Chapter 3 ~ The Mill

Well, what do we have here?  Mister Russell Markson has decided to grace us with his presence five minutes early!  To what do we owe this honor?”

Liseli stood with her hands on her hips, arching one eyebrow and quirking up the side of her mouth.  A good mood — she must be in a good mood this morning, Russ decided.  Her tone and expression were almost . . . perky.

“Nothin’,” he replied with a shrug.  “I’m just here.”

She tilted her head and remarked, “You don’t look good.”

You do . . . .  Better not say that.  “Oh?” he grunted.

Liseli appraised his haggard, swollen face for a moment.  His eyes and nose were red, and his mouth was slacker than normal, as his breath came out in ragged gulps.  She was surprised to see him on time, much less early, especially in his condition.  But there he was, after having staggered through the door making noises like a man dying of pneumonia.

“Are you sure you’re up to working, today?” she asked.  “I mean . . . we are dealing with food here . . . .”

“I’m okay,” he coughed.  “I’m just a little plugged up — I’m not gonna drip or sneeze in the food.”

“You gonna cough on it instead?”

“No.”

“You can take a sick day if you want to.”

He shook his head with a congested sniff.  “I’ll be fine.  I feel better than I look.”

“And sound,” she added, shrugging.  “Okay.  But stay back in the kitchen.  I don’t want customers seeing you like that.”

He nodded, then headed off to get his apron and visor.

Liseli’s conscience pricked her.  You should have made him go home, for the sake of his health and everyone else’s.  But with Clarissa gone for the day, she couldn’t afford to lose another crewmember.  She had offered to let him go home twice, anyway.  She decided to keep an eye on him.  If the burgers started looking extra shiny, or he passed out over the hot griddle . . . .  Then I’ll make him go home.  Really.

An hour later, Mr. Berdilo appeared.  He was a short, round old man with a shuffling gate and a bald, freckled scalp.  Whenever he stopped by the restaurant, he moseyed around back in the kitchen, peering over shoulders and making chitchat that seemed idle but for the glint of appraisal in his eyes.  When she saw him, Liseli worried that she would get in trouble for allowing Russ to work around the food with his cold.  But instead of making his usual rounds, Mr. Berdilo called her into his office.

It had been a week since the old manager up and quit, and Liseli had a feeling her performance as the substitute was going to be put under the microscope.  She sat down in the yellow vinyl chair across from Mr. Berdilo, as he lowered himself with a creak behind his cluttered, dusty desk.  She wondered if this had anything to do with yesterday’s puking child.

“Liseli Luenford,” he said, almost to himself, as he absently stroked his brown striped tie.

She shifted in the chair, and heard it squeak underneath her.  “Yes,” she responded.

He smiled.  “You’ve been manager for a week, now, Liseli.  I’ve been keeping an eye on the situation to see how you fare.  I expected things to be tricky, with you being short an assistant.”

She just nodded.

“When Joan quit, you see, it didn’t take much thought to decide who would take over.  You have been one of our best employees for . . . nearly five years, now.”

“Thank you, Mr. Berdilo,” Liseli felt a flush of pride, though she knew that she was the only employee who had even been around for almost five years.

“And, all in all, I can say that I haven’t regretted the decision,” he put his elbows on the desk and nodded as she thanked him again.  “Now, there have been some rough spots,” he waved his hand in the air as if it were a jet undergoing turbulence, “but I’ve been impressed with the way you handle the job.”

Liseli began to feel more relaxed, but still she wondered if there was to be a catch.  Mr. Berdilo didn’t usually call people into his office just to compliment them.

“Would you consider becoming the permanent manager?”

She paused, but then heard her own voice respond in a tone of pleased surprise, “Certainly . . . .  Thank you, Mr. Berdilo.”

“I’m just asking you to consider it, of course,” he reiterated, brushing his hand over a stack of yellowing papers.  “To have this position long term, I would like you to attend some classes on food management.”  He reached inside his pocket and took out a brochure, offering it to Liseli.

“Cheeseburger U,” Liseli read, looking down at the glossy picture of a perky young woman hanging over the sill of a drive-thru window, tilting at a dangerous angle so the camera could catch her smile.  The girl was extending a paper bag to a grateful child in pigtails standing in the drive-through lane.  Liseli opened the brochure.

“It’s just over the border, in Beech Brook, Illinois,” Mr. Berdilo told her.  “A very convenient distance.  They offer a course over the summer months: in nine weeks you could earn a degree in food management, and still work here while studying.”

Liseli scanned the brochure with her eyes.  But her mind was barely following along — she was trying to think of something to say.  A college, a course, a degree — in food service?  It was the first time she had ever thought of herself being stuck in a burger joint for the rest of her life, as her chosen career.  I hate my job, she thought.  When she had submitted a job application at age 16, she had never thought that she would still be a Burger House employee nearly five years down the road, and yet here she was, considering prolonging the sentence.  It was the first time the realization hit her full in the face, and she sat there in dumb silence.

She wanted to stand and declare, “There’s been a mistake, Mr. Berdilo.  I would never, ever pursue a degree that would keep me here, or in any other place like it.  I’m sorry, I have to quit.”  Something stopped her.  No — she couldn’t say it, she knew as she looked up into the freckled wrinkles of his round face.  She choked on the thought of turning her back on the only job she had ever had, and again she heard her voice say, “I’ll think about this, Mr. Berdilo.  How long do I have?”

“The classes start in two weeks — June 2nd,” he said.  “Your tuition will, of course, be paid by the Burger House, as an apprenticeship.”

She smiled, not really hearing the words, and stood as he stood.  “Thank you,” she said.  “Thank you very much . . . for your confidence in me, Mr. Berdilo.”

He waved his hand dismissively.  “Not at all.  You are one of the most diligent and conscientious persons I have had the pleasure of employing,” he said.

She blushed at the praise, but as she walked from the office, she felt sick.  How could she for a second consider a career in this awful place?  But another voice argued, And what were you planning on doing instead?  You quit here, and then what?  Your silly little stories aren’t going to earn you money.  Do you think you could go to college?  You could never afford to pay your own tuition anywhere.  Besides, degrees don’t guarantee anything, anyway.  You have no backup, Liseli Luenford.

She folded up the brochure and tucked it into the back pocket of her jeans.  She wandered past the registers and only broke from her reverie when she noticed, as if through a dream, that Glenn was making Darth Vader noises into the drive-thru intercom.  “Hoooo . . . perrrr . . . hoooo . . . perrrr . . . .”

“What the hell are you doing, Glenn?” her voice sounded as alert and irate as ever, and it rang in her own ears.

He jerked in surprise, and the headset was yanked from his head as he turned around.  He flashed a smile.  “Oh nothing, Zel.  They’re just, uh, reading the menu out there, and I was waiting for their order, and—”

“Stop playing with the intercom!” Liseli snapped.  “And why don’t you just join a freaking circus, anyway?  You spend half your time here making noises into the mike and bothering customers!”

He just laughed as he put the headset back on, and said, “I think they’re, uh, ready to order now, Zel.”

“And don’t call me Zel,” she muttered, as she had a thousand times before.  She turned away, and the voice in her head sighed, So this is what you’re going to do all your life?  Day in and day out, dealing with clowns like Glenn?  You really need a degree for this?  A diploma for being slightly above mediocre?

She didn’t see Russ until she walked into him.  “Ooof!  Uh . . . hey . . . sorry . . . ” he said, but a smile crept onto his face, like it always did.

She took a step back and looked up into his eyes.  “Don’t you ever wish things were different?” she hissed at him.

“What?”

“I’m talking about ambition!  Imagination!  Change!  Don’t tell me you really call this living?  Don’t any of you ever want to just run away from it and find something new?” Liseli rattled, barely knowing what she was saying till she heard it come out.

He laughed, or coughed, and said, “Yeah . . . hell, yeah . . . everyone does.”

“Sometimes I wonder,” she retorted, shaking her head.

“Liseli, is something wrong?  Are you alright?” he sounded concerned, as if she was the one who was sick.

“I . . . I’m taking my break,” she fumbled with her apron ties.

“What happened?” he followed her as she headed for the door.

“Nothing!  I’m fine!  I’m just taking my lunch break now.  She was having difficulty ripping at the knot.  Finally, she just yanked the apron up over her head and threw it at the peg.  It fell to the floor in a heap, but she left it there, throwing her visor on top of it.  She reached for the door handle.

Russ was still there, hovering behind her.  “Goodbye,” she said, her tone negating the word “good.”

“Liseli?”

She ran down the walkway to the sidewalk, never looking back.

She didn’t stop or slow until she got to the Mill.  She stumbled through the doorway, out of the chilly wind and gray dampness — Tuesdays were always gray, always.  She felt a little warmer, though the Mill let the wind whistle through all its holes.  Still, it was a good old building, for all that.  Quiet.  She clutched her arms in a hug and sank down in her spot in the corner.  She didn’t dig out her tote, but just sat there staring out the empty window at the river.  She’d felt smothered in the greasy heat of the kitchen, and she just had to run away, or scream.  I made a scene in front of Russ . . . .  Of all the people to lose it in front of, Russ.

She shook her head, curling her fingers around the rough wooden edge of her makeshift seat.  The water was rushing by the Mill and the wind through the pine trees across the river seemed to whisper, It’ll be alright.  It’ll be alright.  Yes.  And even though she knew it didn’t mean that anything was really going to be better, her choking anxiety started to dissipate.  Here at least she could breathe.

Then suddenly she heard a footstep outside the door, and she jerked away from the river.  She stared in shock as she saw Russ standing in the doorway.  He’d followed her.  He had followed her all the way from the Burger House.  There he was, in her Mill!  Liseli was struck dumb.  The Mill wasn’t a place just anyone could stroll up to!  Oh yes it is . . . .

“Liseli?  What are you doing?” he wheezed, leaning against the doorframe.

She didn’t move or respond, just stared.  Not happening.  Can’t be.

Russ walked in, picking his way through the glass, nails, and rotting floorboards.  “Something’s the matter.”  It wasn’t a question.  He stopped in front of her.  “Hey,” he said, gently, “this place is dangerous, you know.  The roof could fall on you.  What’s the matter?”

Guess.  “Russell,” she made her voice flat and even.  “I came here to be alone.  If I had wanted to talk to somebody, I would have found someone to talk to.”

He sat down next to her.  “You’re not being yourself today.  I think—”

“You don’t know who ‘myself’ is,” she spat.  “Alright?”

He looked away.  “Okay.  You’re being weird.  How’s that?”

“Listen, whatever I’m ‘being’ isn’t any of your business,” Liseli glared at the side of his averted face, till he turned back to receive the full withering effect.  “I don’t want you here.  You should never have followed me — there was no reason on earth for you to follow me.”

He looked as if he would say otherwise, but she barreled ahead indignantly; “What did you think?  That I was going to jump off a bridge?  Play chicken with a train?  What?

He looked down sheepishly, “No, I just . . . thought you might . . . want—”

Listen to me,” her tone rose sharply, “I can take care of myself.  There is no reason . . .   for concern!”

He winced, then jerked to his feet.  “Fine.  But it seemed like the right thing to do.”

“It wasn’t.”

“Yeah.”

Liseli stood.  “Russ,” she allowed her voice to soften.  “You should just go home, take some medicine, and a nap . . . .  You look bad, and you shouldn’t have been running.”

“But—”

“I’m not suggesting,” the softness disappeared.  “I’m telling you to take the rest of the day off.”  She crossed her arms.

“Yeah.”  He nodded, then looked at the floor.

“Go on.”

Russ turned, stumbling on a loose plank.  Damn rotting place. He wished he hadn’t come here.  Should’ve had the sense to stay at the Burger House.  Stupid to think she’d want you around.  Won’t make that mistake again.  Ever.

He stopped in the doorway.  Something looked different, he didn’t know what.  It was like everything was a little further away, or a gap had fallen in between him and the outside.  But that wasn’t really it.  He was standing on the edge of something . . . something barely even there, and if he stepped back he’d lose it.  So he stepped forward.  I don’t want to be here.  He didn’t know why, but he knew it could hear him.

Pain shot through his head.  Bad idea.  Bad idea.  Bad, bad idea.  Everything was stark and white for a moment, shards of light driving into his eyes.  He lifted his hands over his face, and stumbled back into Liseli, stepping on her foot.  She made a surprised noise and shoved him away from her, forward into the light.  It grabbed him and sucked him in.  The edge fell away under his feet.  Everything turned dark and empty.

It only lasted a moment.  Then he was standing . . . standing on a road, and everything around him was gray.  The road stretched up a hill, and he was at the bottom.  The whiteness was hiding behind the hill, he knew somehow.  Maybe because it was calling to him . . . without voice, without words . . . but calling.  It started to rise, lifting its beckoning arms over the edge, and he ducked his head, turning away.  Liseli was standing behind him on the road, as gray as the world around them.

“You stepped on my foot,” she pointed down, looking reproachful.  But her expression changed as the light rose, reaching out and touching them both.  Her eyes widened in surprise as it landed on her face, and suddenly she became like an X-ray, skin transparent and bones staring back.

Russ clapped his hands over his eyes.  He had to keep the light out.  Have to have to have to . . . .   But he felt it blow through him like sharp wind as it shot down the hill.  His hands did nothing to stop it, his whole body was suddenly nothingness, an empty thing for light and wind to pass through.  Burning felt like this . . . .

Eventually the whiteness faded . . . slowly . . . into something warm and yellow.  Sunlight.  It subsided, loosening its grip, dropping him down like sand falling through an hourglass.  Pieces fell back into place, pushed down solid and painful as feeling came back.  Standing, now . . . somewhere . . . .

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