NICK REED’S first week on the new shift couldn’t be called bad. Different? Sure. He’d go there. An entire collection of tiny differences that when totaled? They made for a huge, uncomfortable change. A sure sign he’d fallen into a mind-numbing rut.

Which wasn’t hard to do when Nick’s life consisted of nothing but his shifts here at the convenience store, a max load of classes, his on-campus job at the computer lab, and—surprise—more studying because he also took classes online to make sure he graduated and was employed in a life-sustaining field before his brother finished high school. Money was tight, and even with Nick’s outrageous amount of student loan debt, his parents couldn’t afford two kids in college. Three, if you counted his little sister in the pipeline.

The most irritating difference on this particular morning? Why the store never seemed to get warm on this shift. A cold Nick was a grumpy Nick. He’d added another layer under his long-sleeved work polo, and he still felt the late November chill. Nick blamed the increase in customers letting in the elements. Not to mention the slush tracked in from the post-Thanksgiving snowstorm. Floor mats, people. Use them.

He mopped floors more in the hours between 4:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. than his entire previous shift. Add in the staggering amount of coffee he needed to keep brewed, and the time spent refilling the fresh baked donut and bagel displays, and the downtime Nick usually used to catch up on his homework vanished.

Turned out being near the freeway on and off ramps took on a whole new meaning during peak hours. No wonder Blaine had swapped with such enthusiasm. This shift sucked.

He shouldn’t complain. Finding out his Bio instructor had gone out on maternity leave a month early and her replacement had changed the open lab hours had not only sent Nick into a panic, but threatened to derail his graduation plans. So much for the hours he and his father had spent arranging his academic schedule and getting special permission to take most of his advanced, only offered once a year courses in his first couple of years, and the more accessible, intro courses here at the end.

“Change is hard,” Blaine mocked when he clocked out at 4:00 a.m. Friday morning, no doubt heading to Amanda’s, his on-again, off-again girlfriend and their store manager.

“Yeah, yeah,” Nick muttered. He opened his battered laptop, refusing to acknowledge the twinge in his chest as anything other than heartburn from the greasy burger he had for dinner. He didn’t have a clue how the complicated mess of Blaine and Amanda’s relationship worked, but at least they had each other. “Hey, be sure to tell Amanda thanks for letting us swap shifts again.”

The laptop screen flickered as the unit crawled back to life. Nick crossed his fingers it would finish booting. Poor baby only had to last through another term before retiring to some electronics graveyard.