My gaze shifts to outside as his words drone on. I can see his lips move and hear the deep rumble coming from his chest. I can’t make out what he is saying but it really doesn’t matter─ anything he has to say after tonight would be pointless. I flinch as I feel his hand close over mine to give it a gentle squeeze. I understand that he is just trying to comfort me, but my skin crawls at this small invasion. His words go up at the end, the sounds registering to my brain as a question. I turn and tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear.
“Sorry, what was that?” I ask. I shift myself to face toward him but my eyes are cast downward. I fidget with a straw wrapper focusing on pulling and then pushing it in my hand like a tiny accordion.
He sighs, “I asked if you were ok to drive home.” I offer him a quick smile, waving my hand in front of me, “of course I’ll be fine, Paul. It’s less than twenty minutes from here.” He regards my cool demeanor for a few seconds and then nods. “Alright, well just you know, take care of yourself and call me if you need anything.” My head moves mechanically up and down as I smile. The same smile I use when I want someone to believe that everything is hunky dory in Zen’s world.
A few more words are exchanged between us, I make promises that I don’t intend to keep, and then I stand and leave. There’s no doubt in my mind that Paul is feeling incredibly guilty, so I made sure to lay it on thick. No sense in making him fret for more than a few moments. Besides, it isn’t as if he personally made the decision.
I slide into my car, adjust the mirrors for the hundredth time, and pull out of the tiny parking lot. My car groans in protest as I drive over the familiar dips and bumps. The city has long forgotten these roads. It’s absolute murder on my 2001 Honda Civic. I’ve had great luck over the years, only needing to replace the main belt, spark plugs, light bulbs, and just recently, a new radiator. Thank god for the internet, I would have been out of a car for months if I had to have someone else repair it. I pull up to the main road and plug in my phone. No one would be pulling up behind me at this hour. By now I am normally rolling the pastry dough and prepping them for the long day ahead. My chest tightens and I feel my throat constrict. I fight the urge to keep everything down. I breathe, focusing on the air that exits and then fills my lungs. After several seconds I manage to calm down and draw one more deep breath.
I tap the screen on my phone and bring up my favorite playlist. I skip past the first few songs before settling on a metal band with a seriously awesome female vocalist. Her range goes from angelic high pitches to low, raspy growls─ she is definitely something special. I close my eyes as the beginning chords fill my car, her voice a silvery whisper brushing against my ear.
This time─ I’m really saying goodbye.
I’ve survived this long with one hell of a fight,
Clawed my way through the trenches,
You carved out of our lives.
to the other side
While you watched from above
Hoping that we would die.
Well watch this.
The car roars to life as I pull out onto the main road, the windows rolled down. The combination of cool air and heavy guitar rifts sends my heart soaring and for the remainder of the drive my troubles fly away.
The well-lit parking lot is a welcome sight as I pull into my normal spot by the light post. I am a few hours early so no one will be here yet. I reach down and grab the neatly packed bag in the back seat. As soon as I get inside the store, I make the rounds turning on the music, coffee machine, and re-stocking the fridges.
After all of the morning duties are taken care of I walk to the front and scan the parking lot. No one is here yet so I quickly cut off the lights and walk back to the lockers. Beth had a habit of getting here early but normally no more than thirty minutes. The handicapped stall is calling my name─ it has it’s own closed off room. I shut the door behind me, set my things on the chair, and then slide to the floor. I draw my legs in close, wrapping my arms around them and then rest my forehead on my knees.
It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK. I chant silently. Except it isn’t. I’m prolonging the inevitable pile of shit that is suspended above my head waiting to come crashing down on me. How long will I have this time? What’s going to happen when I have to skip on rent─ again. Andrea is extremely lenient and knows my situation, but that can only go so far with anyone. I have a sneaking suspicion that she isn’t charging me what she is charging the other tenants. I’m surprised that she already hasn’t put a notice to vacate on my door. I’m already behind by at least six weeks and now this. I will be respectful and go tell her today about the situation. I’m going to have to ask for a week or so to move all of my things and hope that she will be kind enough to let me. The bakery has been having problems and I knew it but with only me and one other employee on each shift I was hopeful that I could stay there longer. I squeeze my eyes shut then gently massage the bridge of my nose.
I try again to repeat the phrase a few more times until I convince myself, for the moment, that it’s true. I stand on two shaky legs and then turn the shower on full blast. I rotate the nozzle almost all the way to the left, cranking it up as hot as I can stand it. No matter how hot it is I still can’t shake the chill in my bones. My teeth chatter as I rub my body vigorously with soap.
My mind wanders to the inevitable and I sink into myself allowing a little of the truth to come through─ I have nothing left. My chest tightens and I struggle with my thoughts, trying to shove them down. It won’t help to think like this, I need to focus on work or whatever else gets me out of this mental hell. I’ll just go apply to every place I can think today and early tomorrow morning. I pause for a moment thinking on what day tomorrow is. Thursday I remind myself, Thursday is your day off. I’m torn between asking for more hours or just using a full day applying everywhere I can. Most places want you to fill them out online but with how things work now an algorithm sends your application to HR and you have to know what to add to it. I am horrible at filling out the damn things but maybe I can search up some templates and fill them out at the library.
I’m drying off when all of a sudden a huge boom resounds across the floor. My hands shoot out but only manage to slide across the slick walls. My teeth slam together so hard I’m sure they are going to break. Searing pain jolts from my elbows and knees and then runs through the extent of my body. Everything hurts but it doesn’t stop me from quickly shifting myself into a fetal position. The floor undulates beneath me, and I stare in wonder at the small blocky tiles rippling seamlessly like water. Is this what an earthquake is like? Finally, the ground stills. I lay holding my breath for several seconds not sure if it is safe to move. I let all of the air escape from my lungs, then draw in a deep breath. Reassured that nothing else is coming, I slowly pull myself from the floor and on my feet. Cautiously, I peek out from the shower into the main workout area. Nothing is out of place or broken and there is no sign of damage that I can see from here. I glance up at the clock and frown, it is almost time for Beth to get here. The last thing I need is her wondering why I’m taking a shower here. Then again, I could always explain that I came in early to work out. I think Beth may be onto my situation or have her suspicions so I decide not to chance it.
After getting dressed and making myself look presentable I stuff my bag into a locker and walk to the front. I’m almost through opening the registers when the beep sounds. Beth walks in and smiles, “hey Z- you’re here early, did your shift end sooner today?” I smile and nod, “yes it did. I think Paul could sense that I am running on fumes.” Her eyes take on a concerned look and she places a hand over mine. “You have looked pretty exhausted lately. Everything alright, hun?”
Beth is the only person that I don’t mind touching me. She really is a sweetheart and I almost feel guilty for lying to her, “oh, nothing I haven’t handled before.” I place my other hand on top of hers and gently squeeze before adding, “I really appreciate it though.” She smiles at me and then reaches for something from her bag, “alright sweetie, well anyway, I brought you some of my homemade biscuits and jam.” I perk up, grinning from ear to ear. “Did you really?” I’m practically radiant, clapping my hands together. “You spoil me too much, I’m going to put on so much weight if you don’t stop!” She raises an eyebrow and purses her lips as she gives me a quick once-over “From the state of you I’d say you need it. You can’t be more than a hundred pounds soaking wet.” She’s just about nailed it. I laugh it off “oh, I just forget to eat half the time I’ve got so much going on.” She shakes her head, “well you get some food in you, I don’t want to have to wheel you out of here on a stretcher after you pass out from hunger.” She’s only half joking and I know it. I clear my throat and start over, making sure that I count all of the one’s correctly. Beth turns back toward the locker room, leaving her offering on the counter.
Something occurs to me and I call back to her, “Hey, Beth?” She spins back around smiling, “what’s up sweetie?” I pause for a minute, trying to form a cohesive sentence. “Have you had any crazy earthquakes, or really hard vibrations when you’re up here?” She cracks a smile at me and cocks an eyebrow, “hun, I haven’t had any hard vibrations like that since Obama was in office.” She sighs and shakes her head, “man I need to get laid.” We both laugh and I feel a little better, Beth has that sort of effect on me. “My sad dating life aside, no I haven’t had anything like that happen here. Did something happen this morning?” I nod, “Yeah it was really strange, like the whole earth just shifted. You didn’t feel anything driving in this morning?” She purses her lips and tilts her head, “no sweetheart, I sure didn’t.”
The uneasiness creeps back in but I shrug, “guess it might have been an earthquake or something.” Beth nods, “yeah that or the new construction up the road. I think they’re pounding in some large beams for the foundation.” She pauses and then smiles wickedly, “wish someone would pound me like that.” I shake my head, “you’re awful!” Her grin widens, “hey, you must feel it too─ I have literally never seen you take time off and no mention of a boyfriend,” then she adds quickly, “or girlfriend whichever floats your boat.”
I shake my head, “go back to work pervert.” She laughs and turns back toward the office. I glance over at the food Beth brought and sigh. My mouth waters and it takes everything in me not to scoop them up and devour them right then and there. I know how that will look to her and I can’t stand the thought of making her worry. She has enough on her plate as it is. I don’t know how she manages to put on a happy face every day and be such an uplifting person. Her daughter and son passed away just last year on their way home from Thanksgiving. Beth once admitted to me that she felt at least partially responsible insisting that they rideshare with their cousins. It was just one of those freak accidents, a literal once in a million chance. They had all just made it into the city and decided to pickup food downtown. Sandra and David, Beth’s children, and Grace, the younger of the two cousins, had decided to stay in the car while Grace’s older brother, John went in to pick up their order.
The next thing he knew there was a deafening crash from outside. It took John a long time to talk about it but after getting over the shock, he had described in great detail what had happened. Apparently a man desperate to end his life had chosen that exact moment to leap from the top of the hotel. It still gets my blood boiling, how can someone be so selfish? I mean, taking your own life is one thing─ but to snuff out another’s without a thought is reprehensible. I still can’t believe Sandra is gone. Beth’s daughter was something special, just as kind and caring as her mother. That girl was going places, she was done with high school by fifteen and working on her masters in neurology. She would have started med school next year. While David might not have been the ideal son and sometimes him and Beth didn’t get along, he did love his mother very much. He wasn’t as ambitious as Sandra but he did just get his first office job and in less than a year got promoted to assistant manager. They both were very dedicated workers─ something Beth had drilled into them for years.
I wipe the registers and counters down with strong cleaner. Normally the people that closed were young and never bothered to clean. With the virus nearly shutting down all of the gyms around town, we really couldn’t afford to get sued over uncleanliness. These damn kids think they’re invincible and have a clear lack of motivation to do anything. I once opened up to find someone hadn’t even removed the cash from the registers. I suppose I could understand though, the pay here is abysmal. I look up and realize it’s less than five minutes until open. I rush to the office, lock up the cash, lock the door, and run back to the front.
Our usual is out front and waves at me as I unlock the door. He smiles at me as I let him by. “Hey Chris, how’s your morning?” He returns the favor opening the second set of doors. His face is comforting as always, I can’t help but relax near him. His deep timber washes over me, “always better to see your shining faces. You and Beth are awesome, always open on time.” I chuckle as he strides to the men’s locker room. “What can I say, you keep some normalcy to my days. I like to think I do the same for you.” He gives me a thumbs up and disappears around the corner.
The first part of the day went by a little slow it was one of those days that there were a steady stream of people but not enough to keep my head completely focused on work. I frown looking over at the clock, come on lunch rush I plead silently. I look outside and sigh heavily, the sky is an angry shade of grey. It meant that we would slow down quite a bit, it didn’t always mean that but today was fairly chilly. I suspect it will last until the rain takes a breather. Probably until I leave, I think bitterly. I frown and walk over to the cleaning closet to grab some disinfecting wipes. I might as well make use of my free time. Beth steps out of the office and smiles, “you going to wipe down the machines honey?” I nod as I pull out a set of gloves, “yes ma’am. Figured I should make good use out of my time.” She grinned and patted me on the shoulder, “girl, can you please clone yourself? Or at least light a fire under all these kids asses.” I chuckle and shake my head, “you remember what it was like working your first few jobs, right? It’s hard to care making minimum wage.” She places her hands on her hips in mock outrage, “why, miss Z, it’s as if you are suggesting we don’t make a livable wage here!” she clicks her tongue and shakes her head. I smile shaking my own head, “oh I know it isn’t your fault Beth, you already pay me more than I know they would like you to.” She groaned, “hun, if it were up to me you would be salary with full benefits, no over-time.” She smiles and I notice her eyes dart from me to the floor. I laugh nervously and pat Beth on the shoulder, “oh I’m just teasing, we both know how Taylor can’t go without her latte and Justin, bless his heart, would be lost without his Tesla and three thousand dollar shoes.” We both burst out laughing as I turn toward the machines. I wave my hand to shoo Beth away, “you go relax, I know you are up to your eyeballs in budgets, schedules, and whatever other ridiculous tasks Taylor has you doing.” She sighs rolling her eyes, “yeah and speaking of which watch your ass, she’s on another one of her rampages. We were down by six percent last month and she’s flipping her shit trying to find a way to cut back on expenses.” I frown over at her “you can offer to cut my hours if you need to I don’t want you having to deal with the queen-of-bitches if you can avoid it.” She lets out a deep breath, “don’t you worry about me sweetie, I’ll lay off one of these lazy brats if I need to. But, unfortunately you won’t be able to work doubles for a few days, possibly a week or two.” My chest tightens, “oh” I say unable to come up with anything else. My mind’s racing but I manage to smile, “no worries. I’ll see if I can’t pick up a few more shifts at the bakery.” I flinch inwardly at the lie. Beth looks at the ground again unable to meet my eyes. “If it makes you feel any better she wanted me to cut more but I managed to talk her into cutting several of the brats hours instead.” I grin wickedly at her, “does this mean I get real breaks?” She snorts and walks back to the office calling out, “don’t press your luck kiddo.” I release a long breath of air not realizing that I have been holding it in. I really am lucky to have someone like her around.
I am supposed to work a double today but that’s gone out the window. Shit, I won’t get pay from the bakery until the end of the week. At least last week I was able to work a few double shifts so pay should be decent enough to make ends meet. At least for gas, food, electricity and water. Rent is another story. I pause and then do the math in my head─ holiday pay! I should actually be able to pay rent. I’d completely forgotten that last week was thanksgiving. Whether that’s enough to keep my place, I don’t know. At least I can try. The end of my shift comes way too fast and I dread every step out to my car.
Andrea peers over at me from across the table, she’s quiet but her face has hardened. I’m shifting nervously, waiting to hear what she has to say. I know that look and this isn’t going to end well. Unable to hold it in any longer, I break the silence, “I understand Andrea, I don’t expect a miracle. Can you please give me one week to get all of my things moved out and clean the place up?” I’m getting more worried by the second as she looks me up and down. Her arms cross in front of her and she sighs, “well, at least you were honest with me. To be frank, that space has been paid off for quite some time.” She picks up her cup of coffee and takes a long sip. “You know I try and be as forgiving as I can for you because I know about your situation. Tough having to work two jobs and barely make ends meet, been there a few times in my life.” She takes another sip and then gently sets the mug back on the table. “Listen, hun, I know how things can get, especially right now─ but I’m in the same boat with many other tenants. With the pandemic and job losses, I’ve got more than a few properties we’re going to have to take legal action against the tenants.” She shakes her head, “it really is a shame what has happened to them but now that the government has lifted the restrictions on rental properties, I have got to start getting paying tenants in here. I’m already starting to dip into my savings just to stay afloat.” I fidget with my hands, unsure of what to do with them.
My voice cracks as I respond, “no, really I understand. I’m so sorry that I’ve been behind and I know at the end of this month it will be two months.” My eyes start to burn but I take a couple of deep breaths and try and fight back tears. Renters have heard every sob story in the book, mine will just come off as manipulative. “After holiday pay this past week, I can go ahead and give you this month’s rent. If I’m able to get out of the lease and have a week to get everything ready, I can be out of your hair by beginning of next month.” She’s still quiet so I add nervously, “and I can have it all cleaned and tidy for anyone that you may need to show the space to.” Andrea regards me for a few more seconds and then nods. “Alright, but I need the space to be spotless and you have to be ready to leave if someone is coming by.” My shoulders sag and I can breathe again. “Thank you so much Andrea, I really appreciate it.” I fish out the envelope with my money and hand it over reluctantly. I planned on keeping a bit for food but having a warm bed for a week sounded much better. I’d be able to have plenty of water and some snacks at the gym. She takes the crisp envelope, counts the contents and then crosses over to her computer. The gentle sound of her nails hitting the keyboard somewhat settles me as I wait patiently for my receipt.
Her delicate flowery perfume contrasts her firm, business-like personality. It makes me wonder if there is a hidden feminine side to her. Even though her words are kind, there is a ‘don’t fuck with me’ vibe behind her fierce green eyes. I respect the hell out of her for it, you have to have a stiff upper lip to own properties. I have a theory that she can sense a lie from a hundred feet away, maybe more. “Alright, so I’m not going to charge you for the last few remaining months of rent owed. I just need you to sign this agreement that you will be moved out by─” she looks at her watch, “December thirtieth.” I take the paper from her, initial all of the marked sections, and then sign my name. “No problem,” I say double checking that I had filled everything in, “I’ll hand in the keys the day before so your guys can look it over for move-in ready.” My hands are shaking something fierce as I quickly hand the paper back to her. I’m practically burning a hole through her table with my eyes as she glances through my signed copy. “Thanks again for being so honest with me and saving me the time of going through all the legal motions,” she says softly and then adds, “It really does mean a lot to me.” My knuckles are squeezed together so tightly that all the color has completely drained from them. I know that my voice will betray me if I respond so I choose instead to smile and nod.
After several seconds of awkward silence it dawns on me that we are done talking. “Anyway,” I say, “on a personal note, thanks for being a kind person and putting up with me. On a business note, I’ll hold up my end of the bargain and hopefully you can get someone placed there soon. I’ll check around and see if anyone trustworthy I know needs a place.” Feeling better I reach out my hand to shake before realizing I shouldn’t and quickly withdraw it. “Sorry,” I say, “force of habit.” She laughs despite the situation, “I do the same thing all the time. It takes quite a bit of getting used to.” This is the first time I have heard Andrea laugh. It somehow warms my heart hearing it. I’m almost to the door when I hear Andrea call out, “hey, Zen?” I freeze and then turn toward her, “hmm?” Her face softens, “All things aside, I hope things do get better. Just, take care OK?” I’m on the brink of losing it, but manage to whisper a thank you. I wave and smile again before stepping out into the rain. My place isn’t too far from the main office so I had opted to walk. It helps to clear my mind─ feeling the cool wind and wetness on my face and hair. I have a lot to think about, even more to take care of, and a week to make it all happen.