Spectral (Revised Edition): Chapter 1

“Assholes.”

Sky sneered at the atrocity before her: a toddler in a high chair screaming at the top of his lungs, flinging a bowl of macaroni overhead. Noodles flew, Sky’s eyebrow twitched, and the child’s parents, unaware of the glare Sky shot them from across the restaurant, continued their conversation as if their offspring didn’t exist.

Fran, one of Sky’s coworkers, jabbed an order into the computer without looking up. “Yeah, and they give shit tips.”

“At least you don’t have to clean that up.” Sky dreaded her impending date with whatever devastation remained, a possible wasteland of broccoli, muffin explosions and sticky noodles. “Have you ever tried sweeping up mac and cheese? It’s fucking impossible.”

Fran chuckled. “You should serve instead. It’s good money.”

Sky forced a laugh. “Someone would be walking out of here with a broken nose and a salt shaker shoved up their ass.”

“I know people who’d pay for that kind of service,” Fran said with a wink.

Sky rolled her eyes and went off to clear a recently-abandoned table of debris. She snatched up wet, sauce-drenched napkins and used toothpicks, stacked the remaining plates and glasses on her tray and proceeded to the kitchen. Servers and cooks shouted above the radio behind its double doors, a mixture of teasing banter and last-minute orders.

“Hey Sky,” the dishwasher said as Sky flung the glasses’ contents into the sink, not bothering to toss the straws. “You wanna go to Moe’s with us tonight?”

Sky glanced up while knocking a plate against the inside of the trashcan, trying and failing to dislodge a sticky napkin from its surface without having to touch it. “No,” she answered, succumbing to the reality that she would have to peel the napkin off the damned plate. She did so, held it at arm’s length and dropped it unceremoniously. “I don’t drink.”

The dishwasher’s face fell. “Oh.”

Sky sprayed the goop from her tray and turned toward the dining room. “Sorry,” she said before leaving.

She wasn’t really sorry. She’d never been interested in the so-called partying her coworkers enjoyed, the drinking until blacking out. She had nothing in common with any of them—Fran was one of the few she could talk to without mumbling, stuttering, or apologizing all over herself.

Sky made her rounds, offering to remove empty plates from each table she passed. It was rare for anyone to acknowledge her existence, and when they did, Sky tended to be loaded up with every dish at once as though she had eight arms.

She stumped back toward the kitchen with one such armful, her bussing tray under one arm. With the kitchen’s safety almost within reach, a customer backed his barstool into her, sending the tower off balance and clattering to the floor.

Stray forks, plates, and bowls spun across the linoleum as if caught in the void of space without anything to slow them down. Sky chewed her lip while watching the catastrophe unfold.

“Job opening!” someone shouted, followed by laughter.

Sky’s cheeks blazed. It wasn’t my fault, she wanted to snap back. She winced at the familiar, inexplicable drag in her veins, a recurring sensation she’d long acclimated to, like her blood had been replaced by something cold and hard, something that felt as though it were sprouting thousands of hair-thin needles and pricking at the undersides of her arms. Sweat bled from her pores at the thought of what might come next.

Breathe, she told herself, repeating the steps she’d memorized after years of similar episodes. In, out. In, out. She visualized her lungs filling up and exhaling before she released a deep breath, opened her eyes and knelt to scoop the mess up. She felt onlookers turned in her direction, and in that instant she wondered how many years she’d get for stuffing a fork into someone’s eye.

“Are you all right?”

Sky scrambled for the remaining plates before wobbling upright and focusing her gaze on the floor, hyper-aware of the eyes all around her. “I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I’m fine.”

“Don’t be sorry.”

A slender hand appeared before Sky’s downcast eyes, offering one of her lost plates. Sky stared at the woman’s corded bracelets as she tried stabilizing her breaths, convinced she’d seen them before—frayed, multicolored threads without any clasp. “I’m sorry, thank you.” She collected the plate with her own shaking hand, turned on her heel and bolted back into the kitchen.

After clearing the mess into the dish pit, she stood at the sink longer than necessary, scrubbing her hands with a violence that could have torn skin. She always apologized too easily, often as a chance to end a social encounter without having to actually socialize.

It didn’t take long for regret to sink in. The possibility of having known the woman prior to her accident sent a strange mix of fear and intrigue bolting through her. She entertained the thought of peeking into the bar and seeing if she still stood there.

“Sky! You droppin’ shit out there?”

Sky tore a paper towel free from the dispenser before offering Jeff, her boss, a sheepish look. “Nothing glass.”

“Just make sure it’s cleaned up.”

“Okay, I’m sorry.”

Sky tossed the balled up towel before heading back into the dining room. She disregarded the leftover mess on the floor, focusing instead on each woman, each wrist that she passed. She honed in on individual voices, hoping to recognize her by her low, unsual accent alone.

What would you even say? she thought on her third round of the place with no luck. Nothing. You’d stand there and stutter, maybe drop something. She glanced up to find Jeff standing at the entrance to the kitchen, surveying the restaurant with his arms crossed. Sky pushed the situation from her mind and concentrated on looking busy. Just a few more hours.

She made her way to a vacated two-seater booth, pleased to find the dishes already neatly stacked. The table’s surface was spotless aside from one small piece of paper pinned beneath an empty glass. She unearthed it to find a tip and a note: Cheer up, Sunshine. It’ll get better.

She allowed herself a brief smile, though it vanished when she spotted the much smaller phone number scrawled at the bottom. It was messier, as though the result of a last minute decision.

Fran came around the aisle wearing a curious look. “What’s that?”

“I don’t know. It might be for you,” Sky offered.

Fran lifted an eyebrow and accepted it. “She tipped me on the check. Must be for you, you’re the only busser.” She squinted at the bottom. “Oooh—a number! I totally knew she was gay.”

Sky hummed. “Yeah?”

Fran smirked. “She comes here all the time lately. Sexy accent. Always drawing stuff.” She turned the note over. “This definitely ain’t for me. I was peppy as shit when I talked to her, Miss Pissy,” she added, shooting Sky a pointed look.

Sky bit her lip and took it back. “I don’t know. I doubt it’s for me.”

“Easy way to find out.”

“How?”

They budged into the corner and huddled over the note, Sky with the dishes still stacked in one hand. “Text her. Ask if it was meant for a pink-haired lady.”

Sky tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I don’t have pink hair.”

“Please,” Fran scoffed. “Your hair is pink.”

“It’s blonde,” Sky argued. In reality, she didn’t know what to call her hair, but it certainly wasn’t pink.

“Pink.”

“Dirty blonde.”

Rose gold then,” Fran teased, fluttering her eyelashes and puckering her lips for added effect. “For fuck’s sake, text her. If she says yeah, you get the tip. If not, I’m pocketing that shit.” She motioned past Sky’s shoulder with a tilt of her head. “Looks like the brat’s finally going home.”

Sky watched as Noodle-flinger’s dad struggled to wrench him out of the high chair. “Dammit.”

“I got it,” Fran assured, taking the dishes from Sky’s hand. “You take a five and text that lady. Tell me what happens!”

Sky laughed and nodded. “Alright, fine. Thanks Fran.” Halfway toward the door, she turned back around. “Hey, was she wearing a lot of bracelets?”

Fran answered her with a thumbs up. “That’s her.”

Sky swallowed nervously and escaped into the night’s cool breeze. She paused for a long time after entering the number into her phone, wondering how best to phrase the question. You’re overthinking this, she convinced herself. Why is this so weird? Just ask.

Question:, she typed. Was this number meant for the “pink”-haired chick? She added quotes around the color to make herself feel better. She sent it, exhaled a small sigh and settled against the wall. She barely had a moment to rethink her actions before a response lit the screen.

Yes, the answer read.

Sky stared at the word for a long while, a foreign heat flaring at her cheeks, unsure of how to proceed. Another message popped up less than a minute later.

Is this her?

Sky ran her thumb over the screen. She hadn’t actually expected the note to be for her. She wasn’t prepared for a conversation with a stranger—especially one ‘interested’ in her.

Yeah, she decided to type back, her hands shaking. She panicked as the stranger began typing her reply, the three dots signifying it appearing at the bottom of the screen. What if she knew Sky afterall? Why hadn’t she said so in the restaurant?

Her phone jerked her from her musings with another notification. She fumbled with it, bit nervously at her lower lip and read: This isn’t something I normally do. And this’ll most likely sound very forward, but you wouldn’t happen to have a boyfriend, would you?

A small laugh escaped Sky. She pressed her knuckles over her jaw, unaccustomed to the pull in her muscles. She was smiling.

No, she typed with trembling hands, I don’t. She glanced back at the door, worried her five minutes were close to being up. Her phone drew her gaze again.

How about a girlfriend?

Sky’s smile grew. No girlfriend either, she typed back.

For awhile, she simply stared at her own response and the three dots. They disappeared and reappeared several times before gracing her with a single word.

Good.

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