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The Cost of Knowing

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Notes From Black Reads

The Cost of Knowing follows Alex, a teenage boy with the power to see the future of everything he touches. When this power shows him that his younger brother’s death is imminent, Alex tries to spend as much time as possible with him, all while knowing that danger is always present when you’re a young Black man in America. Heartbreaking, yet so powerful, The Cost of Knowing will sit with you long after the last page.

Four starred reviews!

Dear Martin meets They Both Die at the End in this gripping, evocative novel about a Black teen who has the power to see into the future, whose life turns upside down when he foresees his younger brother’s imminent death, from the acclaimed author of SLAY.

Sixteen-year-old Alex Rufus is trying his best. He tries to be the best employee he can be at the local ice cream shop; the best boyfriend he can be to his amazing girlfriend, Talia; the best protector he can be over his little brother, Isaiah. But as much as Alex tries, he often comes up short.

It’s hard to for him to be present when every time he touches an object or person, Alex sees into its future. When he touches a scoop, he has a vision of him using it to scoop ice cream. When he touches his car, he sees it years from now, totaled and underwater. When he touches Talia, he sees them at the precipice of breaking up, and that terrifies him. Alex feels these visions are a curse, distracting him, making him anxious and unable to live an ordinary life.

And when Alex touches a photo that gives him a vision of his brother’s imminent death, everything changes.

With Alex now in a race against time, death, and circumstances, he and Isaiah must grapple with their past, their future, and what it means to be a young Black man in America in the present.

ISBN-13: 9781534445451

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers

Publication Date: 04-06-2021

Pages: 336

Product Dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

Brittney Morris is the author of SLAY, The Cost of Knowing, and The Jump, and has written video game narrative for Insomniac Games’s Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 for PlayStation 5, Unknown Worlds’s Subnautica: Below Zero, and Soma Games’s The Lost Legends of Redwall. She is the founder and former president of the Boston University Creative Writing Club. She holds a BA in economics. You can find her online at and on Twitter or Instagram @BrittneyMMorris.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Scoop’s 1 Scoop’s
I PICK UP THE ice cream scoop, and the vision begins.

I see a familiar light-skinned hand with knobby knuckles and dirt under the nails, passing the scoop I’m holding into a new, unfamiliar hand as dark as mine. This new hand is amply lotioned—no ashiness in the crease between the index finger and thumb. The nails are clipped short. A glittering, diamond-encrusted ring indicates this man must have more money in his wallet than I’ll make in my entire life. But the most telling detail, the revelation that might affect my future, lies in the background. Behind the two hands, sitting on the grass, is the sign that hangs over the front door of this place—the one that says SCOOP’S. In my vision, someone’s leaned it carelessly against the white siding, which is coated in a thin layer of green and black grime, the kind that builds up over months of neglect.

Scoop, the owner of this place, is going to sell the business.

I blink, directing all my focus into darkness, the abstract, nothing. I breathe. I think the word stop, and silently, I command the vision to end. When I open my eyes again, I’m looking down at the scoop in my hand. I’m back to the present day, turning the scoop over in my fingers. Only a second has gone by in the real world, even though I just watched a twenty-second vision. They always last only a moment.

I blink back into reality, still staring down at the scoop in my bare hand, and I briefly consider telling Scoop. But what would it change? What good would it do?

When you own the shop, you can make the rules, he’d say.

He’s never listened to my ideas before—not when I suggested we invest in a shelving unit so we can finally organize the supply boxes obstructing the hallway, not when I suggested we buy blackout curtains for the front lobby so the afternoon sunlight doesn’t turn this place into an oven, since we’re a damn ice cream shop and we can’t operate at ninety-five degrees without jacking up our refrigeration costs. Nah, he won’t listen to me, and even on the off chance that he does, Scoop doesn’t do anything without asking a million questions first. And my only answer to the inevitable question, “How do you know for sure?” will be “I can see the future,” an idea so ridiculous that I didn’t even believe it until I got out of that hospital and it started interfering with my daily life. I can’t touch anything with the palm side of my hands without seeing what will happen to it in the next few moments. The longer I touch it, the further into the future I can see. With most things, I can make the vision stop a split second after it begins, so it’s more like a photograph flashing in my head, but if I want to see further, which is rare these days, I can let it keep going for as long as I’m touching it.

I’ve picked up this scoop so many times working here. I’ve seen myself holding it while I’m wearing a tank top and my arm is glistening with sweat. I’ve seen myself holding it with my long sleeves tucked over my knuckles as the front door swings open and gusts of snow flurries fly in behind a customer who has no business buying ice cream in that kind of weather. Then it changes hands—a white hand is scooping ice cream as customers enter in tank tops. More kids staring from the other side of the counter in bathing suits and sunglasses. Then, gradually, people coming in with their hands red from the cold, fingers curled around hot coffee cups, ordering through the scarves pulled up over their faces. Two summers. Two winters. I’d say Scoop has about two years left before this place goes under. Two. I’ll have graduated and gone off to college by then. And even if this place closed tomorrow, there’d still be no point in trying to warn him.

I’ve tried to alter the future too many times to think it’ll work anymore.

I remember a vision I had during a camping trip three years ago—a vision I’ll never forget. Me, Aunt Mackie, my little brother Isaiah, my best friend Shaun, and his little sister, who’s now my girlfriend—Talia—spent a weekend at Starved Rock State Park out in Oglesby. Aunt Mackie was grilling hot dogs, and she asked me to put the bag of buns on the picnic table. I picked them up and caught a vision of Isaiah slipping on the bag, falling, and breaking his arm. So, despite the risk of flies and flying charcoal pieces landing on them, I took all the buns out of the bag, left them open on a plate, and tossed the bag in the garbage.

Crisis averted, I thought.

But then Aunt Mackie asked Isaiah to run the trash to the dumpster. The crumpled-up little bun bag rolled out at some point while he walked, and on his way back, his foot found the slippery plastic.

Another time, while walking past a construction site, I tried to prevent a beam from falling and bursting a fire hydrant, which I’d touched, by yelling up at the foreman to watch out! If he hadn’t been distracted, he might have caught it.

No matter what I do, it doesn’t help. The mess happens anyway, and I just end up embarrassed, often because it looks like I caused whatever I’d been trying to prevent. So I’ve stopped trying. Better, and less humiliating, to just lie low and let fate happen.

That’s the real reason I don’t tell Scoop what I saw. Whatever I say, whatever I do to stop it, this place is doomed.

“Alex!” snaps that commanding voice from the kitchen door. I jump, dropping the scoop into the dirty sink water, sending an explosion of suds in all directions, soaking the front of my apron and dousing my face.

God, ew, a little got in my mouth.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” he apologizes. Before I can say I’m okay, he’s moved on. “Ross is going on break soon, so I need you up front.”

I drag my dry forearm across my face, pull off my other glove, and remove my glasses. The vision flashes. One of me wiping my lenses off on a shirt I’m not wearing. One I don’t even own yet. I’ve touched my own glasses so many times that I must be at a few months into the future with visions of them. I make the vision end, and I do exactly what I just saw myself do—wipe them off. It’s become routine for me. Touch item. See vision of exactly what I’m about to do with the item. Do exactly what I saw myself do in the vision.

“Daydreaming again?” asks Scoop. His voice is quieter and kinder this time.

Sure. Daydreaming. That’s the closest thing to it that he’ll understand, so I nod. I grab the hand towel hanging above the sink and wipe my hands before removing my soaked dishwashing apron. I hang it up by the sink to dry and sigh as the full weight of Scoop’s words sinks in, heavy like an anvil on my chest. I need you up front.

I hate working up front. Not because I don’t like talking to customers—I’m actually pretty good at that part, and the customers are usually nice. They’re mostly young parents with kids under ten, who are in and out in a few minutes. And the kids are almost always well behaved and happy while they’re here because, hey, they’re getting ice cream. Nah, I hate working up front because it means touching a million items with my bare hands.

It’s an anxiety minefield out there.

Visions fly through my head with everything I touch, like one of those old-school slide-projector things—every tap of the register screen, every dollar I count, every spoon I pick up, every hand I brush while giving out samples, every cup, every cone, every scoop. I can’t focus on all of that and do my job. I can’t constantly be thinking of what’s going to happen and stay focused on what is happening. It’s too much.

“Can I go back to dishes after?” I ask. Dishes. My safe place, where I can wear my dishwashing gloves and live vision-free for a while.

A droplet of dishwater that was caught in my coily hair races down my forehead, and I wipe it away and sigh, anticipating the answer.

“Sorry, champ,” he says, although with his accent, it sounds more like “shamp.” He leans against the doorjamb with his arms folded across his black apron and explains, “After Ross takes his break, I’ve got Ashlynn going home. I need you up there till you’re off at six. Okay?”

It’s going to have to be okay.

I can already feel my heart rate picking up speed, that racing adrenaline that makes me jittery like I’ve had six cups of coffee and a Red Bull. On really bad days, my mouth gets dry and I start sweating. Sometimes it happens for no reason. Sometimes it happens if I’m anxious about something that would make most people anxious, like an exam, or speaking up in class. Sometimes it happens because I’m with Talia. Today, it’s happening because I have to do my job. Just the thought of going out there to the front counter freaks me out. It’s pathetic. I’ve been working here for four years. I shouldn’t be this afraid anymore. What kind of man am I? Come on, Alex. I steel myself, pinching the skin on the back of my hand, which is supposed to help with anxiety.

It doesn’t.

I used to be able to wear cheap latex gloves up front. We used to have to wear them while scooping, as mandated by the health department. I’d put them on, cancel a quick vision of them, and go the rest of the day blissfully unaware of my—I don’t even know what to call this—disorder? Affliction? Curse? I used to wear them home, stealing extra pairs when I could, desperate to keep my brain quiet for as long as possible. But after a few weeks of wearing the latex ones, their protection started to wear off. The visions started coming back about ten minutes after I put them on, and the discomfort of sweaty palms, and the strange looks I’d get in public, began to outweigh the respite they gave me. Eventually, I gave up on them. Now, all that works are those heavy-duty reinforced polyurethane dishwashing gloves that I’m leaving behind in the kitchen right now.

I take a deep breath and follow Scoop through the tiny hallway, which is crammed to the ceiling with unlabeled boxes of flavor powders, industrial cleaning products, ice cream toppings, napkins, and spoons.

This whole place is a fire hazard, a fall hazard, and an accessibility nightmare. Scoop sometimes sends me back here to put bottles and boxes away where they actually go, so we can have access to the handwashing sink on the wall behind the mountain, just before scheduled inspections. And it’s always me, because I can squeeze my five-foot-seven, 140-pound ass into places some of the others can’t. I shouldn’t have to watch vision after vision of supplies I don’t need, just to find some damn napkins. Not when I’m getting paid the same eleven dollars an hour as everyone else.

But I can’t dwell on that or I’ll get even more jittery and irritable. The quickest way to get through this day, like every day, is to take a deep breath, keep my head down, keep to myself, and keep my hands closed and close to me. I fold them against my shirt and slip between the boxes and the wall. Damn, I swear it gets narrower and narrower every time I walk through here. I keep my eyes on the back of Scoop’s head and follow him out to the front counter, where the sunlight has already started cooking the employees. It smells faintly of sugar and dairy products.

The novelty of smelling ice cream all day wore off by the end of my first week. Now I barely smell anything. But I’ve heard that’s normal. Aunt Mackie used to work in a movie theater, and she said eventually she stopped smelling popcorn when she walked in. After a while, it just began to smell faintly of butter substitute and hard work.

There’s only one customer out here—a bearded man in his early thirties in shorts, a striped T-shirt, and expensive sunglasses. He’s pulling a sample spoon out of his mouth and taking forever to decide on a flavor.

Ashlynn, who stands what feels like a foot taller than me and who always wears a too-tight brown ponytail that’s creeping her hairline farther back than any twenty-year-old should have, glances over her shoulder at me with that jaded smirk of hers. Ross, the malnourished Dracula-looking guy whose eyes always look like he hasn’t slept in years but somehow always ends up right at the front at the scooping counter, is feverishly tapping his foot, hands on hips, watching the man with the sunglasses, his eyes quietly urging the man to make a decision.

Scoop decides to bail him out.

“All right, Ross,” he says, motioning toward the hallway with two fingers. “You’re on break. Ashlynn, you’re scooping till Ross gets back.”

Shit. That puts me at the register.

Calm down, Alex, I tell myself. Just three more hours and you can go home and nap this stress away.

Ross can’t get his apron off fast enough. He turns from his post behind the counter, yanks his pink apron over his head, and has a cigarette and lighter out before he even reaches the hallway. Ashlynn nods and moves dutifully to the counter where Ross was standing. The customer, who’s now watching Ross leave in the middle of the transaction, seems unfazed and points to a tub of green ice cream in the corner. Ashlynn never speaks unless she absolutely has to, so I’m sure she’s relieved to be able to scoop ice cream and hand out samples with minimal conversation except “Welcome to Scoop’s,” “Which flavor?,” “Cup or cone?,” “What size?,” and “Have a great day.” That means I, on the other hand, am stuck at the register, touching everything—clicking buttons, counting cash, swiping cards, getting preordered ice cream cakes out of the freezer, distributing receipts, and handing out coupons and allergy info sheets. And I have to explain all the time that “yes, sir or ma’am, some of our flavors do have artificial colors and sweeteners, but they’re all FDA-approved.” It’s the same answers day after day.

Our only gluten-free flavor is strawberry.

No, strawberry isn’t vegan. Coffee and vanilla are our only vegan flavors.

Yes, the coffee is caffeinated.

Vanilla isn’t GMO-free, but the sweet cream is.

No, the sweet cream isn’t vegan. Only coffee and vanilla.

Shoot me.

I slip on a bubblegum-pink apron and pull my cobalt-blue visor down low on my forehead, canceling the visions for each, right after I see myself hanging both of them up at the end of my shift. I sigh and adjust the visor so it rests comfortably. My hair is cut short—a fade on the sides and slightly longer coils on top. I was relieved I didn’t have to carry an Afro pick and pocket-size styling gel anymore when we switched from baseball caps to visors last year, another expense that Scoop decided would be more effective at keeping us employees cool than blackout curtains. Apparently you lose 20 percent of your body heat through your head or something? I don’t know.

In the corner of my eye, I see Ashlynn turn to leave down the hallway.

“We’re out of spoons,” she grumbles. “I’m going to find more in the back.”

As soon as I’m left alone out here, the front door swings open, and I take a long, deep breath and log into the register, clicking my name and typing in my four-digit PIN.

I punch 1. Vision of me pressing the 0 on the register. Stop. I punch 0. Vision of me pressing the 0 again. Stop. I punch 0 again. Vision of me pressing the 4 on the register. Stop. I punch 4. Vision of the register’s welcome screen. Stop.

“Hi, welcome to Scoop’s,” I say to whoever just walked in, as the register lights up with my name.

Welcome, Alex Rufus.

Shit, it’s hot in here. It’s three in the afternoon, and the sun is blinding through the west window, beating down on the whole area right behind the register where I am. Sweat is already beading on my forehead, but I put on my most convincing smile and look up at the customer. A woman about my height with short reddish-brown hair and bright green eyes walks over, looking like she stepped right out of a J.Crew catalog. The redheaded little girl holding her hand looks like she’s about seven, but she’s sucking her thumb with the enthusiasm of a jittery toddler. When they reach the counter, she buries her face in her mom’s stomach and puts all her focus into her thumb.

“Hi,” I say, trying to ignore the slippery suction noises coming from the little girl’s mouth. I’m sure this woman and her daughter are both cool, but I need them to get the hell out of here with those mouth sounds.

“What can I get you?” I ask. The woman is staring past my head at the board behind me as if it’s changed in the last five years. Literally the only thing that’s ever changed is our prices. She must be brand-new here.

“Canna get a child’s size cone for Mabel, and a single scoop fer me?”

Her accent is either Irish or Scottish—I can’t really tell. She’s reaching into her brown leather purse, fishing around for something to pay with, but I’m missing information.

“Which flavors, ma’am?” I ask.

“Oh!” she exclaims. “What’s the pistachio flavor like?”

It tastes like pistachio, I wish I could say.

“It’s nutty and a little less sweet than the others,” I have to say.

God, it’s so hot in here. I have to remove my glasses and wipe the sweat out of my eyes now, but it doesn’t help much because my arms are already dewy. I end the vision of me putting the glasses back on my face. I use her indecisiveness to step away from the register, where the sun is beaming through the window, and stand behind the ice cream counter instead. I rest my hands on the cold metal shelf behind the glass for some relief, until the room fades to black and I see an image of this place drenched in darkness except for moonlight. I see the window, and the summer moon is outside in the sky, shining down on this place. It’s peaceful after hours, and cool, and I long for that kind of quiet right now.

But I can’t savor this moment forever. I concentrate and command my brain to end the vision. The sunlight zooms at me like I’m flying toward a light at the end of a long tunnel, and suddenly I’m back in the shop, behind the counter, and the J.Crew woman is staring at me expectantly, as if she just asked me a question.

“I—I’m sorry,” I say, without missing a beat. “Could you repeat that?”

“Oh, I asked if you go to school nearby. You sound so well-spoken.”

Well-spoken? I’m talking about ice cream flavors here, not quoting MLK. But I know what she means. People tell me all the time that I’m “well-spoken,” as opposed to however they were expecting me to sound.

“Thanks,” I say.

She smiles at me and asks, “Canna try the caramel peanut butter pretzel?”

I pick up a plastic sample spoon and see a vision of it being thrown into the dirty spoon bin in just a few moments, and when I cancel the vision and the real world comes zooming back, I’m staring down at the ice cream flavors. I scoop out a tiny bit of the caramel peanut butter pretzel, not really caring that there’s not a single piece of pretzel in the sample, and hold it out to her. She takes the spoon without touching my hand, thank goodness. Every vision I can prevent is an act of precious self-preservation.

“Oh, that’s delicious!” she marvels. My head is spinning. My temples are throbbing. I’m dizzy.

I miss the days when my gloves used to work.

I finally get through scooping a scoop of caramel peanut butter pretzel into a cup, and a scoop of cookies and cream into a cone for Mabel, and get all three of us back to the register so they can pay and leave and take Mabel’s thumb-sucking sounds with them. The mom hands me a twenty-dollar bill. Dammit. I have to count back two fives that I see are about to get stuffed into her purse, and two ones that are about to be dropped into the tip jar.

“Thanks.” She smiles at me. “Mabel, say thank you to the nice young man.”

Mabel looks up at me through her straight red bangs and blinks a few times in gratitude. I’ll take it.

“My name’s Ena,” the woman says with another grin. “Mabel and I are new to Chicago. I own a consignment shop down the street. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called Mabelena’s?”

I don’t care. I can’t care. I don’t have the energy to care. My eyes are throbbing. The pressure in my sinuses is crushing. Ena and Mabel are kind, and I should probably be glad that they came in instead of some entitled asshole who’s a hair trigger away from asking to speak to a manager. I suddenly feel guilty for hating this interaction so much. I should be grateful.

“I’ve heard of it,” I finally say.

An explosive crash behind me rattles my ears, and I flinch. I look to my right to see Ashlynn standing behind the counter, looking over her shoulder at me with huge eyes. The empty plastic napkin dispenser lies in pieces on the floor next to her.

“Sorry,” she says, her voice monotone and unwavering as she kneels and picks up each plastic shard and heads back down the hallway to retrieve the broom and dustpan, leaving me alone in here with Ena and Mabel again.

I turn back to Ena, whose eyes are still bright and trained on me.

“You have excellent customer service skills. In this industry, that’ll get you far,” she says, glancing around the room before reaching into her purse.

I may live in Naperville now, west of Chicago, but I was born and raised in East Garfield Park, where people don’t reach into their bag at the register after paying unless they’re about to rob the cashier. I flinch and step back reflexively, and Ena looks up at me with a hint of confusion on her face. She pulls a single business card from her purse and holds it out to me.

“I just wanted to give you this,” she says. “Come over to Mabelena’s and apply if you ever get tired of working for”—she leans in close and lowers her voice to a whisper—“Scoop. Met him in here a couple times myself. If you ask me, you should be the one running this place.”

This woman has clearly been here before, scoping the place out. Maybe she’s the mysterious buyer that Scoop will eventually sell to? But the person I saw in my vision grabbing the scoop was Black. Whatever. I’ll be outta here before any of that happens. I have to keep reminding myself not to care what happens to this place. The pope could buy it and it wouldn’t change a thing about my life.

I take the card with trembling hands and a polite “Thanks,” and Ena turns and guides Mabel to the front door. I force the vision of me throwing the card in the garbage can under the register to end. When I zoom back into reality and find myself staring down at the card in my hand, I toss the card in the trash. I’m alone at the front counter, so I do what I always do when I have a moment to myself—allow my brain to torture itself with “what-abouts” and “what-ifs.” Did I throw away that card because I saw the vision first? Or did my vision happen because I would’ve thrown the card away anyway, even if I was normal? If it’s the former, are these visions altering my life timeline? Could I have had a different future without them? What happens if I pick the business card out of the trash and don’t throw it away again? I guess it wouldn’t do anything because the vision was that I would throw it in the trash, and that happened already, whether I pick it out of the trash or not. But what if, just to see what happens...

I lean down and pick the card out of the trash and force the ensuing vision to end—the vision of my hand sliding it into my pocket. I’m back to reality, and I glance around the room as if I’m about to test some unwritten rule of the universe by trying this. I lean down, hold the card over the trash, and begin to spread my fingers to let it go, and just as it’s about to fall from my hand, Scoop’s voice explodes through the hallway.

“Hey, what was that noise, huh? Did something break?”

I hear Ashlynn’s dry voice from down the hall.

“Broke a dispenser. Sorry.”

“Another one?” asks Scoop, stepping into the front room and marching up to the ice cream counter. He looks over to the other side, where the full napkin dispenser sits intact. “That’s the second one this month! Those are thirty bucks apiece, Ashlynn. Be careful, please!”

He’s clearly frustrated, but his voice breaks at that last “please,” and something tightens in my chest. When I first met Scoop, his smile was bigger, his eyes were brighter, and he weighed about thirty pounds more than he does today. His glasses didn’t used to have scotch tape around the bridge between the lenses, and he didn’t used to have dark circles under his eyes. I remember sitting across from him four years ago, at the round blue table that’s still right here in the lobby. I was eleven. My résumé was a joke—I mowed Mrs. Zaccari’s lawn for a few months and vacuumed around the house for Aunt Mackie whenever we’d visit—but my mother insisted I have a résumé, even if I was asking a childhood friend of hers for a job tidying up his ice cream shop’s break room once a week. So there I sat at that little blue table, heart pounding, as Scoop—then I called him Mr. de la Cruz—pretended to scrutinize every word of my list of qualifications before shaking my hand to make my employment as official as under-the-table work can be.

That day seems like forever ago. That was a year before I lost my parents. A year before I woke up in that hospital bed seeing my very first visions, of what would become of my hospital blankets and the IV drip bag. A year before I started frantically googling what the hell these visions were, why I was getting them, where they came from, and how to get rid of them. Google can be hella scary. I found whole forums full of people with “visions” who said their premonitions were from God or Satan or their “higher self.” None of them wanted to get rid of theirs.

They just wanted to charge people for their services.

So I googled. I searched. I read. I prayed. And, after months, nothing.

No solutions.

No answers.

No peace.

I catch myself staring out into the lobby at that little blue table until Scoop’s voice throws my train of thought off its tracks.

“Hey!” he snaps, startling me. I clutch the card a little tighter in my hand.

“What’s that?” he asks me, nodding to my hand with his chin. I look at the card, and then at the trash can, where I’m supposed to leave the card. If I leave it there, I’ll have proven my vision wrong. I look back up at Scoop, and when his eyes narrow slightly and he takes a step toward me, I realize I can’t leave it in the trash. He’ll pull it out, read it, figure out I’ve been offered another job, and hire my replacement before I can quit.

I end up slipping the business card into my cargo shorts pocket and whipping up a lie.

“A therapist just walked in. We got to talking, and my parents came up.”

Scoop’s eyebrows soften and his shoulders fall a little. His dark eyes blink a few times, searching mine.

“Sh-she,” I stutter for maximum believability, “she gave me her business card... in case I need it.”

Scoop folds his arms across his chest, takes a deep breath, and stares at the ground as if he’s trying to find words. You could get Scoop talking for hours about literally anything, but when I bring up my parents, my mom especially, his childhood friend, he locks up. Freezes. Can’t get the words out, or doesn’t want to. Sometimes I wonder if he remembers her at all. If he ever thinks of her. Maybe when this store goes under, he’ll pretend it never existed too. I turn my attention back to the register, pick up a nearby rag, get through the vision of me dragging it across the counter, and then drag it across the counter. I shut my eyes and pray to whatever name the greatest force in the universe goes by that I can make it through this shift without having to touch anything else, and that miraculously, no customers will come in for the next two and a half hours.

And then the front door opens again.

“Hi, welcome to Scoop’s,” I say, focusing all my attention on making my voice sound less exhausted than I feel. I drop the rag and look up at the front door. A girl slightly shorter than me steps into the shop in all black—ripped jeans pulled up to waist height, a crop top that leaves about half an inch of midriff right in the front when she turns to close the door behind her, and combat boots. She grins up at me with a knowing smile framed by bubblegum-pink lips. All of her hair is tucked up into her hat, but I’d recognize those big brown eyes anywhere. Relief washes over me like rain across the wildfire of stress I’ve been battling all morning.

“Hey, Tal.” I smile, genuinely, for the very first time today.

You ever just be standing