Richard Church leaned against the counter, staring at the clock on the wall, watching the hands tick slowly as the minutes passed, thinking of nothing.
Business was slow tonight. He was quite used to this gas station convenience store on the outskirts of Cheyenne, Wyoming being deserted, especially on Wednesday nights in the middle of August. Occasionally he would get a few people passing through the town, and there were some regulars. For example, there's that trio of high school girls that stop in and buy ice pops every day around five o'clock when they finish working as counselors at a local field hockey camp. There's the cigarette guy, who buys two packs of Marlboros on most mornings. And there was that little old lady who would do her grocery shopping. Besides the regulars, there were not that many customers to speak of.
Many people pass through, in a rush to go off someplace, no time to stop and chat. They have places to be, people to meet, things to do. Richard enjoyed watching the people, try to figure out their stories through observation. There was never really anything else to do. He worked his shifts alone, so the only people he would ever encounter were the customers. Though Richard felt unbearably alone on the job, it was better than being home. Anything was better than home.
But he hated working in a convenience store. Richard… he wanted nothing more than to make something of himself. And here he was. Here he was, stuck working minimum wage in a convenience store, because –
The bell on the door jingled as the grocery-shopping-little-old-lady entered the store. Snapping out of his daze, Richard's head jerked up from where it rested on his hands.
"Hello, Ms. Swanson!" He greeted her, plastering on a big, welcoming smile. Of all the favorites, Ms. Swanson was probably his favorite regular. She liked to talk to him, and was the warm, grandmotherly type. Despite her warmth, however, she had no children, grandchildren, or siblings, and was recently widowed sometime last year. Her husband had had Alzheimer's, so Ms. Swanson had learned to be an independent old lady - one who could do her own groceries.
"Hello, my dear!" She waved with her non-cane-holding hand, as her face lit up. "How are you today?"
"Fine, Ms. Swanson. Just fine." He nodded, and Ms. Swanson went about doing her shopping. Richard's eyes returned to the clock on the wall. His shift ended in about ten minutes… nine minutes and 59 seconds… 58 seconds… Eventually Ms. Swanson came to the counter, ready to pay. Richard rung up her purchases and handed her the receipt. Deadpanned, "Thank you, have a nice day."
"Are you all right, my dear?" Ms. Swanson asked, concern on her wrinkled features.
"Of course." Richard forced a smile to prove he was indeed all right. However, he saw Ms. Swanson's eyes travel to the empty jar next to the cash register. She let out a small "oh".
"You poor thing…" she murmured, and then started rummaging through her purse for her wallet. She took out a wrinkled twenty dollar bill and gingerly placed it in the jar. "There you go." Ms. Swanson looked up and gave Richard a sad smile. She placed her hand over his, and talked to him as if she were his mother. "You'll get there someday, darling."
Richard sighed. "I guess."
"What was it you want to be again?" Her brow wrinkled as she tried to remember. "A doctor?"
"A lawyer, actually." He eyed the lone twenty dollar bill, thinking about how little it meant in the grand scheme of things. Twenty dollars wouldn't get him into law school. Not even the worst one in the country.
"You'll get there, my dear. If you really want it, I'm sure you'll be able to get there. You're a good boy."
With that, Ms. Swanson made her way out of the store, to drive home and probably take medication. He wished life worked that way. If you were a good boy, you would be able to get what you wanted. His whole life Richard tried to be the best boy he could possibly be, foolishly believing that being good could bring his splintered family back together. When he returned from his mission, he was met with his same disastrous life. He would trade his father for the general, any day.
His mother wanted the best for Richard, but she had no power in her household. Richard had wanted to go study at BYU and later go on to study law, but his father refused to pay for a decent college. Instead Richard went to community college, since his father told him he would have to "earn" his education. No way would a law school accept someone with that low a level of education. Good law schools were expensive, and difficult to get into. To afford a semester's worth of education, Richard needed money. A lot of money.
Richard flipped absentmindedly through the local newspaper, the words blurring together. So-and-so died in a car crash, high school sweethearts get married, who cares? And then another article caught his attention: Cheyenne native to attend Harvard Law! Richard shut the newspaper, which suddenly made him angry. He put it back where he got it, on a newspaper rack by the door. Noticing that there were newspapers where they didn't belong, he tidied up the newspaper rack. Harvard law. Ha. Probably some undeserving snob who didn't truly care to learn law as he did. Richard snorted bitterly and walked back to take his place behind the counter, hearing the door jingle open behind him.
"Elder Church?" Richard heard. He froze, not turning around. Because he recognized that voice. Richard didn't move. "Oh, I'm sorry, you just looked like someone… sorry."
Richard turned to face Elder Thomas, who was standing not five feet away.
"It is you." Elder Thomas gasped.
"I can't believe this." Richard said, shaking his head back and forth, not believing what he was saying. Elder Thomas was here. In this very store. He hadn't seen Elder Thomas since, well, since he left Uganda. When Richard looked at him, he realized the man looked almost the same. He hadn't grown, though perhaps his features looked more mature. The remaining elders had been in correspondence with Elder Thomas for a while after he left, but the exchange of letters eventually stopped. And then by chance, Elder Thomas walks right into the store where Richard worked. What were the odds?
"I can't believe it either!" He gave Richard a big hug, which Richard returned. "After all this time, I run into you at a convenience store!"
"Well, you knew I'm from Cheyenne." Richard shrugged. "Let me guess: you came in to buy Poptarts?"
"You know me too well." Elder Thomas chuckled. He grabbed a box – his favorite, strawberry – off the shelf. "Old habits die hard, Elder."
"Richard's fine, now that we're back in the states." Richard said. "Now come on, I'll ring you up." He waved Elder Thomas over to the cash register.
"You can call me Chris then." Elder Thomas followed him, placing his Poptarts on the counter. "So you work here?"
Richard sighed, feeling ashamed of his situation. "Yup. What are you up to nowadays, Chris?"
"US history. I teach." Richard nodded, feeling jealous. "Actually, that's where I'm headed. I start my new job this September, not far from here. First year teaching. Middle schoolers. Should be a joy." He rolled his eyes. "What else are you up to, Richard?"
"Nothing much. This." He gestured widely with his hands at the cheap convenience store that surrounded him and shrugged. "Speaking of which, I've got to close up."
"What's that?" Chris inquired, motioning to Richard's law-school jar, and the measly twenty dollars that filled it.
"Oh. Saving for law school." Richard sighed, wishing Chris hadn't steered the conversation in that direction.
"Ah. Law school."
"Yeah." He sighed again. "Unfortunately, this method of raising money isn't working." Richard pointed to the twenty-dollar bill from Ms. Swanson.
"You'll get there." Now Chris was doing that, too. You'll get there. You can do it. There's hope!
Richard started to close up shop, aware that Chris was still there, wanting to talk to him. He tried to close up slowly to avoid going home, but wanted to avoid the conversation of his sucky life.
"Listen." Chris cleared his throat, breaking the silence. "Let's do lunch or something tomorrow. We need to catch up."
"Sure. I'm off tomorrow."
"You know the area. Any diners or anything around here?"
"Yeah, actually. There's Mel's. It's right down the road, can't miss it."
"I passed that on the way here. Great. How's one for you?"
"One it is." Richard confirmed.
The two estranged elders then said goodbye to each other, and went two separate ways – the history teacher and the convenience store clerk, both amazed at the unexpected meeting of their separate paths.
A few minutes later, Richard walked through the front door of his home, heaving a sigh of relief when he found his father wasn't home yet. It was not uncommon for his father to not return until the dead of night, but Richard still held his breath every time he walked into his own home. He always had to be on his guard.
Keeping quiet to avoid waking his mother, Richard made his way to the kitchen. He pulled the twenty-dollar bill from his pocket and lightly placed it in the master jar – the one that held his future tuition. It was a big glass jar, and he usually thought of it as half empty rather than half full. When the money was in, he stepped back and took a look at it.
Pathetic, he thought bitterly.
"Richard? Is that you, honey?"
He looked up to see his mother gliding into the room, dressed in her nightgown. To the people the Church family knew, it was clear that Richard was his mother's son. They had the same green eyes, the same sandy hair, and were about the same height. Both were built small.
His mother moved and behaved as a ghost, quiet in her demeanor. She was a very fragile woman, broken by marriage. He sometimes heard the ladies at church gossip about how there was something 'off' about her. It angered him when he heard their theories. They didn't know the truth. The truth would be worse than they could ever imagine.
"Hey, Ma." He walked over to give her a hug.
"How was work, sweetie?" She asked softly.
"Same as usual. I ran into Elder Thomas today, and we're meeting for lunch tomorrow." He told her, trying to sound upbeat.
"Elder Thomas? You mean from your mission?"
"Richard, that's wonderful! Was he the one with the Poptarts?"
"Uh-huh." He smiled that she remembered.
"What's he up to nowadays?"
"He's a history teacher now, Ma." Richard told her.
"Good for him!" She exclaimed. Her face fell when she saw Richard's expression. She put a hand on his shoulder in a comforting gesture. "Oh. Don't let that get you down, hon. Someday you'll get there."
"I'm tired of hearing that, Mom." Richard snapped, immediately regretting his harsh attitude, but feeling the need to take out his anger on somebody. "I want to make something of myself. And it's not going to happen. Face it. I'm stuck here for the rest of my life, working at a fucking convenience store. This is Hell."
"Language, Richard." His mother sounded calm as she wrapped an arm around his waist. "I know you're trying, and that can be hard. Sometimes it seems easier to just give up." She let out a hard laugh. "You're a hard worker. I don't want you to make the mistakes I did. You deserve to get this one thing you've asked for."
"I hate him sometimes." Richard said.
"I know." His mother said.
"Guess I'd better get to bed." Richard kissed her head. "Love you, mom. Sorry if I woke you."
"I was never asleep." She gave him a sad smile, which he returned as they shared a moment of mutual sorrow. They were one in the same.
The door crashed open.
Richard and his mother tensed as his father stumbled in, drunk and dangerous. Richard grabbed her arm, and tried to pull her away from his father, to protect her.
"Hello, Eleanor." he slurred, stumbling over to them. Richard heard her curse under her breath. Please don't let him hurt her, Richard silently prayed to Heavenly Father. Please. "Hello, Richard."
Richard felt his hand tighten around his mother's arm. She was shaking.
"I said hello, damn it!" Richard closed his eyes as his father's fist collided with his cheekbone, and pinned him against the refrigerator. Richard breathed heavily, wishing for it to end. "You worthless sonofabitch!"
"Bill!" His mother gasped.
"Quiet Eleanor!" His father roared as he shoved Richard to the floor, where Richard's head met wood, resulting in an explosion of pain. He felt a hard kick angled at his ribs, and heard a few curses that should not be repeated from his father. Richard curled up, feeling the blows rain down on him. His father was worse than usual.
"Don't hurt him, Bill." His mother cried, and the kicks stopped.
Richard didn't have a moment to feel relief, for in the next moment he heard his mother scream as his father descended upon her, beating her.
"Stop it!" Richard yelled.
"Shut up!" His father shouted back. He reached towards the counter and grabbed the first thing he could find to use as a weapon. He picked up Richard's jar of hard-earned money, and he threw it hard.
Richard held his breath and ducked as the jar came hurtling towards his face. It skimmed his hair as it flew by. Hitting the wall, it shattered with a resounding crash. Hesitantly, Richard stood back up straight, watching his father's receding form as he staggered down the hallway. Richard looked down at the floor, taking in the sight of the broken jar and broken glass. Coins were haphazardly scattered about, and the sight made him want to cry.
On the kitchen floor, he saw a dream deferred.
Richard knelt down on his knees, feeling the shards of glass digging into his knees, not caring. There was pain far worse. And then he wept. He put his head in his hands and sobbed like a child. He felt his mother's hand rubbing in between his shoulder blades, and he knew he should act strong for her, but he couldn't.
He wasn't strong.
Richard was hopeless.
Why did he even bother to dream?
A few towns over, Chris Thomas stood in a clean apartment, surrounded by cardboard boxes containing his belongings. It was time to start fresh and begin his new life – the life of a teacher.
It seemed pretty natural to him that Chris had chosen teaching as a profession. Even before his mission, he had a feeling that his desire to help people prosper would play a large role in the career he chose. Chris loved being helpful. Plus, he liked kids. Hopefully he would have a nice bunch.
The events of the day were reeling in his head. After all these years, he met Elder Church by pure coincidence. Chris was so glad to see Richard. He missed him. He missed the whole Uganda crew. Chris hadn't been in touch with the others much at all, though he still called Elder McKinley as often as possible. This was one such time.
"You won't believe what happened today, Jimmy." Chris said into his phone.
"What? They invented a new flavor of Poptart?" Jimmy joked.
"No. A better question would probably be, guess who I saw today."
"I'll never guess. Just tell me, Poptarts." His companion pouted.
"Elder Church? I haven't heard from him in ages! How is he?" Jimmy questioned eagerly.
"I don't know. He didn't seem too happy. He's working in a convenience store in Cheyenne… I don't know. I'm meeting him tomorrow for lunch. We're going to catch up."
"Tell me how it goes! I'm curious!" Jimmy said. "Call me tomorrow. We'll chat. Anyway, how's the new apartment?"
The two companions went on talking for a while about various things. Though they didn't see each other too often, Jimmy was like a brother to Chris. They talked about just about everything. Eventually when it got too late, the two hung up their phones and went about their lives. Chris headed off to bed.
Tomorrow would be an interesting day.