My hands are blister red. I stare at them, hearing the faucet still gushing, but can’t turn away. The throbbing under my thin, pale flesh has become a familiar companion this last week. This job is a type of torture in itself.
Who needs ripping off nails when you can just make someone scrub pots in boiling water?
I startle and my head snaps towards the voice. One of my coworkers is frowning at me. My gaze rakes over the minute details of her expression. This has been a habit of mine since I was a child. Dissect the look. Determine the emotion behind it. Respond accordingly.
Calla is not upset with me. I can tell by the slight slouch in her forehead, competing with her pursed lips. She’s concerned.
I turn off the faucet and gently dry my hands on a damp dish rag. “I’m fine,” I say.
“You don’t look fine,” she counters. “You’ve been staring at the water for like five minutes.”
“Why’d you let me stare so long?”
Her broken look is mended with a smile that I return. “You are something.” She rolls her dark, almost pitch-colored eyes. “I just wanted to make sure you’re alright. I know you’re still catching onto some things around here.”
Shrugging, I pick up a cleaned dish, wipe it, and place it on the rack. “I’ve never been a dishwasher. It’s pretty . . . monotonous.”
“It sucks. They always start us on dishes in the back. Alex says it teaches humility or some shit. I think he just likes to see us suffer.”
“That is one fetish I can imagine him with.”
She laughs at my poor joke and I smile again. “You know,” she tells me, “you should come out tonight. A few of us are going down to our usual bar for a drink. It’d be nice to have you. And you’d get to meet some of the other staff.”
“Thank you, Calla.” I smile again. “I really appreciate the invite. I’ll have to let you know.”
“Here.” She pulls her right glove off and uses her bare hand to retrieve her phone from her apron. “Put in your number. I’ll text you so you have mine, and you can let me know if you want to join.”
I do as she says. “Thanks again. I’ll let you know.”
“Yeah, of course,” she says jovially. Then her intense gaze darts to the vat of steamy water in front of me. “Be careful! And don’t stare too much. Alex will hound you if he thinks you’re slow.”
As she turns away, I salute at her. The smile curled on my lips lingers for the rest of our shift. I’ve made a friend—kind of. It’s a start, at least.
I head to my locker in the break room and slip off my apron and work shoes. Some of the other workers join me, all of us stiff and tired. Calla helps close so she won’t be finished for another twenty minutes. After changing into my regular tennis shoes, I grab my purse and head out.
The December air nips at me while I step onto the sidewalk. Some evenings, the line to our little diner is out the door and down the street. We have incredible biscuits. Southern girl certified. I hate the busy shifts because I have to clean the dishes; if I was able to wait tables or even just bus them, I could be so much happier. I need the interaction with people. Isolation has been killing me.
Three blocks later, I start up the stone steps of my apartment complex. I use my private code to get into the building. On the brief elevator ride to the third floor, I call my mom. She answers when I get off at level.
“Well, look who’s calling!” she croons.
“Hi, momma,” I greet. “How’s your day been?”
“Very long! I just got off work and have been picking up around the house. Your father gets messier with every passing month—I swear.”
I chuckle. “Somehow I believe that. How is dad? He still at work?”
“You know it. That one guy quit so all the mechanics have been working overtime this week. It’s killin’ him.”
My key slides into the door lock and I let myself into the apartment. It’s dark and cool, like a cave. I flip on the lights as I head to the kitchen. My stomach is growling something fierce.
“Sounds like you two need a vacation,” I say.
“We always need a vacation. Maybe I can talk him into a long weekend to Florida. Or the Bahamas. That’s probably too expensive though. He’ll throw a fit.”
“As long as you do something!”
“Mhmm.” She sighs. “How was work for you today? That boss man still bein’ a pig head?”
“I didn’t see him even once. Maybe he finally fell in the fryer.”
She laughs. “Emery Leigh! Don’t you go around cursing people.”
“He deserves it,” I mutter. Before she can go on about it, I decide to interject with the good news. “So, I’ve been invited to go out with some coworkers tonight. I think I might go.”
“Oh, that’s lovely! You should! It’s time you make some friends there, my dear. You’re so lonely without us and your old friends. I wish you hadn’t gone so far.”
My nerves prickles at her remark but I did my best to defuse them. “I’m fine, really. It’s nice to have solitude sometimes. And my little town is super cute. There’s so many hiking trails and parks. People want to be outside all the time and I dig it.”
“If you say so. That sounds like a nightmare to me.”
Laughing, I said, “See? That’s why I came here! Anyway, I’m about to make dinner. Just wanted to check on you.”
“Oh, I’m doing the same, you know. We need to plan your next visit. They’re building a new complex downtown with shops and bars and things!”
“Sounds like fun. I’ll make a trip soon, I promise.”
“Okay, honey. I love you. Be safe up there all alone. And for heaven’s sake! Go have fun!”
“I will,” I chuckled. “Love you.”
As soon as we hung up, I pull out a can of stuffed potato soup and heated it up in the microwave. The machine whirred while it did its thing. I wandered out of the kitchen and into the tiny living room. There was a gently used brown sofa I’d rescued from GoodWill and a coffee table I had refurbished that was my mother’s. I was considering getting a projector or something since I had finished unpacking and now needed entertainment.
Speaking of entertainment, I thought with a sigh.
I texted Calla to let her know I wanted to come. She responded within seconds.
Calla Work: hell yeah! meet us at the Foundry in half an hour.
With a single glance at my outfit, I knew it was going to take much longer than half an hour for me.
Emery: be there as soon as I can! Thanks for inviting me!
The microwave dinged. I took the scalding bowl to the bedroom and snuck bites while I sifted through the closet. My stomach buzzed excitedly. I’d gone out two weeks ago with my friends from back home for my “going away,” but this was so much riskier. I didn’t know Calla outside of work—or any of our other coworkers for that matter. I hoped I could make friends out of them. Despite what I told my mom, loneliness was a bitch and she was practically my roommate these days.