>She had let the boiling water run straight onto the back of the spoon. She had felt the spray hit her, and it felt good. All up her wrist, all the next day, was a pink and pleasant mottled pattern. She spent most of the afternoon bent over the drinks fridge, testing her arm against the different cans and bottles. The thick squat glass of ginger beer was best.
Around three-thirty, the bell above the door clattered: kids rolling in from school, all impossibly ruffled, in that summer way. She blinked at them with squinted, baby eyes. The light had changed since last she’d noticed, the sun now humming peach behind the blinds.
One of the kids had a radio pressed to his shoulder. Reedy music sprung out around the shop. The kids’ voices clattered like dropped coins, spilling everywhere. She went back behind the counter, watching their young bodies move, in packs of twos and threes, clustered together in identical blue shirts. One of them came up to her and held out his fist. Grubby fingers, impossibly ingrained with dirt, held fast onto a bunch of jelly snakes.
You gotta use a bag, she told him.
Weren’t any left.
She sighed. Maybe there weren’t. Fifty cents.
Don’t I get a discount? He clamped his teeth on the head of a snake, stretching it and tearing it off with a savage flick of his head.
Why would I give you a discount?
He chewed the head. How’m I supposed to carry these snakes home without a bag?
She felt her wrist chafe, like a hot wind was blowing on it. The boy’s friends had stopped what they were doing and lolled towards the counter.
Something tells me, she said, You’ll’ve finished them snakes before you’re halfway home.
The boy smiled. A half-sneer. Well, that’s just poor customer service, isn’t it. He talked like he was on TV now. All confident. His mates—two other boys and a girl—all congealed around him. Their faces were full of sour, empty hopes.
You can take your business elsewhere then, can’t you. She realised they were all only five or six years younger than she was. Just pay me for them snakes you’ve eaten.
The boy put another snake in his mouth. Fuck you, he said carefully, between bites.
She cracked out her hand faster than she could think about it. The feel of his soft skin on her palm came first, holding itself in her mind far longer than the sharp sound of a smack. The boy shook his head, as if shaking out a thought. His cheek was birth-pink. Fuck, he said. Jesus. His friends had stepped back, a certain reality settling in their startled eyes. Let’s go, said one. Just fucken pay her.
The boy looked at her for a moment, words poised at his throat. His hand shot reflexively to his cheek, rubbing it roughly. Here’s yer money, he said through trembling lips, sliding a fifty cent coin across the counter.
The door jangled again and they left. She stayed behind the counter, picking up the boy’s fifty cent piece, closing her hand around it. The sun shuffled shadows across the floor, and she stared at the light left behind.