Sheldon leaned back against the cushioned seat of the intercity bus heading west toward Glendale. Getting out of the apartment had been a challenge. He scarfed down his pizza, grabbed his jacket, and almost made it out the door before Leonard called after him to ask where he was going. He had two options - pretend he didn't hear or respond. Choosing the latter, he told his roommate it was none of his business then scurried down the stairs. After the incident at the train station, he disabled the GPS tracker on his phone, so as long as Leonard didn't follow him to the bus stop, his destination would remain a mystery.
It wasn't often he took this route. Almost everything he needed was right in Pasadena, and Leonard usually drove him anywhere else. Thankfully the days were long in May so he could see where he needed to disembark. The bus passed banks, grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations, but none of those places mattered to him. All that mattered was seeing the woman again. Keeping an eye out the window, he finally spotted the familiar-looking strip mall. He pulled the cord and made a beeline for it the moment the bus came to a full stop.
The bell above the door jingled, and he released a sigh of contentment. A cursory glance around the store revealed that everything looked just as it had on his first trip, except the jibber jabbering man was nowhere in sight. In fact, as he scanned the aisles, the store appeared devoid of human life.
"Hello?" He called out. After waiting a few seconds with no response, he deliberated what to do. After everything he had to do to get there - nearly choking on his pizza, avoiding his friend's questions, and putting on his bus pants - it would be a shame if the trip was for nothing.
The store couldn't be closed. The door wasn't locked and the lights were on. Shouldn't someone be in the building? He slowly walked down each aisle and stopped in front of the counter. The door where the woman disappeared was shut. Maybe she was robbed and tied to a chair back there, only the merchandise was orderly, and there were no apparent signs of a struggle. Did he dare try knocking?
Finding courage, he skirted around the counter. It felt strange to be on the other side. For a brief moment, he envisioned what it would be like to own a comic book store. The thought of being in the presence of all the comic books and superhero paraphernalia, plus purchasing it all at wholesale prices, sent a shiver down his spine.
He supposed the woman felt a similar rush when she opened the shop. The woman. Remembering why he was standing next to the door, he raised his fist, but before it made contact with the worn wood, the door creaked open. A pair of green eyes widened, as a hand flew to the Batman emblem on a feminine chest. Sheldon stood stock still, arms hanging loosely by his sides, as he and the woman stared at each other.
Eventually she lowered her hand to her hip and narrowed her eyes. "Did you return to insult my intelligence again?"
"As I am unaware of your intellectual status, it was unfair of me to judge it. For that I apologize."
"Before I accept your apology, I would like to know what you are doing behind my counter. This is an employee's-only area."
Sheldon licked his lips. "I… um… I didn't see anyone and didn't know if the store was even open... or if everything was... alright."
Her stance relaxed and expression softened. "Everything's fine. Normally I have my office door open when my employee isn't working so I can hear the bell, but I had to make a phone call which was… let's just say it's not something I would want my customers to overhear."
"So… um…," she tugged on the hem of her skirt, "is there anything I can help you find?"
His eyes trailed down to where her hands rested then gulped. The last time she wore thick blue tights, but today her pale legs were bare. He rarely noticed other people's attire, or lack of it, so why was this situation any different? Looking up, he met her eyes. "I came to purchase some new comic books," he managed to reply without stuttering.
"Anything in particular you're interested in?"
"There are several I'm interested in, but the newest issue of The Flash is at the top of my list. I hope you still have a copy."
"I'll check. Yesterday was a little busier than it normally is on new comic book day." She led the way to the new releases rack and pointed it out. "You're in luck. I still have a few copies."
"Thank you." As he paged through the issue, he felt her eyes on him. "What?"
"I see you're wearing another Flash shirt. I should have guessed he'd be your first choice."
Sheldon glanced down at the red shirt bearing the Flash logo then back at her. She remembered what he wore the last time. Did she also have a eidetic memory, or had she paid as much attention to him as he had to her? She was watching him, waiting for an answer.
"The Flash is one of the greatest superheroes, in my opinion."
"I agree, but I'd like to hear why you think he is."
"Super speed is an appealing trait."
"Well, for starters, it would be an excellent choice to get one out of awkward situations. The other parties involved would only see a blur as one escaped."
"Is this one of those awkward situations? Sorry. I'll leave you be."
"No, I didn't mean..." He trailed off as she slipped behind the counter and busied herself with the display cases.
That came out wrong. He was actually interested in hearing her opinions. Sighing, he watched her whip out a feather duster for the figures sitting on the shelf along the back wall. Her back was to him, so he twisted his head to fully get a look at her posterior. Each time she stood on her tiptoes, her t-shirt rode up just enough that he caught a glimpse of her milky skin. She was just as pale as he, and for some unknown reason, that realization created a thin sheen of sweat on his brow.
He quickly turned away when she set the duster aside, but was he quick enough? With one eye on the comic book in his hands, he chanced a peek at her with the other. She moved to the discount bin and didn't appear to notice him, which simultaneously brought him a sense of relief and disappointment.
Perusing the rack, he picked up two more new issues and headed for the counter. She had disappeared again, so he waited. One minute went by then two.
The woman popped her head out of the game aisle. "I'm over here. Sorry, I want to organize as much as I can before I close the shop."
Sheldon consulted his watch. "What time do you close?"
"Not for another hour. I'm not trying to rush you. I just hope to get home at a decent time tonight."
"Let me help."
"That's sweet, but you're a customer."
"Your point being?"
"You're not employed here."
"I don't need payment, if that's what you're referring to. I enjoy organizing; it relaxes me."
He set his prospective purchases on the counter and joined her in the aisle. She tried to protest, but he insisted on helping. They each took a side of the aisle and began pulling the games to the front edge in companionable silence. Three minutes into their work, he turned around to find her watching him.
"That was you!" She exclaimed.
"What was me?"
"Last Saturday I was going to straighten the game aisle before I left, but it was already done. Everything was absolutely perfect, just like now."
Sheldon stood back to admire his work. "It is perfect." Turning back to her, he peered over her shoulder. "Yours is nearly perfect as well."
"What possessed you to do it?"
"I didn't say that to flatter you. I say what I mean, and I mean what I say."
"No, I mean why did you straighten the aisle on Saturday? I'm not complaining, just curious."
"It needed straightening, and I was here. Just a force of habit, I suppose. Like I said, I enjoy doing it."
"Well, thank you. I don't expect much more business tonight, so I should be able to leave on time again. You have no idea how grateful I am."
Sheldon returned to straightening, occasionally glancing over his shoulder to admire her progress. When they reached the halfway point, he watched as she stopped to pull a hair tie from her pocket and swept her long hair into a ponytail, baring her neck. There was that creamy skin again. He willed himself to turn away. The games wouldn't magically straighten themselves.
He was standing in front of the Warlords of Ka'a cards now. Since his last purchase didn't yield the Goblin King card, perhaps he would try again. Blindly reaching into the box, his fingers closed around a pack. A low grumble from behind startled him, and the pack slipped from his hand back into the box.
"What was that?"
The woman reddened slightly. "Sorry, my stomach is protesting. I haven't eaten in six hours. Normally I have a piece of fruit to snack on midafternoon, but I forgot it at home this morning."
"A piece of fruit doesn't sound like it would be enough to keep one energized. I hope your lunch was more substantial."
"I had a peanut butter sandwich."
She shrugged. "Peanut butter is loaded with protein, and the bread was whole wheat."
"Even protein and whole wheat isn't enough to keep one feeling full six hours later." He stepped out of the aisle and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?"
"It's pizza night," he called over his shoulder.
"I'll be back," he promised, as the bell jingled overhead.