Chapter 1 ~ The Burger House

Liseli walked into the kitchen with her fingertips pressed between her eyebrows, trying to combat the headache that had been creeping up on her all morning.  Out of habit she wrinkled her nose at the greasy-burger-smell.  She didn’t really notice it that much anymore; the scent had a way of soaking through her clothes and hair, and into her pores, till she felt like a Smiley Meal herself.  But still — if she didn’t wrinkle her nose, she’d be admitting defeat.

Bucket and mop, she returned her mind to the task at hand.  What joy.  When she rounded the corner what she saw made her pause with a brief sense of relief, before she remembered to be annoyed.  Russ was there, finally.

He hunched over the griddle, the sleeves of his wrinkled green shirt rolled up past his elbows.  His mess of black hair clung to his forehead and temples as if he’d been slaving away over the hot stove for hours.  That didn’t fool Liseli for one second, though the stray thought  . . . busy, busy boy . . .  ran through her head to the beat of her headache.  She directed a scowl at his back, right between the shoulder blades.

Russ paused and straightened, shrugging his shoulders as he wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.  Then he turned around, eyeing her with a sheepish half-grin.

“You’re late,” Liseli crossed her arms over the smiling burger patty embroidered on her apron.  She decided that Russ resembled Mr. Smiley Burger — same lopsided red grin.

“Aw, just a little bit . . . ” Russ responded, slowly, his smile wavering.  He didn’t have the same eyes as Mr. Smiley Burger.  Mr. Smiley Burger had black beady eyes.  Russ’s were hazel, and he was trying that neutral, non-threatening look with them again.  Liseli scowled deeper and shook her head.

She felt her ponytail bob back and forth — that springy reddish yellow frizz people called her hair.  She always pulled it back as severely as possible, but she still couldn’t cure herself of the tousle-headed-little-girl look.  It didn’t inspire respect, she thought.  But she’d found other ways.  “A little?” she barked, noting his small wince.  “Try an hour, Russell.  Where have you been?”

He shifted and glanced away.  “Okay, so I overslept.  I think I’m coming down with a cold, though . . . .  Otherwise I’d—”

“And I suppose you were coming down with a cold yesterday, and last week, and the week before?  Forget it, Russ, you’re always late.  Ten, fifteen minutes . . . .  But an hour?  You expect me to just shrug that off?”

He frowned, rolling his eyes up to stare at the water stains on the ceiling.  For a moment Liseli thought she’d finally gotten to him, but then he cracked a smile and looked back down at her.  “You gonna spank me or something?”

“I’ll fire you, you damn lazy bum!” Liseli spat, uncrossing her arms and digging her fists into her hips, a pose that would intimidate a small dog . . . maybe.  She looked up into Russ’s eyes, wondering if the words would sink in.  Up until about a month ago she’d been just another crewmember, then the manager promoted her to assistant manager.  The manager had quit two weeks ago, and now Liseli held the spot temporarily.  Or pretended to hold.  Russ always just smiled at her as if she were cute when she was angry.

This time Russ stared at her, holding the spatula in front of him with both hands.  He blinked, then said warily, “Something wrong today, Liseli?  You seem kind of upset . . . .”

“Wrong?”  She raised her voice, then forced it down to an angry hiss.  “Hell yeah, Russ, lots of things are wrong, and you’re one of them!”

He twitched a smile.

“You dragged your sorry ass in an hour late, I had to send Ellie home ’cause she came in stoned again, I caught Jim pocketing the change for a Smiley Meal, and a kid just barfed on the floor!”

“Mm, bad day.”  He nodded with a little sniff, and wiped his nose with the same hand he’d used on his forehead.  She thought she saw a smirk trying to return to his face.  Obviously he knew that if she hadn’t fired Jim or Ellie she wouldn’t fire him.  Jerk.

She grabbed the spatula from him.  “Get out there and clean up the mess.  I’ll finish these burgers.”

“’K,” he said, and brushed past her on his way out.  Liseli stiffened, but didn’t say anything — she would not give him the satisfaction, she thought, of knowing that she noticed.  He always did that . . . brushed past her, bumped into her as they worked.  He made it seem like an accident, a consequence of the cramped quarters in the back.  She stared at the burgers fizzling, and gripped the spatula.  Jerk.

 . . . Jerk, jerk, jerk . . .  echoed her headache.   . . . Busy, busy . . . jerk . . . .

Liseli flipped the patties over and sighed.  What am I doing here? she wondered, not for the first time.  She didn’t belong with these idiots.  No way, not her.  So how did she get stuck here?  Sure, she got to wear the manager visor, and threaten the others with unemployment, and yell at them to go there and do that.  That didn’t take much talent or brains — she just had to be more reliable than your average schmuck.  She knew that she could do better . . . .

Can you?  Look at yourself, you’re just like them.  A distorted reflection of her face hovered in the glistening oil.  No one passing through could tell the difference, could they?  Liseli pushed aside the pessimistic voice.  She tried to keep her appearance clean and neat, though it wasn’t always easy.  In fact, it was never easy — the kitchen was hot, food splattered all over the place, and there was always stuff to clean up.  She thought of the mess she’d been about to tend to and allowed herself a small, smug smile.  I hope Russ is enjoying himself . . . .  The kid had consumed two Smiley Meals before losing his lunch.  The mother threatened to sue.  Maybe Liseli would get lucky, and the Burger House would be put out of business.  Then maybe she could get a better job — maybe somewhere classy, like McDonalds.  She bit off a bitter laugh.

At that moment Clarissa peeked around the corner and said, “Hey, Liseli . . . maybe this ain’t a good time to ask, but can I have tomorrow off?”

She glanced up.  Clarissa went about her job so quietly that Liseli hardly ever knew when the thin, mousy girl was around.  But of course she’d been back there making French fries the whole time Liseli was yelling at Russ.  Now Clarissa waited for an answer, wiping her skinny hands down the front of her apron, leaving damp streaks across Mr. Smiley Burger.

“What for?” Liseli asked, moving the withered patties off the grill and throwing another batch of raw meat onto the rancid oil.

“My brother . . . he’s got some tickets to a rock concert . . . and him and his friend Phil was goin’ . . . and, well, there were three tickets, but my brother’s girlfriend is sick . . . so he said I could use her ticket . . . and well, I wanted to go . . . .”

“So Phil doesn’t have a girlfriend, huh?”

Clarissa broke out into a giggle, making a soft snorting sound like a baby pig.  “Not yet,” she said.

“Right.”  Liseli nodded.  “So you need the whole day just for that?”

“Well, it’s kinda a five hour drive down there, and—”

“Whatever,” Liseli cut her off, waving the spatula in the air dismissively.  “Sure, take the day off.  I do everyone’s job around here, anyway, so I’ll manage.”

“Uh-huh.”  Clarissa lifted her eyebrows and grinned.  “Thanks.  You’re the bomb.”  She ducked back around the corner, but then quickly popped back and said, “Hey.  I think Russ likes you — why you always give him such a hard time?”

Liseli flipped a patty over and slammed it against the hot surface.  “I don’t like Russ.  He’s a loser.”

“Oh, he is not.”  Clarissa rolled her eyes.

“Is,” Liseli sniffed stubbornly, ignoring the smirk.  They always smirked at her.  All of them.  “And I don’t like being liked by . . . losers, y’know?  Besides—” she scorched another patty against the griddle “—he’s always late.  If he really liked me he’d do his job like he’s supposed to.”

“Oookay.”  Clarissa shrugged, and disappeared again.

“And he has a girlfriend!” Liseli added as an afterthought.  Russ’s girlfriend came in for lunch nearly every day.  Marcy was a chubby girl who wore clothes that were much too small and tight.  Bleach blonde hair with dark, greasy roots, long acrylic nails, pouty painted lips, and heavy eyeliner.  Yeah, that seemed like the kind of girl Russ would have.  It never failed to annoy Liseli that she always expected to get a discount on her orders because she was associated with an employee.  To makes matter worse, Russ would actually give them to her if he was working the cash register.

Liseli felt a touch on her shoulder, and wheeled around, coming close to leaving a spatula shaped burn on Russ’s face.

“Uh . . . I’m done,” he said, taking a step back from the utensil glittering with hot oil.  “You want me to take over here or—”

“Listen, Russ, you want to get my attention, you say my name.”  Liseli pointed at him with the spatula.  “It’s ‘Liseli’.  I wouldn’t mind ‘Master’ too much either.  But don’t touch me, got it?”

“Right.”  He wiped his nose again, and she noticed that his eyes were a little watery and red — maybe he was coming down with a cold.

She shoved the spatula into his hand.  “Don’t get snot in the food, either,” she muttered, brushing past him.  “Unless you want more people puking.”

Out in front, things had finally quieted down and the Burger House was barely full.  Jim still slouched over his register, and Glenn stood in the corner by the drive-thru window, yelling information about sauce flavors into the mike . . . with a French accent.  Liseli just rolled her eyes.  LaTisha, her assistant manager, was operating the second cash register.  It didn’t look like they needed another register opened . . . that meant she could get free for her lunch break.

She spotted Russ’s girlfriend sitting in a booth with a couple of other girls, and came to a halt.

Marcy’s hair was crimped today, but it still looked greasy and flat, with dark roots.  She busily shoved fries into her face, alternating with gulps of soda.  Hoop earrings banged against her cheeks as she moved her head back and forth . . . fries, soda, fries, soda . . . .  Liseli found the movement mesmerizing and disgusting at the same time, and was unable to turn away.  Today Marcy wore a tight spandex tank top; Liseli could see the heart tattoo on her shoulder and the turquoise navel ring in her belly.  Marcy paused from filling her face to throw back her head and laugh at what one of her friends was saying.  She jiggled when she laughed.  Suddenly Liseli suffered a mental picture of Russ kissing and groping at the ample flesh of that throat and chest.

She grimaced and turned away abruptly, then quickly yanked the knot out of the strings on her apron.  “I’m taking my break,” she said to Tish.  With that, she threw her apron and visor on the peg by the door, and got out.

Liseli jogged along the sidewalk, three blocks to the edge of town, two more till she could turn onto Mill Road.  The sun was high in the sky, and she barely cast a shadow as she went.  Just five blocks, and everything looked different.  The sidewalk came to a weedy end, the buildings thinned out, and the trees were taller, older.  Mill Road used to be a main thoroughfare, back when the town was young, and growing, and prosperous.  Now it was a just a dirt path leading off into the woods, and nobody went there anymore.  And that was just fine with Liseli.

She turned right onto the old road, following it up through a farm field, smelly in the May sunshine, freshly fertilized with chicken dung.  She held her breath and covered her nose and mouth.  The lane was dusty and dry, but there were a few large potholes filled with water.

The woods were quiet and peaceful today.  During the hunting season, men in orange roamed around amongst the trees, but now there was no one but her and the birds and the insects.  She came to a fork in the road.  There were a lot of those back here, and several four-way intersections populated the area.  But whatever names the individual roads had once sported, it was all just Mill Road now.  The only sign was posted back at the edge of town.

Liseli turned to the left and continued on.  Now she could breathe freely again, upwind of the farm field.  Warm bands of sunlight streamed through the cool leaves, and she lifted her face to them, letting the stress and aggravation wash away.  She tugged the scrunchie from her hair and ran her fingers through the strands, allowing the breeze to lift it away from her neck.

The woods opened up as she came to an intersection.  She passed it, continuing on straight towards a derelict building that slumped over the river like a hunched old man.  A broken mill wheel hung listlessly into the water, unturned for many years.  Dirt, leaves, sticks, and old nests clogged up the rotting paddles.  An unstable bridge drooped across the rippling flow, bent and sagging in the middle, touching the water.

Liseli paused to survey the ramshackle mill, imagining what it must have looked like years ago when it bustled with activity; when the boards were new and tight, instead of shrunken and splintering, falling away from each other.  She could almost hear the creak of the wheel and the falling of the water, the clip-clop of horse hooves and rumble of wagons that rattled by on the rutted road.

It was too beautiful and perfect a day to be spent hunched over a cash register or grease-spattered frying pan.  Liseli stretched her arms above her head, approaching the doorway.  There was no door, just empty rusted hinges hanging uselessly from the frame.  Inside, the sun filtered in between the giant gaps in the walls, broken windows, and empty doorways.

Liseli knew the inside of the Mill well.  She picked her way across the fallen boards and glass shards on the floor, and went over to a corner near the river’s edge, where she lifted up a board from a pile of old planks.  Underneath, there was a watertight plastic tote, and she unsnapped the cover.

Inside was a collection of notebooks — some with green covers and some with blue.  She picked up a blue notebook, and paged through it, skimming over the hasty scribble of her handwriting.  She had been trying for years to write a story, finding time on her lunch breaks to escape to the Mill, or going there on her days off.  It was the only place she could write; at home there wasn’t enough privacy since she shared a room with her two sisters.  But it had been a month or so since she had last written anything, regardless, and now she sighed and rested her head against the wall behind her.

She had one incomplete story to show for all the years spent at the Mill; a long, rambling tale which consisted, she thought dryly, of her characters wandering from place to place, dabbling in adventures, and managing to go absolutely nowhere all the while.  Stupid thing needs direction.  A strong, clear plot . . . or a quest or something . . . eh . . . .  She had turned the same resolution over in her head many times before, but routinely come up with nothing much.  Liseli flopped the blue notebook shut and tossed it back into the bin.

Green notebooks weren’t as fun, but there was always something to write in them.  She used the two different colors to keep her fiction separated from the facts of her life.  Liseli picked up a green notebook, and flipped through the pages to her last entry.  She grabbed a pen from the tote, and checked her watch.  Twenty minutes before she had to head back to the Burger House.  She uncapped the pen and began writing:

Well, congrats to Mom.  This morning she announced the big news — like we weren’t expecting it.  Okay, so maybe Lara was surprised, but the rest of us aren’t babies anymore, and we can tell by now when Mom’s got it bad.  She met #5 through one of her co-workers, I guess she thinks there’s something special about him, but I can’t really tell him from #2-4, to be honest.  Two months, fastest time yet.  ’Course, it only took two dates for him to come home with her and spend the night.  You’d think she could go over to the man’s house for a change, and spare us the annoyance.  I should just move out, I really should.  I should have moved out two years ago.  Whatever, I know, I should have moved out lots of times.  I don’t want to go through another one of her weddings.  The divorces are always easier than the weddings — for me, anyway. You know Leona is actually looking forward to this, again?  Just another opportunity to wear a tight dress, that’s why.  I don’t know what to do with her.  She’s still going out with that neanderthal-jock-idiot, and I know what they’ve been doing when they “study” together, they’re not studying English Lit. I can tell you that much.  Sometimes I think I should just give up, Leona always just rolls her eyes and says if Mom can do it so can she, and now that she’s just turned 18 it’s true I guess.  Right.  I know you’re laughing at me.  I mean it this time — she’s an adult.  The most immature adult I know, but still . . . .

Anyway, Mom’s guy this time is Craig Allan.  Candace Allan . . . what do you think?  Doesn’t fit her.  I liked “Candace Haley” better, even though Pete was a jerk.  ‘Course, it’d been better if she just stuck with Luenford.  I’m sticking with Luenford forever. I had another really stupid nightmare last night.  We were all out of straws, and I got locked in the storeroom with Russ while we were searching for more.

Liseli paused, and stared at what she’d written.  Russ’s name sat on the page as if he was grinning with moony-eyes right back at her.  She rethought writing about the dream.  It was like most weird dreams where people she knew didn’t act quite like the people she knew, and she did things just for the hell of it.  Totally ridiculous.  And Russ, he just wasn’t her type.  Cute, perhaps, but in a messy sort of way; his blue jeans, white tee-shirts and rotating collection of button-up shirts (one green, one blue, one lighter green, always worn unbuttoned) had all seen better, cleaner days.  His black hair was perpetually in need of a trim, too; it was slightly curly and stuck up at odd angles while still managing to hang down into his eyes.  That look was in lately, but something told her that he was the kind of person who’d look that way that no matter what the current style happened to be.  She just didn’t understand a person who didn’t give a damn about what his appearance said about him.  And he was hardly what you’d call responsible, articulate, or fast on the uptake.

Liseli started doodling in the margin, and ended up drawing a picture of Mr. Smiley Burger with an arrow through his head.  She decided to finish her thought: It was just really stupid from there.  And we never found the straws.  I wouldn’t mind having dreams, if they were worthwhile ones.  You know, why not have a dream about beautiful things, like being here at the Mill when it was new?  But no, I dream about Russ and the Burger House.  I’ve got to get a new job, it’s really sad that I’m dreaming about that place.

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