There was nothing that Wednesday morning to indicate I’d experience anything incredible. That my beliefs would be challenged to the point I was debating checking myself in for mental help. Or that I’d be pulling someone’s body from a fryer vat.
The fact that pulling the body out of the vat—a murder by all indications—was the most mundane thing to happen all night, might land you somewhere far outside the ballpark of strange I’d wound up in. Never in a million years would I have expected my life to take such a turn. I was a nice, normal girl, from a nice, normal town, and nice, normal girls from nice, normal towns don’t get themselves tangled up in fast food rage murders.
The death, while awful, didn’t begin to cover all the strange happenings I wasn’t prepared for when I went in for my first night at work. Of course, what I didn’t know is the death of my deep-fried, former co-worker would kick the proverbial hornets’ nest of mayhem in our sleepy little town. That is, if the hornets were the size of the jacked-up, mudding trucks the high school boys liked to drive down in the hollow our town was named for.
My name is Holly Liberty—my dad was in the Army, so sue me—Bell, and unlike me there’s nothing ordinary about this story.
I opened the newspaper to the classifieds section with the enthusiasm a person reserved for sticking their hand down a rabid gopher’s hole. The small-ish town of Thunder Hollow, Washington wasn’t so small that everyone knew everyone else intimately, but apparently not big enough that using the internet for job advertisements was a thing. Hence the old school newspaper.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against print. Give me a real book over an electric one any day of the week. It was the fact I was job hunting, again. I gripped the edges of the newspaper, crinkling it, and did my best not to grind my teeth, for my mother’s sake. “I paid 6,000 dollars on your teeth, and you better take care of them!”
Apparently, it was reprehensible to give a pizza—one that was going to be thrown away, anyway, mind you—to a homeless person. The same day I was let go for, ‘not promoting a clean work environment’. The subtext? “We don’t want dirty, homeless people flocking here thinking they can get free pizza. It might put off the paying customers.” Sure, Thunder Hollow had a few homeless people. What town doesn’t? But they made it out as though we’d be plagued by a horde of homeless zombies à la night of the living dead style. It was lame, and good riddance.
However, a girl still needs to pay the rent. My meager savings weren’t going to hold up to the onslaught of bills that inevitably showed up to my door like lions pouncing on a wounded gazelle. So just three short months after being hired at Speedy Pizza, I took my last few dollars of spending money to one of the two cafes in town, The Mountain Retreat Cafe. I bought a vanilla iced coffee, an apple turnover, and the aforementioned newspaper. I wasn’t expecting my dream job to jump off the page. This is Thunder Hollow we’re talking about, not jobtopia. I just needed something to stem the slow, steady bleed from my finances.
I’d sat down the best of intentions at one of four small, glass tables, complete with uncomfortable, cheap, dark metal chairs, and a plum purple umbrella that had seen better days. But they had the best damned java, ever, and it wasn’t a bad place to wallow in my jobless self-pity. From the number of pages boasting job listings, the high schooler die off from summer jobs was well under way. Employers needed to fill the sucking void with adult-like humans to get through the end of summer rushes, and get their scheduling in line for the slower, rainy months. It is a not-so-rare window of opportunity that is as constant as animal migrations, the quarterback getting the head cheerleader pregnant, and Christmas items going on sale in October.
Once I’d been fired from job of the year at Speedy Pizza, I’d gone on the hunt for any type of employment that could be considered upwardly mobile. I mean, I was a college grad, albeit a few years out. Fresh out of college I could have posed for any of those happy-faced, college graduate commercials promising new, and exciting opportunities. Four years beyond my graduation date, however, and I was more likely to be in a montage for people needing government assistance to eat every month. Apparently, no one is hiring people these days; just résumés. I didn’t have the seven to fifteen years of required experience, or a six year degree, or any redeemable traits, so far as the responses I received were concerned. At one point, I was told I wasn’t even qualified to wash laundry. What an ego booster.
While I was only half paying attention as I scanned the pages, taking in what was likely the last of the late morning summer sunshine like a kid eating a giant pixie stick, my phone rang. I dug through my small purse, which still meant I got to it just before the final ring sent it to voicemail. I didn’t even have time to groan before I answered as I read the display: Buttface.
“Yes, dearest brother of mine?” I queried, in the sweetest, most angelic, leave-me-the-hell alone voice.
“Job hunting again?” he asked, figuratively launching one of his first-place javelin throws at my heart. My brother was the perfect jock and student, whereas I was winded just thinking about exercise and had mediocre grades in anything that was considered academic. I probably could have tried harder, but he cast a big shadow, and I decided at a young age that the best way to stand outside that shadow was to amount to nothing.
You see how well that turned out for me.
“If you must know, yes, I am. Called to gloat?”
“Can’t a brother be worried about his sister’s situation?”
More like his sister’s potential to divert funds from his pack of hellions spawned from him and his wife.
“Uh-huh,” I said, unconvinced.
“Candy”—I would never know why anyone decides to take a perfectly good name like Candace and turn it into a stripper’s stage name—“wants to know if we’ll see you at Jason’s birthday party this Sunday?”
Read: Will you be bringing my hell-spawn a gift? I kid. Mostly. My nieces and nephews were great. In small doses. One at a time. Every couple of months.
“Yes, I’ll be there, and I bought the gift a month ago.”
“Great! We’re looking forward to you being there.”
“How close are you to getting a new job?”
“Goodbye, Joel.” I hung up before he could protest.
I loved my brother to death, but we were as alike as potatoes and puppies, as opposed to two peas in a pod. In fact, when I’d asked him once how we could be so different when we had the same parents, he’d told me aliens had beamed me down because I was such a rotten alien baby. Ah, brotherly love.
Of course I would never ask my parents for financial assistance. They’d already gifted my brother and me with trust funds, which they established after my father got some kind of settlement from the government for something he’s not allowed to talk about. My brother utilized his slightly better than me, which was possibly why he was one of the best lawyers for miles, and I was regularly turned down to wash laundry. But who really knew? The fact was, the fund kept me just far enough above water that I wasn’t drowning, but a job was the difference between that and not counting out my pile of nickels and pennies to pay for coffee.
With renewed motivation, though I guess you have to have it in the first place for it to be renewed, I perused the classifieds. It was on the last page, reserved for the desperate and nigh hopeless, that I found this gem:
The Infamous Chicken is urgently in search of a UNIQUE individual
to manage the graveyard shift, 10-4, 6 days a week
Ask for Julia
I’d leaned forward while reading the ad twice. I wasn’t sure why unique was in all caps, but it piqued my interest, for sure. I sat back in my chair and bit my lip.
The Infamous Chicken was, well, infamous for having the best fried chicken outside the Bible Belt. At least according to our Pacific Northwest residents. It catered to a wide age-range, from kids to the geriatrics, like a fast-food catch-all. The chicken was juicy, its coating crisp, and let’s say a certain Colonel couldn’t touch the taste with a ten-foot pole. They sold fries or corn fritters as the sides, soda or beer, and even had a limited breakfast menu for those on their way to work who wanted something fat and delicious. They sold burgers, too, but they were definitely more of a chicken joint, though the burgers were still something to write home about. It was owned by some guy no one ever saw, but rumor was he was a recluse who was good at concocting delicious marinades for dead animals.
It was never overly busy, but business was always good for them. After a spate of misfires with the career pistol, this might be just what the doctor ordered. I usually flew to manager positions before I went down in a fiery tailspin for one reason or another. So I did have manager experience, and they didn’t ask for a certain amount in the ad. That might change when I spoke with Julia, but for now I’d hope for the best.
I called Julia, as directed, and after a few questions she directed me to send my résumé—cringe—to her work e-mail. I sat at my computer, staring at the screen, willing the e-mail to appear. I hit refresh like I was addicted to clicking the mouse, wandering away for moments before returning to my vice. There was no guarantee she’d get back to me today, but the ad had said urgent.
Hours went by, and at each loud, nerve-grating tick of the clock on my wall, my hope dwindled bit by bit. I hadn’t realized I’d fallen asleep until the phone rang, and jolted me awake. Drool puddled around my elbow on my desk, and I grimaced as I wiped my mouth across my shoulder on my plain grey t-shirt.
I snagged the phone and answered, “Hello?”
“Hello. I’m looking for a Ms. Holly Bell,” the caller, a woman, said.
“Speaking,” I responded, my voice husky from sleep. I cleared my throat. “May I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Julia from The Infamous Chicken. I’m calling back in regards to your application.”
“Oh, wonderful! I’m glad to hear back from you.” Though I wondered if I ever had to answer the phone, if I’d be able to keep a straight face when I said, ‘The Infamous Chicken’.
“Good to hear,” she said, an edge of hesitation in her voice.
“One of our employees, who had put in their two weeks, decided to just quit instead of finishing out his time. Would you be available to come in tonight for a trial run, so to speak, and meet the…crew members you’ll help manage?” she asked, hesitating once again for only a moment when mentioning the crew members.
Maybe they were a handful? Perhaps that was why unique was in all caps on the ad? Well, I’d babysat my nieces and nephews, who could almost climb walls they were so rambunctious, and did manage to do so at one point. Let’s just say my brother and sister-in-law now stow their mountain climbing gear where the kids can’t get to it, particularly the shoe spikes and pickaxes. Have you ever walked into a living room to see a four year-old hanging eight feet from the ground, holding onto the handle of a pickaxe embedded in the wall, giggling like a madman? Heart attack and unsettling doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Adults should be easy as pie, or rather chicken, in comparison. Maybe even chicken pie.
“Absolutely,” I answered, my voice more confident than the butterflies in my gut.
“Do you own a pair of slip-resistant shoes?”
“Yes, I do,” I said. At least something useful came from working at Speedy Pizza.
“Great. Wear those, black socks, an undershirt or tank top, and a pair of blue jeans—no rips. We’ll have a shirt for you here.”
“Fantastic. Will this be a normal-length shift?”
“First you’ll just meet the crew. If everything goes well from there, yes. Please show up no later than nine-fifty,” she said, putting so much emphasis on the time, it was underlined and bold in my mind.
“Sure, no problem,” I said, somewhat taken aback.
“Good. We look forward to meeting you.”
She hung up.
Oooo-kay. Well, maybe she just wasn’t a phone person.
It was nearing nine, and the darkness crept up toward the window of my one-bedroom studio apartment like the fingers of a skeleton slowly rising from the grave. I had a lovely view of the evergreen forest surrounding the town that I covered up with blackout curtains. The apartment was basic down to the smallest detail, as I wasn’t much for home decorating.
I started getting ready early, the butterflies having turned into gnawing little rats of anxiety and doubt.
“You’ll screw this up too, loser.”
“No one likes you.”
I let it go on for another minute before I shut it down.
Takes one to know one, you useless eggplant.
Shining standard of mental health, was I. I put on a plain, black headband between my bangs and the rest of my straight, thick golden brown sugar colored hair. It was cut in a bob, to just below my jawline. My black, plastic, thin-frame glasses outlined my hazel eyes. They were small enough that my chubby cheeks of my heart-shaped face didn’t push the frames up when I smiled. My face matched the rest of me: flirting with the line between average and plump. It didn’t help that I was a mere five-foot-two, a midget compared to the tree people of my family.
I grabbed a pair of clean jeans, some black socks, a black tank top, and headed out the door to the concrete landing just outside my door to put my shoes on. Slip-resistant shoes, especially when worn in areas where food is made and drops on the floor, can get majorly nasty. After I tied them, I locked my door and headed down to my car. It was finally full dark, but only just. I unlocked my dark blue, four-door car, black in the night, and hopped in.
The Infamous Chicken was just on the outskirts of town. It was a good place, not too far from the town to the east and highway just to the North, but far enough away that the parking lot was sizable, and traffic wasn’t a huge concern. It took me fifteen-ish minutes to get there, since my apartment was within walking distance of the outer edge of the inner city. It helped that traffic was light this late, since most normal folks were home and in bed.
When I pulled into the parking lot at nine-forty-eight, I followed the sign for employee parking on the far side. Roughly eight people were leaving through the rear entrance as I parked and got out of the car. The gravel crunched underfoot, the rocks common for parking lots in the area, being so near to the Cascades.
A couple people watched on, curious, as I made my way to the back door, and a couple nodded, to which I nodded in return. I may hate people, but that was no reason not to be polite. I wasn’t raised by wolves, after all. Though the members of my father’s old unit, and the charity committee members my mother was acquainted with might disagree. We were a rather tenacious family.
As I reached the back door, a woman exited at exactly nine-forty-nine on the nose. She wasn’t much taller than me, her short sangria hair was pulled back in a ponytail that couldn’t quite gather all the hair up. Bangs that were wavy went across a forehead with a light dusting of freckles, which could be found everywhere her pale skin was exposed. Her black polo had the logo of The Infamous Chicken’s mascot: a chicken wearing a swashbuckler’s outfit, complete with poofy plume on its hat, and a sword.
She turned and came face-to-face with me, the only indication of her surprise at my sudden nearness a slight widening of her sapphire blue eyes.
“Julia?” I guessed. Her shirt was black, but everyone else who’d filed out had worn electric blue. It was an educated guess, since most places gave managers different colored shirts from the crew.
“Yes, are you Holly?” she asked, her voice a veritable battlefield between relief and apprehension.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
“Great. Nice to meet you. Just knock on the door; the other manager is waiting for you.”
“Uh, you aren’t staying?” I asked, a little thrown by the exchange, as though I’d missed a step on the stairs.
“No, I can’t stay,” she said in a rush, panic flashing behind her eyes. “Don’t worry. The other manager will show you the ropes.” She looked down at her watch. “Good luck!” Then she hurried away, got into a red, old, but well cared for car, and sped out of the lot; kicking up gravel as she left.
A million questions ran through my mind. Not the least of which was; if Julia wasn’t the one training me, why was she the point of contact? Also, why weren’t they promoting from within? The latter question far more suspicious than the former.
I knocked on the back door as directed, since it had no handle and could only be opened from the inside. A scant second went by before it creaked open, the lone yellow bulb above the door not able to penetrate the darkness I could see through the jamb into what I assumed was a hallway.
I stepped around the opening door as someone asked, “Yes?” The voice was sultry and low, almost a purr. Then I came face-to-face with a woman with piercing, emerald green eyes, smooth, deathly white skin, raven hair with bluish highlights in the low light pulled back into a high, immaculate bun, and long, slender limbs.
“I’m, uh, here for the graveyard manager position,” I said, the words faltering from me like scattering pieces of scrap metal across the concrete.
“Ah, I see,” she said, a slow smile curving blood red, lipsticked lips. “I am Odella, and you must be Holly.”
When she said her name, there was the faintest hint of an accent, absent from the rest of her words. I’d experienced it with other expats during our various travels from my father’s Army years. Usually ones who were young when they’d left their native country, and spent many years elsewhere.
“I, uh, yes. Yes, I’m Holly,” I continued to stumble, mesmerized like a bird with a snake.
Weak! Get your shit together, soldier. My father’s voice bellowed out in my mind, harking back to his Drill Sergeant days.
I’m not a soldier, I spat back. Irritation at some of the worst years of my childhood giving me the will to break eye contact with the woman.
“Interesting,” she murmured, her voice betraying not a small amount of shock, if not a little curiosity. “Why don’t you come in, and meet the rest of the crew.”
She pushed the door open wide, and held it for me. With the spot on the door her hand was against—right near the middle hinge—it should have been difficult for her to hold a heavy, metal door with such ease. At the very least, she should be trembling with the effort as I stood there like an indecisive child. Yet she made it look effortless.
“Sure. I’d love to,” I replied, my words slow and tentative.
I looked beyond her into the looming dark of the hallway, to a bright light in what I assumed was the kitchen area. There were the usual noises of food being made, mixing with the outside sounds of cars pulling through the drive-through on the opposite end of the building, and night creatures calling from the woods that backed up to this side.
Then I stepped into the dark, and the door closed with a heavy thud behind us.