Cam worked the register on Tuesday evenings. Technically, they worked the register every evening, and most afternoons and mornings too, but today was Tuesday, and Tuesdays were special.
On Tuesdays, the sigils in the timber trusses sparked to life, coaxing the pens in aisle five to rearrange themselves into Seurat paintings. On Tuesdays, the sun beams that soared in through the grand, well-mullioned windows sparkled like spotlights on the featured item pedestals. Haphazardly returned fabric bolts rearranged themselves into proper order by texture, weave, and color, turning the entire back wall into a repetition of perfect rainbows. On Tuesdays, the brick walls shone brighter, the polished concrete floor turned glossy, and the entire store rid itself of dust, upping the color saturation of every paint tube and chalk set and pad of scrapbooking paper.
It made running the store much easier.
Cam peered down aisle eight, making sure the modelling clay hadn’t all mixed together, since the store needed at least a few packs available for purchase, even if everything would separate out into its own packaging tomorrow. Instead of the usual, neat rainbow order of tiny clay rectangles, they saw a battlefield of palm-sized model soldiers, spread over the floor in a clash of bright orange and purple-uniformed armies.
At least it wasn’t a life-sized gladiator fight this week. That one had nearly destroyed the plaster aisle.
The door jingled, and Cam turned away from the battle. They startled when they saw who’d arrived.
Koi Street Art Supply Outlet had its fair share of regulars, but Cam had never noticed anyone the way they noticed the graceful office lady. They said hello to the old couple who browsed knitting magazines on Saturday mornings, made light conversation with the young art teacher who therapy-shopped on Friday afternoons, and joked with the crowd of art students who stopped in every Monday after classes, but Cam could never gather the courage to speak to the graceful office lady. They barely managed to squeak out her total.
Today, the office lady looked especially stunning. Her hair was windswept, with more wispies than usual. A slight pink blush blossomed over her cheeks, and her eyebrows had a firm line to them, unlike their usual soft, unconcerned curves. She always looked beautiful, but today, Cam thought she looked even better, like a girl they could say hello to, instead of admiring from afar like a model.
Cam waved in a jerky, too-fast motion, but the office lady did not see them. She hurried past, both hands fisted around her bag’s straps, and her heels clicked at a steady, allegretto tempo. Then she turned straight down aisle five, without even noticing the battlefield in aisle eight.
Affronted, Cam leaned over to watch the office lady. Surely, she would at least admire the pen aisle. She would be in it, for goodness sake.
But the office lady only stormed down the aisle, marching like a soldier on a mission. She stopped in front of the spot where the black pens normally sat, and despite there being a pointillist sun of red, orange, yellow, and blue in that spot, she leaned over and stuck her hand into the pens.
Miraculously, she pulled out five black pens. Cam had no idea how that worked, and they’d been in and out of this store their entire life. Despite feeling hurt that the woman had not noticed the Tuesday magic, Cam gaped in admiration.
And they kept on gaping. They gaped as the woman flew at him, bursting from aisle five like a cannonball with a rainbow-colored smoke trail. They gaped as she smacked the pens onto the counter. And they gaped as she dug through her purse to pull out an adorable, clean, white wallet with a little embroidered cat face on it.
The office lady raised an eyebrow at Cam and cleared her throat. The sound was somehow clear, like someone tapping a wine glass with a spoon.
Cam’s face heated. Luckily, they were dark-skinned today, so the graceful office lady wouldn’t see them blushing. “Oh, uh, sorry. I’ll just. Um.” Okay, so no words today. Jerking their face down, Cam scrabbled to pick up one of the pens, and then passed it over the scanner, the white barcode sticker facing up, instead of at the scanning plate.
They hunched their shoulders. This was so humiliating. After a deep, conspicuous breath, they managed to twist the pen so the barcode faced down, and tried again. The register beeped, and the keys clattered as Cam punched in a code to repeat the item. Their normally smooth, practiced movements became a long, embarrassing game of hunt-and-peck.
When at last Cam finished ringing up the pens, they looked up to find the office lady observing them. Her face had softened, eyebrows raising back into their usual curves. Her lips parted slightly, and she tilted her head to the side in thought.
“First day on the job?” the lady asked, holding out a debit card.
Cam choked. “Oh, uh, no. I just spaced out is all.”
“Happens to the best of us,” the lady said, voice soft and reassuring. She pushed her hand out farther, indicating that Cam really ought to take the card.
They snatched up the card and ran it, trying not to look at the office lady. It was hard. Cam may have wanted to stare at the transaction on their screen, but their rebellious eyes darted up the moment Cam dropped their guard. With one last, firm warning at her eyeballs, Cam finished the transaction and held the woman’s card out to her. “So, um. Why do you buy so many pens?” they said, trying to be slightly less awkward.
“I didn’t think five was that many.”
Right, of course. No way would the office lady recognize Cam. Only the oldest regulars really recognized them anymore. They tore the receipt from the tiny printer next to the register and waved it, trying their best to act casual. “Oh, no. Ha! Five isn’t that many! It’s just, you come in so often to buy pens. What do you use them all for?”
Maybe, Cam thought, the graceful office lady wrote magical contracts. Maybe she was a master of sigils, or maybe she even invented them. She looked like she had that kind of elegant, well-respected job, with her clean-cut clothing and perpetually perfect hair.
Tucking the pens into her purse, the lady tipped her lips into a smile. Her eyes closed in quiet contentment, and with the beautiful pointillist pen aisle behind her, she looked like a serene, soothing painting come to life.
“I just draw on location,” the woman said. And then her face stiffened again, turning instead to practiced slackness and lack of feeling. “But people have a tendency not to return my pens when I lend them out.”
Cam frowned. That seemed like a lot of pen theft. What an injustice! “You don’t carry some cheap pens with you too?” they asked.
With a slow, knowing smile, the graceful office lady tipped her bag just so, dipping one hand inside to pull out a fistful of cheap blue ballpoints. With the pens in full view, she gave Cam a long moment of cool, fondly exasperated eye contact, and winked.
Cam’s heart did a full gymnastic floor routine. Their face burned, and their heartbeat roared in their ears. Holy snaps, that was the most attractive wink in the entire history of winks. Everything about it, from its steadiness, to the smooth, unwrinkled muscles that made it happen, to the tiny, smug smile on the woman’s face, set Cam’s brain to infatuation mode.
She slipped the blue pens back into her purse and shrugged. “Perhaps I’m too generous with my pens,” she said, voice airy and light. Adjusting the straps on her shoulder, the graceful office lady pivoted towards the door. She shot Cam a blinding beam over her shoulder and strolled out the door.
The woman must have had charisma magic, Cam thought, staring at her trim back. Her shoulder blades cast shadows on the fabric of her blouse and Cam wondered what it must be like to see her bare back and run fingers over the probably perfect skin.
Someone coughed. Cam choked.
They had a job to do. No use imagining anything with beautiful, perfect office ladies. With a sigh, they turned back to the register and pasted on a smile for the next customer.