After my intestines, along with last night’s dinner, were purged out in front of me, I looked at the pink and yellow chunks of food swirling around in the toilet of the stuffy bathroom. A fervent knock broke my observation.
“Are you done yet?” my mother’s sharp voice bounced off the walls of my brain. “We need to open the restaurant soon. I need to get ready.”
The lights flickered on and off, illuminating the scaly legs of a money bug skittering over my foot into its little hole beneath the sink. Its footprints radiated pixie dust every time the overhead light flickered on and off.
“Anne!” The knocking got more persistent by the second, “It’s already six. We should’ve been down there ten minutes ago!”
I growled at her. Clenching my fist, I imagined hitting her right in the throat. I wanted to show her my molten pink masterpiece in the toilet. I wanted her to taste the acidic wasteland accumulating in the back of my throat. Maybe then, and only then, would she care about things other than the restaurant.
Still in my crouching position, I leaned over and unlocked the door for her. She burst in, a swarm of purpose and anxiety, and put up her hand to cover her nose. Without saying a word,she leaned over and nonchalantly flushed down my hour’s worth of work.
“Get up,” She handed me my toothbrush. “It’s your day to set up.”
Earlier that morning, I had heard dad lumbering around our small room. Dad was so tall his head scraped the underside of the ceiling, but his footsteps treaded lightly as he avoided stepping on my lego collections, a grave mistake he once made in the past. He had bent down to my mattress, and I felt something cold and metallic invading my ear. “101,” he whispered. He smelled like cigarettes and old car material, the way home used to smell before we moved here. “Do we take her to a doctor now?” He brushed my stringy hair back. He must love me a lot, I thought. Because I haven’t showered in two days, and the oil in my hair is basically dripping off of my scalp onto the back of my neck and he’s still touching me it like it’s expensive fur, like the stuff from rabbits and foxes that fancy women wear to the restaurant sometimes when it’s cold.
“I have no time, and she’ll live. No one can die from a common cold.” I heard Mom say in a low voice from her side of the room.
“I don’t know anyone who would consider a fever over 100 degrees as common,” Dad retorted, but he listened to her and let me be.
He felt bad. I knew because when he came back that night, he brought back two kitkats and a bag of skittles. He usually wouldn’t let me eat that stuff because mom always went on and on about how it was “toxic.”
The restaurant’s door opened, making the metal bells clink. My head pounded. All the waiters avoided me. They do not want to catch my fever. Mom made me come down even though I was sick. She said it was to keep me from perpetuating my illness by keeping a close eye on me. My dad thought it would be better if I just slept through the day, but I hated the thought of being alone.
An old man walked through the door. He looked like a skinny Santa Claus with his long beard and frail body. I made sure to smile at him, and showed him that my front two teeth were missing. Mom always told me that no matter how bad I was feeling, I always had to smile at the customers.Mom ran over and greeted him with soft eyes and a saccharine voice. She took his coat and hung it up in the closet.
When Mom walked by me I asked, “Can I serve him ice cream? Please, Mom, please!”
Without looking at me she responded, “Only if you’re good”
When Mom wasn’t looking, I crawled into the dark closet. I didn’t even need to search around for lights anymore, I knew this place better than I did our one room apartment.
I found his coat soon enough. It was a Rich People coat. I knew because there was furry stuff glued to the top. I rubbed my cheek against it. From my experience, Rich People liked wearing dead animals. I reached into his pockets. I avoided the keys, and felt for something better. I found a small, thin square. I was satisfied.
I rolled stealthily out of the closet. I was a cat. I crawled on all fours and made it to the back of the counter. Mom hadn’t even noticed I was gone. She was whisper- yelling at a waiter. Sharp knives indenting slice marks into the cheeks of his face.
I tore open the square. I did not know what it was, but it reminded me of the gloves that dentists wore except it was only for one finger. It was a rubber finger glove. I put it on my finger. It must be a Rich People thing, I thought. Rich People always seemed to do weird things.
Mom stopped whisper- yelling at the waiter, and the waiter sprinted back to the kitchen. Mom came back behind the counter, and I showed her my finger glove. Her eyes seethed. Plumes of smoke rolled off her eyebrows and drips of anger fell onto the top of my head as she glared at me. Why was she so mad that I was like a rich person?
“Where did you get that?”
I pointed my gloved finger at the rich man.
We both looked over, and his face turned red as he pretended not to see us.
Her nubby nails scratched my hand as she peeled the finger-glove off my finger. She ran to the customer and I heard her apologizing. I already knew I wasn’t allowed to give him ice cream.
“Go upstairs, now.” Her voice was soft, but her eyes furious, “You broke the rules. You know you can’t touch things that don’t belong to you.”
I felt tears well in the corners of my eyes. I lugged myself slowly up the stairs. I stared at the customers’ cars driving into the parking lot to pass time.
In the afternoon, my dad came back and gave me a pill and patted my forehead. Everyone else is so busy, no one stops by to talk to me.
Gentle hands laid me down in bed. A Cool cloth wrapped my forehead as I heard her whispering.
“Please, protect her. Look after her, Lord,” her voice sounded vulnerable. It sounded helpless and afraid. I had never once heard her sound so fragile.
Hearing the hushed words caused me to stir from delirium. They sounded like the soft beats of a metronome, musically simple, urging me to recover. In the corner of the room, I heard Dad’s snores wafting through the stratosphere. His snores indicated that it was very late at night. I felt her raw hands, thin and calloused from serving plates all day, rub gentle circles on my tummy. I thought my forehead was going to melt its skin off, but I felt something cold being placed on top of it. It eased my pain.
“May you steer her out of harm’s way, Amen.”
She kissed me tenderly, leaving a spit mark on my cheek, too, lips pursed tight like she didn’t know what to do. Then the lights went out and there was nothing.
In the morning, I woke up and she was nowhere to be seen. She was probably back at the restaurant, getting ready for another day. Maybe I had imagined her kiss. Maybe I had imagined her soothing rubs on my tummy, or the cool cloth on my forehead. Maybe it was all a figment of my imagination. But the pounding in my head was gone and the damp cloth next to me told me otherwise.