The spirited tomboy maintained a brisk pace as she made her way to the store at the crossroads. She grumbled under her breath about having to go for some groceries because it cost her precious reading time. If she didn’t have plans to play after school, and she often did, she loved nothing more than to curl up with their small dog and read. It was a peaceful time of day before the clamor of her brother’s arrival from whatever he did after school. Her mother wouldn’t be home until after 9:00 p.m., due to her night school class.
The best part of going to the store was being at the store. The older couple who ran the store, Gabe and Sarah, treated her like a precious commodity. The girl drank it in like a magical nectar.
“Hey, Little Al. How was school?” The couple was cheerful to a fault. The girl grinned at the use of the nickname. When her family began shopping at the store, Gabe had designated them Al Sr., Mrs. Al, Al Jr., and Little Al. It didn’t matter that only her father’s name was correct. He was gone from the picture anyhow, well over a year now. His penchant for drinking threatened to destroy the family literally and figuratively. The girl’s mother and brother bore the brunt of her father’s alcohol-induced rage. Little Al remained untouched by the father but she bore witness to it night after night.
“School was good. Here’s what I need, Gabe,” Little Al said as she slid a scrap of paper containing a short list across the counter to the stocky man, a butcher by trade. Sarah beamed at the girl and listened as Little Al regaled her with stories from her day in the 7th grade.
Gabe bustled about the small store. He called to the girl, “Little Al, grab a package of stuffed shells out of the freezer.” The girl complied and laid them on the counter.
“Your brother must be cooking tonight.” Sarah was observant. When her mother was home, they usually ate sensible meals of meat, potatoes and vegetables. Her brother liked to be creative and made a jazzed up tomato sauce to put on the stuffed shells. The head of iceberg lettuce would play a large role in the making of a salad. And the girl smiled as she knew she would make “Russian” dressing for ketchup and mayonnaise for the salad. It was one of her favorite salad dressings.
Little Al’s smile dimmed as she remembered if he cooked, she had to clean up. He always got to cook, being four years her senior. If she even tried to cook, he would berate her efforts and then smack her a few times to make sure she didn’t do it again. His beatings went undetected. The girl never said anything to her mother, for fear of retribution, and her brother never hit her where bruises would show. Gabe tallied her purchases with his stub of a pencil, the girl was always amazed at how fast he could add in his head, and handed the paper bag of goods to his Little Al.
The girl glanced at the large wall clock with its sweeping second hand. She realized if she hustled home she would still have almost an hour to read. It would take her twelve minutes to walk home. She wished her bike wasn’t broken today. Every once in a great while her brother flattened one of her bike’s tires just to remind her who was in control. She could patch the tires in her sleep but was currently in need of a new tire patch kit. And so, she was on foot.
“See you tomorrow,” the girl said aloud as more customers entered the small store. Gabe and Sarah waved to their Little Al, smiles in place. The girl didn’t mind the walk home. It gave her a chance to think about her favorite books and tv shows. It was best to think of anything else instead of having to think about spending the evening with her brother. A quick shudder passed through her as she said a quick prayer that she wouldn’t do or say anything to set him off. Even if banished to her room, the girl had her imagination for entertainment. Though she spent a great deal of time alone, she was never lonely.