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the world's own change

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Something wasn't right. Lucas stared out over the Empire, and tried to pinpoint what it was.

Despite nothing having changed in the last two months, the store felt alien, unfamiliar. Warren and Jane were the only two visible differences - a night manager that didn't yell at them very often, and an employee that categorized albums according to an internal system of "sucks" and "doesn't". Still, Lucas felt like the whole place was a new planet.

"Quiet today," Deb said, balancing her cash. There was a party downtown, and he thought she was trying to count out to make it on time.

"Yeah," and Lucas stared into his till. He was working till midnight again. "you know where everyone is?"

She shrugged, plinking the last of her coins into her till, and checking the tally against what her total should be. "That's it for me," Deb told him, and left.

--

He couldn't put his finger on it. There was nothing new about the break room, no changes to the inside of the store. They'd taken down a display about AC/DC and replaced it with something Mark insisted on, but other than that Empire looked the same as it did when he first started working here.

"Lucas," Joe called out, "are you done with that inventory yet?"

He stared into the box of albums he was sorting through. "Yeah." AJ was closing today, Joe and Jane off for the weekend. He'd have the apartment to himself for two whole days, and he wasn't even working Saturday.

"You look totally spaced out, man," Warren informed him, plopping down on the couch. "What's up?"

Lucas poked the box of records with his toe. He'd sorted and counted the used inventory for the week, now it was just a matter of setting price tags and re-shelving. "Generally, ceilings," he replied. "Sometimes light fixtures. Clouds, the atmosphere."

"Smartass." Warren peered at the box. "Why aren't you making plans for the big weekend?"

"What big weekend?"

Warren grinned, and glanced around the back room. He leaned in, and lowered his voice. "You know, the farewell party for AJ and Corey."

Maybe that was what felt so wrong. "Ah." He scratched the back of his neck. AJ had been working at Empire nearly as long as he had; surely, the place wouldn't be the same without him. "Gina's got that covered."

"Her and Birko got a gig next week, I heard." Warren leaned back, content. "Some bar downtown."

Lucas swallowed. "Yeah."

--

The next day was Thursday, but it felt like Monday. Only on Mondays did Mark ever manage to set off the store alarm.

Over-top of the wailing, Joe was screeching, something about calling the fucking company to get the damned thing shut off before they got the police down here. Gina was on the phone, and Mark was huddled on the sidewalk eating a bag of Doritos that was practically bigger than he was. Probably he was trying to avoid the awful noise.

Lucas gave up on being any help inside, and came out to join him. "Chip?" Mark offered.

"Thanks." Joe's voice came from inside the store, louder than before. They heard the side door slam, and then Gina marched out to sit on the sidewalk too. "Morning, Gina."

"I would have said hello earlier but you probably wouldn't have heard me," she replied.

Mark held the chip bag out, and she shook her head; no. "Sorry, guys," he said. He actually looked pretty sorry. "I always forget, like, not to open the door."

"So it's about six, tomorrow," Gina said, turning around. "Joe and Jane are going to leave straight from the store, Corey and AJ will think they'll have left by then."

Mark leaned back, blissfully unaware that cars were pretty close to running his feet over. Lucas backed up a bit on the pavement. Through a mouthful of Dorito, Mark said, "It's like, so weird. AJ and Corey, leaving."

Gina nodded. "I can't believe it."

Lucas could.

--

After a couple of hours and a couple of police cruisers, they finally got the alarm shut off. Birko, when he arrived, managed to cut power to the damned thing by clipping a few fuses and climbing to the roof. It wasn't a perfect solution, but at least it was quiet again.

"Make sure you buy some food tonight," Joe warned him, "or we'll be eating that moldy Chinese." Lucas nodded. "Good."

Joe rarely closed, but that wasn't different, either. He tended to open every day and let the more responsible employees - AJ, or Deb - lock up at night. "Any requests?"

Joe thought for a minute. "I'd like some pasta. And maybe some of that Chinese lettuce."

"Bok choy?"

"That's it." He was already pulling his jacket on. "See you at home."

Lucas kept sorting records. The one saving grace of having Mitchell Beck own the Empire in the first place was that, most of the time, he left them alone to work, and allowed Joe to manage the store that Mitchell so obviously hated. It also meant that, with Joe now owning as well as managing, the store, stress had gone up and his patience had gone down - but he smiled more often.

Birko sat down beside him. "Listen, Lucas, if I'm outta line here--"

"Whatever you're going to say," Lucas said with a sigh, "I already know, man."

"Right." He stood again. "You coming to the show next week?"

"Course." He wouldn't dream of missing someone else's successes, however minor they seemed, not when they were that important.

--

Really, when he got down to it, the thing that had changed was him. He finished putting the vegetables away - Jane would tell them off if they didn't eat something green once and a while - and then closed the fridge.

The answering machine said, "listen, we're going down to Corey's residence on Sunday, to check the place out." AJ's cheerful voice. "If you wanna come to Boston for the day, gimme a call before tomorrow." As if Lucas wouldn't see him at work tomorrow - except, he wouldn't, because AJ's last day was Saturday and Lucas was off.

He stared at the phone.

--

AJ ended up calling him back, quarter to midnight while he was sitting curled up with a bowl of popcorn staring at some movie from the fifties. AJ started with, "Hey, I only have a couple minutes before we're outta here."

"You closing?"

"You know it." A pause; AJ, carefully, asked, "you coming with us on Sunday? It's that or ask Mark to drive, and."

"I dunno," Lucas replied. The volume was down, he'd turned it down when the phone rang, so on screen, some house wife was talking silently in black and white.

"Come on, you can see my new apartment."

Lucas put the popcorn down. "It's a big move," he said, slowly. "Boston."

"Yeah, but it'll be good. Already got a job lined up with a guy I know, good money. It'll be good." AJ always sounded so fucking cheerful, lately.

--

Friday afternoon just dragged on so long. Lucas caught Mark smoking pot with Warren behind the store, giggling over some girls' magazine and a quiz that aimed to tell you what your decorating type was, and didn't even bother to say anything. Mark passed him the joint, and he took a few puffs, absently, then went back inside.

Later he found himself sitting on the steps, looking out over the floor. People went upstairs to the listening booths, downstairs again, ignoring him as he peered out, legs splayed inwards and arms crossed over his chest.

"You know, you could maybe, oh, work for the paycheck I give you," a voice said from behind him.

"It's novel, to be sure." Lucas got up, without any further promptings from Joe. Gina and Deb were in the back, getting the beer ready for the farewell, Warren was on cash. He was a surprisingly competent employee. Lucas mumbled, "I'll go restock."

"Sit down a minute, Lucas," Joe said. Obediently, he sat back down. Joe sat too, and stared at him for a long moment. "Something's up with you." He sighed. "I would ask you what it is, but I know you won't tell me."

"Okay, I can go back to cash," Lucas answered. He could feel Joe's eyes watching him trudge down the stairs, and he didn't turn around because he knew the half-worried, half-annoyed look in them already.

--

The farewell went better than it could have, not quite as well as Lucas had hoped. He probably drank too many beers, definitely too many to drive home, and had to leave his bike at the store. "And I'm not working tomorrow," he told AJ, "so it'll sit here till Monday. Till Monday."

AJ patted his shoulder.

--

Of course he went to pick it up in the morning, just as soon as he didn't feel like throwing up anymore. He very nearly didn't go in at all; he was seated on the bike, all ready to drive away and go back to bed, when something in him welled up.

"Yo, Lucas, thought you weren't in today." He held up the bike helmet as explanation, and rubbed his eyes. AJ rung through a purchase, then jumped over the counter, asked "So are you coming with us to Boston tomorrow or not?"

Lucas froze up, fists clenched, while smiling pleasantly. "I dunno."

"Listen, man." AJ dragged him to the back room, which was strangely empty. Eddie must have still been at the pizza place. "you go around trying to fix everyone else's lives up, right?" and Lucas stared at his shoes.

It was true. The carpet underneath his feet still felt completely alien, far away and distant, like he'd never set foot in this room before in his life. He hunched over.

"It doesn't matter if you come to Boston or not, it." AJ rubbed the back of his neck, frustrated, tried again. "Whatever that's up with you, it'll keep being there. You know?"

The problem, Lucas knew, was that, while he'd been in trouble with the law before, with authority - hell, being stoned for two years straight of high school meant he'd seen his share of misdemeanors and possession threats - nothing had come so close to proving what an incredible fuck up he was, is, and maybe always would be as that June. Even if it turned out all right - better than all right. Joe owned the store, Corey and AJ were happy, Deb was feeling a little better, Gina was singing.

"I dunno what it is, man," AJ said to him, serious, "but even Mark's noticed, which is like a sign of the end of the world."

"Everything around me," Lucas finally answered - he nearly sat on the couch, but it was suddenly uncomfortable; he could clearly remember sitting there waiting to be arrested - "feels completely foreign." AJ nodded, but was obviously confused. Lucas shrugged. "I really fucked up."

Gina came in just then, with Eddie trailing along behind and singing Janis Joplin together - "hey, AJ, we brought you some pizza!" - and that pretty much ended any chance of a serious conversation. AJ clapped him on the shoulder again, and said quietly, "if the store isn't big enough, maybe you should change that," and then Mark tripped over the couch.

--

Lucas thought about what AJ said all the way to Boston and back, four and a half hours in the car each way, and came up with nothing.

--

He went to work on Monday with that same surreal feeling, that same discomfort, only something else had changed.

The brochures were sitting on the table in the back room. Lucas didn't know what reason Joe had left them for him - because there was no doubt it was Joe who'd left them, and meant for Lucas to find them - but there they were. College brochures.