“Right,” I agreed, and that was that.
Now, however, as I walked in to begin my second week of work—even though our shifts began at nine, and it was only eight-fifty, Bethany and Amanda were, naturally, already there and in place in their chairs—I felt a sense of inescapable dread. Maybe it was the silence. Or the stillness. Or the way Amanda raised her head and looked at me as I approached, her brow furrowing.
“Oh, Macy,” she said, with the same slightly surprised tone she’d used every day I’d showed up, “I wondered if you would make it in today . . . considering.”
I knew what she meant, of course. Jason wasn’t one to spill secrets, but there were a couple of other people from our high school at Brain Camp, one of whom, a guy named Rob who squinted all the time, was good friends with both Amanda and Jason. Whatever way it had gone, clearly this break wasn’t just my secret anymore. Now, it was Information, and as they were with everything else, Bethany and Amanda were suddenly experts.
“Considering,” Amanda said, repeating the word slowly as if, by not rising to the bait, I must not have heard her, “what happened with you and Jason.”
I turned so I was facing her. “It’s just a break. And it has nothing to do with my job.”
“Maybe so,” she said, as Bethany put a pen to her lips. “We were just concerned it might, you know, affect your performance. ”
“No,” I said. “It won’t.” And then I turned back to my computer screen. I could see their faces reflected there, the way Amanda shook her head in a she’s-so-pathetic way, how Bethany pursed her lips, silently agreeing, before slowly swiveling back to face forward.
And so began my longest day yet. I didn’t do much of anything, other than answer an all-time high of two questions (one from a man who stumbled in, unshaven and stinking of liquor, to ask about a job opening, and another from a six-year-old concerning how to find Mickey Mouse’s address, both of which were, at least in Bethany and Amanda’s opinion, not worth their time, but fully suited to mine). All this made it more than clear that last week, I’d been an annoyance to be tolerated. Now I was one easily, and rightfully, ignored.
It was just after dinner and I was following routine, wiping down the kitchen countertops, when the phone rang. I didn’t even reach for it, assuming it was a client calling for my mother. But then I heard her office door open.
“Macy? It’s for you.”
The first thing I heard when I picked up the kitchen phone was someone sobbing, in that blubbering, gaspy kind of way.
“Oh, Lucy, honey, please,” I heard a voice saying over it. “You only do this when I’m on the phone, why is that? Hmmm? Why—”
“Hello?” I said.
“Macy, hi, it’s Delia.” The crying started up again fresh, climbing to a full-out wail. “Oh, Lucy, sweetie, please God I’m begging you, just let Mommy talk for five seconds. . . . Look, here’s your bunny, see?”
I just sat there holding the phone, as the crying subsided to sniffling, then to hiccuping, then stopped altogether.
“Macy,” she said, “I am so sorry. Are you still there?”
“Yes,” I told her.
She sighed, that world-weary exhale I already associated with her, even though we hardly knew each other. “The reason I’m calling,” she began, “is that I’m kind of in a bind and I could use an extra pair of hands. I’ve got this big luncheon thing tomorrow, and currently I’m about two hundred finger sandwiches behind. Can you help me out?”
“Tonight?” I said, glancing at the clock on the stove. It was 7:05, the time when I usually went upstairs to check my email, then brushed and flossed my teeth before reviewing a few pages of my SAT word book so that I wouldn’t feel too guilty about camping out in front of the TV until I was tired enough to try sleeping.
“I know it’s short notice, but everyone else already had plans,” Delia said now, and I heard her running water. “So don’t feel bad about saying no. . . . It was just a shot in the dark, you know. I dug out your mom’s business card and thought I’d at least try to woo you over here.”
“Well,” I said, and the no, I can’t, I’m sorry, was perched right there on my tongue, so close to my saying it that I could feel my lips forming the words. But then I looked around our silent, perfectly clean kitchen. It was summer, early evening. Once this had been my favorite time of year, my favorite time of night. When the fireflies came out, and the heat cooled. How had I forgotten that?
“. . . don’t know why you’d want to spend a few hours up to your elbows in watercress and cream cheese,” Delia was saying in my ear as I snapped to, back to reality. “Unless you just had nothing else to do.”
“I don’t,” I said suddenly, surprising myself. “I mean, nothing that can’t wait.”
“Really?” she said. “Wonderful. Oh, God. You’re saving my life! Here, let me give you directions. Now, it’s kind of a ways out, but I’ll pay you from right now, so your driving time will be on the clock.”
As I picked a pen out of the jar by the phone, pulling a notepad closer to me, I had a sudden pang of worry thinking about this deviation from my routine. But this was just one night, one chance to vary and see where it took me. The fireflies were probably already out: maybe it wasn’t just a season or a time but a whole world I’d forgotten. I’d never know until I stepped out into it. So I did.
Delia’s directions were like Delia: clear in places, completely frazzled in others. The first part was easy. I’d taken the main road through town then past the city limits, where the scenery turned from new subdivisions and office buildings to smaller farmhouses to big stretches of pasture and dairy lands, plus cows. It was the turn off of that road, however—which led to Delia’s street—where I got stuck. Or lost. Or both. It just wasn’t there, period, no matter how many times I drove up and down looking for it. Which became sort of embarrassing, as there was a produce stand I kept driving by—-its sign, painted in bright red, said, TOMATOES FRESH FLOWERS PIES—wherean older woman was sitting in a lawn chair, a large flashlight in her lap, reading a paperback book. The third time I passed her, she put the book down and watched me. The fourth, she got involved.
“You lost, sugar?” she called out as I crept past, scanning the scenery for the turnoff—“It’s a narrow dirt road, blink and you’ll miss it,” Delia had said—wondering if this was some sort of induction process for new employees or something, like hazing or catering boot camp. I stopped my car, then backed up slowly. By the time I reached the stand, the woman had gotten out of her chair and was coming to bend down into my passenger window. She looked to be in her early fifties, maybe, with graying hair pulled back at her neck, and was wearing jeans and a white tank top, with a shirt tied around her ample waist. She still had the paperback in her hand, and I glanced at the title: The Choice, by Barbara Starr. There was a shirtless man on the cover, a woman in a tight dress pressed against him. Her place was held with a nail file.