I paused inside the doorway to let my eyes adjust to the gloom.
At my hesitation, Odella spoke, “Sorry about the light. It’s been out for a while now.”
“Why don’t they change it?” Or did they not care? The undertone of my words hung in the air. The answer to the question would reveal what kind of work environment I was walking into. I’d experienced the full range of employers in the past, from tyrants who criticized uniforms down to a single stray string, to weaklings who let their employees walk all over them like a doormat in a whorehouse.
“Places like this always have something broken down. It’s about prioritizing. Just so happens everything else is higher on the list than the light.” She paused, and I swear she sniffed a couple of times, delicate and barely audible, so I couldn’t be sure. “The owner is practical, but he does care.” She turned to face me, her green eyes glowing somehow, like jewels backlit by fire.
“Sure,” I said, taken back by her conviction. “That’s understandable.”
She nodded, face serious, and then inexplicably broke out into a wide grin. “Great! Practicality is such an undervalued trait these days.”
She pointed to my left. “This is the freezer and walk-in fridge.” Then to my right. “This is the dry stock.”
The entrances must have been around the corners, because I saw none along the hall walls. The walls were made of some kind of white plastic material, easily wiped down and cleaned off, but textured, making it almost impossible to completely do so. Ah, the anomalies of fast-food buildings. It met with the baseboard, which was the typical, burned orange quarry tile. It was curved where it met the floor, instead of having a sharp corner, which meant food and debris weren’t easily trapped there. Surprisingly enough, though, there was nothing in the grout lines between the tiles. Most places had bits and pieces of anything that found its way to the floor ground into the grout. It took a steam cleaner, or someone with a compulsion disorder and a toothbrush, to completely clean those lines.
I wasn’t sure if I was impressed, or suspicious. They probably just had it cleaned.
We continued down the hall to where it opened into a wider area. When we exited the hall, she turned, and held out an arm to point toward my right. Since she was taller than me, and her body blocked the view of the rest of the space.
“This way is the sink, washer, soda dispensers, mop station, and hot water heater.”
I could just make out the dry stock shelves, and the track on the floor indicating they were moving shelves, which helped with storage in smaller areas. There was also the walk-in/freezer door along the left wall. It was large and a polished stainless steel. The handle was a typical latch handle.
Beyond the sink, along the wall opposite the dry stock and in the corner, was the washer for towels and aprons, then the mop station, hot water heater, and the soda dispensers. The three-sink system was right next to the corner, which meant they didn’t have a dishwasher. Well, not an automated one, at any rate.
“No dishwasher?” I inquired. I was coming in for a manager job, but it was standard practice to make the newbie wash dishes until they learned the ropes. I didn’t look forward to cracked, bleeding skin from papercut-like cuts from having your hands in soap, hot water, and sanitizer all night.
“Not unless you count Ke—I mean Lia.” She laughed a little too forcefully, trying to play off her stumble.
I raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, and surveyed the sink area. It was immaculate, just like the grout.
Curiouser and curiouser.
By dry stock, along the wall, was a manual trash compactor with no trash to speak of. It was just change shift, so the last crew had probably emptied everything on their way out. Yeah, and my car was a robot in disguise. In my experience, day crew only cleaned when threatened with a nuclear response; anything short of that was met with a sudden hearing problem, or an evasion worthy of a scene in a popular sci-fi movie that had no spoons.
The night crew hadn’t been back here long enough to warrant such a clean space, and it was strange that no one was around. The Infamous Chicken was 24-hours, and had steady business. There should have been people coming back for product, cleaning dishes, or doing any number of activities.
I made a move to look around Odella, but she moved with an imperceptible speed, and remained in my line of sight. It was like she moved with my eyes, but I couldn’t actually see her moving. I’m probably just tired; no one moves that fast.
“And over here,” she interrupted, “is the crew room and office.” She moved to a couple of doorways along the wall perpendicular to the freezer’s wall. As we moved, she angled her body to keep the rest of the area out of my sight, and it was going from accidental body placement, to purposefully annoying.
However, I obliged and looked in on the crew room. It had no door, was small, and had a couple of two-seater tables. There was a long, single cubby along one wall, where you could use that or the shelf on top, plus an area to hang jackets beneath that. I rolled the strap of my purse beneath itself, and placed it into the cubby next to a few other bags. On the top part of the shelf was a small, blue lunchbox, covered in a fine layer of dust.
I turned to ask Odella about it, but when I did so, she was a mere inch away from my face.
“Any questions so far?”
“No,” I said, holding my breath so as not to breathe into her face. Not now, anyway.
“Excellent! Let’s have a look-see at the office, and then…then you’ll meet the crew.” The latter statement was made with such a sense of finality, that perhaps I should have made arrangements with a lawyer to update my living will.
What’s with this chick? It was never easy to get a sense of who someone was when at work. You can’t wear your regular clothing, and your personality is muted by professionalism. She was all over the place, but friendly. I had no issue working with oddballs; I’d worked graveyard in other places, and it tended to be the Island of Misfit Toys. Anyone whose personality didn’t jive with normal was shunted there, availability willing.
Odella was strange so far, but not so much so that I was unwilling to continue. I’d only met one manager who’d ranged so far outside the territory of sane that I’d been forced to quit. The incident involved tongs, nudity, and a lot of yogurt. Even I had my limits.
When we went into the office, right next to the crew room, she continued her body-sight-blocking routine. The dramatic build-up was getting tedious, but I kept my mouth shut and entered the office.
It had a desk, computer, a multitude of cupboards, a couple of filing systems, and a safe. Pretty atypical of most small offices in restaurants. She brushed past me, and I smelled orange blossoms as she sat in the rolling computer desk chair. It was black, and her hair blended in with the matte fabric.
“I’ll make this short, since I need to get back on the floor: we’re not your normal graveyard crew. I’d tell you just how strange, but it’s one of those, ‘you won’t believe it until you see it,’ situations. We need someone with your particular skill set here to interact with the customers where we cannot. You’ll be the only one face-to-face with the customers, barring exigent circumstances, like right now. Tonight you’ll just be getting a general idea of how the restaurant is run, and you’ll be on the headset, listening to me taking orders. Think you’re up for it?”
It was the weirdest introduction I’d ever been given at a new job, and I mentally ran down the list on my résumé, trying to think of what skill set I possessed that someone else didn’t.
I was coming up blank, but I wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Maybe the entire crew had bad interactions with the customers in the past, and now they needed a babysitter? Seemed a poor business decision, but maybe they were really good workers otherwise.
“I will certainly try my best,” I said. I set about building up my mental fortitude to meet some potentially abrasive co-workers.
Odella smiled, as though my efforts were visible to her, and she stood back up. She grabbed a polo shirt from a cabinet above her head. It was black, just like hers and Julia’s.
“Then put this on and follow me.”
She left the office, but turned her back in the doorway to block the view and give me privacy. I pulled the polo on over the tank top, but left it un-tucked, since that was how Odella had it. I let her know I was finished. She turned, gave me a once-over, and nodded in approval. She started walking to the right, and I followed behind her toward the food prep/assembling area. She still blocked my view, though as we passed I saw the first window, grill, fryers, prep tables, and a couple of fridges and freezers.
“Everyone, this is the new human graveyard shift manager, Holly,” Odella said, then moved aside.
My brain only had a scant second to wonder at the word ‘human’ before it was assaulted with sensory input it couldn’t process. At first, I wondered if someone decided it was ‘Halloween in September’ night at The Infamous Chicken.
The first thing that caught my eye, only because he took up the most room, was the guy who was dressed like a zombie. His skin was gray and desiccated, with dark circles under bright, blue eyes made large by his wasted skin. He wore a red hat with restaurant logo on it, so I couldn’t see his hair color, or even if he had any. His cheeks were sunken, and he hunched over, as though he was exhausted. The bright blue crew shirt hung limp on his tall, lean frame, and was tucked into jeans that were cinched tight at his waist with a black belt. The gloves he wore on his hands, as required by food service workers in most places, actually extended above his elbows.
“Hi,” he said, in the flattest, most humdrum voice I’d ever encountered. “I’m Leo.” He gave me the weakest wave of his hand, and then shuffled over toward a set of large, deep fryers on my right. They were beeping, insistent that he immediately remove whatever food had been placed in them.
At this point, alarms bells were clanging distantly in the back of my brain, like when you think you hear a siren while you’re in the car, but it’s so distant it was difficult to tell. You turn down the music, or even roll the window down to try and make sure you’re not hearing things.
What an incredibly detailed costume, the rational part of my brain said, as cool and collected as a stack of refrigerated sliced tomatoes.
It’s a zombie! The primal portion screamed, and ran around in circles uselessly.
Impossible. The rational side argued back. Control yourself, you ninny.
I’d stilled, like a person spotting a bear in the wild for the first time. I’d nearly convinced myself it really was a costume, until some small movement pulled my eyes back over to the assembly table.
She was petite, and would make me appear tall. Her hair was a light, coppery red, and curled so perfectly it would make a model envious. It fell down to her mid-back, even in the high ponytail. Her features were delicate, and had an ethereal beauty that would will men to march to their deaths just to see it, like Helen of Troy. Where Odella’s eyes were like emeralds, hers were a green that spoke of the Mediterranean Sea. Her skin was smooth, and tanned so perfectly she either lived at a tanning salon, or it was her natural tone.
Then, she spoke. “Hi!” she said, her voice impossibly cheerful and high-pitched, grating against my eardrums. “My name’s Anne.” It all came out in a jumble, and fast. Then she rushed forward and gave me a bone-crushing hug that removed all the air from my lungs, and lifted me from the ground.
She’s stronger than she looks. I wheezed, and stiffened under the embrace. I’d never been a hugger. My personal comfort level with such things ranged from extreme germaphobe to ‘I’d rather set myself on fire than be touched’.
She put me down, somewhat put off by my reaction, if her pout was any indication.
“Jeez, Ord—it’s just a hug,” a grating, nasal voice declared.
I looked over Anne’s head to see a small green…thing on top of a step tool. He was around three and a half feet tall, and his prominent nose was long and hooked, nearly meeting his pointy chin. I had Wizard of Oz flashbacks of the Wicked Witch of the West. He bared a feral smile my way, full of sharp teeth that would make a piranha proud, and crossed spindly arms over a scrawny chest. They must have ordered his uniform shirt special, because it fit him well, and I imagined he had to shop in the kid’s section for his pants. Pointed, green ears stuck out sharply, and extended well beyond the back of his skull. His feet were a normal size, and out of proportion for his body, but what was most out of place was his hair. It was black with blonde highlights, straightened in a swoop across his right eye, and screamed, “Fall Out Boy fanboy”.
What a mental mouthful.
He narrowed beady black eyes at me, and indicated he wasn’t very impressed with what he saw.
“Don’t call her that, Stribs,” another girl growled at the…very short guy in the costume.
He’s a mother-lovin’ Goblin! Primal Brain shrieked.
That’s not a very nice thing to say to a little person in some kind of cosplay, Rational Brain scolded.
Can anyone say denial? Primal Brain scathingly retorted.
The girl was normal by all accounts: height, weight, light tan, medium brown hair done up in a bun with a few flyaway, errant curls. She wasn’t in uniform, just a pair of white-washed jeans and a sweatshirt for the local high school—go Thunder Hollow Bears!—but I didn’t have too long to wonder why. She turned and looked at me with her bright orange eyes, bordering on yellow, gleaming in the fluorescent lightning.
I didn’t think it possible, but my eyes widened further, and my heartrate picked up. Her nostrils flared, and her pupils dilated a touch.
Then she turned back to Stribs, as though it pained her to continue keeping eye contact with me. “That’s not cool.”
Uh, nice contacts? Rational brain proposed, a little more on firmer ground with this one.
I don’t know what she is, but she wants to eat us! Primal Brain wailed, and assumed the fetal position in the corner of itself.
Rational brain shook its proverbial head. Don’t be such a schlemiel.
“No one asked you, Bea,” someone spat from behind Stribs. She shifted over—she was also on a stool—and I caught a glimpse of white hair expertly done in a plait. Curled bangs covered her forehead, above striking, cornflower blue eyes, and an upturned nose. Tiny fists were balled and on her even tinier hips. She was also not in uniform, and wore black yoga pants and a graphic tee that said, ‘I Never Liked You Anyway.’ Her dour frown backed the words up poetically.
Gnome, or dwarf? Primal Brain wondered.
Not enough facial hair for a—I mean, it’s it little person. Stop trying to sidetrack me. Rational Brain admonished.
Primal Brain rolled its imaginary eyes. Whatever.
“Be nice, Celinwel,” Anne said, catching the tiny person’s ire-filled stare.
Just as she opened her mouth to speak, she was interrupted, which was the running theme for the night.
“Odella! This guy wants to speak with a manager,” someone said near the front, where the second window was.
Everyone turned and made a hole for the woman who spoke. She was slender and sleek, like a willow reed, and she moved like water flowed: smooth and tranquil. Her hair was steel blue at the top, and darkened into an Egyptian blue at the tips, where it brushed her shoulders. Even when she didn’t move, her hair did, like she was floating in a pond. Her skin was pale as moonlight, and her eyes an ice blue, nearly white, like a frozen lake deep within a forest during the depths of winter. She held the wireless headset away from her delicately pointed ear, grimacing as inaudible screaming poured in through the little foam protector.
Whoa, was all Rational Brain said.
I second that, replied Primal brain.
I turned just in time to catch Odella’s reaction: her green eyes changed to the red of a glowing ember.
“Excellent,” she said, and sprang toward the front with glee, an extra bounce in her step. Just about everyone in the service industry loved being able to tell someone no, but it was all the more sweet if they were being an asspain and you were a manager. You were judge, jury, and executioner; your word as final as death itself.
“How—“ I started to ask, in reference to, well, everything, when yet something else caught my attention from the corner of my eye.
It was a silvery mist, coalescing near the ceiling above the heated cabinets where cooked product was kept until a customer ordered it. It took on the form of a young man, with short hair of an unknown color, an oval face with a pinched, anxious expression, and worried eyes. He wrung thin hands, over and over, and looked between all those gathered and me. He was more solid in his upper body, (though ‘solid’ might be too strong of a word for someone you could see through), but completely faded out around his waist. He was still wearing his Infamous Chicken uniform.
I think I’d hate to die in that. Primal Brain commented.
The room tilted, and there was a ringing in my ears. Distantly, I realized I’d stopped breathing, and with all eyes on me I could think of only one thing to wheeze out:
Then everything went black, but not before Primal Brain gave a parting shot to my ego:
Who’s the schlemiel now?