Welcome to Milk-Lime Mint Burger. How may I help you?
Wow. What a delicious voice. I check myself in the mirror. My hair is pin-straight perfect, and the sun brings out the blue in the black. I run my hands down my smooth fuchsia crop top, feeling every inch of myself today. My new plum leggings from Victoria’s Ancient Secrets Earth twenty twenty-one collection feel like butter and show my thigh gap for all to behold.
I inch up to the speaker. “Hi. I’m Paige.” I purr with extra confidence. Just got my whip washed and waxed, the top is down. Pop jams from Earth year nineteen ninety-nine are playing. It’s a good day, and I don’t have them often.
“Hi Paige. I’m Melissa. What can I get for you?”
“Um…” I pout, squinting at the menu. “A plain cheeseburger, please. And a small mint tea.” And your number. I want to say, but I haven’t seen her yet. Always see what they look like first. Safe. Not sorry.
“Would you like cheese on the burger?”
“I said cheeseburger.”
“Mm-hmm. But you said plain.”
“Yes. A plain cheeseburger.”
“Mm-hmm. And I asked if you wanted cheese.”
Whoa. Are we about to battle? “Well, I said plain cheeseburger. I said the word cheese.”
“Plain means nothing.”
“Are you stupid?”
“No. Are you?”
I grip the wheel. I can barely hang on; my hand is so sweaty. “I said plain cheeseburger. So that should lead you to that magic plain cheeseburger finish line where I’m standing there waiting for my plain cheeseburger. I’m watching a top and bottom bun, meat, and a slice of cheese race. Do you understand?” I hope that was clear. I get so jumbled and weird when I’m rattled.
“Yes ma’am, please pull forward.”
EWW. MA’AM? She must think I’m seven hundred years old. What the hell is wrong with her?
“Hello.” Melissa says, all snarky when I get to the window.
I have nothing to say to her. She’s young, fake innocence, an instigator of some sort. I see it in her mischievous toilet water blue eyes. Melissa. Her thin wheat-colored hair is in a short messy pony hanging out the back of her baseball cap. Milk-Lime Mint Burger is written on the front in graffiti type font. Her black t-shirt has a dripping lime mint burger icon above her right breast. What was I thinking about getting her number for? I want to pull my shades down, make her look in my eyes, and swallow her flesh and soul for incompetence. Instead, I hand over my currency and wait.
“Here’s your burger.” She flings the bag at me. Whatever. Better have damn cheese on it. “And your mint tea.” I snatch it away. “Have a nice day.”
“Bitch!” I yell and peel out.
The dash lights up. Incoming call: September. Shit.
“Are you okay?”
“Psh, yeah.” As long as this cheeseburger has cheese. I don’t know why, but I feel like Melissa was purposely messing with me. “Why do you ask?”
“You’re very hostile. I can feel your anger. What’s going on? And please tell me you’re on your way. We have that meeting with—”
Ugh, he just keeps talking. I feign interest with the occasional yes or mm-hmm and pull over. I peek in the bag, grab the burger and take a deep breath like September says to do when I’m about to lose control.
“… So that’s what I was thinking. Safe. Not sorry. What are your thoughts?” September says, but I wasn’t listening.
I open the wrapping.
“Cheese? Paige? What happened? Paige?”
I hang up. September calls me back. I hit ignore. Ugh, I hate to do that, but he’s not in any danger and doesn’t require my help. Besides, I’m not even on the clock yet. I watch the other cars pass by, going about their happy lives. Nothing happens to them, only me. It’s always me. I’ve been to Milk-Lime Mint Burger four times now and they never get my order correct. I throw the bag in the seat and peel out.
This ends today.
I march inside the restaurant. A handsome young man with huge black eyes like large buttons in a navy-blue suit leans against the counter—must be the manager. He’s talking to Melissa and runs the back of his sun-kissed hand along her flush cheek while she fiddles with his blue tie. Hmm. I don’t think that’s normal managerial behavior… She looks up at him, biting her lip and fluttering ten pounds of fake eyelashes. I scan the restaurant: it’s a hormone wasteland buzzing with nineteen sixties classic rock and scents of nature’s magical gifts. No wonder they never get my order right.
“Are you the manager?” I ask the young man. His hand drops from Melissa’s face. He stares at me. “Hello?” He says nothing as his eyes slide up and down my body.
“Yes.” He snaps out of whatever that was about and tugs on his tie. His chin lifts high in the air. “I am the manager on duty. How may I be of help?”
Breathe. Just breathe. My phone buzzes in my hand: September. I ignore it. “I told your girl I wanted a cheeseburger. A plain cheeseburger, and somehow, I got my burger without cheese. Every time I come here you mess my order up.”
“Oh. I am so sorry for the inconvenience. Melissa?” He turns to her. “Was this the way of it?”
“Nope. She said plain hamburger, sir.”
“Excuse me?” I snap. I hate being called a liar.
He grins at Melissa like he won the sweepstakes. She smiles back, gushing with love and stupid nonsense. They’re obviously in cahoots. Why are they doing this? Why can’t one good thing happen to me? What about me?
“I said a plain cheeseburger!”
He puts his hands up and backs away. “Please, your tone is quite hostile. Are you okay? You’re not armed and dangerous… are you?”
“Don’t talk about my tone.” I growl. “Are you really a manager? Who wears a suit and tie to a burger place, anyway?”
“Mr. Myers, she’s scaring me.” Melissa says. She takes shelter behind him, wrapping her arms around his skinny waist.
“I think I’m going to ask you to leave now, ma’am.” He says with a face full of annoying glee.
“DON’T CALL ME MA’AM!” I grab a stack of used metal food trays off the top of a trash can—
“Hey!” an angry little woman from behind the counter calls. I freeze, holding the metal tray over my head. Put it down, stupid. I lower my arms. Melissa and the guy run off.
“I’m calling the authorities!” The sassy, scraggly gremlin girl walks up to me with gigantic eyeballs behind her oversized square eyeglasses. Her nametag says Manager. “GET OUT!” she screams at me, pushing her finger in my chest. I stumble back. I hate the Crown District; everyone is wretched here.
“I wanted one plain cheeseburger…” I’m gonna snap. “THAT’S WHAT I SAID!”
“No one will serve you today!”
“You’re violent! You were about to hit Melissa and that customer! GET OUT!” she screams at me and pokes me hard. I didn’t touch anyone, but I have to leave, and she gets to touch me?
I scream and throw the tray at the large front window—it bursts into a million pieces. Everyone sitting nearby screams, drenched in tiny glass daggers.
“OH MY GOD! Look what you did, you crazy woman!”
“I’m… not… CRAZY!”
I rip my sunglasses off and open my mouth. Give me all of you… The manager’s freckled peach fleshy skin bubbles and pops exploding into liquid form. It flows through her clothes and through the air. I slurp her dry and watch her life play in my alabaster eyes like a movie on fast forward: The kind parents that love her, the zit on her nose she wants to go away—that didn’t taste good either, homework, the boy she wishes liked her back. Let her go. She falls to the floor, a skeleton in a fast-food uniform. Her glasses are in pieces beside her. A heartbeat resumes. Her flesh returns to its normal state. Oh no. I’m sorry…
I’m so sorry, gremlin…
The authorities block the door and the broken window behind me. A sea of them and no escape. I give my wrists, bearing the all too familiar chains.
And I ripped my new leggings.
I take the deepest breath ever and enter September’s office. He’s at his desk with a man seated opposite him. They’re in deep conversation.
“Good morning.” I whisper, not wanting to be heard. September nods at me and looks back at his guest. I haven’t spoken to him since before I got arrested. He’s upset with me. I can tell because he let me sit in that cell for eight hours until his private accountant came and bailed me out. Now all I get are head nods. Good morning to you too.
“Paige.” September calls me over. His skin is a sour, yellow-green hue. I knew I upset him. “Meet the newest member of our team. You would’ve met him yesterday if not for your tantrum over a cheeseburger.”
The new guy turns around.
I gasp. His eyes are huge. It’s that manager from yesterday—big black button eyes. My blood boils. Why is he here? What is this?
“Do you two know each other?” September asks.
“No?” the guy asks.
“No.” I say. Firm on the matter. Who is this dude? He just lied to September, kind of, but he can find the truth if he wants to. Luckily, he has incredible self-restraint and lets everyone’s free will play out accordingly. I know I lied, but it’s different when I do it. I’ve known September longer than anyone and understand how he operates. Besides, I only tell white lies. Small cuts, September calls them. They heal fast and largely go unnoticed. Small cuts don’t upset him.
“Heyoo. I’m Tom Myers.”
He’s beaming with a peculiar happiness as he looks me up and down, extending his big sun kissed brown hand my way. I stare at it with crossed arms and swallow my lips.
“Be kind, Paige.” September warns. “Tom will learn the ropes with you while I wrangle his stay in the District with the Dark Court. We’re going to be quite busy soon and Tom will be of valuable help to the Round Table, and yourself.” He looks at his phone and grumbles something incoherent. His skin changes between puke-olive and algae hues. “Pardon me.” He answers and rushes off.
From behind, I can feel Tom staring at me. It feels like a million cold spiders crawling down my back. I turn and meet his eyes. He’s still waiting for me to shake his hand.
“Heyoo. I’m Tom Myers.”
I stare at him. And I thought my white eyes were scary. His are pitch-black holes in his face. Were eyes there once? Yesterday they looked like buttons…
“Heyoo. I’m Tom Myers.”
Is he ill? What the hell is heyoo? Maybe he’s a toy. Why wouldn’t September give me a woman, though? I look over at him talking on the phone watching us. Sigh. I reach for Tom’s hand. He grabs mine, squeezing hard. I yank out of his grip, maintaining my smile. If I don’t meditate soon, I’m going to blow my top.
“I look forward to working with you, Paige Grapheme.” He says, talking to my chest.
“How old are you?”
“Ah, I’m an old soul,” his hand sweeps the air. “But don’t let my youthful charm cloud your desire.” He stares at my lips and leans into my ear. “I saw what you did at Milk-Lime. Don’t get any ideas with me—my soul is poisonous and too big to swallow. Heyoo.”
This freak. “Get away from me.” I whisper and take a step back. That’s it. I’m going to kill this guy and spend the rest of my life locked up.
September returns with a recovered mood. His skin is shimmering emerald. He pats Tom on the back. “Apologies. All is well now.” He smiles and pockets his phone. “Again, so glad to have you, Tom. I will leave you in Paige’s dependable hands.” He gives me a stern look.
“Great. I’m so honored for the opportunity, Mr. Velia.”
Tom pockets his hands and leans against the desk with a smug, satisfied smile. I want to scream, but September’s skin changes again into a sickly hue. He’s reading his phone again, something’s happening…
“Paige, monitor Tom. He stays with you, I mean it.” He runs off still reading his phone.
“September?” I run after him. He’s yelling at a guard in the hall and they both take off. Don’t leave. I don’t want to babysit…
The bells ring. Something happened… The bells only ring when real shit is going down and I’m missing it all. I run to the window; Tom follows close behind. King Resolut is on horseback, flying past a sea of guards and vanishes into the dense grapefruit groves. What’s happening?
Tom yawns loud. A long exaggerated one that makes me jump.
“Wow. I’m so hungry. I could go for a nice, juicy cheeseburger, only cheese.” His black holes fall on my chest again, oblivious to the action happening. “How about you, Paige?”
I’m gonna lose it.