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The suspense could have killed Anna.
She stared at the man. Old enough to have white hair, but with a defiantly black scalp. She recalled seeing a few grey strands the last time he had stopped by. Dye, she decided.
“Would you like a receipt?”
The man hesitated. Anna struggled to maintain an indifferent expression as she waited, excitement building up within her.
“No thanks,” he said, taking his bagged sandwich. “Have a good one,” he mumbled without looking back.
“You too,” Anna said, savoring her victory like a triumphant athlete. “Three guesses in a row. Damn, I’m good.” She turned her attention back to the line of customers, whose dour and blank expressions seemed more appropriate for a funeral than an Arby’s.
“How can I help you?” She asked a young woman, probably in college judging by the leggings and half-closed, hungover eyes.
And so the endless game began again. Anna had found that people’s decisions to accept or decline a receipt were based on pretty much nothing, and changed all the time. Still, she liked to see people grapple with the decision, often hesitating more on it than their choice of food. Jenna had never really understood the game when Anna explained it to her, but Anna supposed a five hour shift at America’s worst sandwich chain would give anyone a twisted sense of humor.
She finished with the last customer of the day (guessed wrong, but she still finished with at least a 3-2 win rate against the universe), stripped off her uniform, and sprawled into one of the empty, grease-stained chairs at the back of the restaurant.
“Good service is its own reward...” she muttered to herself. Her mother used to say that. The thought of Mom made her insides squirm.
Anna smiled as her phone pinged, but the words on the cracked screen made her heart plummet.
“Just wondering when you’ll be home for dinner! -Dad”
Anna swallowed, trying to cast aside the dread creeping up within her. The name. Dad always signed his name after texts, despite the thousand times she had explained why it was pointless. She forced herself to exhale and rolled her eyes. Some people just wouldn’t learn.
“Sorry,” she typed, “already agreed to eat with Jenna.”
Dad caught Anna on the way to her room. He looked up at her, forehead wrinkled. “Listen, Anna. I’m going to have to ask you to help out more with Mom.”
“But I’ve been doing everything you’ve asked. Taking a semester off high school, getting the job so you can spend time at home. What more could you want?”
“Nothing like that,” Dad sighed. His face looked crumpled, like a soda can crushed underfoot. “I need you to spend more time with her. I think it hurt her that you didn’t come to dinner.”
“I don’t see how it would help if I had,” said Anna.
“Sweetie, you’re her daughter. Of course she wants to see you.”
“But...” Anna steeled herself. “I don’t want to see her.”
The neighborhood’s houses seemed solemn and sad at night, like a group of mourners standing around a hospital bed. She thought she heard the scampering sounds of raccoons raiding garbage bins. At last, the shape of her home loomed out of the darkness.
The key turned in the lock without a sound, and she slipped inside. With luck, her parents were asleep and she would make it to bed without incident.
“Anna?” A light in the living room began to flicker. The flickering grew more erratic, revealing in strobe the shapes of her parents sitting on the sofa. She wished the light would either die or work properly. It must have heard her thoughts, because it decided to stave off the abyss a little longer and flicker fully to life.
“We missed you, sweetie,” said her dad, a short, balding man. Anna realized that her parents had been sitting in the dark, holding each other, when she had arrived.
“Did you have fun with Jenna?” said Mom, and Anna’s eyes crept up to meet hers. She looked pale, and the flowery sash around her bald head seemed to suck still more vitality from her sunken eyes and bony cheeks.
“I did,” Anna managed a smile, but even the sight of her mom was making her insides ache, as though they were being mashed up by one of the mixers at Arby’s. “How do you feel?” she said, dreading the answer.
“I can’t complain,” said Mom, with a flash of grey teeth. She looked tired, probably from all the painkillers. Somehow, that made Anna feel worse.
Dad looked as though she had slapped him. For an instant his jaw was set and his eyes flashed with anger, but then it flickered away. He seemed to sag and deflate. As Anna’s heart pounded, he leaned forward and lowered his voice, as though afraid of being overheard.
“Look, it’s not asking much. Just sit next to her, talk to her.”
“Sit next to a dying woman. Who happens to be my mother,” she thought.
Anna felt heat on her cheeks, in her eyes, and blinked. She turned away and fled to her room, forcing herself to keep her pace at a walk. Just like that, her dad had broken the wall, pulled her back to earth. Her mother was dying, dying! Soon she would be gone, never to be seen again. Every smile, laugh, and caress would fade away, no matter how much she cherished the memory. Just thinking about it, in the solitude of her room, made her want to pound the pillow with her first like a child. She was only making the whole thing worse, she knew. She had hurt Dad, just like she had hurt Mom by not coming home for dinner. But what was the alternative? She couldn’t imagine how painful it would be to sit next to Mom, talking about...what, exactly? The daily cocktail of drugs she had to take? Anna blinked again, and felt warm water on her cheek.
Someone was knocking on her door, but Anna paid it no mind. She took a deep breath and leaned back in her bed. She thought about the people she had seen at work that day. If she tried, she could turn them into tropes, comedic side characters in the story of her life. The construction worker, cracking dirty jokes with his friends. The nice old writer, with his ridiculous yellow bow tie. Anna’s lips twitched at the thought of that tie. No doubt about it, the world was a funny place, and she was the most ridiculous part of all.
It was a slow day at Arby’s, and that annoyed Anna. If she wanted an empty building with nothing to do, she would have stayed at home. The idle time meant more unwelcome thoughts trying to wiggle like worms into her mind. She doodled on the napkins, ripped them to quarters, then ripped them to eighths, but nothing helped. She smiled with relief when the ringing of the bell announced that Arby’s had entrapped another poor soul.
The customer was a woman, mid-twenties perhaps, dressed in a fancy yet lurid red sweater. She sat in one of the chairs for about ten minutes, occasionally glancing at her phone. Finally, she approached the counter.
“Two filet steak sandwiches please,” she said.
“Make that one,” said Anna. “He’s not coming.”
Anna could instantly tell that she had guessed right. “What the hell do you know?” said the lady.
Anna opened her mouth, but the woman cut her off. “Think you can just intrude in other people’s lives like that? Screw you!” She stalked out of the Arby’s.
Anna stepped back, shocked both at the outburst and at her own words. Why had she said that? The words had just slipped out, like a reflex. If she had thought about it for even an instant, she would never have let the words escape her lips. What was wrong with her? She felt a twinge if guilt, but that was nothing new. Just another bit of weight in the sack on her back, a weight that was becoming harder and harder to carry.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I accidentally drank a bottle of wine as a toddler?” Jenna asked, as she and Anna stretched out on the floor of Jenna’s apartment.
Jenna had, probably three or four times now, but Anna shook her head and scooted forward on the carpet. Her day at Arby’s hadn’t gotten any more pleasant since the woman left, and Jenna’s story was just what she needed.
Jenna looked up at the ceiling, grinning at the memory. “I must have had three or four glasses. Thought it was fruit juice. It took my parents hours to find me in the fountain, puking my guts out. Lucky they did, or I might’ve drowned.”
Last time it was two glasses. “They should have left you there,” said Anna. “Natural selection. How else are we supposed to weed the dumbasses out?”
She expected Jenna to laugh, just as she had to so many of Anna’s biting remarks, but Jenna only smirked and shook her head at Anna.
“It’s not like you to recycle jokes,” said Jenna.
Anna reached back in her mind. “But that was a new one.”
Jenna shook her head, a glint of triumph in her eyes. “You stole it. I remember, a few years ago, when you insisted on not wearing your bike helmet. You almost crashed, and slid halfway across the street. Your parents came out to check on you, and your mom said the exact same thing about natural selection.”
Anna frowned at the mention of her mother. But looking back, Jenna was right. She could remember the prickling pain of the skinned knees, the shame at having fallen. But her mother’s words had made her laugh, laugh at her own stupidity until the pain melted away. Yet she had forgotten.
“I think I have a photo somewhere.”
Jenna rifled through drawers before pulling out a faded polaroid of Jenna and her mom. Anna looked at the wrinkled piece of paper. Of course her mother had laughed at her. Anna could hardly imagine her mother doing anything else.
“How many other quips did you steal from her?”
Mom was unfolding watermarked letters from the hospital. She tutted at one of them. “Have you seen these chemo prices?” she said, “This must be about the most expensive way in the world to get a haircut.”
It wasn’t funny. Yet Anna laughed, and Mom laughed with her, a high, jumping sound like the twittering of a bird. The laughter made Anna’s muscles relax, and she took a step forward. It was easier than she had expected. That was funny.
Anna pulled out a chair and lounged in it, still grinning, elbows on the table.
“Have I ever told you about receipts?”
“Hi, sweetie! Back from Jenna’s already?” Mom sat at the wooden kitchen table, idly tracing the circle of a ring stain with her index finger. Her eyes were slightly unfocused and her scarf askew. “The painkillers, I bet,” thought Anna.
Anna nodded. Mom smiled, once again showing those grey teeth. “That’s my Anna. Always staying high up in the clouds, watching the world unfold below her with a smile on her face.”
Anna stood in place. Even being this close to Mom made her throat dry. The whiff of chemicals made her feel sick. Her mother seemed like a delicate flower, beautiful, but so temporary you couldn’t help but look away for fear you would see it wither and vanish. “More like watching the world fall apart,” she said.
“It seems like the world’s been falling apart,” Mom said. “Yet here we are, making do with what we have.” She gestured at the kitchen: dish-filled sink, cupboard doors hanging ajar, coffee stains on the counter.
Anna couldn’t think of a witty response. Or any response at all. She longed to move closer, or farther away. Anything but stay where she was, in the painful space between feeling and caring.
Thomas Brodey (@thomasbrodey) is a junior at Amherst College. His writing appears in the Amherst Student newspaper, as well as various other publications, and he edits the Amherst Dialectic academic journal. He has occasionally been accused of being a public intellectual. When not pretending to be a polemicist, he enjoys fencing, board games, and sitting on roofs.
Eli Quastler (@eliquastler) is from Berkeley, California and is a senior at Amherst College, where he is majoring in music and math. He’s currently working on his senior thesis in music composition, which will be an album’s worth of songs performed live with a band in the fall. He’s been playing guitar for about fifteen years and is very excited about this opportunity to try a new compositional challenge!