Chapter 4: Backlash
So far, the night is actually going a lot better than I was originally expecting it to. There have only been about ten customers whose faces I’ve desperately wanted to spit in. I know that that doesn’t really sound like something to brag about, but it’s actually a drastic improvement over the last time I worked at The Star. It helps to avoid eye contact. What do I care if any of these losers misinterprets it as me being intimidated by them? As long as it keeps me from doing something stupid, and getting assaulted by a room full of cops, I’m fine with it.
Becca is having a little bit of a harder time of it. She’s been harassed several times throughout the night. None of the scum in here seems to be bothered by how much younger she is than them. Those guys don’t get counted on the list of people whose faces I wanted to spit in. Their faces, I wanted to punch straight through the backs of their skulls. You’d think that living on the streets would have cured me of that kind of wishful thinking by now.
Thankfully, Em is having none of it. For an old crone, she’s braver than most people I know. She stands up to the drunken perverts as though they’re no more dangerous than a minor itch. I don’t know what it is about her presence, but it seems as though all of the customers know better than to anger her. Even though she’s old and fragile, she commands respect in this bar; if for no other reason than that she gives law enforcement the best discounts in the city.
Thankfully, Becca and I are almost done for the night. As soon as our shift is over, I plan on eating, changing, and getting out of here as quickly as I possibly can. All due appreciation to Em, but I’ve had enough of this place to last me for quite a while. As business starts to wind down for a bit, I notice for the first time that I haven’t seen Em in a while. This piques my attention because she almost never leaves the service floor while there are still customers here. I ask one of the other servers about it, but she just shrugs and goes on about her work.
Em finally shows up just as our shift is about to end, almost as though in reply to my question. She enters through the doors to the back room. Perhaps she had something she needed to speak to Pavel about? Before I can ask her though, something else catches my attention. Over the low buzz of drunken conversation, I hear the door to the bar swing open. Out of instinct more than interest, I turn to see who’s just walked in. As I do so, I wonder why I’m even bothering. It’s just going to be another cop. I know this. Nobody who I actually want to see is going to walk into this place, so why am I even bothering? And then my heart drops into my stomach. It’s amazing how a split second can change your entire outlook on life. I, for instance, had just gone from being relatively certain that I was going to survive this night to not being entirely certain that I wasn’t even going to survive this minute.
As a hulking wall of a man lurches through the doorway, I feel my skin go white as paper. Mouthing off to Officer Markum when he’s alone is one thing. Doing it in a room full of his inebriated comrades would be suicide. I know that I should move before he sees me, but instead I stand stalk still, rooted to my spot. The shock of the moment seems to have robbed me of my senses. This is a cop bar. How had it not dawned on me until just now that he might show up here? Becca is right about me. I may truly be incapable of not doing stupid things.
As I stand there, probably looking like the world’s dumbest statue, Markum scans the room. He’s probably searching for a familiar face to sit down with. Unfortunately for me, I’m the first familiar face that he finds. He seems to be a lot happier about it than I am. A twisted grin spreads across his ugly face. He looks almost like he’s getting ready to laugh. Instead, he cracks his neck and methodically makes his way to where I’m standing. He takes his time. He knows that I’ve got nowhere to run. I know that this isn’t the police station. There’s nobody here to hold him accountable; nobody to fire him if he goes too far. Translation: he can do whatever he wants to me.
“Well, well,” the behemoth sneers. He bends down and gets right in my face. He hasn’t even started drinking yet, and his breath is already stale enough to make me gag. I don’t though. All of my bravado from the previous day seems to have done what I lacked the good sense to do, and gotten as far away from here as it possibly could. “Looks like the little streeter went and got himself a job.”
He’s speaking loudly. He wants to capture the attention of the bar’s other patrons, so that they can bear witness to this moment. I say nothing, simply gaping at him stupidly. His smile only grows wider the longer that my silence lasts.
“What’s the matter, Clearborn?” He spits. “Not so tough without Rosewater to save your skinny little ass?”
I don’t know what it is about those words, but for some reason they instantly relieve me of all of my fear (and most likely my common sense, as well). I haven’t needed my uncle for years, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some dimwitted stooge sit here and insinuate that I need him now.
“No,” I reply, letting an angry smirk take up residence on my face. “It just took me a minute to let all of that ugly sink in. Having to look at you twice in two days isn’t exactly easy. You must go through partners pretty quickly, huh?” Whatever murmur had still been floating through the bar stops dead. It isn’t every day that you got to see someone ask for their own death.
With that, the smile disappears from Markum’s face. “I see that your new position here has done nothing to change that sense of humor of yours. That’s okay though. What are cops here for if not to help punks learn their lessons?” With that he jerks me up by the collar just like he had back in the jail cell. Adrenaline and anger keep me from feeling the fear which would definitely be the appropriate response to this predicament. “Got any last words?” he asks me.
“Yeah,” I reply, looking him dead in his eyes. “Careful with the uniform; it’s a rental.”
With that, I prepare myself for what comes next. The brute lifts me even higher above his head. In that moment, the world spins around me. Faces become blurs, and sounds become distorted, as though I’m hearing them from underwater. I only have a single regret about my words. I promised Becca that I wasn’t going to do anything stupid anymore. I guess you can’t teach a fish to climb.
Just as I feel Markum jerk in preparation to slam me to the floor, a voice cuts through the tension. It is quiet, and frail, but it somehow demands enough respect to keep me alive, if only for a moment. “That’s quite enough, Ashley,” Em says.
I feel Markum’s arms go limp for a moment, but he catches himself. I’m not out of the woods. He’s still holding me up several feet above the ground. “Give me one good reason that I shouldn’t give this kid exactly what he’s got coming,” he demands.
I look over at Em, only to see her say nothing. Instead, she just gives Markum this sagely look that is somehow soft and sharp all at once. Markum’s grip softens, and then he drops me to the floor all at once. I land in an unceremonious heap, and begin choking for air.
“Looks like you got lucky again, kid,” The officer says staring a hole through me.
By all rights, at this point I should probably leave well enough alone, but the words are just too easy. They leave my lips before I even realize what’s happening. As Markum turns to go find a seat, they just slip out. “Your first name is Ashley?” I cough.
Markum turns to face me once more, and his face is glowing a violent shade of red. Before he can take a step towards me, Em interjects once more.
“Your shift is over, Aiden,” she says. “Go in the back and change, now.”
Markum and I exchange looks of distaste for a moment longer before I get up and dust myself off. Without another word, I turn around and walk into the back room, cringing as I feel Em’s eyes bore into me.
I’m not off of the service floor for more than a few seconds before Becca comes barreling in after me, looking like a mountain of fire and rage ready to blow at any moment , and somehow all condensed to fit inside one skinny girl. “What were you thinking?” she shouts at me. “That guy is as big as three of you! Do you have a death wish?” Her eyes feel like daggers. They feel worse than daggers. They don’t pierce through me so much as they hit me right in the gut. I can’t even look her in the face, so I stare down at my feet.
“It’s not my fault,” I mutter weakly. “He started it.” As I say the words, I’m well aware of just how juvenile they must sound, but they’re true. And quite honestly, they’re the only defense I have for my behavior.
“And you provoked him!” She blasts back at me. “You promised me, Aiden! You promised me that you weren’t going to do these things anymore! Do you remember that? I hope so because it was less than a day ago!”
“That’s not fair!” I argue, desperate now. “The guy was going to lay into me no matter what! You saw him!” I’m pleading, but I can’t help it. I need her to see that this was not my doing.
“I don’t care,” Becca roars. “That doesn’t mean that you had to go and make it worse! Are you just trying to―”
“That is enough, children!” A loud voice booms from the back of the room. “This is my kitchen, and I will not have it disrupted this way while I am cooking. Am I understood?”
As Pavel’s towering figure glares down at us, both of us go instantly silent, but Becca doesn’t need words to speak her mind. Her eyes say all that needs to be said. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in the last few years, but this one tops them all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her this furious before.
“That’s better,” The large, intimidating man says. The volume of his voice is lower now. “Your meals are waiting for you on that counter over there,” He points with a very large knife which he had just been using to carve a hunk of raw meat. “Eat first, and then get changed.”
As Becca turns away from me to obey him, all of the tension finally leaves me body. It doesn’t feel good though. I don’t feel relaxed, I feel deflated. I know that Becca is right. Why couldn’t I just say that? Why do I always have to make an ass of myself? As I stand next to her, eating, she doesn’t speak. She doesn’t even look at me. This is somehow even worse than when she was yelling. I try to think of something to say to break the silence, but nothing comes to mind. It figures that this would be the one time I was at a loss for words. I’m almost not even hungry anymore, but I can’t let this food go to waste, especially since I don’t plan on working at the Star again for a very long time after tonight. Becca clears her plate off before I do and leaves for the closet, still silent.
There’s just one mushroom left on my plate at this point, but for some reason, I can’t bring myself to eat it. Maybe it’s because I know that, if I do, I’ll have to turn around and look Becca in the face as she walks out of the changing room. As I wallow in myself-pity, I feel a delicate hand touch gingerly down on my shoulder. I look over to see Em standing beside me.
“She’s right to be upset with you, you know,” The old woman says to me, simply.
For a moment, I consider arguing the point, but all of my fight has been spent. For once, I do the sensible thing and just agree. “I know that she is,” I say.
“Good,” says Em. “For a moment there, I was starting to worry that you really are as dense as everybody seems to think that you are.” She smiles at me. She’s just told a joke. I’ve just caused a huge scene in her bar, and she’s joking with me as though it hadn’t even happened. I may never understand her.
“I’m really sorry about just now,” I say to her, looking down at my feet. “I need to be careful about this habit I seem to be forming. My shoes may take it the wrong way if I keep giving them eyes like this.
“I know that you are, dear,” says Em. “But I’m afraid that it’s not the action that you’re sorry for…just the outcome. You really should do something about that. It seems to be a pattern with you, although, that’s not always a bad thing.”
“How do you figure?” I ask, honestly curious. At the moment, I can’t seem to think of a single instance where that kind of habit could be a good thing.
“That isn’t for me to say,” Em says to me. ”When the time comes, you’ll know. Just remember, rash behavior does tend to have more cons than it does pros. Acting without doubt is one thing. Acting without thought is another one, entirely.”
As Em finishes rattling off yet another one of her cryptically profound little gems, Becca bursts out of the closet, still wearing her servers’ uniform. She looks completely frantic. She catches sight of Em standing next to me, and immediately races in our direction.
“Em, thank goodness,” she sputters. “All of her previous rage is now absent from her voice. What could have possibly happened in there to change her entire mood like this? “It’s our clothes. Somebody took them! I turned the whole room over, and I couldn’t find them! They’re not there!” As she says this, my heart rate quickens. Those clothes may be one step away from being literal rags, but there the only ones we’ve got. Without them, we’d have to go naked.
“Hm…”Em replies. “That does strike me as odd. I can’t imagine anybody being in too much of a hurry to take them. Not with them being so close to their last leg.”
“I know,” says Becca, Now on the verge of tears. I’ve never seen her cry twice in two days before. “I know, but they’re gone! I looked everywhere!”
“Now, child,” Em says in her usual, mellow tone, “Try to stay calm. I’ll go have a look and see if I can’t think of someplace that you may have missed.” She hobbles over to the closet, and takes a look inside, seeming none too worried. “Oh my, you really have made a mess in here, haven’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” says Becca, still jittery. “It’s just…we really need those clothes, Em. We don’t have anything else to wear.” Her body is a bundle of constant motion. She can’t seem to stay still, so she’s taken to pacing the floors.
“It’s quite alright. I understand,” Em says, attempting once more to sooth the red-haired girl who was now pacing so violently that she threatened to dig a groove into the metal floor. “I don’t see what all of the commotion is about though. After all, your clothes are right here, aren’t they?”
“What?” Becca and I ask in unison. Becca glances at me for a moment, but then her eyes turn cold and she looks away. We both look to see what Em has found, but end up disappointed. She holds up two sets of fresh, clean clothes so pristine that they look as though they’ve never even been worn.
“Em,” says Becca, “those aren’t ours. You’ve seen our clothes. They’re in tatters. These are brand new.” Her expression sinks. I can tell by the way that she looks at the clothes that she wishes they were ours. Becca, despite being a thief, is an honest girl though. She respects Em too much to take something from the old woman that she knows doesn’t belong to us.
“Well, that can’t be right,” Em smiles. “They must be yours. They’re the only things in here that aren’t uniforms, and nobody else comes in here to change. Who else could they possibly belong to?” Just like that, we’re struck with a wave of understanding.
“Em…Em, we can’t take these,” Becca says. “I appreciate it, I really do, but those aren’t ours.”
“Didn’t you hear me, girl?” Em laughs softly. There is a sparkle in her eyes. “These are the only street clothes in this closet. Who else could they possibly belong to?”
Becca stares at Em for a while longer before accepting the situation. We are not being given a choice. These clothes are ours now, whether we like it or not. “I understand,” she says. Her voice is soft now, and she’s smiling in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her smile before. “Thank you, Em.”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is that you’re thanking me for,” Em insists with a warm smile on her face.
Becca smiles back at her, and gives her a warm smile before heading back towards the closet.
“Oh and Becca, dear?” Em calls, catching the young girl’s attention one last time. Becca turns around to hear what she has to say. “I hope that you have a wonderful birthday.”
As Em utters those words, something clicks into place inside of my brain, clearing out every single thought except for one: Oh, crap.
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