Cat and Raquelle were walking along a short stretch of stores beside the Winn-Dixie. The store was near the neighborhood of “the Haunted House.” They were on their way home from work and Cat had to stop in for some groceries. This store was closest to her house and Roxi had suggested they not split up since it was dusk. They were both anxious for the weekend to begin so their investigation could start.
“After we put these bags in the car, I need to come back to the Eckerd’s for some stuff,” Cat was mumbling. Roxi knew that Cat was not telling this to her but to herself.
Over the years, she had noticed Cat never bought her vitamins at the grocery store. She always went to the nearest drug store because, as she claimed, there was more variety. Though, why her friend need more choices, when it seemed to take her hours to make a final decision on a purchase, was beyond her.
Cat liked to take her time with such important choices as to what she bought. She would graze through the little bottles with their promises of good health and find one that looked intriguing, then pick it out to comb the back label for confirmation of promises or to prove them false. Then, if the chosen one did not meet her personal requirements, she would replace it and move on to the next.
Roxi had also learned that Cat never bought the same products twice. When she had asked her, Cat had said that her body got tired of the same things all the time. She enjoyed change, so she was always trying to find new stuff. Roxi agreed with Cat on that point.
She, herself, did not like the ‘same-old-thing’. This was one reason they both longed for life beyond Orange Grove. It seemed the very embodiment of The Same Old Thing. From people to daily living, it was always the same — day in and day out. No one in the town seemed to think that anything needed changing. The consistency of normal life was deadly to Roxi and Cat. The longer they stayed, the further their aspirations seemed to get from their reach.
There were few people in this town that shared their tastes and loves. The only break from the hum-drum they had ever found was an occasional weekend night out in the neighboring city of Jacksonville. It was much larger than Orange Grove and, in a few places, overlapped the smaller town. The boundaries were always hazy because the areas of northern Orange Grove were thought of as suburbs of Jacksonville. Yet, the larger city was like a dim beacon to Roxi and Cat. They found a few dance clubs they enjoyed, and some groups of younger people that shared a taste for the strange and unusual.
But, at the end of these weekend excursions, the shock back into everyday boredom was depressing. Orange Grove was too sleepy. It was restrained, and too small to contain their energy or satisfy their needs. Roxi felt that she was slowly suffocating. She saw lethargy in everything. Her heart beat faster than a trapped rabbit’s whenever she thought of never leaving Orange Grove. And, the more time that passed before something (anything) interesting happened only served to frustrate her more.
One thing that frightened her lately was she had found Cat making references to never leaving. This did not show on the surface, for Cat still talked about getting out of this town, but Roxi had increasingly felt it was done for Roxi’s sake, not her own reasons. Out of pure consideration. She feared for Cat. She feared that Cat had given up on her dreams, and she felt the death of dreams was the death of the individual. She felt she needed to get Cat out of Orange Grove as soon as possible.
They piled the groceries into the back of Cat’s Honda and slammed the hatchback down. Then headed back to the string of small stores, as the streetlamps in the parking lot flickered and began their evening pink glow.
Cat glanced towards the purple washed sky and sighed deeply. The cool darkness below the trees and shrubs slowly rose into the brilliant pastels of the sunset. The last flames of sunlight were streaking out with long fingers to say their farewell to the earth. The burning gold of the lower clouds passing out and up into the lavender dusk beyond it. She loved the twilight. It was invigorating to her. She loved to see the streetlights and neon signs glow with their unearthly brilliance. All the world took on a wholly unusual, magical quality that made her feel that all things were possible. The wind was louder, different. The colors of the daytime were muted and cloaked. Her melancholy of the last year was always dispelled in the early evenings. Her hopes and dreams for her life returned to her, seemed within reach…until the morning came.
She heard Roxi breath in deeply beside her and say, “I love this time of the night.”
Cat smiled. “Me, too.”
The sky was darkening quickly as they passed under the fluorescent lights and into the Eckerd’s drug store.
As Catherine headed over to the wall of health products, Raquelle wandered over to the magazine rack, to peruse the latest look for models. The ‘earthy’ look was still popular, though that did not help her become famous any faster. She was not ‘earthy’. Roxi’s dream was not to become a model. Her ambitions ran deeper than that. But, being a model would be the fastest ‘first’ step to being noticed. Artist, actress, singer…anything performing was her aim. Yet, she was so isolated in this town that the idea of being discovered seemed impossible. She had friends in Jacksonville that liked using her as a model for their college photography work, and she was happy to do it. Some of the pictures had even gotten into a local gallery. Still, it was a far cry from her ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.
Roxi had a definite Look, to say the least. But, waiting for that particular kind of look to become popular was like waiting for the mountains to move.
She scanned the slick pages of the magazines, muttering at the tall, tanned, skinny women. There were dozens of stories of small town girls being ‘discovered’ in them. Those that were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
And, sleeping with the right people, probably, she thought to herself angrily. Slapping the magazine shut with a grunt, she noticed a clerk stop and look at her as he walked past.
“May I help you?” the young man asked.
“No, thank you. I’m fine.” She placed the magazine back on the rack with exaggerated movements and a bland smile. “I just hate looking at these. That’s why I always do.”
The clerk shuffled off with a look of concern on his face. Concern mixed with confusion.
She felt a tickle of amusement in her chest at the man’s expression. Both she and Cat liked to take people off-guard with odd statements or actions. They referred to it as ‘goofing on people.’ It made the time pass quicker.
As she moved around the store trying to amuse herself until Cat had made her crucial decision, Roxi thought about the faces in the fashion mags. They haunted her mind like demons needing to be exorcised. None of them had any individuality or uniqueness. Both male and female alike, all seemed to look like slicked down variations on the same two people. She thought it was a joke to pay all that money, to so many models, when all the magazines seemed to want the same image.
One thing that bothered her about the male models was that they all looked like made up versions of the redneck boys she went to school with, only dressed better. It gave her the creeps to see the same lack-luster, artificial stare coming out of the men in the pages that she had seen for all these years in her home town. She wondered, often, if there were any interesting men in the world at all. She had seen no evidence of any yet.
Sighing, she moved through the hair care products, trying to think if she needed anything there. She dreamed of finding something different. Something unique…someone unique. She had always hoped that the world outside this town would offer variety and opportunities, and not be just a larger version of Orange Grove. She hoped that the grass was truly greener on the other side of the fence.
Looking up to the front of the store, Roxi saw Doug, the head clerk, smiling excitedly at her. At that moment, her dream of a world with variety seemed dim.
She sighed heavily again.
Doug was not a bad guy but, reaching the position of head clerk in a local Eckerd’s store had been his goal in life. He seemed amazed that he had achieved it at the young age of twenty-four. The sad thing, she mused, was that he seemed to be one of the more ambitious young men in Orange Grove.
Roxi dropped her head as she felt a strange, hysterical laugh rise in her chest. She did not know exactly why. There was a sharp pain of despair in her, though not a deep one. The Dream is dead, she thought with a tiny giggle.
The thought of having to pass Doug in order to leave the store filled her with reluctance. Doug asked her out every time he saw her. She did not like hurting people, and always tried to turn him down politely, yet directly. Still, he always tried. He was persistent, hoping to wear her down. But, he was so simple and kind, she did not have the heart to tell him that he inspired nothing in her but sympathy. She had hoped her constant refusals would eventually sink in and he would turn his attentions to a more accommodating girl. Unfortunately, it looked like he was waiting for her.
A person could quite easily live in a drug store for weeks before running out of supplies, she considered. She could simply stay here and hide from him. Besides, the store was air-conditioned. It seemed rather an appealing option.
Raquelle was almost cackling at the thought, when she heard the bell over the glass door ting. Looking up, she saw three young men in red baseball caps and t-shirts stroll into the store. They talked loudly about the eminent football game they were headed for and what beer they wanted. She recognized all of them from her old high school. They had not changed, not even the conversation.
As she glanced back down at the shampoos, her head suddenly jerked back up to confirm what her brain thought it glimpsed coming into the store behind the three football fans. It was right. A stranger. It knew that because he was not dressed like everyone else in town. From her hiding place, Roxi examined him further.
He was of a good height, over six feet from her guess, with straight shoulders that passed down gently to narrow hips and long legs. He wore wide framed, black sunglasses that hid any deep details of his eyes. His dark blonde hair was pulled back into a long ponytail that seemed to hang to the middle of his back. It was smooth and straight, and he seemed to have trouble keeping his long bangs out of his eyes. He was clean shaven and had a nice, firm curve to his jaw. The clothes he wore were the ordinary white T-shirt and jeans, but it was his long coat that had caught her attention. It hung down to his knees with a slight fullness at the hem and the folded lapels looked more fitting to a tuxedo than a black denim jacket. The cuffs were unusually large and turned back. It made him appear as if he had stepped out of a movie.
Roxi watched his fluid movements, transfixed. He walked with a casual confidence, coattails folded back and hands in his jean’s pockets. His face moved slowly around the shelves, as if studying the items with intense interest. His pace was swinging him ever closer to her. She saw he was holding a toothpick in his mouth. It danced delicately between his soft, pale lips. His tongue moved it gently in slow chewing motions. This fascinated her. He was sucking or biting on something. This subtle, rhythmic motion delighted her in a way she could not identify.
The desire to catch his eye consumed her suddenly. Standing up straight, she began to walk slowly in his direction, pretending to look for something. They were on opposite sides of the first aisle shelf.
She kept him in the corner of her eye as she moved closer but, he seemed to be entirely absorbed in the shelves. A few feet away, she became aware of a strong, almost electric , energy in the air around him. She could feel it through the shelves. Her breath quickened. She prepared herself for that first, polite, flirting contact. The moment came. He glanced up, she smiled…
Suddenly, his head vanished below the shelf-top.
Roxi stared in disbelief. Gone, the moment was gone. He had not even acknowledged her presence at all. She faced the empty air where his head had been a moment earlier. Her fists dropped on her hips in disappointment. Her mind flew to new gears, she would not let this unique creature slip through her fingers yet!
Glancing around, she saw him pop up a few yards further down the aisle. Regaining her composure, she resumed her fictitious search on the shelves. This time going back the way she had come.
He was moving quicker now, away from her. He reached the end of the aisle before she was half way up it. Looking up, she saw him stride past her aisle and move along the back of the store. His high topped sneakers did not squeak on the linoleum. He walked light, almost gracefully. His face forward, he did not see her. It was as if she were not there.
She tracked his movements as a hawk tracks its prey in the sky before the kill. He had wandered into the Household Items now. Her feet flew into action.
She held the fear that he would leave the store at any moment. And that, in his leaving, her one chance to meet someone exceptional would be lost, leaving her stranded in a world of ‘nothing special’. She did not want to be left here in Orange Grove, waiting for nothing. That dismal prospect would be the death of her.
Roxi stared intently at the back of his head. She had heard this would make people turn around as if they could feel the eyes on them. And, for a moment, it worked. Or seemed to work.
The man stopped short and jerked his head around, as if someone had shouted his name. She waited. His face turned slowly scanning the store, and turned past her with no change in expression at all. He began moving down the middle aisle towards the front of the store.
That’s it! Roxi thought angrily. She strode directly after him. All subtlety lost. Aiming for the direct approach, she would simply accost him. A friendly greeting, a few pleasantries, definitely a name. That’s all she wanted from him. Perhaps to find out how long he would be in town and if she could bear his children, that’s all.
Her step quickened more. Her nerves on edge, muscles tense, she drew closer to that pulsing energy around him.
It was Cat behind her. Glancing back, she continued towards the stranger.
“Are you ready to go?” Her friend called.
“Not yet.” She almost whined it.
Turning her head forward just as she thought she might run smack into him, Roxi stopped dead in her tracks. He was gone! Again! She was in utter shock. Her eyes darted around the store anxiously. No one at all, but Cat and Doug.
Breaking into a run, she dashed down the center cross-aisle to check each row of shelves. No one crouching, ducking, standing or anything. Gone. It was impossible that anyone could exit a store that fast. But, he was gone as if he had never existed.
“No…” she cried desperately.
Cat was hurrying behind her. She had followed Roxi’s race through the store with her items bagged in her arms. She asked Roxi excitedly, “What is it?”
“A guy,” she replied plainly, as she headed for the door.
Cat was confused a moment. “A guy? Just a…”
Roxi cut her off, swinging the glass door wide on her exit. “Not Just A Guy, he was… well, he was not ‘of this town’.”
Cat was still in step behind her. “Where?” she asked, brighter now, looking about for she knew not what.
Roxi shook her head. “I don’t know! He disappeared! I had him in my sights when you called me…”
“Oh, I’m sorry!”
She shrugged it off. “That’s okay. But, now I’ve just got to find him. I’ve got to.”
Cat urged her on but, slowed the pace as Roxi ran out into the dark parking lot to try and spot him. “Do it, girl! Go get him!”
Watching her friend, she saw her pull up short in the middle of the small parking lot and spin in a circle waving her fists in the air. She heard soft curses drifting across the lot as Roxi stormed back towards her.
“Damn. And, double damn.” Roxi was muttering.
“Nothing?” Cat asked tentatively.
“No.” Raquelle stamped her foot in undisguised disappointment. “How could he possibly disappear so fast? Huh? I didn’t imagine him. So how? ”
“You only turned to me for a second.” Cat added in wonderment.
“I know!” Roxi nearly shouted at the gloom of the parking lot. “He must have been running at warp speed to get away from me.” Her shoulders and voice had dropped.
“Now stop that.” Cat shook her head. “You know that’s not true.”
They headed for the car. Roxi sighed heavily but, still combed the area with her eyes in a vain hope of catching his shape.
“What did he look like?” Cat asked.
“Perfect.” Roxi mumbled distantly. She shrugged and turned to Cat. “Didn’t you see him? He came in right behind those guys from Orange Grove High.”
Biting her lip in concentration, Cat finally shook her head. “Wish I had. He sounds amazing.”
“Oh, he wasn’t so amazing. He was just so unusual, you know?” She was trying to rationalize her sudden mania. “Different.”
They settled into the car, and Cat was starting the engine while Roxi stared out the window. Then she turned to Cat and tried to describe the young man. She gave details from his peculiarly graceful walk to his pale skin.
“Sounds like he’s from England.” Cat deduced.
Roxi smiled sadly. “Yeah. Oh, man. If he’s gone for good, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“Maybe he’s new in town and is staying?” Cat suggested hopefully.
“I doubt it.” Roxi muttered despondently. “With my luck, he was a hallucination.”
Chuckling, Cat shook her head again. “I wish I could have hallucinations like that.”
“Boy, if that was my only chance at him, I’ll just die.”
“You may get another. You never know.” Cat was always trying to be hopeful when it came to others, sometimes to the point of being irritating. She knew this and was trying to keep the optimistic cheeriness to a minimum here.
Roxi felt a dark, pessimism falling over herself. The man’s almost blatant avoidance of her was gnawing at her gut. It seemed to reflect the trouble she was having with every aspect of her life right now. She felt that she was simply struggling from one disappointment to next. Rejected and rebuked where ever she turned. The few accomplishments she had achieved were easily overcome by the massive failures she felt were running through her life. And now, there was another to be added to the lot.
She did not really want to hear cheerful speculation right now. Cat understood this, and that was why she was holding her tongue, not because she did not care about Roxi. But, because Cat knew Roxi needed someone to complain to for awhile. A sympathetic ear. So, she began to voice her feelings and frustrations as Cat commiserated with her.