on at nine? Did Manager John get you all set up so you can sign in too?”

“I sure hope so,” Shannon said with a nervous laugh, double-checking the hazy screen when it was her turn.

A big boxy monitor with a black screen and rows of white text upon it awaited her, and it was difficult to shove down the raw dread she felt when she approached it. There was a monitor and a mouse, but no apparent modem or keyboard or even a little mousepad for the mouse—simply a depressing worn smudge on the tabletop, where hundreds of people before her had shifted the mouse the same several inches. She did so, moving the jittery little cursor across the dark pixels towards a column full of names on the right, clicked on hers, and then clicked it again to sign in when the black and white box her name was in inverted colors to white and black.

“I-I just clicked it there, and then there, and—like that?”

“Well then, now you’ve done it—welcome to the jungle!” Cindy said, patting her shoulder. “Just be sure an’ holler over my way if you need anything, alright? Let’s go and get our drawers assigned.”

Shannon Moore nodded gratefully in response, but found herself unable to speak.

She was now officially on the clock and working, she was employed. She was committed to six hours of whatever it was Food Lion wound up tasking her with doing. There were a million rules to remember, a weight of responsibility crushing down now, and the very real possibility that she would make a mess of things and be screamed at by customers, by bosses, likely even by her fellow coworkers. She would surely be subject to all manner of abuse here, and the prospect of withstanding it all twisted and tightened her guts and quickened her breath until she nearly hyperventilated.

I’m going to do this. I’m GOING to do this. Even if I can’t do this, I’M GOING TO DO THIS.


TIME IN _9:00 AM 01/04/1999

TIME OUT __:__ 01/04/1999 MONDAY