Our heroes run. They know their worth and refuse to surrender it. We love their stories because we believe that under the same circumstances, with the same tools, same sky to escape to, we’d be as brave. But we’re wrong.
I’m no hero, but this is my story, so I guess it’s my turn to run. I’ve waited too long already, trapped in this job, choking in it, losing my memory of who I can be. I hate Builder’s Depot and I hate myself for every second I’ve wasted in front of a cash register.
But I wait for my lunch break -I told you I’m no hero- and I run the wrong way. I sprint down the lumber aisle, away from the sunny gape of the lumber doors, deeper into the labyrinth of orange Meccano scaffolding.
I swing a left through millwork, then a right at windows and doors. The tears start spilling halfway through paint, but I don’t care. I’m only my apron inside these walls. The buttons and badges clinking and rattling over my chest are my personality, and I’ve earned them all playing someone else.
I keep crying even after Carlos from seasonal finds me where I’ve wedged my body into the shelving, behind a row of toilet bowls in kitchen and bath. I cry because not even a hero can save me, and Carlos is our store’s only hero. Every store has one, the one person who can only be themselves, no matter how many times they get written up for doing donuts in the parking lot with the forklift. They’re the ones who get themselves fired and leave the rest of us frightened, and jealous. We love them because we pretend we’re no so different, that if someone pushed us just that little bit further over the edge…but none of us ever remember that heroes let go with both hands.
Carlos crawls in beside me.
“Can’t be that bad, Girlie,” he says, from his corner of our cave.
We’re hidden deep inside the orange skeleton of the racking, safe between walls of product that reach 16 feet up on either side. Carlos shakes his messy black hair out of his eyes and smiles at me. He’s younger than I thought, younger than I am, and I see for the first time he’s missing a couple of teeth. He’s never said two words to me before. I’m not part of the crew he smokes pot with on his fifteens, but I guess I’m interesting enough now.
I try to smile back, but can’t come close.
“You’re on lunch too, right?” he asks.
I nod, sniffling.
“Come on then,” he says. He grabs my hand. His fingers are warm and thick. “Follow me.”
We work our way up the racking, contorting our bodies to fit the narrow space. Carlos reaches the top shelf first. He pulls me up to sit shoulder to shoulder beside him on the shallow ledge. We’re almost two stories above the polished concrete, invisible to the rest of the world behind a stack of boxed bathtubs.
Carlos takes a pull-top can of ravioli out of his apron. We pass it back and forth, taking turns with his single spoon. We bitch about management, about how customers are merciless with a girl like me, and about how we’ve both always hated the colour orange. He tells me to quit and I tell him every job’s the same when no one will pay you for your passion; I’ve tried them all. He doesn’t argue. But I don’t know how he can believe that my passion’s a creative one when I’ve squeezed my name so neatly into the white box on my apron, and Carlos is scrawled the whole way across his chest.
He gets me laughing with some joke about Carol in flooring. I can’t take my eyes off him. His aura is a hot glow that pulls me in. I can feel the magnetism all the way down in my steel toed boots. But I’m not surprised. Heroes are always charismatic. I’m just so relieved this story’s found one so I can stop trying to fill in.
The spoon scrapes the bottom of the can. I savour the last taste of warmth from his mouth as the spoon slides over my tongue. He catches me at it and I blush. He smiles again. Only heroes can get away with teeth like that.
“Let me show you something,” he says.
He jumps up suddenly and races across a short wood gangplank to another stack of boxes.
“You’ll break your legs,” I shout before I can stop myself. We’re so high off the floor.
Carlos shrugs and waves for me to follow. He laughs when I spread my arms out wide for balance and take tiny baby steps. I hold my breath the whole way, until I’m crouching beside his knees. The cardboard sags under our weight.
“Stand up,” orders Carlos.
“Are you crazy!” I sneak a peak over the edge of the box. An orange staircase ladders tops out two tall shelves below us. My whole body is shaking. “What about the cameras?”
“None up here, come on.”
He grabs hold of my clammy hand and pulls me up.
“Look,” he says, pointing, “you can see everything.”
I follow his finger. He’s right. The whole maze of Builder’s Depot is open under us.
“Not as bad from up here, eh. Look at all those dickheads.” He points to the customers, tiny frantic insects pushing their loads in an endless cycle past the cashes.
I almost feel sorry for them. They don’t know how insignificant they are. From up here it’s hard to believe how often they still make me cry. I see Tom from flooring getting swarmed by five at once, three aisles over. He’s waving his arms, but they won’t move their carts until he answers their questions. My stomach turns.
“I can’t go back out there,” I whisper.
I’ve said those same words hundreds of times before, but they sound different in all this empty air. They’re lonelier up here, too desperate, and I know I’ve disappointed Carlos. He gives my hand a hot squeeze. I squeeze back. He’s smiling at me again.
It’ll be different now, I decide. I’ll have a group to hang out with on break. Hell, maybe I’ll even take a toke or two. This was my story, wasn’t it? Maybe Carlos can teach me to run the right way next time. He swings my arm back and forth, and I find myself thrilling to the danger of it. Maybe I’m already learning.
My hand reaches farther with each swing. I’m not sure which of us is pulling harder. I can see all the way to the lumber doors. Someday I’ll…
A sharp tug interrupts. I stumble forwards.
“Don’t worry,” he says.
It’s too late to scream. The cardboard edge gives way, and the hand of the sun lets go.