A week had gone by and things began to mellow out a bit. Jessie had made a couple of friends in Ash and Eric, but neither were very close. The boys at the school were still more or less curious about him, but his class had come to accept Jessie and lost interest in questioning him. Of course, this was a good thing for Jessie. He was feeling calmer and more comfortable in class than he had at any school before, and for that he was grateful.
What he wasn’t really looking forward to was that today was another gym day, but before that, he had to rush to make it to homeroom in time. Rounding a corner after a flight of stairs, Jessie slammed right into a tall boy’s chest, knocking them both over.
“Hey, watch where you’re going you little brat!” The older boy pushed Jessie off him and grabbed his papers that were strewn all over the floor.
“Sorry, it was an accident. Here, let me help…” Jessie began picking up some of the papers too, but the older boy snatched them out of his hand without so much as looking at him. After a moment, the older boy was off in a hurry and Jessie looked back after him, wondering why he was so angry.
“Heya Jessie, don’t mind him, he’s a prick. He’s like that with everyone. Come on, homeroom’s about the start.” Eric picked up Jessie’s pack for him, while Jessie rubbed his sore shoulder. With a thanks and another glance back at the boy down the hall, Jessie and Eric made their way to their seats. A moment later, a whap of a ruler on Mr. Schroeder’s desk signaled the start of class.
“Friday. Open House. You guys have nothing. What gives?” Mr. Schroeder demanded, his arms crossed and his nose shriveled. The demonic glare from behind his glasses made everybody in the class cower in fear. “Well, I guess that’s ok. Maybe you don’t WANT to go on the class trip. I guess you brats actually like me enough to let me have a week of relaxation! However… that does not mean relaxation for YOU! Ha ha, not at ALL! Since you’re all blowing off the most important event the school has to offer, the one thing the higher-ups really need to draw in students and keep this a private school, I have the lovely liberty of assigning you all two book reports that account for 60% of your grade for the semester. Let’s make them due… oh, fancy that! I have a week of no lesson plans right at the end of the year! The week that WOULD have been the trip! What are the odds? Let’s make them due that Friday…”
“B-but Mr. Schroeder!” one student bravely shouted, rising to his feet in protest… but then he thought better. Two book reports due two months from now isn’t such a bad tradeoff. “…Wait, what are the books? When is this going to be assigned?”
“I’ll let you know one week before they’re due. Let’s enjoy the rest of our year together, shall we?” he said with a sadistic grin.
The class collectively groaned. Jessie actually loved this turn of events. Growing up with no friends, reading’s been his favorite pasttime for years. Maybe he’d even already read the books! ‘Who cares, right? It sure beats having to spend a week with these guys alone in a hotel somewhere…’
“I’ve got it!” one student chimed in. “All we need is something that can draw in people and earn money for the class, right?”
“Yeah. Reach a certain amount and we can go on that trip and avoid those pesky book reports.” Mr. Schroeder replied. The student ran to the front of the class with a new-found excitement.
“You hear that? We just need a simple fund raiser for Friday afternoon! Then we don’t have to do those crappy book reports! We can do this! Who’s with me?!” The entire class, save for Jessie, roared in applause.
The student grabbed a piece of chalk and triumphantly raised it into the air, like a general inspiring his troops before a great battle. “Alright, that’s the spirit! Let’s figure this out: what can we do? Let’s get some ideas! ERIC!”
Jessie’s only ‘friend’ in class stood up. “School play?”
“No can do. We’ve only got three days. Not enough time to get props and memorize lines, or even get clearance to rent the stage in the auditorium… besides, the drama club’s already doing that cliché. JACK! I see your hand there! IDEA!”
A boy wearing a cowboy hat and chewing on a straw of wheat stood up. “Let’s do an apple stand! We go to the store, get a shitlo-”
“AHEM!” Mr. Schroeder interrupted.
“Ah, heh, we get a TON of apples…” he looked to the teacher and received a nod of approval, “make ’em up in different ways like, we could do caramel apples and apple pies and apple everything and sell ’em!”
“Good idea but it’s got one major flaw, my friend!”
“All of that stuff costs money. That’s counter-productive.”
“But you’ve got to spend money to make money!”
“Yeah!” a few others chimed in.
“Ok, ok, I’ll write it down.” And he did. Scanning the sea of heads for more floating hands, he saw Jessie slouched over, legs crossed and staring out the window. “Princess! What about you?”
‘Goddamnit…’ Jessie hated his new nickname, though it wasn’t the first time he’d had it. “Um.. I’m fine with whatever… I actually liked the book report idea more…”
The class froze. Everyone stared at Jessie, gaping.
“…What?” he said, innocently looking at the horrified gazes of his peers. Tom dropped his chalk. “…What? Don’t you think that’d be the easier way out?”
Mr. Schroeder sighed and turned to Jessie. “The point of this ‘festival’ of sorts is to attract students to this school. We used to be a Catholic school just a few short years ago, and we still have that stigma. We pride ourselves on progressivism, but some people still think this place is nothing but religious indoctrination, child molestation, and some even assume we teach creationism because of the Catholic history. We also have a much higher teaching standard than public schools, yet it doesn’t cost all that much to enroll here. If we don’t do what we can to lose our negative stigma and show people that we’re more than ‘just’ a Catholic school, do you know what would happen?”
“No, what?” Jessie asked earnestly.
“We’d have to ask for government funding to stay afloat, and turn into a full-blown public school. The dorms would be converted into over-crowded classrooms, we’d have to cut a LOT of our programs, and while I’m not a huge fan of the dress code, it’s better than having fads like emo kids…”
“OH DEAR GOD, NOT EMO KIDS~!!” one student dramatically swooned, making the others laugh. A boy sitting in the corner with combed-over bangs, dyed black and red, sighed. Jessie was afraid the boy would start crying, making his thick eyeliner run, but he just sighed once more and muttered under his breath.
“Now you see? We need to do this, if not for the class’ personal benefit, then for the school’s future as a whole.”
“I… I think I get it now… but I still don’t have any ideas…”
The only boy in class who had a different uniform from theirs, a black one with a short stiff collar and military-style buttons up the front of the blazer, looked over to Jessie while he talked with the teacher. Adjusting his thick coke-bottle glasses, the sight before him was enough to entrance him. In his mind, he didn’t see the girly boy staring out into the sky, instead he saw a fantastical image of a girl with big beautiful eyes staring longingly into the sky while cherry pedals blew all around her, dancing against her delicate skin. The image was enough to make the strange boy blush.
“What about… a maid cafe?” the squirrely looking nerd with glasses chimed in from the back of the room. Seeing the stern look of confusion on Tom’s face, he began to explain. “They’re very common for school ‘cultural festivals’ in Japan…” He took a deep nasally breath and pulled an odd anime-style comic book from his backpack and began flipping pages. “I read about them all the time… in manga…” He looked up from his book, as if to seek an approving eye, but received only questioning looks. “*ahem* We dress up in suits… and sell tea and small pastries to girls from the other side… and we have one person… wear a maid outfit… to draw in guys…”
Jessie was sure this strange heavily-breathing kid glanced at him as he said that. ‘What exactly does this creep expect me to wear?!’
“Would you… be willing to… heh… wear the girl’s uniform from across campus?”
“WHAT?!” For a brief moment, the quiet and reserved Jessie lost his composure and yelled. “Why should I do something like that?!”
“Because… you can…!” Tom started to realize, with a glint in his eye that made Jessie shudder in fear. With a sinister glare of silent agreement with the nerd, Tom started to see the big picture here. “Don’t you see? You’re perfect to do it! It’ll be the gimmick we need to draw people in, and you won’t even need a wig or anything! Girls will come and be completely surprised by how good you look, and the guys will be questioning their sexuality even more than they do now! It’ll be perfect!!”
The whole class stared at Jessie, who had a look of shear terror on his face. Mr. Schroeder just bellowed a single hearty “HAH!”.
“Let’s do a vote. All in favor of Princess Maid Cafe?” Tom shouted. Everyone but Jessie raised his hand in an instant. Jessie slammed his head against his desk. ‘Why me? Wait a second…’
“Wait! Tom! We can’t do that, cakes and tea and suits all cost money! Lots of money!! And didn’t you say no more stupid clichés?” Jessie had him.
“By Jove, you’re right!” Tom exclaimed. “We can’t afford such lavish things! Think of the trip budget!” The class mumbled in reluctant agreement.
“B-But! My incredibly good and original idea!” The nerd shouted. Tom sauntered over to his desk.
“I prefer that you call me Otakun. It, heh, it’s short for Otaku-kun… with ‘kun’ being a suffi-”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard of you ‘weeaboo‘ types before. Listen. We can’t have too many clichés in the same school at the same event. The drama club’s already doing Romeo and Juliet, and that’s just one too many manga tropes for a story like this.”
“Manga tropes?! You read manga too?” the nerd asked optimistically, eyes a-glow.
“SHUT IT, WEEABOO!!” half the class yelled. The nerd slouched down with a disappointed look on his face. Jessie breathed a sigh of relief.
“So, what now? Any more ideas that are cost effective?”
Jessie decided to offer retribution for killing the most popular idea. “What about a car wash? The parking lot’s where most people will be starting from and with all of the faucets nearby, we could wash cars while people are checking out the open house. People will have fun and check out the other class’ stuff, while we make five bucks a car.” The class didn’t seem very enthusiastic to the idea. Jessie sighed and explained further. “A bottle of car wash mix only costs ten dollars and washes something like fifty cars. We can even dilute it further, if we have to.”
“There, that’s cheap! Let’s do that!” Tom shouted. It was decided, with every kid’s hand except two.
“But what about the apple-”
“Jack! We decided to do something else! Majority vote!”
A while later, the class had made their way to the locker room once more, with Jessie taking the extra hike to the girls’ locker room on the other side. This was the third time he’d had to do this, but it never seemed to get easier when he thought about it too hard. ‘Is it really ok for me to be doing this? Aren’t I going to get in serious trouble someday?‘ Deciding to put it out of his mind, Jessie quickly averted his eyes from the changing girls and made his way quickly to his locker. A moment later, he came out of the bathroom fully changed and placed his normal uniform back in the locker when none other than Ash did appear at his side.
“Hey there, sweetcheeks! Looks like we’re up for basketball today. You want to be on my team again?” With a smile, Jessie turned to his friend who, unbeknownst to him, was waving at a group of other girls behind her back.
“Sure! Let’s get out there!” Looking forward to having fun with Ash again, they began walking towards the gym, chatting away. Ash took a moment to glance behind her to see the other girls moving into position, and with a nod and a serious look, the girls went to action. “What’s wrong? Did you forget something?” Jessie asked.
Ash whipped her head back around, smiling and chipper as always. “No, nothing’s wrong! Let’s get going!” She locked elbows with her friend and together they ran off towards the gym.
Several hours later, the girls all returned to the locker room, exhausted and chatty as ever. When Jessie made his way to his locker, Ash and the girls from before all surrounded Jessie, causing his anxiety to kick in a little. “W-what’s going on?” he cautiously questioned.
“Well, we couldn’t help but notice that you always wear the boys’ uniform, so we all chipped in together and bought you a little surprise.” Among the group were girls who always seemed to join his team during gym class, even the snooty one from the first time and little Mary off to the side. Jessie was afraid at what he thought this surprise was, but at the same time, a bit touched that so many people cared enough to do something nice for him. “Go ahead! Check your locker!”
Jessie opened the locker and removed the clothes inside, unfolding them to discover it was a white short-sleeved blouse and a light brown pleated skirt with a cute blazer to match. There was even a little ribbon to match the ones the rest of the girls wore instead of ties.
“Oh, uh… y-you shouldn’t have…” he said, turning to face the small crowd with a nervous smile.
“You’re in tenth grade, right? We got you the white ribbon, I hope it’s the right one. Whose class are you in?” Jessie looked down and tried to come up with the only lie he could think of.
“Um, yeah, tenth… I’m in Mrs. Stable’s class…” At least with her, he felt safe. “So… where did my other uniform go?” he asked, afraid of the answer.
“Oh you needn’t worry about that. Go on, go try it on! We still don’t know why you’re so shy about changing with us, but we won’t make you.” With a nervous nod, Jessie took off to the bathroom and the girls dispersed and began changing themselves. ‘What do I do? How do I get back to class?! I need to find my uniform before anyone from the boys’ side sees me… the gym shorts are one thing, but a skirt is something I’ll never live down!’ He finished tucking the top into the skirt and threw on the blazer, noting how well it tucked into his natural waist. With a deep breath, Jessie left the bathroom to find Ash wearing the same uniform waiting on the other side of the door.
“Look, it fits her perfectly! Everyone, look!” Ash dragged Jessie by the arm to the rows of lockers where the other girls from the group all flocked out to see. “See? Now she’s really one of us!”
“One of us, one of us!” one girl mocked while others laughed.
Jessie blushed nervously at the attention. “T-thanks everyone, it fits perfectly. Seriously though, Ash, where’s my other uniform?” he said, turning to his always-happy friend.
“Oh don’t worry about it, we took it to–” BRRRRRRRRRRRRRING! “Oh crap, we’re going to be late for class! We have Home Ec today, too!” Ash turned and started running out of the locker room. Several other girls followed her, and for lack of any other ideas, Jessie followed too.
When they arrived at Mrs. Stable’s class, Jessie nervously took a seat and waited, tapping his foot, trying to figure out what to do. As soon as he sat down though, Ash had to point something out. “Uh, hey, you should tuck your skirt under you when you sit, you don’t want to be sitting on your underwear, do you?”
A confused Jessie looked down and did as he was told, though unsure why. “Oh, yeah, thanks… I’m not used to wearing a skirt.” At least it wasn’t a lie. A moment later, Mrs. Stable entered the room and immediately noticed the nervous ‘girl’ who gave a sheepish smile. Mrs. Stable raised her brow curiously, but decided to play along for the time being.
“Class, as I’m sure some of you know, we have an occasional student joining us for gym class and apparently she’s joining us for Home Economics as well. Miss Oliver, would you please stand up and introduce yourself.” Mrs. Stable watched him carefully, wondering what he was going to do.
Jessie stood and turned to the class. “H-hi, I’m Jessie Oliver, but a lot of you know me already from gym…”
“That’s right! I was wondering what class you were in! So why do you only have gym with us?” one girl asked. Others chimed in in agreement.
“Uhh…” Jessie froze. He had no idea how to answer that. He shot a glance to Mrs. Stable looking for help, which she gladly provided.
“Miss Oliver is on a sort of… transfer program. She is required to do gym with us, but her normal studies are over on the boys’ side… most of the time. But today, she’s here, and shall be joining us on the way to the kitchens.”
Not sure how to handle the lie, Jessie just nodded in agreement and was rushed with so many questions. “Why do you have to go over there?!” “So THAT’S why you wear the boys’ uniform!!” “Do they know you’re a girl?!” “How many hot guys are in your class?” “Do you secretly make out with the guys when nobody’s watching??” Jessie was blushing madly, trying to dodge all of the questions.
“No, of course not!! I’m just there because… because…” Jessie was too embarrassed and caught up in the lie to come up with anything.
“…because Mr. Schroeder has her in a special program, and that’s the last we will be discussing this. We’re late for the lesson. Come on everyone, let’s get going.” Jessie shot Mrs. Stable a look of thanks and the girls all got up and went into the hall where they began their hike to the kitchens, some moaning along the way about how lame and sexist the course was. “Now now, we don’t learn to cook because we’re women, but because it’s an important life skill. You wouldn’t want to find yourself at twenty-five, unable to cook anything besides a microwave dinner, would you?” Mrs. Stable asked. The girl just nodded and lowered her head. “Besides, don’t we also offer you traditionally ‘male’ classes like woodshop?” The girl nodded again. “See? It’s not so bad.”
‘It may not be that bad, but I have to get out of here!’ Jessie was walking behind Ashley, trying to figure out what to do, when it hit him… he’ll just make a run for it! He waited another moment before bolting down a corridor as fast as he could with no idea where he was going, so long as it was away from here. ‘My uniform’s gotta be back in the lockerroom somewhere! I have to find it and get back to the other side!‘
Just before he rounded the first corner, Ash noticed her friend was gone and spotted him down the hall. “Hey, she’s running away! IF WE HAVE TO DO HOME EC, SO DO YOU JESSIE! COME ON, LET’S GET HER!!”
“YEAH!!” the girls shouted taking off down the hall after Ash.
“OOOOOOoooh crap….” Jessie’s eyes widened with fear. The chase was on!
“Damnit girls, why do you always run off like that! We have class to do!” Mrs. Stable brought her palm to her face and shook her head in disappointment. “Why do they always do things like this?”
‘This isn’t good, they’re on to me!‘ Jessie ducked around a corner, sprinting as fast as he could, and rounding another where he stopped to catch his breath, his heart pounding like mad.
“She went this way! She couldn’t have gotten far!” Ash yelled from the hallway Jessie was just in. Behind her a storm of footsteps came running down the hallway in both directions. Why did they want him to join Home Ec that badly? Aren’t they skipping class? Jessie didn’t have much time to think about these things before Ash spotted her friend cowering around a corner. “Gotchya!”
“Crap!” Jessie bolted, twisting through the hallways and running through empty club rooms trying to shake his pursuers off. Just when he thought he lost them for good, he ducked into another room and locked the door behind him, just to be safe. He listened quietly, heart racing, as he heard the girls running down the halls.
“…What are you doing?” Jessie turned to see a tall older boy with dark hair sitting at a grand piano, scowling at him. A boy who seemed awfully familiar… it was the guy from earlier! The jerk he ran into by the stairs! Jessie panicked. It was one thing for the boys in his class to be ok with him doing gym class with the girls, but for someone in another class he didn’t know to find out, let alone see him in the girls’ uniform like now, there’s no telling what he could do!
“I uh.. I’m… Please don’t tell anyone I’m here! I’ll leave in just a second!” Jessie kept his face down, hoping not to be recognized.
“…whatever, just keep it down. I’m trying to practice.” The boy turned back to his keys. Jessie breathed a sigh of relief for not having been recognized, and was about to try sneaking back out into the hall when he was caught by the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. The melody struck him like no other, making his heart pound with a different sort of excitement. It sounded as if the piano was crying, singing a soft sob to itself and whoever would listen, before building, building towards something… a building climax of optimism, getting happier and happier as it rose, and then… back to the melancholy tears… was it crying from happiness? Crying for having lost someone loved, perhaps? Maybe coming to terms with a lost love… the song seemed to paint a picture that reminded him of the phrase, “better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” A bittersweet emotion overcame Jessie as the song came to a close. He was awestruck.
“That… that was beautiful.” The boy looked up to see the ‘girl’ standing there, hands folded in front of her, with her eyes closed. He had no idea how long she’d been standing there entranced, and neither did she.
“What’s wrong, why are you crying?” The boy stood up and walked over to Jessie.
“Crying? I’m not crying..” Jessie put his hand to his cheek and realized that he had loosed a tear without noticing. The boy came up to him, offering a tissue, but Jessie refused, having a hard time looking him in the eye. The boy was quite a bit taller than him, and standing right in front of him like that just added more to his embarrassment for crying in front of him. Trying to take the subject off of himself, Jessie asked, “So, uh, what are you doing playing over here? Doesn’t the boys’ school have a music room?”
“Yeah, it does, but someone broke it over the summer and we haven’t had it fixed yet. In the meantime, the school’s letting me use this one for practicing on my own. What are you doing here?” He asked, putting his unused tissue away.
“Well, I’m just kind of trying to lay low for a few minutes. It’s kind of a long story.” Jessie paused to hear another rush of footsteps pass outside in the hall.
“What, did you rob someone’s locker or something? They sound pretty pissed off.”
“Heh, no, no, nothing like that, they’re my friends actually, I just… can’t go with them right now.”
“Well, I won’t pry then. since you’re stuck with me for a little while, why don’t you take a seat?” He motioned back towards the bench and began walking over himself. With the only other option being getting dragged off to another classroom and forced to do Home Economics with the girls, Jessie decided to take the offer. He sat down next to the taller boy on the wide bench, remembering to tuck his skirt properly this time.
“Can you play?” the boy asked. Jessie just shook his head. “Well, here, start with this.” He tapped a key towards the middle of the board. “This is the note C. If you start from here and move up like this…” he said, following each key up as he went. Jessie lit up, recognizing the scale.
“Oh, it’s the music scale! Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do~!” he sang alongside each note as he played it himself. The older boy smiled down at Jessie.
“Very good! You have a wonderful singing voice.” Jessie blushed, giving an awkward thanks. The boy, seeing the cute girl struggle to accept the compliment, coughed awkwardly to try and break the newfound silence. ‘Damn she’s cute,’ he thought. “I-If you know that much then this shouldn’t be too hard for you. Try following what I do, but starting with this key over here. This is also C, at a higher octave.” The boy tapped on the key for Jessie to start with and went back to middle C, where Jessie carefully counted out the distance he moved from C to play the first part of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. Jessie mimicked the movement best he could, moving methodically as the older boy did the same movement on his own part of the board.
“Hey, I did it! Slowly, but I did it!” For some reason, Jessie enjoyed sitting by the boy’s side playing elementary-school level melodies. The guy wasn’t nearly as mean as he seemed earlier; in fact, he seemed downright gentle when handling the ivory. Jessie almost felt bad for him, given his reputation at the boys’ school. He wondered if that demeanor was a cover for something. He seemed to come alive when playing piano, even the simple things with Jessie, smiling together and having a good time. As much fun as Jessie was having, he completely lost himself in the moment with this random boy he had happened across. It wasn’t until the bell from the clock on the administrative building began to toll that he snapped out of it and realized it was already five o’clock.
“Oh crap, five already?! I’m late for work! My parents are going to be furious! I have to go!” Jessie bolted for the door, causing the older boy to stand up and call out to him.
“Wait! I didn’t even… what’s your name?” he asked.
Two thoughts ran through Jessie’s head. If he didn’t recognize me from earlier, then I can’t tell him it’s ‘Jessie’, he’ll just find out next time I bump into him at the boys’ school! He must think I’m a normal girl student… Gotta think of something fast… “Um… it’s Jess… ica. Yeah, Jessica. Nice to meet you and all, and thanks for helping me hide. I had a lot of fun. See ya!” He ran through the door and took off down the hall as fast as he could, not waiting for a response.
The older boy ran up after Jessica but he was too far behind. He called down the hall, “Daniel! My name’s Daniel!” but it was too late, the mysterious girl who appeared out of nowhere was already gone.
Outside the school, Jessie was running for dear life. ‘Crap, I’m so late for work!‘ Jessie pulled out his phone and called home. “I’m sorry I wasn’t at the parking lot after school! I got held back with something for uh… music class! Yeah, I’m thinking about taking band. I’m running to work, so I’ll see you when you pick me up! Bye!” He quickly hung up and cut a corner. ‘Damn, I don’t see any other option here…’ He dialed another number. A number he dreaded. “Hey, Ryan? It’s Jessie. Listen, I know I’m late, tell everyone I got held up at school. But listen, I need you to do me a big favor and you can’t tell ANYONE, understand?”
“That depends, what is it?” he replied.
“Just promise me you won’t tell anyone!” Jessie yelled back, getting some strange stares from people as she ran by. “Wonder what’s got up her butt?” “Boyfriend trouble, probably…”
“Alright, fine, what is it?”
“Grab my work clothes from my locker and meet me at the back door. No questions.”
“Ooookay, whatever.” *click* Jessie put his phone back in his skirt pocket and a few minutes later was just outside of the small grocery story where he worked. He carefully ran around to the back alley, trying to avoid the windows, customers, and any of the security cameras, and pounded on the back door.
“Yeah yeah, I got your clothes, what’s this all about anyw– woah…” Ryan froze after swinging open the door to find a very flushed, very embarrassed, and very exhausted Jessie wearing the adorable Pierce girls’ uniform.
“You can’t. Tell. Anyone.” he said between labored breaths, and with a glance around the corner to see if anyone was there, he grabbed his clothes from Ryan and dashed to the bathroom as fast as he could. When he came back to the back room a moment later and put his uniform into his locker, Ryan just stood there with a grin on his face. “W-what? Don’t look at me like that.”
“I knew you just transferred to Pierce, but did they accidentally put you on the girls’ side? Or was there no accident?” He said with his grin, leaning on his chin against the table.
“There was a mix-up after gym, that’s all! Just drop it!”
“Nu uh, you owe me. Something big.”
“…Something big? Like what?”
“I’ll think on it.”
“And if I refuse?” Jessie defiantly crossed his arms.
“I’ll tell everyone what I just saw. I need to get back out there and think of how I’m going to torture you over this. Bye for now~!” he said waving his hand behind him. Jessie fumed.
“Great, now I’m being blackmailed, and by HIM no less. I should have just ran home.” With a sigh, Jessie put on his apron and made his way out to the store floor, dreading what may come. “When did my life get so complicated?”