A few weeks after the accident, Angela came into the movie theater where I was working. A true story.
  1. When I first looked up from the counter, Angela was just another customer silhouetted by the bright sunlight. But once in the lobby, I recognized her immediately, even before I saw the crutches.
  2. I liked working at the theater. Free movies and soda, plus a 5-11 shift that matched my lazy summer mornings. I didn’t mind standing on my feet for hours, or getting Pepsi syrup and artificial butter under my fingernails. The place had only two speeds: chaotic and dead.
  3. Angela arrived late for her movie, approaching with three other teens who hovered awkwardly like mourners. She didn’t recognize me as her classmate, nor as the son of her fifth grade social studies teacher.
  4. “How can I help you?” I asked, pretending not to know about the accident, or about anything except the array of refreshments behind me.
  5. To most of our community, the incident was reduced to a few local news stories about a car swerving into a drainage ditch, killing a teen passenger and wounding the driver.
  6. Some articles mentioned that the two were on their way to a graduation party.
  7. Or that the dead girl was recently voted “Most Beautiful” by her classmates.
  8. But there were no details about the mental images I couldn't shake: twisted metal, shattered glass, blood -- gruesome scenes I'd watched in countless movies.
  9. “Small Coke,” she said in a tiny voice.
  10. I nodded and filled a cup with Pepsi. I didn’t ask if she minded getting Pepsi instead of Coke, even though we were trained to do exactly that.
  11. “Anything else?”
  12. “Small popcorn,” she said.
  13. “With butter,” said one of the boys behind her. “She likes butter.”
  14. I smiled and turned, ignoring yet another corporate directive to divulge our “artificial butter flavoring” as such. I just scooped into the weightless kernels, filled a tiny bag, and pumped it full with greasy yellow product.
  15. I pushed the bag to Angela. The boy placed a five-dollar bill on the counter. “I got this,” he said eagerly. “Keep the change.”
  16. As Angela hobbled away, her entourage followed behind, one with (what was surely not) Coke in his hand, and another cradling (what would never be) buttered popcorn in his arm.
  17. I remember cleaning that theater later with a large garbage bag. I never minded this part of the job -- something about the stillness of the room with its deep red curtains and quiet screen soothed me.
  18. But as I walked down the aisle, I came upon Angela’s empty cup of what was surely not, and her barren bag of what would never be. And all of those horrific images came right back to me.
  19. I held my breath as I put them in a dark place.