Seven months prior, an alien army had swarmed into the island of Manhattan. Cars burned, buildings turned to rubble, lives lost, all in the name of no-one-knew-who. Of course, the story was that some extraordinary ‘beings’ had stopped the attack, but…well, life had changed. People had to learn to move on–without work, without cars, without family members. The invasion had been avoided, sure, but that didn’t change the fact that most people, the ordinary people, got their lives ripped apart that day. Some, even, that hadn’t been there during the attack.
Which was how you found yourself, one Monday morning, up before the sun and shoveling pancakes onto a china plate. The tiny, wrinkled woman sitting in the chair behind it gave you a shaky smile that you returned before getting back to your skillet. You could hear the clink of cutlery against the plate above the quiet hiss of the still-wet mix you smacked onto the bottom of your cookware.
“So, today’s the big day,” the woman said to the otherwise silent kitchen. You lifted a spatula and slid the last pancake onto your own plate and turned toward her. This gave you enough time to hitch a smile to your face before you walked to the table.
“Mmhm.” You sat the plate down, keeping your eyes averted from the other end of the table, and slid into your seat.
“You’re going to do great.”
Your smile strained wider as you finally looked up at her. “I know, Nana.” And you did. You knew how important that day was for her. It had taken seven long months to rebuild the tiny grocery store she and your grandfather had owned before the incident. You couldn’t blame Nana for being eager to get back to work–even if she, technically, couldn’t go back to work. As if sensing that you hadn’t exactly answered her, Nana reached forward to pat your hand. Her own palm felt dry against your skin.
“And I’ll be right here if you need anything.” You smiled again, more warmly this time, and she settled back down to her breakfast. “So you can give me a call. Not that you’ll need any. You’re a smart girl.”
A smart, nearly thirty-year-old girl stuck running a grocery store in Manhattan. At least content that your grandmother wasn’t going to be watching you for any more signs of malcontent, you set to covering your pancakes methodically with syrup. After that, it was a simple matter of place in mouth, chew, and swallow. Anything to keep you from thinking about what you would be doing if you weren’t there with your grandmother.
The sun remained below the horizon all through breakfast. There wasn’t a single speck of sunlight visible, even as you took both plates from the table and began washing them in the kitchen sink. The steaming water burnt your fingers, but you hardly noticed as you peered through the fourth floor window out onto the street below. New York truly was the city that never slept, but this early in the morning, the roads were clearer than usual. They wouldn’t stay that way for long, though, and that meant you had to get to work.
“Well, guess I better head out there,” you said as you toweled your hands dry. “Thanks for breakfast, Nana.”
Nana nodded her wizened head and backed her wheelchair up. “Of course. Now come give your grandmother a hug.”
She stretched her arms out and you grabbed your bag from the table beside the door before you bent to hug her. Several quick pats on the back later and she released you, rapidly blinking away tears. “Now, you be safe. It’s your first day and I want you back home as soon as possible.”
“Right. I’ll give you a call if I make other plans.”
You flashed her another smile and opened the door. Her being on her own for the rest of the day wasn’t too worrying. Nana had got the hang of using her wheelchair pretty quickly after you arrived. More likely than not, she’d be parked in front of the television, watching Judge Judy and waiting eagerly for you to call and ask about some bit of trivia concerning the store.
You stopped with one leg out the door and glanced back at her. Nana rolled her chair slightly forward. “Yes? Do you need me to pick something up on the way home?”
“Mr. Banner will be by sometime today. That’s the package I asked you to set aside when you were stocking up this weekend. Make sure he gets it.”
“I will, Nana.” You ducked your head once, but clearly she wasn’t finished with you yet.
“He can get quite testy if he isn’t served quickly. And there's another package--”
“Got it, Nana,” you called over your shoulder and let the door slam shut behind you. Outside, the apartment complex was fairly still. Of course it would be, seeing as how it was only four-thirty in the morning. Most people who got up this early only did it long enough to let their dogs out and then crawled back into bed. You gave polite nods to those you did pass, but mostly kept your eyes on your shoes as you climbed the four stories down to where your bike was padlocked to the fence.
Within five minutes, you had unlocked the chain, jammed your helmet onto your head, and peddled out into the street. A couple of taxis sped past going the opposite direction, off the island and into New York City proper. That was one good thing about your job, you supposed. The commute wasn’t costly or too overly long. A fifteen minute bike ride and chance for some quiet. Nana almost never turned the television off those days.
You met no one other than the occasional vagabond or another biker. The vagabonds seemed to know on sight you had nothing to give them and so stayed grumbling against the wall. Or maybe even the vagabonds in Manhattan needed coffee to get a jump start. Whatever it was, you appreciated the space they gave you. All the bikers and pedestrians did was keep their eyes politely averted as you moved past.
At the bay, you lifted your feet and allowed yourself to glide past the water. Several boats were already docked, tiny light bulbs still twinkling from the strings tied to them, and out in the water, you could see the silhouettes of fishing boats already bobbing in the waves. Behind them, New York City was already bustling with activity, though the sun was a merely a strip of pink where the sky met the water.
All in all, the day wasn’t turning out to be a total bust. If you got up that early every morning, you could easily spend a good twenty minutes pedaling around the island and relaxing before you got to work. Or, at least you thought so until you turned onto the street that housed Nana’s grocery store and saw the delivery truck already rumbling at the doorstep.
“W-Wait,” you shouted after them, despite knowing no one inside it could hear you from that distance. “Wait!”
The truck responded by shifting into gear and pulling its slow way out into road. You pressed yourself forward and pedaled faster. “Wait!” When that didn’t work, you took your hands off the handles and waved them in the air. “Wait! Please!”
Thankfully, a truck of that size couldn’t move very quickly in the narrow street. You pulled to a stop, panting, right next to the driver’s window. He glanced at you, rolled his eyes, and shifted back into park. A gusty sigh of relief blew through your lips as his partner opened the opposite door and walked around the car to stare at you, arms folded across his chest.
“Yeah?” the workman grunted.
“I–I need--” You were finding it difficult to speak through your panting. Biking for fifteen minutes was no joke! “You’re here for…delivery…store? Right?”
The man eyed you as if he couldn’t quite believe his own day was starting out so weirdly, but flipped through several pages of his clipboard with half-lidded eyes. “Yeah. We got a delivery to 1908 20th Street, a store called ‘The Stand.’”
“That’s me!” you puffed. His dark eyes flicked up and down your body and not, obviously, because he thought you were cute. Not when you were that red cheeked, freaked out, sweaty…and still wearing a very alluring bike helmet.
“It’s only–” You broke off to look at your watch. “Seven after five!”
“And we deliver exactly at five. Look, lady, we got a schedule to keep. Make sure you’re here on time next Monday.”
Next Monday? Oh no. Oh no oh no. You could not let this wait until next Monday. Nana was already fragile as it was and you weren’t sure if she could stand the heartbreak of her store waiting another week to re-open. You considered getting off your bike and onto your knees to beg, but it appeared that the deliveryman already thought you crazy enough. Instead, you simply clasped your hands in front of you.
“Please?” He continued to look unmoved. “It’s the grand opening and it’s my first day. I promise I’ll be here on time next week. Promise. So…please?”
The man eyed you for a moment longer, then let his hands fall to his side. “You gonna do all the loading up inside?”
“Yes!” Anything, just to get the produce where it was supposed to be, without alerting Nana to the fact that you had screwed up this quickly.
“Well…all right. But just this once, ya hear?”
“Yes! Thank you!” You flung yourself off your bike as the deliveryman opened up the back of his truck. He pulled five crates onto the concrete and then offered you the clipboard.
You did, so eagerly that you practically thrust the object back into his face. He pursed his lips but said nothing as he flipped back to your page.
“[F Name] [L Name]?” he asked. “You’re not the owner.”
“She’s my grandmother,” you said quickly. The deliveryman let out a harassed-sounding sigh.
“Says in our contract we’re not supposed to deliver to anyone but to one of the original owners.”
“We are aware, of course,” he continued over you in a tone that made it clear he had made this speech several times, “that one of them has recently become deceased. However, seeing as how no [F Name] [L Name] has been added on in the interim, we’re under no contractual obligation to leave these here.”
You felt tears gathering in the corner of your eyes. Great, the store hadn’t even opened yet and you were already about to cry–in front of some delivery guy that just wanted to get on with his day. His friend in the truck added to your over-sensitivity by honking impatiently on the horn.
“I just want to put everything up so I can reopen the shop and not break my nana’s heart!” you wailed, so loudly that several of the passerby that were on their own way to jobs and errands and schools looked in your direction. The unwanted attention, more than anything, seemed to disturb the deliveryman.
“Woah, woah, woah. What are you doing?” he wanted to know.
“What does it look–” You drew your sleeve over your nose “–like I’m doing?”
The man frowned and scratched the back of his head where his dark hair spilled from underneath his cap. “Look.” He went back to his paper. “[Name] was it?”
“You’ve got the same last name as the store owner, okay? So just this once, I’ll leave this here. But let me warn you: If you’re doing all of this to steal everything, the owner of this store will sue. You wouldn’t be the first one to try.”
“She’s not going to sue me; she’s my grandmother,” you sobbed.
“Okay, okay, calm down!”
Slowly, your sniffling subsided and you were able to look him in the face again. Your eyes still wet with tears, you asked, “And you’ll leave all this? So long as I don’t steal it?”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s all yours.”
You could have hugged him, even though only a few minutes ago he had been threatening your way of life. Thankfully, you were able to restrain yourself and the man was able to close the back of the truck and climb back inside it without being assaulted. Once he had trundled around a corner, you relaxed, walked back over to your bike to chain it to the bike rack in front of the store, and started your day.
Despite your grandmother's (and your own) insistence that you would be fine, running a grocery store even as small as the Stand proved trying. Before the first customer even set foot in the store, you had already lugged the crates inside, unloaded everything, turned on the computer, and set up several signs announcing the Stand’s grand opening and all the sales associated with it.
Apparently Nana’s store was sorely missed because no sooner had you turned the sign on the door to open than did people begin to pop in. Slowly, at first, so that you were lulled into a false sense of security, but soon it seemed you had the entire population of Manhattan inside your building.
“Ma’am, how much are these avocados?” asked a thin woman over in the fruit section.
“Miss, your scale must be broken because there is absolutely no way in hell that this is a full pound of hamburger meat,” called a portly man from the meat section.
“Mommy, I need that candy,” screamed a child at the front.
Why had your grandmother insisted on only hiring family members? There was no way you could handle all that by yourself! Within the hour, you were running yourself ragged and almost considering giving Nana a call and begging her to come by to help you. You resisted only by reminding yourself that the doctor said her condition would only be exacerbated in such an environment.
By noon, a good chunk of the store’s wares had been cleared from the shelves. Even though you wanted nothing more than to sit down with a bottle of water, you began to restock. It was slow, tedious work, hampered by the fact that people were still arriving in truckloads. You had only just finished the apples when a voice behind you said:
“Be right with you,” you grunted. If only you could beg them to leave. Unfortunately, you couldn’t and they would only be leaving once they found out that, yes, you were entirely out of coconuts. Still, you got to your feet, already dusting your hands off as you turned toward whoever it was.
“Sorry if you’re busy,” the man said as you got a full look at him. You weren’t sure why you did look so hard. Maybe it was because, for once that day, you were alone with someone and able to actually take in one of your customers. He wasn’t too much to look at, really. A little on the short side, with dark curly hair, a purple shirt, and an odd tendency to rub his hands together.
“When am I not?” you scoffed, but smiled since his was the only apology you had got that day. He only rubbed his hands harder.
“I don’t know.”
Your eyebrows furrowed. “It was a rhetorical question.”
“Right.” He smiled at your words, a nervous smile. Clearly the man was crazy. You walked briskly past him toward the front counter.
“What did you need?”
“Actually, I’m here to pick something up. A friend put my name on it. It should already be pulled.”
“Oh!” You looked up in surprise. “You’re Mr. Banner?”
He smiled again, this time more confidently. “Actually, it’s Doctor Banner.”
“Ah, sorry. Only following what Nana said. Yeah, I already pulled it. Let me grab it for you.” You glanced behind yourself to find him still standing back in the fruit section. A brisk wave moved him forward. “Come on up.”
Before you could see if he was following your suggestion, you ducked underneath the counter. Two straining paper bags sat on the bottom shelf. You checked to make sure they did, in fact, say ‘Banner’ on them before heaving them onto the counter.
“All right. Here you go,” you said. Dr. Banner looked from the bags to you, to the bags and back again.
“All right,” he said slowly as he drew his wallet from his back pocket. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” you said simply.
“Wait. I don’t have to pay,” he peered into one of the bags and looked quizzically into your face, “for all of this?”
You answered with a shrug. “Nana says it’s already paid for. Have a nice day!”
He took the hint. Without you having to say anything more to rush him out (well, you had lot of restocking to do! Not to mention coconuts to order), Dr. Banner put his wallet back into his pocket, hefted the bags into his arms (no mean feat, since he kind of looked like you could kick his face in if turned out he really was crazy), and left the store.
With a sigh of relief, you got back to your fruit. A few minutes later, the bells on the front door jingled to announce another customer. As this one did not interrupt your work, you figured they knew their way around. At least, you thought they did, until an old man’s voice crackled toward you.
“What do I have to do to get some service around here?”
“Oh!” His sudden snap startled you so much that the tray of oranges balancing in your lap fell to the floor and rolled across the tile. A disgusted sigh followed.
“And a klutz. Store has gone to dogs if you ask me…”
You put on your brightest smile as you stood up. Standing at the front counter was an angry looking, older gentleman in golf clothing–horribly patterned pants and all. You walked toward him, confusion evident on your face.
“Sorry, sir. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Can?” he barked. “I’m sure there’s plenty you can help me with. The problem is that you probably won’t!”
“Again, I apologize for the delay, sir,” you said, though your polite tone sounded a little flat. He snorted.
“Can’t apologize enough. Where’s the owner?”
“She’s been incapacitated for the time being,” you answered, giving him the same response you’d given to everyone else that had walked in the door with that very same question. The man’s green eyes narrowed.
“And just who are you supposed to be?”
“I’m [F Name] [L Name]. The owner of this store is my grandmother.”
“Is she? Well, I’ll be talking to her later.”
“That’s wonderful, sir, now what can I help you with?”
“You can help me with the order I filled two weeks ago! I specifically asked for it to be pulled early. I already paid for it, now get it to me.”
“Right away, sir,” you said, already ducking back behind the counter. “What was the name on that order?”
“It’s Banner,” he snapped. “Now where’s my grapefruit?”
You stood so quickly that the top of your head crashed into the counter.