Alyssa Baker vs. Jeffrey Hunt
The water was periwinkle that morning. The storm clouds had abated sometime in the lightless hours of the early morning; the lake was calm. Only a faint breeze danced across the surface, and as the sun had risen, it pushed its way through the cracks in the dark purple clouds, casting a silver shimmer across the ripples. It was beautiful, yet she couldn’t help but think bitterly to herself that the thunderous storm that raged throughout the night was a better representation of the mood she was in.
Hannah glanced in her rearview mirror to the backseat where her daughter, Addie, blinked heavily from her car seat as she looked out the window of the moving vehicle.
“I love you, Little One,” she said to the girl.
“Love you,” the four-year-old returned, keeping her gaze out the side window.
I wish I was better for you, she thought to herself, but instead said out loud “You are beautiful.”
“You are ‘bootful’ Mommy,” she replied, and a small smile spread across Hannah’s lips at the sound of the toddler’s pronunciation.
It was those moments that kept Hannah going. She would replay the sound of her daughter’s little voice in her head throughout her day at work.
“You are doing what’s necessary to provide for Addie,” Hannah could hear her co-worker’s comment in her head.
Yet, Hannah failed to see how that was supposed to make her feel better. It felt incredibly unfair that she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter; that she either had to be away from Addie to work, or not provide for her. Her heart twinged at the thought of not taking care of Addie. Hannah knew, deep down, there was another choice she could have made. She could have chosen to stay in a miserable marriage. It was a choice she had made for five years, until one day she couldn’t stand it anymore.
Hannah’s heart sank as she pulled into the driveway of the day care facility. The path wound uphill and at the top was the bright red, brick building. There were various colorful slides and play houses in a fenced in yard. Hannah couldn’t help but think to herself how it still somehow looked forlorn against the backdrop of the dark clouds. She checked the rearview mirror again, blinking away tears before pasting a smile on her face.
“We’re here! What do you think Miss Katie has for you to do today?” Hannah forced herself to sound excited as she referred to the owner of the daycare.
“Don’t know,” Addie answered, smiling as she thought of it.
Addie’s little hand was warm in hers as they approached the door. Hannah pulled the collar of her jacket closed against her neck as the cold, late-October wind whipped across her skin. Snow in October was not unheard of in northern Michigan, and Hannah could almost smell it on the wind. It would come soon, and her heart clenched at the thought of enduring another long, unforgivingly cold winter.
Once inside the daycare, Hannah hugged Addie. She held on for as long as the toddler would let her before wiggling away to play with the other children. Miss Katie smiled warmly at Hannah. As always, Miss Katie had her hair pulled up into a neat and stylish bun, near the crown of her head. She wore dark jeans with a perfectly wrinkle free floral top. It was a stark contrast to the wrinkly dress-pants, and button up blouse that Hannah had dug out of a laundry basket that morning; clothes that had been sitting clean in her room for a week and a half.
“She’s been doing very well the last couple of months. We had a bit of a rough start, but she has adjusted well,” Miss Katie remarked.
“I’m thankful for that. She truly adores you,” Hannah returned as she cast one more glance in Addie’s direction, remembering the first time, seven months ago, she had dropped Addie off; having to leave to the sound of Addie’s little voice screaming ‘MAMA’ over and over again.
Currently, Addie was sitting on the floor, paying no attention to Hannah, giggling and stacking blocks with a curly, dark-haired boy just about her size; his hair was quite the contrast from Addie’s almost white-blonde. That came from Hannah’s side of the family, along with her deep, blue eyes. She had many attributes about her that were clearly inherited from Hannah. Hannah couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of pride as she realized just how much her daughter looked like her. She’s mine. There’s no mistaking that.
The drive to the office felt claustrophobic as anxiety rose from her belly, to settle in her lungs. She concentrated on steadying her breathing, trying to remedy the tightness in her chest. If she wasn’t careful, she would have another panic attack, which would make her late, and ultimately land her in trouble with her supervisor. Hannah almost lost the pattern of her rhythmic breathing as she thought to herself, I’m always on her bad list for something.
It was true. Though Hannah poured herself into her bank teller job, her supervisor Amelia always seemed to find something to ‘correct’ in Hannah’s work performance. Customer service was not Hannah’s strong suit, but she still did well in her role. She was an introvert, through and through, and every evening as she left the bank, she was so drained that even the thought of keeping her eyes open on the drive home felt impossible. Yet somehow, she managed. Not only did she stay awake on the way home, but she also spent the evening in a mad frenzy of dinner prep, toddler bathing and dressing, and the almost ritualistic bedtime routine that most nights, seemed to be endless. Then in her exhaustion, she would fall asleep to the sound of the fan droning in the darkness of her room, to wake up the next morning to do everything over again.
Hannah held her keys in her hand, ready to unlock the side door to the bank after the all-clear signal had been set. She focused on her breathing still, matching it closely to the rhythm of her footsteps on the pavement. She counted her steps as she walked. She found herself doing this often, but only realized she was doing it after she reached nine or ten.
“Good morning, Hannah,” a cheerful voice greeted her as she stepped through the door and locked the deadbolt behind her. The row of three stations behind the lobby counter stretched out in front of her. Hannah made her way to the farthest away from the door, and tucked her purse away in the cupboard below the counter.
“Good morning, Marcy,” she returned, significantly less enthusiastically.
Marcy didn’t seem fazed and continued, “Did you have a good weekend?”
“Yes, it was really nice. A little cold for my taste, but I guess that’s what I get for living in northern Michigan,” Hannah replied, smiling.
She often dodged questions that related to her personal life. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Marcy. In fact, Marcy was Hannah’s closest friend at work. Yet, there was always a certain distance that Hannah preferred to leave when disclosing anything not related to work. Of course, Marcy knew Hannah had Addie, and that Hannah’s divorce had just been finalized two months prior. In fact, Marcy knew a lot more about the divorce than Hannah would have liked, but much of the paperwork she had agonized over, she filled out at work when the lobby was slow. Marcy was there through it all, and even helped Hannah research it and figure out what needed to be done. There were times that Hannah wanted to open up to Marcy, but always found herself choking on her words, in fear that if Marcy knew her true thoughts and feelings, it would somehow ruin what friendship they did have.
Marcy didn’t have time to respond to Hannah. Amelia’s high heel shoes clicked across the tile floor of the lobby as she made her way to the counter. Hannah’s heart clenched at the sound of her manager’s voice.
“Hannah, can I please see you in my office,” she said to Hannah, not really asking it as a question.
Hannah knew she didn’t have a choice. She nodded to Amelia and said, “I’ll be right there, as soon as I get my drawer out and locked up.”
Amelia nodded and clicked back across the floor to her office. Marcy gave Hannah a look of sympathy. Hannah shrugged. She proceeded to lock her cash away in her drawer and head over to Amelia’s office. She counted her steps; ten, eleven, twelve…
“Come in,” Amelia said as she continued typing on her keyboard; never looking up from her computer as Hannah stood in the doorway.
Hesitantly, Hannah walked into the office and shut the door behind her. She sank slowly into a chair opposite Amelia.
“I have a call list I need you to work on,” Amelia started, finally looking at Hannah. She removed her glasses and studied her employee.
Hannah’s shoulders slumped forward slightly. She didn’t mean for it to happen, but the anxiety of the request overwhelmed her. She tried to recover.
“Ok,” was all that Hannah could force from her tightening jaw.
“You seem upset by that,” Amelia responded, as if she had anticipated Hannah’s reaction.
“I’m still working on the one from last week. It’s been busy in the lobby lately and I haven’t had as much time to devote to these extra projects,” Hannah knew she was pushing it. She was flirting with the line of indignance.
Amelia regarded her coolly; unflinchingly. One of her perfectly shaped eyebrows raised slightly. Hannah held Amelia’s gaze momentarily but couldn’t keep it. Her eyes retreated to her lap where her hands sat; clenched together tightly.
“When we hired you in, we gave you a higher pay rate than an entry level teller because of your previous experience,” Amelia started.
When Hannah was first engaged, she worked for several years as a teller. After she got married and became pregnant with Addie, she worked right up until the day she went into labor. Hannah had meant to return to work after her maternity leave, but once she had gotten a taste of being a stay-at-home-mother, she couldn’t imagine leaving Addie. So, she didn’t. It was a tense issue, and would often lead to an argument between her and her then husband. Yet, once Hannah had filed for divorce, she knew being unemployed was not a viable option, so sought out another bank position.
Hannah’s mind returned to Amelia’s comment, and anger welled up in her throat. She focused on her breathing; steadying it to make it appear on the outside as though she was completely calm. She nodded.
Amelia continued “Because of this, we expect you to do more. To earn what we give you. These lists are not extra projects. They are part of your job.”
Hannah was screaming on the inside but answered without even a tremor in her voice, “I understand. I will work on the list.”
She looked down and watched as the bright red blood protruded from the gashes on her arm. At first, she felt panic, but that passed quickly and with the next surge of emotion she found herself suppressing a laugh. The whizzing of the thoughts in her mind made her crazy. She tried to draw her attention away from them; she focused on the blood. The pure red caught her gaze and held it captive. If she could stay mesmerized, the thoughts would slow.
There needs to be more, she thought to herself.
Swaying as she stood, her hand shaking slightly, she pushed the edge of the knife blade into the skin of her wrist, dragging it across heavily and quickly three times. White light flashed in her eyes and her ears rang for a moment as the pain hit her. Then it went dull. Her head fell back against the wall as she closed her eyes. It was the warmth she felt first. It seeped from within her, running down her palm and dripping off the end of her middle finger. Her knees buckled, and she slammed to the floor. Again, she felt the urge to laugh. The pain wouldn’t last much longer, she knew. She was intrigued by the way she could feel the life leaving her; how the impeccable warmth was draining from her body. Just as she could feel the warmth leaving her, she could also feel the coldness starting to creep in at the back of her neck, wrapping its way across her shoulders. She melted into the bathroom floor until her head came to rest on the tile.
It’s almost over, she told herself.
Her vision was beginning to blur, but through her half-closed eyes she caught a glimpse of the small pink bath towel. The rubber fish. The matted-haired, mermaid barbie.
“Mommy! Watch!” Addie screeched from the top of the slide.
“I’m watching, Little One!” Hannah called out through a giggle.
She watched as Addie whizzed down the slide and landed gracefully on her feet. She marveled at the way the fading evening sun glistened in Addie’s blonde curls, turning them golden. A wave of emotion came over her as she thought back to the moment she had brought Addie into the world. Tiny and red, she was the image of perfection.
“Did you see Mommy?” Addie asked as she bounded over to where Hannah was sitting on a
“I did see. You look like you are having so much fun,” she ran her hand over Addie’s hair to smooth the static from it. She zipped Addie’s coat higher and scolded herself internally for not remembering to bring a hat for her. The air was cold, and it was probably one of the last park outings they would have together until spring.
She focused on her daughter’s face and pushed the agonizing workday from her mind. She had waited the entire day to be in this moment with Addie and refused to ruin it by letting her mind return to her misery.
“Mommy, can we come to the park 100 times?!” Addie bubbled excitedly.
Hannah smiled, “Is a hundred times enough do you think?”
“A THOUSAND!” Addie exclaimed after she had thought a moment; she bounded back to the ladder of the slide and climbed up.
Hannah’s laugh bubbled up from the deepest part of her heart and rang from her mouth. There weren’t many times in the last few months that she had laughed. At least not genuinely. There were many occasions she put on a fake smile, laughing at shallow work jokes that she didn’t find funny. It was her game of pretend.
The thought of her misery made her feel guilty. The blissfulness from the laugh she had felt just moments before faded quickly and the smile disappeared from her face. Her ex-husband’s voice entered her head.
“I don’t know what more you want. I don’t know what more to give you. I’ve given you everything,” he hissed at her one evening she had lost her temper with him, after he had accused her of neglecting the dishes again. She had watched him do them, slamming them around in the sink.
“Jesus Christ, David. Aren’t you just a fucking saint?” she’d had too much wine again.
“What is that supposed to mean?” his anger was building, she could tell. His eyes always squinted when he was angry.
“I want you to love me. You haven’t wanted to have sex with me since the day we got married. Hell, I even had to beg you to have sex with me on our honeymoon. Do I repulse you?”
He looked like he wanted to hit her; she looked straight at him and dared him to with her eyes.
“Whatever,” was all he said.
He didn’t hit her. He never did. He never even came close. He completely ignored her for days after that argument though; he didn’t say a word to her. In fact, he didn’t even look at her. It was like she didn’t exist to him. When he first started using his silence as a punishment, it was only for a day or two at a time. Then eventually it turned into a week. And then two. It was then that Hannah had taken the paperwork to the court and filed for divorce.
Tears flowed from her eyes, but they felt cold to her. The life drained from her as she lay motionless, waiting for the other side to take her. Her gaze fell to the pool of blood beneath her.
I’ve made a mess.
The white light returned to her vision. She blinked slowly once, then twice.
Hannah peeled herself out of the warm comforter and sat perched on the edge of her bed. The clock read 5:50am; it was time to start getting ready. She groaned inwardly as she willed her eyes to stay open. She floated in a daze through her shower, and it wasn’t until the second cup of coffee that she started to feel remotely alive. After dressing, Hannah rummaged through the cupboards for something to give Addie for breakfast. There wasn’t much. There were two waffles left in the freezer that Hannah decided would be Addie’s. She began feeling anxious about dinner. She didn’t have anything to make.
“Mommy?” Addie called out from the edge of the kitchen as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
Hannah jumped slightly at the sound of Addie behind her. She hadn’t even heard the footsteps.
“Good morning, Little One,” Hannah smiled, scooping Addie into the warmth of her arms. She sat on a kitchen chair holding Addie, rocking her slightly.
The warmth and weight of Addie’s little body against Hannah’s was a comfort. She could have sat like that for the entire day and never gotten tired of it.
“Waffles for breakfast!” Hannah exclaimed, hoping Addie wasn’t going to reject the idea.
“Yum! Waffles!” Addie replied.
Hannah bustled about the kitchen, throwing the waffles into the toaster to warm, pulling out a plate, and filling Addie’s sippy cup with the last of the milk in the jug after smelling it to make sure it wasn’t spoiled. As she set everything down in front of Addie, her daughter looked up at her.
“Are you having waffles, Mommy?” she asked.
“You know, I’m actually not feeling very hungry this morning. I think I’ll wait for lunch,” Hannah answered, feeling her stomach gnawing away at itself; knowing full well she wouldn’t have lunch either.
Hannah watched Addie eat. Maple syrup dribbled down her chin.
I don’t deserve you. You don’t deserve this life I’m giving you. You deserve the world, and more for breakfast than waffles for a week and a half straight. I don’t even know what I will give you tomorrow.
She felt the tears welling up in her eyes, and fiercely tried to blink them away. She felt the anxieties of her life starting to buzz inside of her. She tried to ignore the feeling. Her worry overtook her as she thought about how she was going to pay all her bills that month. She wondered if there were any of them that she could skip paying without too high of a penalty so she would be able to buy food for Addie for the coming days. Hannah wouldn’t get paid for another week. The tears overflowed as Hannah quickly turned away from Addie.
I’m failing you miserably. You would be better without me.
Her body trembled fiercely. Voices from the other side of the door filtered into the room through the crack at the bottom. But she couldn’t hear what they were saying. She couldn’t comprehend who they belonged to. Her eyes turned to the cuts on her wrist. Above them her skin was sickly white. It reminded her of the dull, grey mornings of winter. She began shivering uncontrollably.
I don’t want to go. What have I done?
At this realization, her barely beating heart clenched in agony. A frantic panic overwhelmed her. She had let too much life drain from her. She wanted to reach out her hand, grasp a towel. Cover the wounds. But her body would not listen to her brain. She wanted to call out, but her voice only came out in a whisper.
Hannah dropped Addie off at daycare. It was a Friday morning and she felt sick to her stomach knowing that she would not see Addie after work. The weekends that Addie spent with her dad seemed endless; they were unbearable. Hannah would spiral into a dark place without Addie’s sweet voice and vivaciousness to lift her up. She would sit in the darkness of her room and imagine all the possible scenarios in her head of bad things that could happen to Addie while she was away. Hannah felt out of control and frantic. She usually drank a bottle of wine, and between that and her worry, she often found herself over the toilet, retching.
Hannah was in an especially foul mood that morning as she walked into work. Marcy must have been able to sense it, and only gave Hannah a quick greeting. Hannah tried to ignore the look of concern in Marcy’s eyes. She took a breath to say something to Hannah, only to let it out and turn away after one more glance.
“Hannah, please see me in my office,” Amelia said from behind her; Hannah didn’t even bother to turn around.
“Ok,” was all she said as she immediately turned and followed Amelia to her office.
Hannah marveled at the way her rage had suddenly made her feel invincible. She wasn’t anxious. She didn’t count her steps. She didn’t focus on calming her breathing; she was breathing normally. The truth of the matter was, she truly didn’t care what Amelia had to say to her. So, she sat in the chair across from Amelia and looked at her straight in the face; one of her unkempt eyebrows slightly raised.
“Do you know why I called you in here?” Amelia started, seeming slightly uncomfortable under Hannah’s gaze.
“I truly have no idea,” Hannah said calmly, still holding her gaze steady.
Amelia regarded her; seeming to fumble for her words.
“You understand that your attitude has been an issue recently, don’t you?” Amelia finally said.
At this, the corners of Hannah’s mouth curled slightly into a smirk, but she only said, “Has it?”
Hannah watched as Amelia tried to control her anger. There was a silence that stretched out between them for several moments.
“Look, Hannah. I know that you have been through a lot lately. But we all have things that we have to deal with in our personal lives. I have personal things I deal with too. But it is completely unacceptable to let those things carry over and affect your job performance,” Amelia finally said, seeming triumphant in her response.
Hannah still looked at her; unwavering.
“Are you horrible to all of the people in your life, or is it just me that you have something against? I have to tell you Amelia, it’s getting very old,” Hannah heard the words coming out of her mouth, but she felt as if it were someone else saying them. She couldn’t seem to stop, “Look, I know you don’t like me, and I know you could care less about what is going on in my life. I know you leave here, and you don’t give a second thought to me, or my well-being. I have accepted that. But I still do my job and I do it well. So as far as I’m concerned this conversation is over.”
Amelia’s cheeks burned red. She swallowed then said “You need to take the rest of the day off. And when you come in tomorrow, we will be sitting down with HR first thing in the morning to discuss what needs to happen here.”
With that, Hannah stood and walked from the office without saying a word. She took her purse from her cupboard and left. Marcy stared after her, but Hannah was walking away too quickly to notice if Marcy had said anything.
She was looking at the world through a keyhole; the last bit of light quickly fading as she felt the lids of her eyes droop shut. Then an explosion of sound erupted into the quietness of the room. It should have startled her, but her body remained limp. She heard the faint sounds of wood shards hitting the floor around her. There was a scream. There were footsteps; quiet and far away.
Hannah sobbed as she drove. The weight of what she had just done was hitting her. She was sure she had lost her job. She thought of Addie and sobbed harder; tears blurred her vision. Part of her hoped she would lose control of her vehicle and hurtle off the road and into a tree, or perhaps an oncoming semi-truck. Perhaps then she would be relieved of the agonizing shame of her failure.
How am I going to fix this?
Hannah turned her car into the driveway of her apartment, pulled into the space between the white lines, and put it in park. She was dizzy from her raspy, uneven sobs. Addie’s beautiful blonde hair, vibrant blue eyes, her smile, and the sound of her laugh all danced in Hannah’s mind. Hannah focused on the images to try to calm herself. Addie was counting on her, and that was Hannah’s only reason to push forward. Yet, she couldn’t keep her mind from returning to the fact she had most likely lost her job, and that she would no longer have the means to pay her bills. A vision started forming in her mind. Addie’s father was leading her away from Hannah. He was taking her away, and Hannah couldn’t do anything about it. She knew it was a possible reality if she couldn’t provide for Addie.
The truth of Hannah’s situation weighed on her. It was heavy. In that moment, Hannah knew she had lost.
Lost what? She asked herself.
It suddenly didn’t matter to her. Right then, nothing at all mattered to her. She was hit with the realization that Addie would be better off without her. Hannah stepped out of the car, walked to her door, unlocked it, and walked in. She made a half-hearted attempt to shut the door behind her, but it didn’t latch. It remained ajar. Entering the kitchen, she reached into one of the drawers, she drew out a long knife and tucked it under her arm. Next, she picked up a pen and a piece of paper, took it with her to the bathroom, and shut the door behind her, locking it.
“OH MY GOD HANNAH!! NO! HANNAH………..HELP! HELP!!”
The voice was distorted; like hearing it from underwater. She recognized it finally. It was Marcy. She was screaming hysterically. The screams slowly drifted away from Hannah. She felt herself moving. It was as if she was floating. Arms embraced her. Blackness overtook her. Then she was still.
My sweet, beautiful girl. When you came into this world, I felt the deepest love imaginable; overwhelmed fully and completely. I was immersed in the pure energy of the bond I felt with you the moment they laid you on my chest. I want you to know I always loved you. I want you to know that you were always my saving grace. I want you to know that even though I’m gone, wherever I am now, I still love you with the truest love that ever existed, and I will never stop.
It’s difficult to describe to you, the darkness that finally overtook me. I was afraid, Little One, that the longer I stayed in this world with you, the greater the danger of my darkness tainting your pure, incredible light. The darkness was something I couldn’t control. I couldn’t make it go away. For a time, I protected you from it. I shielded you with my entire being, pouring every ounce of energy I had into keeping it away from you. But I failed you, Little One. I was tired; it was a weariness that went far beyond the physical body. I was tired of the struggle inside of me; the war. I chose to leave this world, because I refused to drag you down into the darkness with me. If I had stayed, all you would have inherited from me was my agony. It was the only way to protect you from it. Sometimes to protect the one you love the most in the entire universe, you must be apart from them.
I don’t believe that we will be apart forever. I think that after you have lived a long, full life, and you close your eyes one quiet night, for the very last time, I will be on the other side waiting for you. Addie, my Love, there won’t be any more darkness and my arms will be wide open for you, waiting to embrace you again. Don’t forget me, Little One, and try to understand this wasn’t meant to hurt you, it was meant to save you. I know that whatever life gives you, it will be more than I ever could have. Remember that I always have and always will love you.
Forever, I love you
They’re young, they’re motivated, and someday soon they all will SAVE THE WORLD. There are no problems for these college freshman, only OPPORTUNITIES TO CREATE SOLUTIONS. So with that said, what’s to be done about that restaurant? And why won’t anyone talk about it? And what’s wrong with it, exactly?
Is it the all-caps sign that’s off-putting?
Or the fact that the lettering’s blood-red?
Not major things, of course, but why are the letters five-feet tall? Does the neon need to flash day-in and day-out? And how can you feel it strobe in your fillings, like the buzz of a bee some insane dentist’s walled deep inside a molar? And is that buzzing getting louder? Can neon signs even get louder? And cause toothaches and headaches and blurred vision?
How is any of that possible?
The other campus food options are dining halls or one-off’s named after donors. Not that there’s much variety. “Smith?” goes the joke. “So we meet at Smith Grill, Smith Bagels, or Smith Wraps?” And the second part: “Does it matter? Because you know they all taste the same.”
And truly they do, with everything run by the same food service corporation and those same smiling zombies, the on-campus restaurant employees. They spend their days defrosting the same wilted patties, the same emaciated bagels, the same soggy wraps. And after two and a half minutes in the microwave—identical for each and every item—the food is ready for your enjoyment, plunked down on a Styrofoam plate.
They say eating it can’t hurt you.
But all of the choices taste GRAY.
“What’s this supposed to be?” someone asks. Usually it’s a student who was too rushed to bring a lunch. And there’s rarely, if ever, an answer.
BUT BACK TO FRESHMAN EATS. Which clearly is NOT cut from the same cloth. The aroma outside of the building is different, for starters. No, it attests to nothing specific—is FRESHMAN EATS a burger place? A burrito place? It’s hard to discern, and the back alley doesn’t smell of wet cardboard, the front not of disappointment and wasted meal points. Is that pizza in the air, with sausage? Soup, like a bisque, or a type of dessert? There’s a warmth to it all, but it’s less like the warmth of cocoa in winter and more like the inside of a witch’s gingerbread house.
Where the oven is always on, and always waiting.
The outside grounds are landscaped, with hedges cut into angular shapes and a lawn that’s kept short. The restaurant has windows, but without the off-white blinds you see in all the college classrooms, usually as sure a thing as the toilet paper in all the bathrooms being single-ply. And why can’t you see far inside? FRESHMAN EATS has tables, and… what else? Is it some trick of the glass, or tinting taken to the farthest extreme?
There aren’t many parking spaces, which makes sense for a joint in the middle of campus. But FRESHMAN EATS would be fine with none, a fact which illustrates the final oddity: there’s never ANY cars. FRESHMAN EATS doesn’t seem like it does enough business to sustain, well… business. Because barely anyone goes in. And NO ONE ever comes out.
And how, again, is that even possible?
There’s irony in the fact that a restaurant, positioned across from the main physics building, appears to violate the law of the conservation of mass. People joke that FRESHMAN EATS must have tunnels beneath it, for those people who scurry inside at odd and extremely rare hours, to use to escape. But why would a restaurant need tunnels? Or maybe the place is a disguise for unsightly electrical boxes, or cooling units? Or could FRESHMAN EATS be a teaching institute, like a test kitchen? Except the school doesn’t have a hospitality program. These are some of the theories, and none of them fit, so to appropriate a quote from the English Department, located a block to the east, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Despite the clean grounds, something is dirty.
Despite the square building, something is bent.
Despite the aromas… well, that one’s inexplicable.
Though beyond any doubt, FRESHMAN EATS stinks.
* * *
“It’s a TO SERVE MAN situation,” Tommy jokes. “It’s gotta be. It looks OK on the outside, but inside they’re cooking and plating and serving man. You know… SERVING MAN.” And the rest of the group has to admit, “FRESHMAN EATS” is a pretty weird name that is ripe for entendre. Yet—
This is a realistic world.
Restaurants don’t serve up people.
We are NOT living in a science fiction story.
These are the points they tell themselves in the dining hall while drinking off-brand sodas from white paper cups. In the center of the table is a pile of cookies. They get them every day, meaning the cookies are passable, though no one knows if they’re chocolate chip or raisin.
“Why can’t we tell? We should be able to tell!” Tommy exclaims, then he lists the ways chocolate chips and raisins are different. Yet still they eat them.
Because what undergraduate would ever turn down free food? They come with living on campus, anyway.
Tommy always talks about FRESHMAN EATS. He mentions things like “ambrosia plus” and “soylent green,” and works of literature like Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” They all listen because it’s a crack up, with Tommy’s arms blurring as he espouses his cannibalistic theories, his curly black hair shaking, his voice rising higher and higher in pitch, and his dark eyes going wide. But also, Tommy’s theories are just about the only thing that plausibly explains FRESHMAN EATS.
Once Ashley asked an upper-classman about it. “Don’t eat there," came the reply.
“But how come?” she wanted to know.
“Because FRESHMAN EATS eats up freshman like you.” And with that the upper-classman walked away.
Ashley was offended; she hadn’t realized her freshman-ness was so conspicuous. And after that, they all stopped asking questions about FRESHMAN EATS to people outside of their gang.
Tommy, Ashley, Jordan, and George are all in the same wing of Smith Residential Hall and they’re all interested, or perhaps even obsessed, with the enigmatic restaurant and its buzzing sign at the back of the quad. And why not be? They’re freshman after all.
And they do eat.
Plus there isn’t a lot to do after class if you don’t have money. Additionally the restaurant’s more stimulating than physics homework. It’s more enticing than British literature.
It’s more engaging than calculus, or musicology, or even intramural softball or drinking.
Because how can a business exist without a steady clientele?
Maybe it’s part of an elaborate study, put on by a psychology professor? Or maybe it’s just a money laundering front? After all, universities have done worse things. And again, how come no person ever comes out? The questions are maddening, and so is the fact that no one they know of is attempting to solve it. So they decide to have a stake-out.
Tommy in the bushes, on one side of the property.
Ashley to the left, under a group of pines.
Jordan in the back, hiding behind hydrants.
And George to the other side, observing from the Physics Building’s dumpsters. Truly he said he didn’t mind getting in there. And truly, that’s a freshman male for you.
They settle into their places at 6:00 pm sharp, which they figure is prime eating time. But after thirty minutes pass no one’s shown up for dinner. The front sign on FRESHMAN EATS just buzzes away, and before long Ashley, under the pines, is feeling it. Something about the sound and the deep red light reminds her of the family farm, and the slaughterhouse out back. By 6:40 her stomach is turning, and by 6:45 she’s done. For Jordan, in the back, what first smelled of some undetermined but real food now smells like her uncle’s mortuary. Not long after she’s retching, officially calling it quits at 6:50. And five minutes later George, in view of the main neon sign, feels a back tooth crack.
Can a neon sign do that?
Its buzzing break a tooth, and from across a street?
With tears running down his face George crawls out of the dumpsters and that’s the crew, all gone or departing, except Tommy. And Tommy wonders, is FRESHMAN EATS really that bad? He swears that tonight the air smells interesting, nay good, because for once the aroma is clear: that’s yeast and cinnamon, and icing, too. They never have sweet rolls in the dining hall, and with a lick of his lips Tommy decides to go in. Because dessert sounds perfect, if he doesn’t see what’s inside will they ever solve the mystery?
And it’s empty in FRESHMAN EATS, right?
So where’s the danger?
With a mix of curiosity and hunger, plus a bit of bravado thrown in for good measure, Tommy leaves his bushes.
He walks up to the restaurant’s revolving doors.
He hesitates just once, to look up at the neon, and Ashley, who has come back to check on Tommy, sees him from afar. She’ll later tell everyone that every detail of his face, bathed in the red light, was clear and visible except for his eyes. Those were hidden in shadow, like his body below. So the final image of Tommy in her mind is like that of a floating red skull, and Ashley swears that as he looked upwards the buzzing stopped. The sign shone steadily, and in fact grew in intensity until Tommy, like a churchgoer to communion, lowered his head and pushed forward, walking somberly into the crimson glare.
And that was the last they ever saw of him.
* * *
Senior year: Ashley and Jordan run inside a campus hotdog shop. They’ve driven in to get their graduation robes and honestly, they know the food won’t be the best. But they figure they’re in for a long night of celebrating and should get something into their stomachs first. Plus, George is off with his parents. He and Ashley are dating—they’ve been an item, actually, since Tommy left the picture. George is a vegetarian who doesn’t approve of meat. But what George doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
Plus, does a campus dog really count?
The girls think not.
They spend several minutes reading over their options. There are twenty types of “gourmet” hotdogs, though the pictures on the menu are all pretty similar. Then Ashley has a revelation—this is like their old joke, and it doesn’t matter which one she gets. Because, of course, all the dogs will taste the same. She tells this to Jordan, who agrees. So they pick two dogs at random, and later they’ll look at the menus and try and guess which ones were theirs.
They go to the back to wait, and now Jordan has a revelation: she hasn’t eaten on campus since freshman year. “Wow,” she says, “being here sure brings back memories.”
“Was this a hotdog shop then?” Ashley asks.
Jordan shrugs. “Maybe it served pitas?”
“Then it’s barely changed since!”
They laugh and laugh.
Then Jordan says, “Remember the Freshman Fifteen?”
“Thanks to too many places like this, I STILL know it well!” The response causes them to laugh even more.
Their server brings some plastic cutlery. “Your dogs will be right up,” he states. Then he shuffles off.
Once the server’s out of earshot, Ashley asks if Jordan thinks the server eats hotdogs every day. Jordan rolls her eyes, but yeah, her lack of response—and the fact that she turns to watch the man—shows that she thinks so. Across the room, he’s wiping a table, and his thick fingers look pretty similar to the plump pieces of meat, or “meat,” that he and his co-workers put inside buns all day. He makes small, wet circles as he works his way across the table and his dark eyes, staring out from an overstuffed brow, seem content. And Jordan remembers what they used to call the food service workers during their freshman year: zombies.
The pair are quiet until the server returns with their food. Something is bothering Jordan, and Ashley is about to ask what, but then a hotdog plops down on their table. Or at least that’s what she assumes is beneath the pile of gray relish.
“One for you,” the server hums.
“Thank you,” Ashley replies.
“And one for you.” Jordan’s hotdog is at least visible, though it’s thoroughly drenched in dayglow-yellow cheese.
Jordan expresses her appreciation, and the server asks if they need anything else. Both women respond in the negative.
“Well then, have a great day.”
And that does it. Now Jordan knows what’s been bothering her. It’s the voice, a voice she used to hear every day.
She leans over to Ashley once they’re alone. “Ash! Do you remember Tommy?” And Jordan doesn’t have to say another word. Ashley swings around to look to where the server is washing another table and she too is immediately certain.
Same curly black hair.
Same dark eyes.
He’s probably 150 pounds heavier, and he’s not even half as animated as before, but that’s Tommy. She’d know, too, because Ashley was the one who filed the missing person reports. She’s the one who talked to the police, who put up the signs, who tried for months to speak with the dean about the restaurant that, as crazy as it sounded, evidently swallowed Tommy up.
“What did they do to him?”
“What did WHO do to him?” Jordan asks.
“FRESHMAN EATS,” Ashley replies. And of course, it was FRESHMAN EATS. It was always FRESHMAN EATS.
For the rest of their meal they rehash, while stealing glances at the man who is could be Tommy, all those conversations from their first year of college. And they add to the theories. Perhaps FRESHMAN EATS wasn’t the place they thought it was. Malevolent, sure, but perhaps the restaurant that preyed on freshman didn’t eat them in the literal or science fiction sense. No, perhaps it just got them in the adult-sense. The real-world sense. THE CORPORATE SENSE. It enticed the curious, then gave them jobs and transformed their bodies not through magical means, but through heavily processed and ultimately irresistible free-meals-at-the-end-of-your-shift means. Then once they were hooked on all that fatty and preservative-rich goodness…?
“No one ever dreams of working in a campus dining hall,” Ashely says. “The weird building and sign were guerilla marketing at its finest!”
“But why accept the job?”
“Remember being desperate for money back then?”
“I’m desperate for money now!”
“Exactly. So maybe Tommy just needed the income.”
“And if the college knew FRESHMAN EATS was a recruitment tool, well that would explain the lack of concern.”
“Yes! They’re probably the ones who took down the posters.”
“And with no one ever coming out?”
“Probably just staying late with onboarding paperwork.”
“But why’d he cut us off? Why disappear?”
For this one Ashley doesn’t have a great answer. “Maybe he was embarrassed? Maybe after all the noise he made about FRESHMAN EATS, he didn’t want to tell us he became a sell-out?”
They finish eating in silence, pondering and playing out scenarios in their heads. The hotdogs are truly awful, but the women are excited to tell George and everyone else about their discovery, so it’s all been worth it. They clean off the table, and they paid when they came in, so there isn’t a need to talk to the server who would be Tommy. They’ll come back later, they decide, after they’ve figured out how to ask him tactfully if he’s their old friend, and after George and a few other people can give him a good look-over. So they walk to the door, though right as they open it and start outside would-be Tommy calls out.
“Hey. Hold up a second.”
Ashley and Jordan stop.
As would-be Tommy shuffles over, they recognize a familiar swinging of the arms, just at a much slower pace. And as would-be Tommy gets closer, Ashley and Jordan get excited.
HE’S GOING TO TELL US! they both think. HE’S GOING TO SAY “HI!” AND USE OUR NAMES AND HE’S GOING TO SAY “IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME!”
But when would-be Tommy stops in front of Ashley and Jordan he only hands Ashley a receipt. “I think you dropped this.”
And then he shuffles away.
“Huh,” says Ashley once he’s back to wiping tables.
“Yeah,” Jordan chimes in, “I really thought….”
With nothing else to say, they exit and walk towards the car. And Ashley starts to put the receipt in her pocket, but stops when she realizes that it’s slimy. She looks down.
Because there’s writing on the paper—on top of the characters that record her purchase there’s a message scrawled in ketchup. Now the question of whether or not that is Tommy in the shop is clear beyond all doubt, and yes, FRESHMAN EATS is an employment tool for food services. But what keeps the employees around? And why did Tommy have to communicate in secret? And how can Ashley and Jordan comply with his request? The message raises so many more questions than it answers, which is amazing since it’s really just two small words, smeared in ketchup on a slip of curled paper.