By Darrell Petska
Gracie hurried to restock the candy shelf before Bill arrived to take her home. Her shift at the 7-Eleven ended at 8. Aurora Leigh kicked inside Gracie as if she were trying to escape.
“Patience, baby.” Gracie stooped to retrieve a box of Snickers as the entry bell dinged.
“Ma’am, don’t do anything … stupid.”
Gracie straightened abruptly, turned. His frantic blue eyes shown between a turtleneck stretched over his nose and a stocking hat pulled down to his eyebrows. Jutting from his hoodie pocket—was that a weapon he held?
Before she could gasp or cry out or speak one word, Gracie’s water broke, warm amniotic fluid running down her leg and pooling on the floor.
All she could think to say was, “My water broke! It’s too early.”
The fellow retreated a step, clearly taken aback.
“I’m having my baby!” Gracie began to hyperventilate.
The robber spun around and rushed out the door.
Aurora Leigh appeared mid-morning the next day, none the worse for Gracie’s fright—and six weeks of leave passed like a day.
On her third evening back at work, a trembly hand placed a Coke and a bag of corn chips on the checkout counter. “You’ve returned,” he said.
Did she know him? She smiled, gave him change, and turned to another customer.
Every two or three days he reappeared, around the same time, to buy Coke and corn chips and venture some pleasantry. Gracie, who had a smile for everyone, responded in kind. She thought his restless eyes looked troubled.
One evening he tendered his money and said, “How’s the baby…boy? Girl?”
“Girl. She’s fine. They grow so fast.” She found his curiosity odd. Not even her boss cared. And his intense blue eyes. A slight shudder caught her off-guard.
Over time he appeared less frequently, though when he did, he seemed increasingly at ease. Then he stopped dropping in and she forgot about him.
Halloween came, her daughter’s first. Bill had Aurora Leigh. Gracie covered the store, vowing she’d never miss another of her daughter’s Halloweens.
Business proved good that evening, people stopping in every few minutes for candy, drinks, and smokes.
Around dusk, Gracie thought she spotted him—the blue-eyed customer—through the window. Sure enough, as business slowed near the end of her shift, he entered the store, carrying a package. He held back while a woman paid for a six-pack of beer, then approached Gracie.
“How’s it going?” he asked, placing the package on the counter.
“Busy.” She smiled cautiously.
“For you,” he said. “Well, your daughter. Someday, tell her how she made someone a better person.”
Gracie started to ask what he meant, but he nodded warmly and left the store.
She unfolded the note taped to the package. “On my bad nights, your smile helped. I’m clean now. Thanks and P.S.: Please forgive me for you know what.”
Tearing away the pink wrapping paper, Gracie found a small Wonder Woman costume.
Darrell Petska’s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, FewerThan500, Flash Frontier, Right Hand Pointing, Boston Literary Magazine, and elsewhere (see conservancies.wordpress.com). With 30 years on the academic staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 40 years as a father (seven years a grandfather), and a half-century as a husband, Darrell lives outside Madison, Wisconsin.