Stephanie’s Guard: The Dust in Escondido. A Short Story.

Landon walked through a parking lot to the bus stop bench. It was an unforgivably hot and clear day, no wind to speak of. The bus wouldn’t be long, and Landon didn’t bother sitting on a graffiti covered bench. His attention buried in the screen of a low end phone. The bus arrived, and Landon took a seat near the middle of the crowded bus, among the others like him who shared a car with someone, or simply did not have one to speak of. The ride would only last thirty minutes, but he never looked up from his phone. Landon was typing in the slowest, and only way he was able to access job applications online. It would often take an hour, sometimes two for him to complete each one. Most he never heard back from, and those he did were regretful.
Stephanie closed the cabinet door after pulling out dry snacks to put in to an empty peanut can. She tried to reuse what she could, they both did what they could to save every penny. The apartment was as small as could be found in the area, on days such as this, the air outside was rife with smells of garbage, and cheap beer. The odor of marijuana would mark the end of most of the other tenant’s workday. Stephanie filled the small, blue can with peanuts, and dried cranberries, then put this at the bottom of a brown paper bag with two sandwiches. She could hear the sound of the bus in the distance, this caused her to speed up everything she was doing, but now, with more happiness written across her face.
She could see Landon coming down the street. Her boyfriend was nearly as skinny as she was, even with his bulky, hooded sweatshirts, he lacked the build of most males. This didn’t bother her. He was slightly taller, and was all the man she wanted. Stephanie hurried to put the simple lunches in her bag, then unlocked the front door. As he walked up the steps to the doorway, the both smiled. Landon rushed in, tossing his pack on to the couch, then headed for their bathroom. He watched her, skipping back and forth around the main room, unable to find the keys to their car. She was petite, dressed in blue jeans, her thermal undershirt covered by a band t-shirt. Her short, jet black hair swayed in the front. When she tossed the long, front of her hair to the side, she was either upset, or it was during their time in bed. He turned to their bedroom, making his way to the closet where he reached under a stack of half folded shirts. Landon’s hand felt the cold metal, and he pulled the revolver from its hiding place.
The nylon bag he put the pistol in also held a few snacks, a low end flashlight with a spare set of batteries for it, and a charging cable for his phone. Sometimes he would pack a book, but for Stephanie, when she worked, it would always be the bag where the gun was kept. She didn’t oppose the weapon for what it was, but the illegality of it being there made her suffer it only because he insisted. The young couple closed their door behind them, locking it, and headed down to an old, but working coupe which they tried their best to keep clean and running.
Stephanie drove, Landon stared out the window. They drove past the exit one would take to the college they wanted to start attending next year. Even with multiple jobs, with all the saving and scrimping, they would still have loans to take out. The gamble was the higher pay they hoped a degree would get them, and paying back what was borrowed. A gamble, but better than assured poverty. Landon did not like his girlfriend’s job, and the hours she worked made it that much worse. This showed in his quietness during the car ride, and Stephanie made a continued effort to not bring this up in conversation. Landon was the opposite of a violent, young man, but this job she had, its inherent danger he disliked, that she knew was present, this made him angry. He wanted her to find a place to work at a local shopping mall, or a home improvement store, yet this was where she ended up.
The California sun was set, only faint purple remained, giving way to the twilight. The wind had picked up, warm, and filled with dust. They could both see the lighted 7-11 store’s sign in the distance. The street leading down to her job was dark, only a third of the street lights were on, or worked. The neighborhood was mostly low income, a collection of wide streets running between overcrowded houses, the occasionally strip mall where payday loans, cash for car titles, and Mexican groceries joined Dollar shopping, and many small churches. Nearly every store, regardless of what kind of business it was sold phone calling cards. You could cash a check with out any form of ID nearly anywhere. The 7-11 was one of the few national chain stores in the area. Stephanie pulled in to the parking lot. As they walked to the front doors, the flood of harsh, florescent lights coming from inside, and the orange headlight of customer’s vehicles made the dust sparkle, a light show that caused one to cough or rub their eyes.

It took about twenty minutes to relive the outgoing cashier. Stephanie worked quickly, sending the off going clerk home. Landon went straight to the back of the store, putting Stephanie’s bag away, and storing their meals. He brought out his phone, knowing to finish another application, but exhausted from it’s repetitiveness. The beginning of her shifts were usually quiet. The patrons had not yet purchased, and become intoxicated by cheap, domestic beers, and a variety of malt liquors. The local police officers just coming on shift would linger in the parking lot, their cruisers backed to the side of the building as they came in and out for coffee. It would be later when Landon would be on higher alert, after they departed. The intoxicated men would return for more drink and smoke, the local gang members would make a meal out of walking or driving to the store, lingering outside, then purchasing large cases of beer only to loiter even more just outside the store, and then finally leaving. It was these times when trouble would come. Young males doing anything to prove toughness, and young females trying to avoid, or actively seeking their attention.
Stephanie’s method for dealing with all this was simple. Ring them up quickly, and avoid talking to anyone. Landon knew she did her best to keep things moving, but the men and young men who came in there were stronger then he was, maybe ever be, intimidating at any level. In groups they sometimes would make clumsy and weak advances towards Stephanie, and her rejections could easily be followed with insults. Landon hated this, and felt a shame he wasn’t formidable enough to discourage others from harassing her. His only option was to ignore other men’s aggression. Despite this, he still came with her. He had his gun, he gave up time playing games with his friends, or relaxing at home, he simply could not enjoy life knowing what she encountered at work. She was estranged from her family, and he didn’t see his much. Though he would never say the words out loud, he was all she had. To Landon, Stephanie was his whole world. To protect her was the only decision in his life he knew was right.
Their packed lunches were shared together, behind the counter on crates. No discussions of possibilities, the rare weekend when they both didn’t have to work was the excitement to talk over. The second clerk due in would be there in an hour, it was relief to both of them for the extra person to be there.
The sounds were usual, but raised pulses regardless. The boisterous voices, slamming of cooler doors, barrages of curses. Landon grabbed his bag as he walked to where he could see what was happening. The white t-shirts, shaved heads, work pants cut in to exceeding long shorts, tattoos of area codes and names in Spanish. He saw Stephanie back off, allowing them to leave with several cases of beer they didn’t even try to pay for. One of them jumped the counter, stuffing his pockets with cheap cigars. It was this one who gropped Stephanie’s breasts while he backed her against a display. Out matched and in danger, she had enough fire to slap his hands away. Landon felt a swell of hesitation, he was frozen from action. His pistol was out but no plan on how to proceed would materialized. It was seeing the fear, and anger on her face, he moved, turning numb with each step.
There were no stand offs, nor declarations of threat. Heads turned, different people reacted in disorganized ways. The decibels of gunfire closed the entire world of sounds to just the space between her and him.
She looked at his eyes. They were still, the life was gone from the warmth they had always given her. She was crying, but crawling towards him. He had fought for a few seconds only moments ago, trying to take in air as his only first aid. She didn’t care that her memory would forever remember the difference between laying on his chest when he was breathing, and when he wasn’t. She could only think to wrap herself around him.
It wasn’t like sleep, where the moment it starts is lost from memory. Stephanie could hear sirens, but not in hope. By the time she realized her mind was fading, hope had gone. The tension of muscle use released, she closed her eyes.

He had already been headed to that store when the call came in. It was a good place for a break, and the neighborhood really needed as much police coverage as they could get. The officer could see a blood trail, large drops heading away from the doors and in to the dark streets. Inside, the officer made the basic rounds, the callous of seeing this type of thing blurring out the ability of his mind’s long term memory. The phone he found in the back room was chiming. When he looked through the phone, the call to 911 was registered in the log. As he set it back down, a new message arrived. The young man on the floor being the counter would not be starting a new job.

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