As I stood singing the birthday song for the fifth time that evening, I realized I was wrong for not believing in hell. Hell was the birthday song. Hell was Shortee's. Hell was the green polo shirt, the khakis, the whole stupid fucking uniform. Hell was my life.
"And the happy Shortee's happy birthday to you, hey!" I clapped, and I thought, This must be it. This must be the summit of loathing. I imagined a climber atop Mount Everest, only bitter instead of victorious, grappling with their dissatisfaction with the view.
Kerri presented the chocolate lava cake to the kid, and when he blew out the candle, we all applauded and whooped and I longed to feel what I typically felt, which was numb, instead of what I felt in that moment, which was miserable.
The kid's parents kissed his forehead, ruffled his hair. His sister asked meekly if she could try a bite. I observed them as I distributed extra spoons and napkins, and for the first time in a long time I thought about my family.
For the first time in a long time I missed them.
Or, if I'm being honest, which I suppose I should be, it was the first time in a long time that I admitted to myself I missed them, and how much. In that moment, I surrendered to the tidal pull of family. Of blood.
My hand found my neck, which was naked, absent the token of my youth, a sometimes coveted but more often resented piece of jewelry.
"You okay?" Kerri asked, ushering me back to the kitchen.
"Sure," I said, unconvincingly.
"Awesome. Yeah, so, I was wondering . . ." she said, trailing off, distracted by a stain on her polo. "Ugh! Chocolate. That is chocolate sauce, right? Shit."
"Wondering what?" I asked, checking the window for table eight's order.
"Do you think you could cover my section 'til close?" she asked, batting her lashes, flakes of mascara falling to her cheeks like ash.
"Why would I do that?" I said, poking my head into the window to see what the line cooks were up to, suspicious they were once again slacking off.
"Because I'm asking very nicely," she said. "And because you owe me."
"I owe you?"
"I pick up your shifts all the time."
I snorted. "When?"
"I was sick," I said. It wasn't a lie. I was sick. Sick of working.
"Why do you need to leave early?" I said, sidestepping an overambitious busser who was barely balancing a tray of precariously piled dishes.
She picked a waffle fry off of a plate in the window. A plate that was not for table eight. "Sean."
"Sean?" I asked, dumbfounded. "Really? That guy? You're ditching work for that guy?"
"You're so judgmental."
"The guy treats you like a travel toothbrush. He'll use you for a week straight, then forget about you for months," I said. "And you either don't care or your self-esteem is too low to do anything about it. Either way, the whole thing is messed up."
Her jaw hung open for a moment, eyes widened like those of a child discovering something new about the world, something brutal. Your burger was a cow. Moo. I knew this look. I'd offended her with my honesty. But the truth was the truth, and she needed to hear it from someone. Might as well have been me.
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Will you take my section or not?"
"I don't really want to be aiding and abetting, but sure. I'll do it. But I swear, if I have to sing that goddamn birthday song one more time, it's game over."
"Thanks," she said, turning on her heel. She paused on her way to the back room, looked over her shoulder at me. "You know, you're not pretty enough to get away with being as mean as you are. And you're really pretty."
I almost applauded. It wasn't easy to burn me, and she'd straight up smoked my ego.
"Order up-got eight in the window," yelled one of the line cooks. When I went to retrieve it, I thanked him, and then I heard him whisper under his breath, "You're welcome, Your Highness."
There were worse nicknames, worse insults. Worse things.
After ten p.m. Shortee’s turned into a cesspool of drunks and rubes, and some nights I’d have the patience for it and other nights it’d make me want to cartwheel off a cliff.
This night was one of the latter.
"Four top at bar," Amy, the host, told me while snapping her gum. Staff wasn't allowed to chew gum, but she did anyway, and I respected her unwavering commitment to such a small act of rebellion.
"Great," I said, checking the clock. Close was in less than forty-five minutes, and I doubted this new table would be out by then, meaning I'd have to stay late. I cursed Kerri and her bad decisions. I cursed my own.
I peeked over and saw that the party was four dudes, one in a backward baseball cap. If I smiled, feigned effervescence, maybe-maybe-I'd improve my chances of a solid tip. But I doubted it. At that point I'd been at Shortee's for three years, and in the food service industry for six, ever since I left home at eighteen. I could tell just by looking at someone what they were going to tip, down to the cent. It was like shitty magic, like an evil fairy bestowed a cruel, useless gift on me. A highly specific power of foresight.
"Hey, how we doing tonight?" I asked the guys, approaching the table, struggling to summon any artificial zest. "My name is Vesper and I'll be taking care of you. Can I start you off with something to drink or do you need a minute?"
"Yeah, uh, I'll take a . . ." was how each of them ordered.
I kept my head down, scribbling in my book, trying to ignore the hot nudge of a stare. I was being scrutinized in a way that was, unfortunately, quite familiar to me. I knew in my gut what was coming. I considered running.
This is what I get for thinking of them, for missing them, I thought. I've called them back in.
I looked up, instinctively, at the sound of my own name.
"First of all, that's a rad name," the guy said. He was the oldest at the table, about the right age. Mid- to late thirties. Old enough to have snuck into her movies, to have rented the videos. He had a five-o'clock shadow, wore all black. His ears had been gauged once upon a time. A former Hot Topic punk. He'd probably bought her poster, had it up on his wall. I knew the one. In a cemetery she posed provocatively in black fishnets, a chain mail bra, and a signature piece of jewelry that everyone assumed she wore just to be cheeky. "Second, has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Constance Wright?"
"Who?" I asked. It was how I usually responded, because I knew it'd piss her off.
"The scream queen? You know, the chick from Death Ransom, Bloody Midnight, Farm Possession, The Black Hallows Coven Investigation?"
I shook my head, deriving devious joy from the lie.
"Seriously? You've never heard of any of those movies?"
"I'm not into horror," I said, another lie. "I should get those drinks in."
"You don't need to be into horror to know Constance Wright. You have the exact same face. I swear to God."
He took out his phone, and I bailed. "Be right back with those drinks."
I'd hoped that by the time I returned to the table they'd have moved on to another topic, but no luck. When I went back to drop off their beers, the guy still had his phone out. He'd Googled her, pulled up her image page.
And there she was. My mother.
"You seriously don't know who this is?" he asked. "She's an icon."
"Dude, relax," one of the other guys said.
"I don't see it," I said, shrugging. "I'm sorry."
"Really?" he asked. He seemed disappointed, and I felt a twinge of guilt for deceiving him. But it was necessary deceit.
"Maybe it's the hair," I said. I'd cut it off in an attempt to avoid situations like the one I was in, but the pixie didn't make a difference. It didn't change my face.
The man nodded, retrieved his phone. He stared at the screen, scrolling through picture after picture of my mother.
"Guess you're a little young. You missed the golden age. Get high, go see the latest slasher. Get scared shitless. Everyone's talking about horror now, but nothing's scary anymore. It's all saying something. Doesn't need to say anything. Just has to be scary . . ." He was talking to himself at that point. Muttering. "Probably why Constance Wright doesn't really make movies anymore. You know, she lives down in Jersey. She has a farm out somewhere."
"Oh wow. Cool," I said, acting like it was surprising new information. I hadn't inherited Constance's acting talents. "Are we ready to order some food, or are we good with the drinks?"
They ordered the spicy Southwest nachos and boneless wings, and any dream I'd had of getting home before one o'clock died tragically right then and there.
I brought them round after round, each guy chugging whatever drink I'd delivered him within minutes, racking up a bill that, in theory, should have led to a decent tip, but they were getting so hammered that I wasn't exactly optimistic that any of them could do the simple math of calculating 20 percent.
The one guy, the former punk, didn't bring up Constance again, didn't bother me, but the one in the backward baseball cap started to annoy me. He'd had the most to drink, and it showed.
"Vessie," he said when I dropped off the nachos and wings. Only Rosie was allowed to call me that. "Vessie, you make these? You go back in the kitchen and make these for us?"
"Sure," I said. "Put them in the microwave and everything."
When I turned to walk away, he reached out for me, swiping my ass with his palm.
I spun around, and he laughed. "Oh, sorry. My bad. Can I get some more of this cheese sauce?"
I nodded and retreated into the kitchen. It wasn't really Shortee's policy to give out sides of nacho cheese, but I scooped some into a ramekin and nuked it for a minute, figuring it was easier to shut the guy up than try to explain the arbitrary rules of a chain restaurant.
I checked the clock. It was eleven fifty-four. It also wasn't Shortee's policy to kick anyone out. If they arrived before eleven thirty, we had to let them stay, let them finish. Shortee's prioritizes hospitality, my manager, Rick, would always say. I had this theory that he was a corporate bot masquerading as a real human. I had a lot of theories about Rick.
Just as I thought of him, he popped into the kitchen.
"How we doing, Vesper?"
In restaurant speak "we" is "you," and if you're asked a question as a member of the waitstaff, the response had better be positive.
"Good," I answered through clenched teeth.
"What we doing?"
"A guy asked for more nacho cheese."
"I know, I know," I said. "But customer first, right? I'm prioritizing hospitality."
"Just be sure to charge," he said. "Two dollars."
"Really? Two dollars?"
He frowned again.
"Got it. Thanks!" I said, taking the cheese out onto the floor, eager to get away from Rick, though not eager to return to the rude, handsy, nacho-hungry bro.
I wove between the tables slowly, inhaled the vague lemony scent of the cleaning solution we used to wipe everything down. It smelled like the end of the night. It smelled like time to go home. But I knew I wasn't going home anytime soon, and my heart tumbled at the thought of another long, sleepy bus ride in the dark.
I stifled a yawn, stifled the urge to throw the cheese at the wall, rip off my polo Incredible Hulk-style, and set the whole place on fire.
"Here you go," I said, sliding the ramekin onto the table.
"Let me ask you something," Backward Hat Guy said, leaning into me, gifting me with a rancid exhale. "We were just talking about how all hot girls have daddy issues. You have daddy issues, Vesper?"
I laughed. It wasn't polite, or a coping mechanism. It was genuine.
If only he knew.
He must have taken my laughter as a signal of some kind, because he touched me again. This time his hand found my waist, and he pulled me in close. For a moment, I thought of Brody. What it'd felt like to be touched by him. To have his hands on me, hands I wanted, that had permission.
"Hey," I said, snapping out of my memory and stepping back from the table. "Don't touch me."
"Whoa, whoa," he said. "Relax."
I laughed again, but underneath this laughter was a staggering rage. It wasn't fresh; it was there always. A seething I kept stashed away, like a baseball bat behind the headboard. I experienced it in the usual way. A brief flare of blinding, white-hot anguish, followed by a mild chill of despondence, and finally a return to indifference.
"I'll be back with the check," I said, turning to leave.
"We're not done," he said. "You'll do what we tell you. We tell you to bend over, you bend over, or no tip."
I whipped around, stunned by the audacity.
"Who's your daddy now?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. The rest of the guys snickered, shook their heads, said nothing.
He reached for the cheese, and maybe it was his own clumsiness or the result of an overzealous microwave, but somehow the cheese bubbled up.
It exploded, essentially.
And it exploded all over his face.
He didn't scream at first, so at first glance it seemed like an innocent spill. But then I noticed the curls of steam slithering from him like skinny pearlescent snakes. And then I heard it. The sizzling.
Then he screamed.
"Ah, ahhh! It's burning me! It's burning my fucking face! Ah! Help me!" He fumbled for his napkin. The former punk-a quick thinker-tossed his beer at the bro's cheese-scalded face, but the beer did nothing to mitigate the damage. The guy kept screaming. He had a napkin now and was wiping away the gobs of orange cheese. In their wake, pocks of skin were sunset red and peeling. And I could smell the injury, the burning flesh. A foreshadowing.
It was bad. It was really bad.
This time when I laughed, it wasn't because I thought it was funny, or because I was angry. It was nervous laughter. Doomsday laughter.
Copyright © 2023 by Rachel Harrison. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.