“I want them to look like a Christmas tree, Thorne. You do know what one looks like, don’t ya?” The bark of Mr. Colin Bickerson’s Irish brogue carried across the store, unconcerned with the numerous customers that might have overheard.
Cris muttered “Yes, sir,” and turned his back on the obnoxious man, his lip curling in a sneer as he mimicked his boss’s words. No sooner had he finished than Mr. Bickerson’s next words came across like a slap upside the head.
“Get it right, Thorne, or you’ll have no more work to do here.”
Cris climbed to the top of the rickety metal ladder, having stacked the boxes past head-height over the past hour. His boss’s declaration of his potential termination still rang in his ears and grated on his nerves, reminding him that there were other avenues of employment and he really needed to start seeking them.
Stacking the small boxes in such an array was tedious and futile, considering any customers that selected one would most likely choose from the center of the display instead of the top, thereby destroying everything he’d set up. The fact that Mr. Bickerson had stated he wanted it seven feet tall and round – not a half-display against an endcap – was only going to increase the peril Cris perceived to be inevitable.
He wished he could quit, that he wasn’t dependent on this job for the meager wages it provided. He was a University graduate after all and he should be beyond this. Well, at least that was the hogwash they fed you prior to graduating anyway. But this was only temporary ... or so he kept telling himself in the hope that maybe he’d actually begin to believe it.
He was sick and tired of being threatened by the ignorant Irishman, whose only goal in Cris’s short tenure had been to get into his pants. Proudly, Cris could claim he had not succeeded. Though he was afraid it would end up happening nonetheless if accidents kept occurring around the store, raising Mr. Bickerson’s expenses. He couldn’t help it; Mr. Bickerson made him abnormally jumpy. There was only so much that could be deducted from one’s paycheck before ‘other measures’ for repayment were taken.
Initially, Cris had thought nothing of the playful innuendos tossed at him whenever he came in to work. He was naïve enough at the time to simply shrug them off with a blushing smile. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that Mr. Bickerson was serious in his attentions and Cris had no choice but to clear up any misconceptions, which led to an argument and the initial threat of termination. Cris had been walking on eggshells ever since.
He had just put the last box on the very top of the display and was stepping down the ladder when catastrophe struck. He felt the knee he was shifting off of get bumped forward, throwing his balance askew and tossing him sideways. As if in detached slow motion, he saw himself pitching over into his newly created display of expensive star-shaped lights. There was no time to scream or even hope nearby customers could get out of the way; Cris headed face first to the floor with only a yelp of surprise escaping from his lips.
When the commotion around him settled, he felt an arm gently grasp his elbow and he instinctively cringed, fearing Mr. Bickerson’s wrath. Instead, a soft but worried male voice apologized profusely and asked if he was all right. Looking up in dazed amazement that he hadn’t been pierced by the glass from the lights, Cris was caught by the grey gaze of one of the customers crouching down beside him. He almost thought he’d died and gone to heaven; but that was before the furious voice of hell penetrated his haze.
“Thorne!” Mr. Bickerson bellowed, pushing through the throng of customers gathered to investigate the disturbance.
Cris cringed as his boss came into view. The stranger was still holding on to his elbow, he realized, and a quick glance found the man eyeing his enraged boss with disdain.
“What the hell happened here?” It was more exclamation than question and Cris opened his mouth to reply, only to be interrupted by the stranger, his voice quiet in sharp contrast to Mr. Bickerson’s roar.
“It’s my fault. I bumped into him as he was coming down from the ladder. He had nowhere to fall except sideways. You should really –”
“Are you injured, Thorne?” There was no trace of actual sympathy in Mr. Bickerson’s voice as he interrupted the customer’s sentence. “Leave it to you to make me have to file an incident report after you’ve destroyed my store.”
“As I was saying,” the grey-eyed man began again, this time louder and with more force, “you should hope that he hasn’t been hurt by this mishap, otherwise it could get costly for you, not only in Worker’s Compensation claims, but legal fees as well.”
The word ‘legal’ caught Mr. Bickerson’s attention. “Are you a lawyer?” Skepticism colored his words, but also a modicum of respect.
Cris felt the man’s grip tighten on his elbow as he spoke. “Yes. Now I suggest you ask your clerk – Mr. Thorne – if he requires any medical care and then send him home for the day after such a terrible, traumatizing accident.”
From his place on the floor, Cris couldn’t help but look up and admire the air of authority the stranger projected. The man had yet to move from his side and Cris was thankful for the buffer zone between him and his boss.
Mr. Bickerson leaned forward, bending over Cris’s prone form. “Do you require an ambulance, Mr. Thorne?” he asked, his clipped brogue dripping with the honeyed affectation of sincerity.
Cris shook his head, his throat scratchy with fear as he rasped, “No, sir.”
“Good.” He stood up sharply and looked once at the stranger, then back to Cris again, his voice hard and unyielding. “Then get the hell out of my store! You’re fired!”
Cris’s head fell forward onto his hand. This was just great. Fucking wonderful. He’d been saving for his mom’s Christmas present and was still far short of having enough money to get her what she deserved. Now it seemed as though he’d disappoint her yet again. He was becoming weary of fate’s disparaging dealings in his life.
Feeling a gentle tug on his arm, he lifted his head to see the stranger still beside him, asking if he could help him up. Cris nodded, the sound of broken glass crunching beneath him making him wince as he shifted his weight onto his knees and feet. He noticed the man giving him a cursory inspection as he brushed himself off and remembered his words about being an attorney. Oh great, an ambulance chaser, his mouth quirked at the thought.
His fears seemed justified when the man asked if he was going to be okay. “Yeah, I’m fine, thanks.” Just lost my precious job that paid shit wages, but yeah, I’ll manage, thank you very much. It was all he could do to keep from snorting aloud at the thought.
“If I can help you –”
“Really, I have no further need of your legal services. I appreciate your concern, but I have to go now. Thanks again.” Cris smiled with what he hoped resembled sincere gratitude, but was certain fell short of the mark.