A personal fiction style short story about the distance between adulthood and childhood.
What It Boils Down To
By: Chloe Moore
A personal fiction style short story about the foggy distance between adulthood and childhood
I hummed 'Luck Be A Lady' softly to myself, moving my hips gracelessly to the rhythm between my ears as I scrubbed the fake blue leather tablecloth. There were several tough, ingrained barbecue sauce stains that made the job take longer than intended, but I didn't mind. It was an especially lazy summer night at the Rib Shack. So few customers had come to eat that I'd barely rang $500 on the carryout register. It was painfully boring and anything to do, even something as tedious as this, was welcome.
Chris, my crotchety manager, had sent the waitress home at 5 o'clock after an hour of no one dining in, so it was just me and him until about 830.
Which was really bad.
Like, really really bad.
I had a terrible crush on Chris. Not terrible in the petty, superficial sense; but terrible in that it was insanely close to love. I often got side-tracked with embarrassing, heat-filled musings when he was near. My pulse jumped and stammered at his touch, and his seldom seen smile made my insides tremble and liquefy. He sat at one of the wooden mini tables in the front room, watching over the steam table as I cleaned up the restaurant. Even just slouching over his phone in a sticky plastic chair, thin tendrils of lightly curled, premature gray hair plastered to his face in sweat from the unshakable blanket of August heat, he was undeniably the most attractive man I'd ever met. Chris just had a way about him, a dark and condescending allure that constantly pulled at me. It was how he was inside, that distance I had ever so slowly circled and closed in upon, that prize of his reluctant friendship that I had toiled for, that beauty that lived behind his eyes, right under the imperfect cerulean terrariums of his irises. He just.....plucked my pride right from my breast and held it far above my reach, so distant that the only parts left of me were the ones infatuated with him.
Even though 98% of the time he was a complete asshole; even though he was happily married; even though he was 37; even though it would obviously never work out, I yearned for him.
I found myself unconsciously doing small things to get his attention. I always neglected to lint roll my shirts before coming to work, knowing full well that he'd attack me with sticky tape the second I walked through the employee's entrance. I once dressed in shorter shorts and tighter shirts(he never seemed to notice that, so I stopped trying). I lightly touched his back when I walked behind him. I drank in his every word like it was water in the desert. I catered to his every whim. I swung my hips more lasciviously when I walked past him. I wore Victoria's Secret perfume. But, obviously, none of it worked.
Sometimes I childishly entertained the thought that he liked me back. He must have at least thought I was pretty, or else why would he stare at me that way? Why would he give me such genuine moments of kindness? Why had he become enraged every time drunk regulars winked and called me Honey Baby?
Maybe he just sees me as an annoying little girl who asks off too much, can't do her job right to save her life, and always get anxious and feeble toward the end of the night. I really was a 'teenage mush-for-brains', as he called me. There was always something I had done wrong, some uncorrectable imperfection about my person that displeased him. I was always stuck between feeling sorry for myself and quietly fermenting in my boiling rage. At least when I was around him.
Sometimes I even let him know that he had gone too far, killing him with my silence until he eventually became cognizant of my displeasure and tried to smooth things over. Well, if 'smooth things over' means making a person feel utterly embarrassed and unvalidated in their anger, that is.
Something about the viscous, humid air reminds me of an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon about 4 months ago. The humidity was far lighter than that of today's, but after the long reprieve of winter and spring it felt like sticky torture on my breeze-craving skin. We were slow then too, though not as intensely, and I thought that I'd try my very untrained hand at making a cheeseburger. I felt an unnecessary rush of pride as it sizzled and formed a deliciously brown caramelized skin around a tender pink interior. The smoke of it wafted straight into my stomach and sounded a hungry little grumble. Once I believed my greasy little masterpiece to be complete, I walked it and its pan over to our rank red trash bin to drain the sizzling excess grease. Some of it dripped down the spatula I had used to hold the burger in place, catching my poor hand unawares. It felt like the devil's hellfire, sent down from the powers up above to punish me for the gluttonous thoughts I salivated over while frying my meaty treat. Or so I had dramaticized then, cursing and dropping pan and burger into the unforgivable recesses of the trash can. Chris witnessed this and became very agitated over the loss of the burger and the pan (which had melted unsalvageably to a trashed ranch dressing container). I was scolded. Hurt in more ways than one, I had continued work as cold and silent as a stone. Upon eventually being made to spill the beans to Chris on why I was upset; he proceeded to explain that the burger and pan were not cheap for our ailing restaurant, and that burns were in our job description. He even told me the stories of bigger burns that he had simply walked off.
I scowled just thinking about it, no longer in the mood to sing Frank Sinatra.
As if echoing my irate, frustrated mood, the sky began opening itself harshly upon the thin tin roof above us. It was ear-splinteringly loud and sudden enough to make me jump slightly, made more deafening by Chris' surprised 'Holy Shit!'. I sighed and put down my sticky washcloth, drying my hands on the apron upon my hips so I could tie up my hair. I shouldn't have even bothered, it was too short to stay in a ponytail for very long anyway.
"Wonderful." Chris laughed without humor, standing as slowly and reluctantly as a bear fresh from hibernation. He began walking to the kitchen, me two steps behind, which was already beginning to flood with murky rainwater. "I just love flash-floods don't you?"
"Only a little less than I love working during one." The Rib Shack hadn't been renovated since when it was built in the 50's, not a tile replaced or a crack painted over, and it definitely showed that every time there was even the smallest amount of rain. The drooping, tired ceiling leaked in about a thousand different places and water gushed in through the cracks under the back and the kitchen doors. Sometimes even the front one if it was bad enough. We had a large squeegee sweeper for each door and tons of towels, so we were slightly prepared, but I had only worked at The Shack for a year and a half. That time had been spent perfecting my change-making, meat braising, rib saucing skills. I'd never had flood-duty before. "What do you want me to do?"
"Teleport literally anyone else here and go home." Great. Asshole Chris to the rescue. He grabbed a bucket and a squeegee and shoved both into my arms, then threw some towels in the bucket. His shirt got soaked down the front in the process, much to my fidgety amusement and his sighing irritation. "That's just fucking great."
It really was. Chris may not have a Hollister model physique or a granite-etched pack of abs, but he was big and round and strong and imposing and there. My heart about stopped when his nipples turned hard from the freezing water. I quickly averted my eyes.
"Alright Kiddo, go to the back room and do what you've seen everyone else do a thousand times. I'm gonna stay here and make sure the fryer and grill don't short out. Just yell if something happens." I nodded and started to lug my load toward the back dining room. "Don't bother with the leaks in the ceiling, the floor's going to get soaked anyway." He shouted over the rain, and I struggled, but achieved a thumbs-up.
I sloshed and slid my way to the back door, setting my stuff on a table so that I could move the water laden carpet out of the way. The rain intrusion wasn't nearly as bad on my end as it was on Chris', but there was still a rather daunting amount of water. I built a haphazard towel-dam around the circumference of the puddle (which was quickly turning into a pond), trying to keep my task controlled to one specific area. It worked rather well, much to my surprise, and made squeegeeing the water back outside a child's task. I even played on my phone for a while, it was so easy.
"...and that's not all, Jim, we just received word that a tornado has been sighted on the far west side of Illinois, headed in the direction of the suburban St. Louis area." I paused my off-brand Flappy Bird game in awe, my almost-beaten high score forgotten. "If you are in this region, please keep off the roads and stay inside until further information is available. If you can, find a windowless room, preferably in a basement, and stay there until the storm has passed. These areas are in the most danger of being affected based on the tornado's current path: University City, Brentwood, Affton, and Fenton. The surrounding communities will experience high winds and heavy rainfall."
My phone began sounding an alarm similar to the amber alert tone. My insides turned to a queasy mush and I started sweating. Saint Louis storm alerts don't really scare anyone who has lived in Missouri long enough, they are all so frequent and far less dramatic than the forecasters on Channel 5 make them out to be, but this time felt different. Maybe because I wasn't at home? Maybe it was the fact that I had no one but Chris or that I was in the most rickety, unstable old dump in the US? The soupy queasiness in my stomach bubbled to a roiling boil as brilliant white light stabbed my eyes and brightened the filmy fluorescent shine above me.
One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. Five Mississippi.
Thunder crashed into my ears. A little less than six miles away. We still had time. Time to do what? Wait? Prepare? You can't block a tornado with some pork steaks and a steam table.
Time to call Mom.
The second my pattern was swiped in the same blaring alert as before ran across my phone's barbecue-sticky screen.
No shit. A cautious glance outside showed a sky as ominous, gurgling, and effervescent as a witch's brew pot to a wandering toad. Did I imagine the light tinge of green? It was too dark to really tell.
Terrible foreboding suddenly overcame my brain, and imaginings dark as obsidian night skies flooded my inner vision.
Mom and Dad huddled together in the tub, holding each other close, faces streaked with terrified rivulets of salty water and rain. The house is crumbled to the ground. Mom can't run. Dad won't leave her. A shard of wood strikes Mom's face, leaving a bloody groove in its wake. Mom is pushing pushing pushing, but Dad is firmer than a thousand trees. He grips tighter to her and his heart and the world and life and love and me and light and sleepy Sunday mornings and Doctor Who. The aromatic warmth of breath and the fierce angry love that is Mom. The boyish, head-covered laziness and heart heart heart that made Dad. Gone. Blown away.
My heart wrenched in on itself and I couldn't get enough air around the stones avalanching through my stomach.
?See that girl! Watch that scene! Digging the dancing queen!?
I've never answered the phone so fast before.
"Hey Sis. I just wanted to make sure you knew about the storm." Mom had a cadence to her voice, a lilt like she had just laughed or was thinking about doing it soon, and there was a joyous cacophony of chatter in the background. It made the back dining room of the rusty old Rib Shack a little warmer.
"Yeah, it's all over the news. What about you and Dad? Are you okay? I know the house doesn't exactly have a tornado shelter."
"What are you talking about? We're still down in Perryville. We came down here for your Aunt Christy's housewarming party, don't you remember?" The rubber band that had been stretching and stretching inside of me, so close to just tearing, snapped back into its normal shape with a sigh. They were fine. Safe. Thank God.
"Oh. Yeah. I remember now. It isn't going through there?" As always happens when I get even slightly anxious and start recovering from it, I started sweating an icy sweat and developed large, irritated pink blotches on my skin. I shakily itched the one on my inner left knee.
"No, just some rain. But it says Saint Louis is getting the worst of it. Are you okay babe? Is there a place there where you can take shelter? Could you guys maybe get somewhere safer before it hits?"
"No. The wind and rain are going too hard to even open a door. There aren't any cars on the road at all."
"What are you gonna do honey?" A blurry male voice demanded something on Mom's side of the phone. "It's just Chloe, Charlie. We're trying to figure out what she's going to do for the storm."
"I think Chris might have us hide in the bathroom or something." Water started leaking around and above my towel-dam. I gave up on it. What was a little water during a tornado?
"What was that? You're cutting out."
"I said that Chris is probably gonna put us in the bathroom."
She must have said something after that, but the phone went fuzzy and started sounding like our old TV when the foil wasn't on the antenna right. I tried calling to her and standing on a chair, but it was no use. She hung up after a few minutes, probably after trying similar tactics.
"Great. Just fucking awesome." I sighed and carded a few fingers through my hair. Or tried at least. I ran into tangles almost immediately.
A sonic boom, a wave of bone-rattling, earth-shattering noise, resonated through my being and caused my heart to swell up like Mrs. Puff and drop down to my toes. There were no Mississippis between the flash and the boom this time. I jumped back instinctively from the unearthly electric attack, straight into something firmer and more unyielding than a brick wall, yet so much unlike one in that it moved to embrace me and had the warmth of a bath after swimming. The entrancing thing held me for just a moment there, much to my shocked yet uncomplaining surprise. His embrace felt exactly like I thought it would. Like sexy warmth, condescending protection, safety, and tingly little hummingbird heartbeats. His calluses were heavenly against my forehead, which he held to his chest. The other arm held my waist to his. Unable to stop myself, I breathed in his intoxicating scent.
"Better now?" He said a little angrily, abruptly pushing me away. Asshole Chris to the rescue. I crossed my arms over my chest to help fill the hungry void he left there.
"Okay. Look, don't worry about the water anymore. There's a tornado coming right toward us, we're gonna have to brave it in the bathroom." He was doing it again. Acting like I didn't have the capacity to do basic things, like listen to the news on the TV right next to me or look at the alert on my phone.
"I knew that."
"Then what are you standing by a fucking window for? Are there fucking mashed potatoes between your ears or a brain?" He laughed out that wretched little bark which always followed something that I 'can't take a joke' about. "Fuckin' teenagers man."
"The women's or men's?"
"Considering that the dude's bathroom is only 2 by 2 feet, I think it's safe to say the girls'." Asshole Chris. To. The. Fucking. Rescue.
"Okay." I went quiet and followed after him, making myself small. Only he had this effect on me. He humiliated me and made me feel like shit, yet at the same exact same time made me absolutely seethe with silent rage.
Chris disappeared into the linen closet for a moment, leaving me awkwardly shuffling my feet until he emerged quietly with a large, lidded white tub. He remained silent, leaving my ears naked and vulnerable against the crashing of wind and rain. The second we entered the bathroom he immediately locked the door and went to the corner to lay down a large red nest of clean aprons from his tub. He handed me a well-worn Anthrax tour hoodie that, upon sniffing when pulling over my head, made me dizzier than the first time I'd been drunk and left me warmer than that beautiful woman in the hot tub commercial.
"I know you're cold all the fucking time. I don't want you bitching about it when I have worse things to worry about."
I don't bitch. Ever.
But thanks, dick.
I sat as far away from Chris as possible in the infinity that followed. I was half-brooding, half-worrying in a deadly silence, knees and arms tucked up inside his jacket. I didn't know what my manager was doing. And I honestly didn't care.
I really didn't.
Not in the slightest.
Thunder boomed and shook and struck. Wind rattled and moaned its grievances. Rain punched and went down fighting on the roof. I watched a daddy long legs slowly creep its way from the high right corner of the ceiling to the left. Chris tapped at his phone and continued being a living breathing bottle of Febreeze. And I just sat there, trying not to shake with each boom and pitter-patter. It was coming.
Upon sneaking a glance to the right, Chris' inked arms were spattered with goose flesh.
But I didn't move closer.
I didn't give him or myself the gratification of that perfect, movie style cuddle-for-comfort moment. I would've been too stiff and awkward in his arms and he would just get pissy. My raging, tyrannical hormones screamed for trashy apocalypse novel sex. My inner child poked her head out through all the cobwebs and whimpered for a protective, comforting embrace. My head gently interjected that he should already be trying to do both of those things in this drastic situation, then remembered that he was married and did away with the thought. My body curled up in a little ball on its side and pretended to be asleep.
Wind slammed into the restaurant with renewed vigor, and my mind flipped from angsty brooding to terror in a millisecond. Windows boomed inward and shattered across the restaurant, the silverware cart was overturned and its contents emptied to be battered about the tables and chairs in a distinguished cacophony, something wooden splintered and crashed right outside the bathroom door, and a brain clawing screech signified part of the tin roof ripping away into the chaotic wind. The electricity decided that it wasn't getting paid enough to deal with this horror and flickered out, leaving us stuck blind in the midst of a tornado.
I was never one to get afraid. At all. Ever. I was the only one brave enough to pet the massive albino Bengal tiger we visited in second grade. I laughed when watching Saw and The Conjuring. Wild snakes could slither an inch before my bare feet and my pulse would remain level. I could live inside a haunted house if I really wanted to, and wake up every morning as care-free as ever.
But this storm was so much bigger than anyone, so outside of human control, so terrorizing, so certain, so unstoppable........I started shaking.
I want Mom. I want my sisters. I want my Dad. I want....I want....I
Despite my insecurities and the inevitability of rejection, I shot upright and fumbled for Chris' hand.
Thunder and calluses.
Crystalline shattering and frenzied hearts pounding.
A door rattling with windy monsters at bay and a painfully gentle yet firm and bruising yank.
Alleviated terror, a perfectly large lap, and shaking arms enclosing my heart and body and soul and fear and rubbing my hair and absorbing my sheer terror.
"It's okay." I hadn't realized I was crying until something wet hit my chin. I bet he didn't know that he was too. Or that his soft breath was a thousand layers of warmth, coffee before you brush your teeth, cool mint, lemon, and cheese fries. I cringed into the rotund stomach that was far more firm than I had assumed.
Any moment now the door would fail in its rattling struggles and let the enemy in. Any moment Chris would push me away. Any moment my muscles would wind so tight that I'd constrict into nothing. Any moment. Any moment.
That any moment didn't come for a thousand millennia.
I buried my glacial nose into his lukewarm chest.
He held me tighter with each boom and shock of white light.
"It's okay." He was reassuring himself this time, not me.
Despite the horrific circumstances and the slight awkwardness of being held closely to someone you've only ever briefly touched before, I giggled. I remembered reading somewhere that people laugh when they're in shock. "Are you afraid of thunder?"
"One more word, Kid, and you're sitting in the toilet stall."
Something embedded itself into the bathroom door with a sickening thud. My entire being clinched. "Tell me a joke." I blurted.
Tell me anything, do anything, say anything. My god I want to go home.
"What?" We had to scream to even hear each other, despite the finger's breadth proximity.
He would never understand my need anyway. They didn't get it, the people at The Rib Shack. They didn't understand at all. None of them are even under 30, not even close to my age. They don't understand a child's need for the protection and safety of their parents. That deep, primal yearning. They have forgotten it.
But it was still in my head. A dull echo usually, buried under my thirst to be eternally above my peers and accepted by my coworkers. Buried under my yearning for far older men. Buried under the weight of knowing I would soon be on my own, no Mommy and Daddy to hold my reaching hand. Buried under the fact that a child could never possibly be an efficient worker.
I slipped off of Chris' lap and regressed into a ball of a being on the apron nest. His touch no longer brought me as much comfort. The only two touches I yearned for were 50 miles away in Perryville.
So I thought and thought and thought, delving deeper into my mind than ever before, each breath bringing the tornado closer and louder.
Then it stopped.
It was so abrupt that I thought I'd imagined it, or that I had pinned so fervently for my false hopes that they had materialized.
But no. The world had gone quiet once more.
I rummaged around in my purse for the sleek black penlight that rested dutifully in the front pocket. It almost hurt my eyes when it clicked on.
I turned warily to look at Chris, having not the faintest idea of the emotions his fear-crumbled facade would reveal. It was sad. His bravado had crumpled and wilted into fine powder, his gray-haloed face showing an age far greater than 37. So this was the baby inside the Russian nesting doll. Peel away the restaurant expertise, adorable and doted upon baby nephew, Metallica and Anthrax playlists, weight lifting, and self confidence, and this was what you were left with.
It reminded me of the pitiful piece of Voldemort's soul after being extracted from Harry Potter. Like Harry, I pitied him.
But I didn't want him.