HONORABLE MENTION, HIGH SCHOOL CATEGORY
The alarm beeps. And where there is no response or movement from the lump of blankets on the bed, it beeps again, with increased urgency. And beeps again. And vibrates with increased frequency. And when it seems like the alarm is about to vibrate itself off the counter it’s sitting on, a hand emerges itself from its home on the bed and smashes the alarm clock hard. Twice. Finally, there is blissful silence. It is 6:31 AM.
Carla stumbles out of her warm bed, making her way towards the bathroom. She brushes her teeth, singing Happy Birthday in her head twice, spits, and rinses. She pats her face clean, changes into a presentable outfit, puts on an unholy amount of concealer, and makes her way slowly into the tiny adjourned kitchen.
Two strips of bacon, one piece of toast, and one egg (scrambled) later, Carla realizes she is almost late to work. She crams her feet into her regulation black shoes, and rushes out the door, just doubling back at the last second to grab her government-mandated face mask. It is 7:10AM.
Exactly eighteen minutes of early-worker-hour traffic, Carla arrives at work — the 7-11 on Guanxin Road. She wipes her brow and heads in. It is 7:28AM.
It’s too early for the regulation, coffee-seeking office workers that come in every morning, but it is early enough for the unfortunate students who walk to school every morning. She sells chocolate and strawberry bread to a group of nervous elementary school students whose backpacks and jackets are emblazoned with Longshan Elementary School, and milk tea in a carton to a sleepy-eyed teenager with AirPods in.
Carla also adds 200NT to a Yoyo Card, microwaves an onion scallion pancake, and helps an elderly lady manage the ATM. “No, no, che li,” she repeats for the tenth time, pointing at the small value selection button on the screen.
Twenty seconds of pointing and gesturing and carefully steering the lady’s hand away from the go back home button later, she gives up and presses the button herself. The lady finally leaves, with her wad of 1000NT bills, and plenty of “xie xie”’s and “ni hao piao liang”’s to go around, and she returns to her spot behind the counter while her coworker, 20 minutes late to work, stumbles in. It is 7:50AM.
Feature photo by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash
The regulation caffeine zombies are now here. Carla makes macchiatos, lattes, iced coffees, and cappuccinos until her brain is a blur and all she can smell is the ground coffee beans and the slightly stale smell of ice cubes. She ties back her hair, hands the latte to the businessman with a smile, and turns to the next customer.
After the businesspeople are gone, it is now the time of frazzled stay-at-home moms, the ones whose kids have now gone off to school, and are taking the time to do some housework. People come in to buy bread for tomorrow’s breakfast, candy to bribe their kids into doing chores with, and milk to make coffee with.
One of these SAHMs promptly informs her that her son has just gotten into the prestigious local high school, and is planning to make him a cake when he gets home. Carla shares the news with her coworker, applauds, and offers her congratulations. “He must be very smart, huh?” she asks, the mom preening under the praise.
By the time the last of the early morning shoppers dwindle and the store empties, Carla pulls out her phone, scrolling through her social media feeds. An online fandom has gotten into another argument over copyrights and alleged copying of a song. Someone is getting cancelled. There is a new episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier coming out today. People are screaming about Jennie Kim’s new hairstyle. It is 9:50AM.
The store is quiet, as if preparing itself for the next rush — the unhealthy office lunchers. In between then, is mostly an assortment of parents and their too-young-for-school children out on a walk, and an occasional stray office worker, looking confused as to what time it is in the morning.
One memorable encounter is the man who wandered in, squinted at her, looked around twice, and stepped back outside.
The other highlight of the day is the mom and the around two-year-old toddler. The toddler is, well, toddling, along on his red squeaky sneakers, and loudly demanding bing xi ling. Ice cream. “I did it!” he exclaims joyfully.
Carla later learns that it is his reward for peeing in the bathroom, instead of his diaper, and chuckles to herself as they leave with one I-mei vanilla ice cream, paid in cash. It is 11:20AM.
The next two hours are a blur. Carla microwaves spaghettis, rings up baked yams, I-mei baozis, and tempura sticks in soup. She hands out plastic utensils, warns about the dangers of drinking Yakult with sausages, and gives straws to those who need them.
The triangle sushis are a hot commodity today. No less than five customers approach and ask if there is more after staring mournfully at the empty shelves, as if they are secreted away in a backroom somewhere, for Carla’s own consumption. She shakes her head grinning, and responds with “mei you le! Sorry!” No more!
Lunch is an ordeal. Carla realizes she has forgotten to bring her lunch, and buys an admittedly delicious risotto that is advertised as being Michelin-one-star on the flimsy plastic wrap. She devours it with a plastic spork, disposes of the waste in the overflowing recycle and trash bins, and decides it is time to empty them.
Bagging and sorting the trash is not fun. At all. But it is her day, a Friday, to be doing it, so she grits her teeth and does it anyways. After bagging and placing them in the trash cans out back, she washes her hands, singing the chorus of Baby Shark instead of Happy Birthday. It is 1:27PM.
The next period of time is what Carla designates as her “sit down and relax” time. There is only the occasional customer who is looking for thermal undershirts or Starbucks coffee in a glass bottle, and her coworker restocks the shelves with the new shipments that have just came in.
She pulls out her book, an absolute bore of a book called Sapiens (the graphic novel version) that she bought on a whim, and flips through the pages. It is 3:47PM.
The legions of students who swing by after school are now here. They come in crowds, laughing, giggling, and pushing to get a good look at the ice creams in the freezer. They pay with fistfulls of coins, which Carla knows is going to be a pain for the night manager to count. She sells tea eggs, the occasional packet of gum, and raises her eyebrows at the group of rowdy high schoolers who try to buy a pack of Durex. They giggle in front of her register, as if daring her not to sell them to her. She rings it up anyways. It costs 90NT.
There are moms coming in with their elementary-age kids, pulling out electrical bills and school tuition forms to pay, and even some sports team payment forms. Carla firmly informs one of these moms that no, you cannot pay something at 7-11 once it is overdue. And it is very overdue. It was due in February. It is now March. The mom glares at her with such ferocity, grabs her childs hand. and leaves, her long black hair swinging almost aggressively.
She forgets her payment slip, and returns to get it a minute later, still looking mad and slightly embarrassed. Her child looks very embarrassed.
Carla misses her bed. And her computer. And her 50-inch flatscreen TV. It is 5:46 PM. —
For Carla’s last sale of the day, she doesn’t sell anything. There is a group of pimply teens standing in front of her, with a very, very, very, obviously fake ID, attempting to buy a six-pack of Taiwan Beer.
“What about some cigarettes?” one asks. His friends slap him and they scurry out, whispering amongst themselves.
Carla leaves her job at precisely 6:00PM, planning to go home and enjoy her bed and her TV. As she watches the sun set behind the clouds, dyeing the sky a cotton-candy pink, she thinks to herself, this is my kingdom.
Katie is a current junior in high school, interested in studying communications or journalism in the future. In her spare time, she enjoys playing with her dog, writing, and playing badminton.
From Katie: For my short story, I was inspired to write about the typical Taiwanese convenience store experience — with the same cast of people that you run into every time. This experience is likely unique to Taiwan, and I tried to capture it from the cashier’s perspective, a person that most people don’t consider when going about their daily lives.