“Knew she couldn’t handle it. Typical Ord.”
“Seriously, Stribs, just shut up.”
“Or what, Dog Breath?”
“Or I’ll tell Celinwel’s crew you cheated on her. Again.” Then a pause as she asked in a whisper, “Does my breath really smell bad?”
“Of course not, Bea. Stribs is just being a prick.” There was another, small pause, this time from Anne. “And a tiny one at that.”
It went down an incredibly vulgar hill from there.
The conversation floated around me like the pesky dandelion fluff that inevitably set my sinuses off. Something hard and segmented was under my back, and it left my legs dangling so that my toes barely brushed the floor. Harsh, fluorescent light stabbed through my eyelids, and the fatty, delicious aroma of fried chicken saturated the air like humidity before a thunderstorm.
I groaned, sat up, and gasped as whatever I was laying on shifted beneath me. My eyes shot open, and I blindly grabbed for anything to catch myself before I fell. As I wind milled uselessly, someone grabbed my wrist in a vice-like grip, keeping me from hitting the floor.
“Easy there,” Odella purred. “Can’t have you hurting yourself after we just kept you from braining yourself against the grill.”
She lifted me until my toes were an inch from the floor, my arm in a dead hang. I relaxed in the hold, not wanting to strain my shoulder. When I met her gaze, her eyes were no longer red or green, but a swirling mix between the two. I took a deep breath to even out my breathing, and when I blinked, I gave her calm eyes in return. Despite my controlled breathing and nice, resting heartrate, I was scrambling around in my mind trying to remember every (non-trashy, sex from cover-to-cover) book I’d ever read about vampires. At least, I was pretty sure that’s what Odella was.
You’ve gone mad, Rational Brain commented, rather unhelpfully.
Or, you’re not crazy and she really is a vampire. Stop with the denial and be useful.
The tennis match going on in my brain must have been evident on my face, because Odella smiled a small, knowing smile. Then she set me down on the floor.
“I told you you’d have to see to believe.”
It took every ounce of self-control I had not to bolt for the back door. Partially, because holy-freaking-duck-bucket, these people were real, live monsters. But mostly because I didn’t want to get eaten, and running from predators was a sure way to wind up as a snack.
I rubbed my shoulder. “I’m not one for jumping to conclusions, or subtlety,” I prefaced, “so tell me: was what I saw real, and not some elaborate joke on the new person?”
She shook her head. “You’re the only human here. Cross my cold dead heart, and I’ve already died,” she said, making a slow sensuous ‘X’ over her left breast.
I followed the movement of her finger as though it compelled my attention, like two magnets drawn together.
“I’m not sure I can do my job if you keep trying to hypnotize me every time we’re in the same room,” I said absently, my eyes unable to look away.
“But it’s so entertaining,” her voice said, smooth and warm, like sipping on a tumbler of swanky whiskey.
I’d never been much for alcohol, though, being much better acquainted with the, internalize and ignore your emotions route of dealing with stress. I had quite a bit of anger and other pesky emotions built up, and the, ‘let’s fuck with the human,’ was getting my back up.
Establish dominance, my father’s voice growled. It might not have been incredibly useful advice in the third grade against Kelly I’ll-yank-your-skirt-down-at-recess-and-call-you-fat Hines, but it might have promise here.
I gathered all of my repressed—and unnecessary according to my father—feelings into an ugly, messy ball in the center of my chest, and pushed it outward right at Odella’s face. She rocked back on her heels, and whatever held my body in thrall snapped, like a rubber band being stretched too far and breaking.
When I looked up, her eyes were wide, but she didn’t let that keep her down for long. This time when she smiled her huge, manic grin, I couldn’t help but notice the razor sharp canines and lateral incisors.
I just had to get through tonight without being eaten, and then I could go home and freak out.
I took another deep, calming breath, and stabbed at the heart of the matter with a nice, pointy, wooden stake. “Why, exactly, do you need me here?”
Odella opened her mouth to speak, but someone else butted in.
“You’re a glorified babysitter, Ord. Here to make sure they don’t see us, and none of us try to eat them,” Stribs said scathingly. He rounded the corner of the crew room and leaned against it, looking up at me. It was an odd sensation, being that I wasn’t very tall.
Odella let out an exasperated sigh and frowned, but didn’t dispute what he’d said.
“Is that a concern? Being eaten, I mean,” I asked, trying not to stutter.
Stribs made a disgusted hack at the back of his throat and shook his head. “Ord—“
“Call me that one more time,” I said, deadpan, and leveled a stony expression his way, “and we’ll see if Goblins are as easily punted as they are mouthy.”
I didn’t need to know everything about the word Ord to know it was some kind of insulting term for humans.
Sharp as an orange, this one, Rational Brain said, and jerked a proverbial thumb toward me.
“You gonna let her talk to me that way?” he whined at Odella, his ears curling at the tips as he cringed.
She raised a single, incredulous eyebrow. “You’re the one insulting her. Don’t come crying to me.” Then she motioned for me to follow her. “Let’s go. We’ve got work to do.” The she looked down at Stribs. “All of us.” Her voice hardened in a way that such a reprimand was a common occurrence.
He skulked off, but not before casting a baleful look in my direction.
“Don’t mind him. He’s just put off because we hired you for the manager position instead of promoting him. No one likes the fact we need a human to interact with the other humans, but aside from Stribs and probably his girlfriend, Celinwel, they accept it. Now, let’s get you a headset,” she said, everything coming out in a rush.
She walked over to the other side of the office wall, and grabbed a wireless headset from a small, clear plastic bin up on one of the shelves.
“Nice,” I said, and took it from her. “I’m not a fan of the belt-pack headsets.” It was also great to find some normal ground, even if it was a small island amidst the sea of supernatural chaos.
“Yeah, they have their disadvantages, too, but I agree: wireless is better overall,” she said, and smiled her first typical smile I’d seen since meeting her.
We walked past the first window, sporting a ‘Closed, Please use Next Window’ sign.
“That gets closed off at 9:50, and you’ll be the only one to greet and hand everything out at the second window.”
Which begged the question: “Who’s up there now?”
“Lia. She can alter people’s perceptions for short periods of time, but it’s not her specialty and she tires quickly from it. Ah, speak of the devil,” she said.
The girl with the liquid movements and blue hair flowed our way, more than walked.
“I’m no Devil,” she said, and she stared straight at me, then tilted her head back a touch and to her right. “Don’t give the new girl any strange ideas. She just might believe I’m really a Devil, or some other hellish incarnation.”
“What are you, then?” I asked, curious.
Her eyes flashed, and everything in the store stopped. Aside from the noises of the various machines, nothing moved and no one spoke.
“Have you ever seen someone let their child pee on the floor in the middle of a room?” Lia asked.
I frowned, and shook my head. My nieces and nephews were little hell-beasts, (well, not really, but who knew, now?) but I’d never witnessed that, that I could recall. They’d thrown my phone into a toilet one of them had just used, and not flushed, but I don’t think that counted.
“Well, the hypothetical child’s behavior is the equivalent of you asking that question.”
I blushed to the roots of my hair. “Uh, got it. Major social faux paus, penalty me,” I said.
She brushed past me and headed toward the back.
Look at me, makin’ friends everywhere I go.
“She breaks down and washes all the dishes, and anything else that can come apart to be cleaned. One rule with Lia: she needs to be gone at least half an hour before the sun rises. It means her schedule can vary, and she doesn’t mind staying to help with things if the dishes are done, but never break that rule,” Odella warned.
We finished walking up toward the front, and Odella showed me the ins-and-outs of the menu on the POS—Point Of Sale. No, not piece of shit, though sometimes the systems at restaurants were slow enough it was applicable. Everywhere I’d ever been encountered the same issues.
Odella nodded at me. The headset operated by using four buttons, located on the opposite side of the fuzzy part against your ear. The bottom button allowed you to talk over the headset with anyone else wearing one. Two buttons, just above it and side-by-side, controlled the volume. The top button, when pressed, kept a continuous line open to the customer at the order speaker.
I hit the top button. “Hello, and thank you for choosing The Infamous Chicken. What can I get started for you?”
“Uh, is your shake machine working?” asked a stentorian, female voice.
I grimaced and lowered the volume on the headset. I looked over to Odella, who stood by the machine used for making ice cream and shakes. She pointed at two blue lights on the front panel, and gave me a thumbs up.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
“Okay. Um, I’ll get a cheeseburger, but with no cheese.”
Gotta love the random questions followed by not ordering what they asked about.
“So, you want a hamburger?”
“No, I want a cheeseburger with no cheese.”
“O-kay,” I replied, and raised an eyebrow, but kept my voice even and polite. Half of working with customers is being able to fake friendly. “Anything else?”
She continued to order, and when she finished she still hadn’t ordered a shake. Color me shocked.
“Is everything on your screen correct?”
“Sure,” she said, impatient and dismissive.
“Then your total is—“ She drove away, automatically turning off the headset and cutting me off. “—15.57, and thank you for letting me finish before you drove off,” I muttered.
I turned to face the order assembly station. It was where the bags, condiments, napkins, and so on were kept, and caught sight of what sent my brain tipping over the edge from potentially plausible to, what the actual fuck, earlier.
Having stepped in the proverbial social crap pile earlier with Lia, I controlled my reaction.
“Hello,” I said, not letting the electric spiders of surprise that were skittering up my spine make any inflection in my voice.
“Hi,” he said, nervous. “I’m Nathan.”
“Nice to meet you, Nathan. I’m Holly.”
“I just want to say I’m so sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, his expression truly pained and apologetic.
“No harm, no foul. Don’t worry about it,” I replied. “You just surprised me.” Odella was smiling over by the fry station as she made the woman’s fries, and I couldn’t help a nervous chuckle. “Apparently shock and awe is the only way for you guys to get people to believe in you.”
“True,” he said, and floated closer. “I didn’t believe in any of this either. I was a day shift worker, and I…died, out in the lobby.” His face blanched, if such a thing were possible, and the silver and white light making up his ghostly form shimmered.
Before I could respond, Odella interjected, “You need to greet the customer within fifteen seconds of being at the window. By my hearing and count, she’s been there 11…12…”
I made my way over to the window, pasted an overly affable smile on my face, and slid it open. I was expecting more resistance, and accidentally banged the window open against the frame, making me wince.
“Hi, sorry about that. The window’s lighter than it looks. Your total is 15.57. How are you tonight?” I asked, as I took her money and paid her out at the register underneath the POS.
“Fine,” she mumbled, and aside from taking her change she ignored me, just staring straight ahead, scowling. She was smoking a cigarette, the smoke wafting into the window, despite it being illegal to smoke within twenty-five feet of it. Her unnatural red-dyed hair was pulled back in a tight bun, and slicked down with gel. She was young, pale, and typical for an early-twenties Washington native railing against living in the ‘boonies’.
“Do you need a drink carrier?” I asked, cranking up the cheer a couple notches.
“Alrighty then. They’re working on your food now,” I said, and handed the drinks out the window, followed by the straws. She kept her eyes away from mine, and huffed out an annoyed sigh.
If it was at the drinks, me, or the wait, I wasn’t sure. Not that it ever mattered with some people. I’d had customers complain about things taking too long, as well as ones who complained it didn’t take enough time. There was no pleasing everyone.
The order assembly area was just out of sight of the window, with only the front counter, ice cream station, and various drink-making stations in view. I stepped around the Mechanized Beverage Dispenser to stay out of her line of sight. Not that she was watching me, but after a minute they’ll generally look up to see what you’re doing.
It was a lose-lose situation. If you’re stocking items, then why weren’t you making food? As though staring at the timers made food cook faster. If you took a moment to get a drink for yourself, you were lazy. If they couldn’t see you, you were ignoring them, and so on. The list never ended, and at least a third were never happy no matter what was going on.
Odella assembled the food in the bag, quick and efficient, and handed it to me. I, in turn, passed it out the window.
“Here you go!” She said nothing as she snatched the bag from my hands.
“Is this everything?” she asked, tone indicating that even if I said yes, she wouldn’t believe me.
“Yes,” I responded any way, as she dug through the bag. I didn’t mind customers checking bags at the window. I’d rather them do it here than call the store later and yell at me because they were missing something, or it was wrong.
She finished her inspection and tossed the bag on the passenger seat.
“Thank you, and have a nice—“ She peeled away. “—night.” I closed the window.
“Bitch,” Stribs commented from his perch just past the order assembly area, next to the heated, slotted cabinets where product was kept in trays after it was cooked.
I shrugged. “You get good ones and bad ones,” I said, trying to keep a professional outlook. At least on my first night. I’d griped about my fair share of customers at other jobs. Everyone did. I’m sure I’d get there eventually here, too.
The rest of the night was a mixed bag of customers: good, bad, drunk, high, and so on. So, a typical night at any fast food place.
However, the customers weren’t the issue. I’d been spit at, cursed at, had drinks thrown at me, and so on at other places. Those situations I could handle. Mutiny, on the other hand, was something else.
Everyone had a period of time where they needed to prove themselves at a job. As a new manager, especially one not promoted from within, I’d expected resistance.
Stribs was less resistance and more like an overly aggressive goose; honking loudly at each thing that displeased him, even minimally, flapping about, and making messes faster than, well, shit goes through a goose.
Everyone took on an air of resignation about the whole affair, and offered little sympathy to me when I checked to made sure certain things were being done. As per the list Odella had given me.
After the third, “Well I’m going to do this instead,” or just outright ignoring me, I ceased communication with Stribs, and instead spoke only to Bea. Instead of pleasing him, this sent Stribs into a sullen silence. His overinflated view of his abilities and talents didn’t handle such a blow to the ego very well.
Celinwel played off his moods, either inciting them by arguing or agreeing with him, or setting up arguments between him and the other crew. It was quite a spectacle.
Finally, we finished up for the night, getting things prepped and ready for the ‘opening’ crew. This included: changing out the product in the cabinet from dinner to breakfast, finishing touches on stocking and cleaning, covering the big chicken fryer vats, since they weren’t used again until lunch, as well as draining the giant tubs of the secret recipe buttermilk marinade in the fridge for a fresh batch, and a few other tasks. We did all this while taking and making orders, which trickled in less and less as the night wore on.
Odella had gone into the office around 3 a.m. to do paperwork, and emerged right before we were set to leave. She checked on everything to make sure there was nothing left to do, adding a few finishing touches of her own. Lia had left not long after Odella went into the office.
“It’s always better to be safe than dead,” she said to me, when she checked to make sure there was nothing else I needed her to do before she left.
“Uh, right,” I agreed. “You’re good to go.”
She nodded and turned to leave, but stopped and looked back at me. “Not too bad, new girl.” Then she made her way to the crew room, and out the back.
At least one of the crew didn’t hate me.
Bea was neutral, and she watched my every move as though evaluating me right down to how I walked from one place to another. Anne had been eerily silent since our interaction at the beginning of the night. However, they were both fast and efficient at their jobs, and I figured interpersonal work relationships could be patched and improved as we moved forward. Leo was a steady, consistent worker, though it was the consistency of molasses, to be fair. Nathan was there to help me while Odella was in the office. However, I noticed any time he got nervous things started falling off shelves, or items would slip from people’s fingers, as though pulled out. I’d also had to explain away his occasional, panicked moaning during rushes, as an odd noise the refrigerator system sometimes made.
By the end of the night, even my toenails ached, and I was going to need to work out a way to interact with Stribs. At least, one that didn’t involve me strangling one of the first supernatural beings I’d ever encountered.
“There’s a ten minute window of time where it’ll just be you, as our crew leaves before the morning crew comes on. They don’t, and can’t, know about us. Luckily, those ten minutes aren’t, well,” she said, and waved her hand back and forth. “You know.”
I did, but graveyarders were a superstitious lot, to say the least. If you mentioned it was slow, or that you were going to start cleaning something, or someone was going on a break, you’d get slammed. It was fast food science.
“Sure, no problem. You guys have a nice night,” I said.
Odella tilted her head to the side. “See you tomorrow night?” she asked.
I hesitated. I’d been debating that ever since I’d come to after seeing Nathan floating above the hot cabinets. In the end, though, they weren’t all that different from humans in behavior, and no one had tried to eat me.
“Absolutely,” I said, my voice much stronger than the quivering jelly that were my guts.
“Fantastic!” Then she waved. “Good night!”
She vanished, or maybe she moved too fast for me to see. Either way, she was gone, and the others filtered out behind her. I got a few waves from Bea, Anne, and Leo, and scowls from Celinwel and Stribs.
What a pair, said the eternal romantic that was my mother.
I rolled my eyes, and looked up at Nathan. He was fading out, and I stood up in a rush.
“Are you okay?” I asked, concerned.
He nodded. “The only reason I’m visible is because of the supernatural energy emitted by the others. It allows me to manifest in the visible spectrum,” he said, almost gone from my sight. “See you tomorrow.” Then he was gone, and I was truly alone in the store. At least for another eight minutes.
I went to the bathroom, and then made myself some food to eat while I waited. I ate out in the lobby, since I didn’t fancy eating in the dark of the crew room.
The morning crew got there, and after a few brief introductions and hellos, I trudged out to my car. The twilight hour between night and dawn made things difficult to make out, and the trees near parking area still clutched at the darkness, not wanting to let go. I looked over and saw what I thought was a pair of eyes watching me, but when I blinked they were gone. I was getting to the point of sleep deprivation where I was starting to see things. I headed home, quietly chuckling. Now that I knew there really were monsters in night, I couldn’t decide if I was more, or less, scared of the dark.
It was going to take a few days to get used to working night shifts, and I didn’t envy my future self waking up to what this was going to feel like later. I miraculously made it to my apartment without crashing my car into anyone or anything, and went inside. After a brief shower I crawled into bed, and promptly fell dead to the world, too tired for the freak out I’d promised myself earlier.
It was about five hours later when my phone rang. My sleep-deprived brain scrambled about, and I tried to pry open gritty eyes to look at my nightstand. When that didn’t work, I fumbled blindly for my house phone, finally landing on it on the fourth ring.
“Hello?” I asked after hitting the button, voice husky and low from sleep. I curled my body around the phone, kept my eyes closed, and tried not to fall asleep before the person answered.
“Is this Holly Bell, currently employed at The Infamous Chicken?” an authoritative voice demanded to know.
News travels fast, apparently.
“Yes, and who is this?” I asked, still fighting the clutches of slumber trying to drag me back into the sweet, dark abyss.
“This is Lieutenant Knight of the Thunder Hollow Police Department. We need you to come down to your place of employment to answer a few questions.”
My focus snapped to just as fast as my eyes opened. “What is this concerning?”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss that over the phone. You can either come down here voluntarily and answer some questions, or I can drive over there, cuff you, and take you to the station.”
Jeez Louise—aggressive much? Primal Brain piped up.
I don’t even know if that’s legal, Rational Brain added.
“I’ll be down as soon as possible,” I said, taken aback. “But what’s so important that you’re dragging me out of bed not long after I got off my overnight shift?” I asked, my irritation waking up like a slow-moving goliath. “Any why me? I’m just a shift manager.”
“Murder, Ms. Bell, and because you are the only human on said shift,” Lieutenant Knight said in an angry whisper. “Now, get your ass down here,” he barked, and the line went dead.
“Fuck,” I said emphatically, and let the phone drop to my lap.