2017 Polaris, New York
I waited in the rundown cafeteria while an employee wiped down the tables around me. I hadn’t caught his name, but he had dark, bushy brows and pale-white skin. He’d assured me Victoria, the person I was here to meet, would be out in a minute.
“There’s no rush,” I said, feeling a little silly while someone cleaned around me. This space was a far cry from the palace where it was normal to be surrounded by people who worked and cleaned up on your behalf. Here, I became an obstacle no matter how many times the employee assured me otherwise.
“Do you need help with this?” I offered, despite being averse to using that cloying lemon cleanser. The small cafeteria boasted only six long tables, each with various chips on their surfaces, but six long tables was still a lot to clean for one person, and he also tended to every hard-plastic chair.
The employee shrugged. “No, I’m okay.”
Behind the stainless-steel serving stations, the sole set of double doors swung open.
“Hey, Peter?” said the woman who burst through them. “Can you come back and help with—” She looked at me, scratched at the messy bun that held her brown hair, and furrowed her brow. “Um, hi. Sorry. Are you being helped?”
“He’s good,” said Peter. “He’s here for Victoria.”
“Does she know that?”
“Doesn’t she have a schedule somewhere?”
Her peach complexion pinked a little as she gave Peter a deadpan stare. Her eyes darted to me, her lips twisted in thought, before she looked at him again. “Can you just come back here and help? Delivery’s here.”
“Finally,” said Peter. He left his cleaning cloth and spray bottle on the far table and zipped in back while the woman held the door for him.
She sighed. “I’ll tell Victoria you’re here. Sorry.” The door swung shut, but it hardly muffled her shout of “Victoria, there’s a guy out here.”
I shifted in the uncomfortable chair. Our Lady of Sorrows. A tragic but fitting name for this church. According to the phone Sam had left me, my appointment had started ten minutes ago. Judging from the commotion coming from the kitchen, my wait would be prolonged. I resisted the urge to cancel the appointment completely. This could be my first real step toward healing the wounds I had inflicted upon Gaia. I couldn’t leave just because I felt inconvenienced.
The double doors burst open again. This time, a skinny young man with skin as pale white as the Gaian moon and cinnamon-colored hair stepped through. He carried a large, flat pan full of brined meat and pungent vegetables. He set the pan down on the stainless-steel tables that lined the wall, then shouted over his shoulder, “There’s no water in the wells!”
“Do you need help filling them?” I asked.
My voice startled him. Wide-eyed, he stared at me, stammering something unintelligible until a full sentence came out. “Who let you in here? Lunch isn’t ready yet.”
“His name is Peter, I believe, and I’m not here for lunch.”
“Oh.” He tilted his head, then filled up a pitcher beside a small sink. He replenished the water well before setting the pan within it. He headed to the back, but before pushing through the doors, he asked, “Who are you here for?”
“Victoria,” I said.
“Okay.” He returned to the kitchen where he shouted, “Victoria? There’s a guy out here.”
“The guy has a name,” I muttered to myself. “Not that he can use it.”
Peter emerged from the back. “Sorry, are you Jonathan?”
“My bad. I was supposed to take you back there like ten minutes ago. Sorry. Follow me.”
While frustrating, Peter’s lack of attention gave my chances of staying incognito a relieving boost.
I stood, smoothing out the front of the new shirt I’d purchased just for this meeting. Through the double doors lay a kitchen in disarray. The employees I’d met earlier jumped between stirring food and preparing it whilst another employee I hadn’t met carried boxes. To my immediate right was an alcove lined with coat hooks and small lockers along with a closet-like office absent its tenant.
“She’s back here,” said Peter, leading me between a three-compartment sink and a prep station. Employee traffic grew heavier. Another staff member raced by, grabbing a box the other employee had just brought in while behind us, the employees I’d met clanked pots and pans and shouted about what dishes were and were not ready to go. The tight space needed fewer bodies to be safe, but the work required more bodies to be efficient.
We entered a short but stout back hall, which connected the kitchen to the two heavy doors that guarded their refrigerator and freezer. One unit’s broken guts lay at the feet of two repair persons who tried their best to stay out of the way of the delivery, which came in through the door opened to the alley.
“Shit, it started raining,” said Peter. “Sorry. She’s out here.”
I stepped into the alley. Peter grabbed a box from the back of a packed van after saying something to a woman with dark-brown skin and a vibrant wrap around her hair. Like the other employees, she wore jeans, sneakers, and a plain T-shirt. She turned around, tucked the clipboard she held beneath one arm, and extended her hand out to me.
“Victoria,” she said. “You must be Jonathan?”
“Yes.” I shook her hand, a familiar custom to me. “Nice to meet you.”
“You go by Jon?”
“Do you, or don’t you?”
I did now, according to my paper apple at the market. “Jon is fine. Thank you for asking.”
“You kind of caught us on a hectic day, Jon,” she said, peering into a box that the driver of the van presented to her. She marked something off on the clipboard. “But it’s not our worst. Scared yet?”
“Sorry, ’scuse me,” said the employee who’d nearly smashed into me.
“Can you cook?” Victoria asked.
“I get by.”
“Don’t we all. What would you do about all that food we just lost in our fridge there?”
“You lost all the food?”
“Well, I couldn’t serve it.”
She perked a brow. “Even though you know you might not have anything to serve?”
“I don’t understand the question. Won’t people get sick?”
She smiled. “Good answer.” She paused, eyes locked onto the driver. “Hey, what are you doing?”
The driver shut the back of the van. “That’s all I’ve got for you.”
“No, it’s not.” She moved her pen down the list on her clipboard, her mouth silently counting the items. “Five more boxes. I didn’t see those tomatoes come in.”
“I just gave ’em to Pete.”
Victoria grumbled and poked her head inside. “Peter? What did you do with the tomatoes Rick just gave you?”
“I put them in the fridge,” he called back.
“The broken fridge?”
“Right next to all the spoiled food I just said we’re throwing away?”
This time the shout from the kitchen came after a delay. “Yeah.”
“I swear, this kid…” She put her hand on the door, ready to close it. “Don’t leave yet, Rick. I need to find those damn tomatoes.”
“Do you need help?” I asked her.
She eyed me. “You’re dressed a little too nice for a place like this. You have clothes like mine?”
I didn’t care for jeans, but I could trade the buttoned shirt for a tee if I needed to. “Yes.”
“Good, because that shirt’s gonna get dust all over it. Here.” She handed me the clipboard. Raindrops spotted the invoice it held. “Find those other four boxes and bring them inside. Make sure none of it’s rotten. I’ll have—hold on.” She poked her head in the door again. “Brida? Switch with Peter and come out here to help the new guy.”
The young woman with the messy bun appeared. “Oh, the new guy is the guy-guy.” She gave me a quick wave. “Hi. Brida.”
“Jon,” I said.
Victoria gave her a nod. “Make sure this door stays closed as much as possible, okay?”
“Got it,” said Brida. Victoria left.
“Why closed?” I asked.
“Bugs. Makes it hard when the door automatically locks behind you, and you have your hands full, but it’s law or something. Anyway, let me see that?” She held out her hands, folding her fingers on her palm rapidly. I gave her the clipboard. She opened the back of the van after nodding at Rick and hopped inside, then crawled between stacked boxes. “Found them. Can you lift fifty pounds?”
“Yes,” I said. That ability came standard with this Gaian musculature. No magick required. As least part of me had use here.
“Good. That’s an interview question, by the way. Always answer yes to that even if you can’t. Ableism and all. Not that we’re like that here—sorry, tangent. Anyway, the only really heavy things we get are bulk bags of flour and sugar.” She pushed a stack of wrapped cans toward me. I picked it up, feeling the gritty dust on my fingertips. The dusty box scraped against my new shirt.
“Where does this go?”
“There’s a pantry thing when you come into the kitchen from the other way. It’s in the one doorway that looks like it goes back to the main church, but you don’t go far. Just like, set it next to the door, but not like, in the way of the path or anything.”
I ventured back inside, trying not to struggle with the door and the broken brick that propped it open. Victoria had abandoned her sleuthing for tomatoes to answer a call on the main line. I found the “pantry thing” Brida spoke of and returned to the back hall only to find that the other employees had created a maze of empty boxes. I stacked them neatly and returned to the van where I grabbed box after box until the delivery had been fully processed. Each step through the kitchen made it more familiar, and no one batted an eye at my presence. Victoria signed the invoice for Rick while Brida returned to her work, and I broke down the empty boxes. Dust smudges covered my shirt, and the rain outside made them worse.
“Where do these go?” I asked Victoria, gesturing to the empty boxes.
“You got those done already?”
“Are there more?”
“That should be it.” She inspected the neatly folded boxes, then nodded. “Those go out back in the dumpster marked for cardboard. Not the other one. Make sure to close it when you’re done, then come to my office. Did you see it when you came in?”
“Good,” she said. “You have some paperwork to fill out before you can do any more work here. That okay with you?”
“Yes.” I could do a little paperwork if it meant starting my quest proper. Sam’s ID would be put to its first real test.
“All right, Jon,” she said with a smile. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”