by Mike Nees
As she clocks in, Jillian looks up from the computer to find a wrinkled envelope dangling in her face. Her chest tightens.
“Thank god you’re here,” Sonya says, waiting for her to take it. “Everyone’s calling out.”
Jillian grabs the letter, slips it in her apron pocket.
“Not me,” she says, out of breath. She and her dad are nowhere near the estimate the mold people gave them, and the latest bloom inflames her airways. “What are my tables?”
While Sonya checks the floor plan, Jillian answers the phone ringing at the counter. The man on the other end starts placing an order for pick-up, but his kids can’t make up their minds. You want Denny’s before the apocalypse or not? he shouts. She hears rumblings about getting Chili’s instead. As the debate drags on, Sonya glares at her.
“Can I help you?” Jillian asks the man, as forceful as she can muster. “Sir, can I help you?”
Sonya takes the phone and hangs up on him. “Some people can’t be helped.”
Jillian’s first table is a young couple with a daughter. “I’m incredibly strict with myself,” the man says, ordering his coffee. “I don’t drink milk, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble. No sugar, no booze. My life is purity.”
“So no milk?”
“No, just a little milk.”
The woman seated across from him insists on ordering now, though she can’t decide what she wants. She flips back and forth between the regular and seasonal menus, desperate to solve the puzzle of her desire. Waiting, Jillian’s eyes land on the envelope poking out of her apron. Inscribed in large cursive where the return address goes: Hades. Her mom always puts something weird there.
Jillian last wrote her to ask for money, something she never did before, and she’s been regretting it ever since. Though she’d claimed it was for college applications, her mom no doubt knew it was for the house. Jillian remembers the chill that rose up in her as the letter slid down the rusty blue hatch, out of reach.
The next table is packed with teens, all arguing about the big news on TV. “I swear to god,” a boy says to a girl, “If you don’t eat a French fry before the end of the world, I will lose all respect for you.”
“I’ve maintained a state of ketosis since I was fifteen,” the girl says, ordering the Cobb salad.
The other servers, huddled around a monitor, invite Jillian to watch security footage of the big family who’d dined and dashed that morning. Embarrassed by her heavy breathing, she declines, instead spending her first moment of peace leaning back against the wall that the cameras don’t reach. She keeps a hand on the inhaler in her pocket, though she rarely needs it here. It’s the house that’s trying to kill her. Hoarding her tips for months, she’d almost saved up a quarter of the mold people’s estimate when the lights went out, and it took every dollar they had to turn them back on. Her dad was supposed to cover the electric, but their court drama controls his attention.
Jillian agreed to stay with him after the divorce, to help him fight her mom for the house, but she never dreamt they’d still be in the thick of it now, eight years later. Even as Jillian left for work this afternoon, her dad sat in his chair at the kitchen table, hunched over the latest pages of real estate law she’d printed out for him. He had the little TV on, yes, but he only half-listened to it.
“It’s the same reason people lose in court,” he said of the news—of the experts who insisted that the sun had just belched, and that a magnetic wave could hit the Earth as soon as tonight. “First whiff of danger, they panic.”
Jillian stared into the little box, wondering if she could trust a thing with so many faces. As she unbolted the door to leave, her dad took a loud, wheezy breath.
“There’s still only two kinds of problems in the world,” he said. “The kind you can solve and the kind you can’t.” He says this constantly. “Still stupid to panic over either—imagine if I’d thrown in the towel after that first subpoena? Where would we be now?”
In a moment of bravery, she pulls the letter out of her apron. Then, just as she’s about to open it, Sonya catches her standing idle. “Your side work is salad bar,” she reminds her.
‘Salad bar’ is usually her favorite. A reprieve from all the problems that can’t be solved with knives. She tries to focus on the head of iceberg lettuce that she chops—to feel the little shot of Zen this usually instills. That sweet, earthy smell.
But the letter won’t loosen its grip on her.
I get it, her mom will start. Your father is easier company. He never made you clean your room or mind your weight, because who is he to judge? If I got to pick my authority figure, I’d probably go with the dim one too. While her mom tutors Latin and writes letters to the editor, her dad watches daytime TV and collects disability. What she doesn’t say upfront, her mom will weave into the riddles that pepper all her letters. I just want you to ask yourself, peanut: what is it that always digs but never leaves a hole? She posed that one years ago. Jillian still has no idea, and it still upsets her. Even Google doesn’t seem to know the answer.
All the wall-mounted TVs show the same footage of sun spots churning. Solar Flare and Coronal Mass Ejection appear in the chyrons. She hears a scientist on some debate show arguing with a skeptic. “It won’t just be a few black-outs,” the scientist says. The world will fall into complete darkness.”
“Even if that’s true,” the skeptic says, “That’s why we have these things called generators, flashlights…”
“You don’t understand…”
So many different messages coming out. Dueling authorities who make her feel small. Jillian coughs into her elbow, feels her throat tensing up.
While serving desserts, her eyes are drawn to the little girl in the young couple’s booth. She’s reaching over the divider for an abandoned chicken nugget when she catches Jillian’s glance and responds by waving at her like an old friend she hasn’t seen in years. As Jillian waves back, charmed, a sundae slides off her tray. She can feel Sonya sneering at her before it even hits the floor. Before the thud of glass on tile, the flight of vanilla globs.
Bending down to clean it up, she hears a cook ring the bell. Then the teens start yelling for their check. White rivulets snake under a booth, towards the feet of an old woman in sandals, and as Jillian tries to intercept them with a napkin, she coughs on the woman’s toes. She hears Sonya yelling at her, telling her to let Antonio get it, but her whole body tenses up now. Between violent coughs, she sees the tips of her fingers turning blue.
She can’t breathe. She can hear her dad telling her that this is solvable, but that does nothing to stop the sense of drowning. The fact of drowning. Lying down on one arm, she finds the floor surprisingly rough. It’s craggy, like the bottom of a trench. She feels her shirt riding up like a plumber’s, hears her mom scolding her to pull it back down.
Working hard isn’t enough, the letter will say. We all need some scrutiny to keep us on the right track. If she’d moved out with her mom, Jillian thinks, she wouldn’t have wasted all these years feeding her tips to a money pit. She might have a degree by now, a desk in some office. By this hour, she might even be home for the night, sipping a mug of herbal tea, instead of dying on the floor of a Denny’s.
By the time she inhales that first paint-thinner tasting, Albuterol-laced puff, she’s nearly accepted her fate. It seems like a fair price for her incompetence—but her throat loosens anyway. Her terror ebbs. Another puff and she’s rejoined the world of the breathing.
Jillian crawls out from under the table. Then, as she stands up in the aisle, clutching an empty chair for support, a deafening snap. Everything goes black, inside and out. Every single light is gone.
High-pitched shrieks top the explosion of reactions. Someone very close begins to cackle. As people pack up and dash, bumping into Jillian on either side, Sonya pleads for order. She pleads for Jillian, specifically, “I need you now, Jillian! Now!”
But Jillian’s retightening trachea tells her to run from her boss’s voice. Mindful of her footing, she feels her way to the fire exit, out the building, past the dumpster in back—to the edge of the woods, where the air is luscious. Dizzy, she feels out the old lawn chair that Sonya uses for smoke breaks. It’s cushier than she expected.
She hears the yelling and honking on the other side of the building, suddenly-dead cars sliding into each other. Though her phone was fully charged, it stays dark when she tries tapping it to life. It’s just like they said it would be, all those grim-faced experts: complete darkness. She looks up for stars, wondering if they’ll shine brighter, but it’s too murky to tell. It’s been overcast all day, she recalls.
Admiring the dark blanket of clouds, all those churning shades of black, she imagines the version of herself who’d left with her mom after the divorce. Who bore the brunt of that scrutiny for the last eight years. So what if that Jillian has a desk in an office? In a stone-age economy, she doubts that will count for much.
She should probably feel terrified, but it’s a wave of relief that comes over her now. Fresh air always made her feel like a new creature, an animal with skills to hone. With her inhaler now the relic of a dead age, she can’t rationalize sleeping in the house another night.
How faintly she heard the drip as a child, when a pipe started leaking behind the wall of family photos. She would push her ear up against it to listen. Years later, when her dad turned off The X-Files, she could hear it resounding all the way from the couch. Drip—drip. Still, you couldn’t hear it outside the TV room, and her mom never joined them in there. Her mom called it the “boob tube,” a phrase that made Jillian feel dirty, like they were watching porn. But she liked soaking in the blue light. Her dad’s Marlboros helped conceal the musk when it seeped through the wall. She knew it had to be bad, whatever was reaching into her nose. The fingers of something vast and malignant. But to involve her mom still seemed more dangerous.
With no light to read by, she rips open the letter anyway. Maybe she just wants to feel it in her hands, this powerless sheet of paper. Sheets of paper. All these words she can feel but will never read, because she’s ripping them up. At the moment, she hardly cares if civilization rebounds in a month, or ten years, or never. She’s spent her life caught in the middle of a war she hates, between the scrutinous and the dim, and she’s found the cover to go MIA.
Mike Nees lives and works in Atlantic City where he is a case manager for people living with HIV. His fiction has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine, matchbook, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. He hosts Atlantic City’s Story Slam series, more on which can be found at https://www.storyslamac.com/.