Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story
Third Place Young Adult
THE END OF THE PATH
by Cam Stein
Surveying the group of teenagers around her, it was not a revelation to find that she was not the only one of them that was absolutely bored to the brink of insanity. Under the flickering iridescent lights, all of the new summer employees of Marv’s Workplace Wonders plodded listlessly around the office supply superstore. Dennis, a young yet translucently pale assistant manager, led the lifetime-long tour. Clearly the object of the orientation must have been to lull them all to sleep; Dennis had kept up a running commentary in a characterless, monotone voice while leading them along the meticulously organized shelves, by the Sharpie-marked checkout stands, and through the fairly suspicious-smelling backroom. He appeared to wilt as he talked.
Her initial efforts to seem mildly vivacious proved absolutely senseless in such a dismal environment, and had dimmed in the first few seconds of the tour; a dull feeling of despair had settled uncomfortably in her stomach to take its place, as she glided mindlessly out of the backroom with the rest of the crowd.
As she let out a defeated sort of sigh, she furtively glanced back at the carelessly painted red door of the backroom. Turning back to face Dennis and his voice, she compulsively started to chip away at the cherry-red polish coating her fingernails. Though her mind wandered, desperate to provide some silver lining to her bleak summer job situation, it could not conjure any illusion of hope out of the murky hopelessness that was Marv’s. She knew that this place was not good for her at all; and in fact, it was so wrong for her that it was almost infuriating.
But then at the same time, she knew the real problems with her circumstances. The real problems…She closed her eyes as she inhaled deeply—but this was not a breath of peace, nor of optimism, nor resolution. As her eyes opened, she exhaled the breath of regret and out poured every one of her faults that had led her to Marv’s.
Well first of all, she could’ve accepted the fact that she was to work this summer, when she got into a very dizzying car accident with an irritable, balding man in a Maserati. And since then, she should’ve sought out the perfect job right from the beginning, instead of concentrating bitterly on that man who was supercilious enough to buy a fancy midlife-crisis car, and then have a teenager empty what was left of her savings to pay for the unnecessary repairs that her insurance wouldn’t cover…
Slowly, she became part of a mania, a victim of overflowing regret, in a trance to lament anything and unfairly criticize everything. As she continued to weigh herself down by her own shortcomings, she bitterly peeled off another piece of nail polish and flicked it away.
She really should’ve found a place that had no buzzing lights, no revoltingly ancient smocks, no beeping coin machines nor rusty shopping carts. She should’ve made sure that all of the employees had a broad range of tones, and didn’t spend their breaks getting high in the backroom; they should’ve turned away from the compulsive urge to smoke marijuana just because there had been nothing better to do…
A sudden flurry of movement tore her away from her last thought and brought her back to Earth and back to Marv’s. Everyone was clapping for Dennis and the tour. It must be over.
Over? It must be over?! Her stomach stopped churning at the thought, a lightness consumed her, and suddenly all of her remorse seemed laughably inconsequential. She smiled effortlessly, joining in the rather unenthusiastic applause with great gusto until it all died down.
As an afterthought, Dennis quickly mentioned that they could all look around Marv’s by themselves if they felt like it, and if there were any questions, he would be right over there—he gestured to the Customer Service counter by the automatic exit doors.
And with that, a definite majority of prospective employees made their way for those doors.
In a split-second decision, she decided not to be one of them. Turning her back on the exit that no longer held the same lure as before, she energetically proceeded down a random aisle of computer programs. Nothing seemed as boring anymore. Turning left, she skipped down an aisle of printers and ink, which led on to a small aisle of notepads and pens.
Stopping to catch her breath, she vaguely realized that this aisle had been part of the tour. Scanning the shelves, her gaze fell on a lavishly odd-looking “Hybrid” pen that stood out amongst the other plastic erasable ones. She took it off the rack, wondering how it could be considered “Hybrid” exactly; the explanation on the back of the plastic container was partway concealed by a neon red price sticker. She dropped it in surprise when she realized that the pen was $54.99.
Still astounded at such a cost, she bent down to pick up the container just as something else on the cool cement ground caught her eye. Straightening up, she realized that it was a sliver of her cherry-red nail polish. Putting the pen in its place on the rack, she held her hands out in front of her, getting a good look at the minimal amount of polish left on her nails.
She sighed, wishing she hadn’t succumbed to her new nervous habit during the tour. Continuing down the aisle, she saw other small fragments of her nail-polish that were dotted here and there; the bright white lights overhead made them easy to see on the grey cement floors.
When she approached a fork in the aisles, she decided to take the one to the right, and not surprisingly, under the sign that read PAPER-SHREDDERS/STAPLERS in faded red letters, was another small piece of nail-polish. She was starting to find this odd trail of bright red rather humorous. Impulsively, she followed the fragments, knowing that they would probably just outline her route of boredom on the tour, and then stop right back at the exit where the tour had ended.
It wasn’t until she had passed through the sections of GPS equipment and the multiple racks of calendars and planners, that she realized she actually wasn’t going anywhere near the exit doors—in fact, they were now far behind her. Instead, she found the pieces of red leading her to the far wall of the store. Mystified, she continued to pursue the evidence of her nervous habit until there suddenly were no more chippings around her.
But the path couldn’t have ended here. It couldn’t have. All of a sudden she was frantic; she bent down slightly to scrutinize every near inch of the floor to make absolutely sure that this was the very end of the trail.
There was no more red on grey as far as she could see. Her path had ended.
Apprehensively, she looked up from the last piece of cherry-red color. Before her was the ancient door with the peeling red paint that led to the backroom.
The backroom…not the backroom. Without warning, she snapped.
She needed to get away from that door. With a herculean effort, her determination moved her limbs as she marched herself back through the aisles of navigation systems, paper shredders, and planners until she was right in front of the Customer Service Desk.
Putting her hands up on counter, she took a deep breath that stretched out her shoulders and arms and caused her to spread her fingers. She exhaled.
Dennis looked up at her oddly. “Do you have any questions?”
She shrugged back her shoulders, fingertips still on the counter, stood straight, and readied herself to tell him that this was absolutely no place for someone like her, someone who was recovering, someone who was trying to find some hope that didn’t just exist in her previous drug–enhanced, cloud-nine type of world.
Yet she paused. And then, out of nowhere, she smiled the slow, sure smile of a person with a resolve.
“No,” Marianne said slowly, looking up from her fingernails and into his face. “I don’t think I do actually.”
And with that, she turned away from the counter and made her way for the exit doors. As they opened for her, she chipped off a small fragment of cherry-red and let it fall as she made her way outside.
The hero of this story seems to be condemned by fate to follow a path that ends in a dull summer job. By the story's end she discovers who made that path, who the trailblazer of her life really is. She herself.