By Andrew James Rush
The train is fuzzy. The people in the train are fuzzy. The train rattles your skull in the acrid beams of sun that poke you through the window and peel the last remnants of the night from the flesh of your eyeballs. Again. You're on the train again. You're in the sweat and stink again. You're trying to remember if you'd slept. Had you slept? Or had you just started off for work in a blackout? Why couldn’t you just call out sick like a normal person? You check your phone. The spiderweb of cracks catches on the lines of your thumbprint as you swipe it open, and somehow this makes your stomach turn. Fucking Royal Gate vodka. Why’d it have to be so cheap?
It’s almost 1 PM already. If you call in now it’ll look like you just woke up. The train stops and your head lurches forward, smearing greasy sweat on the window. The fear grabs you in a moment of vertigo.
You have to put more booze in you before your shift starts. Another seizure in the pit and they’ll never let you come back. Jamie always freaks out about that stuff. Thinks you’ll fall into the oven or split your skull open in front of the customers. Maybe he’s right. Anyway, it’s an ugly scene, and you want to avoid it. Do you have any cash?
You know before you check. You never have any cash, unless it’s payday. But you stick your hands in your pockets and feel around like you're trying to convince yourself that something impossible could happen. Wait. What the fuck is that? Feels like paper. Is it money?
You pull out a crumpled piece of construction paper with your handwriting on it and smooth it out.
Everything can change. You are the …
The letters are all uneven and it just trails off at the end. The last e just has a long tail that drools down the paper like it nodded off. You don’t remember writing it. You feel sick and ashamed. What an idiot you are sometimes. You stuff the paper back in your pocket and hear a few threads break from the force, like you can’t shove it deep enough down there. Your forehead is hot, and you find yourself trying to swallow your spit, but it feels like you're going to choke on it and your heart races like you're drowning.
There’s gonna be a seizure for sure if you can’t get a pint.
When you walk into Sam’s, Gus is behind the register and he’s talking to the old lady who lives next to the Pizza Joint. She’s telling him some kind of story, and her face, and everything about her, makes you want to hit her. You don’t even know what it is. She’s so fucking normal and happy, buying bananas and oats and talking about the neighborhood and you hate her.
You wander through the aisles like you don’t know what you want, and when she finally sounds like she’s ending her story, you grab one of the giant energy drinks out of the cold case. This one says it has creatine in it so you can work out longer and harder. You don’t give a shit about that. It’s enormous and loaded with caffeine.
You walk to the counter as the old lady grabs her things, and when she turns toward you, she gives you a toothy smile that makes you think of a cat smiling at a mouse. But you try to smile back. You need to be as normal and casual as possible.
“Jerry,” Gus says matter of factly, like it was a whole sentence.
“Hi, Gus,” you answer. “Beautiful day.”
Gus points at your energy drink, and His Greek accent barely comes out in the seriousness of his tone. “You owe me for six of those already.”
Shit. He’s giving you guff about the energy drink. You haven’t even asked for the pint yet.
“Yeah, I know, Gus. Tomorrow’s payday, so…”
“Tomorrow is Tuesday. Jamie pays you on Friday.”
“C’mon, Gus,” you plea. “I always pay you back. Just this one more.”
“I know you pay me.” Gus’s Greek accent suddenly gets a little thicker. “It’s not about that, Jerry. It’s just, it’s every day with this, and I feel like I’m not doing a good thing for you.”
“I appreciate what you’re saying,” you start.
“Jerry, it’s not good, how you’re living. You worry me.”
Still no mention of the pint. You fucking need the pint.
“You’re right,” you concede. “I need to figure some shit out. It’s just been a rough month, you know, my…” you scan your memory for what exactly it is about this month that’s been hard, and absolutely nothing comes to mind. “My mom died last December, so it’s just, this time of year, you know, it…”
You trail off as Gus softens visibly. He folds his hands and presses them to his chest and his eyes go puppy dog. Pangs of guilt shoot through your ravaged nervous system and you mentally catalog that from now on your mother died in December. Gus turns to the wall of bottles behind him, and when he turns back, he holds a bottle out toward you. It’s a pint of Evan Williams. This is what you get when you actually have a few bucks.
“It’s a Christmas present. No need to pay me back for this one. Or the Gogo Juice.” He is looking at you like a father looks at a son. “Try to pull it together, though, okay?”
“Thanks, Gus.” You practically shout it. “I will pay you back for it, though, I’m adding it to what I owe you.” You pretend for a moment that you’ve actually been keeping a running tally of what you owe, but the truth is that Gus could tell you whatever he wanted to tell you and you’d have no choice but to pay it.
“Merry Christmas, Jerry.”
“Merry Christmas, Gus.”
In the alley behind the Pizza Joint, you unscrew the top of the whiskey and almost drop it with your shaking hands. Four quick glugs takes it down past the halfway point, and as you feel your gut tighten, you put down two more gulps for good measure. You can feel warmth opening up your veins as the life flows back into your body, but the center of your belly feels like you’ve been punched, and you let out a little groan. Still, there’s more work to do here, so you gather your focus and open the Gogo Juice, chugging down several acidic gulps that leave a chalky sweetness on the back of your tongue. Now you pour the rest of the whiskey, just about a quarter of the pint, into the can and toss the empty bottle into the dumpster.
Now you can face the day. You check your phone. 1:35. You’re late.
Jamie gives you a stern look when you walk through the door, but the restaurant is mostly empty. Just Perpetual Rizz in his seat at the end of the bar where he always is, and one family near the back. Still, Jamie looks annoyed, until finally he picks up his pizza peel and turns away from you to launch a pie into the oven.
“Sorry, Jamie,” you call out over the counter. “The train was late. I’m clocking in right now.” You scurry to the terminal in the back next to the phone and put your employee number in with the touch screen. You suck down a little more of the noxious cocktail and grab an apron from the hooks on the wall.
Now on the other side of the counter with Jamie, you put on a good face and try to seem happy to be there.
“Alright, here we go,” you enthuse.
“You’re late, Jerry.”
“It’s just five minutes.” You can see that this isn’t the right tactic. “I’m sorry. The train was late.”
“Jerry. The train goes right in front of the restaurant. I saw it more than ten minutes ago.”
“Yeah.” You feel frozen. “But I had to get an, uh…”
“I don’t care.” Jamie puts his hands on his hips and gives you a long, silent look. A ticket comes screaming out of the printer, and he grabs it and stuffs it into the ticket slot on the wall before grabbing a ball of dough out of the low-boy at his knees. As he tosses it down onto his peel, his face softens a little. “Look, Jerry, you’re a good guy. You show up every day. Almost every day. You usually do your job. But it’s just five minutes here, twenty there, and then every once in a while, you don’t show up at all. And I don’t know if today is a five minute day, or a twenty minute day, or a ‘you forgot to wake up’ day.”
Nervously, you open the oven. One of the pizzas looks done, so you grab a metal peel and carefully scoop it out. The motion feels fluid and familiar, and it lands on the waiting metal tray perfectly.
Jamie lets out a tense laugh. “It just stresses me out, Jerry.”
“I’m sorry,” you say. And you mean it. You look at the can of Gogo Juice on the shelf above the pizza assembly station. Things are getting out of hand. You make a quick promise to yourself that you won’t drink any more today, once that’s gone. You feel pretty confident that you won’t have a seizure now. You just need to wean yourself down, and then you’ll take a few days, maybe a few weeks, from drinking entirely. You think about getting some weed. But you don’t have money.
And then you think about Alise at the bar, and how she always lets you rack up a big tab no matter how broke you are, and you know you’re lying to yourself. That’s where you’ll go, right after work. It’s okay. It’s normal. All the other closers will be going there, too.
“Hey. You okay?” Jamie is looking you in the eye. You must have been spacing out.
“Yeah, fine. I’m fine. What’s the plan today?” You take a drink of your battery acid.
“Dude. I just told you.” Jamie’s eyes look crooked. “Pull that Meatsa Pie, you’re burning it.”
You open the oven, and sure enough, the meat covered pizza is getting dark around the edges. You slip your peel under it and start to pull it out, but it slips and falls back onto the stone deck of the oven with a loud clap.
“It’s okay, it looks fine.”
It does look okay. You give it another go and get it out successfully, but you fumble with the boxes trying to get it into the right one. Miraculously it makes it intact.
Jamie puts a hand on your shoulder. “Look, if it’s gonna help you get through the day, then go pour yourself a beer, okay. But I need you today, whatever it’s gonna take.”
This is a trick. Or even if it isn’t, you don’t want Jamie to know how bad your situation really is.
“No, I’m okay.”
Jamie’s brow narrows and he focuses on your eyes.
“Really,” you reassure him. “I’m okay.”
“Alright,” he lets go of your shoulder and starts to undo his apron. “Well, the station is yours until 3 o’clock. But I’ve got a new guy coming in, and I want to train him on pizzas, so I’ll need you on the fry station.”
He called it the fry station, but you know that the station should really be called the “everything that isn’t pizza” station. It’s wings and salads and pastas and desserts and yes, fries, too.
“Cool, you got it,” you say with as much enthusiasm as you can muster. But it’s not cool. It’s not cool at all. That station is the bane of your existence. It’s a non-stop, stress induced heart attack. Every time you work that station, you end up in the weeds for hours on end. It’s literal hell.
Maybe you should have taken him up on that beer. A new ticket screams out of the printer, and as you let it feed into your open hand, somewhere inside you there’s another you that’s shaking the bars of its cell, crying and wailing for things to just be different. You grab the can of fizzy formaldehyde and toss back a couple of gulps to shut him up. That attitude isn’t helping. Nothing will ever change.
It’s going to be a long, long night.
Perpetual Rizz always has to talk to you during the rush. And it’s always about basketball. He never seems to grasp that you don’t give a shit about basketball, or that this giant wall of tickets in front of you is taking up way more of your mental space than anything he’s saying. So you just ignore him and shout “yeah!” behind you every few minutes.
The green mutagen is long gone now. You’re not going to have a seizure, probably, but your whole body is tense. It feels like you’re spending more time plucking tickets off of the printer and organizing them than you are making any actual food. The bartender and half the servers are swarming around you asking where this salad is and where these wings are, and every time you stop to look for their ticket, you’re getting more behind on all the other ones.
“Drop these wings, then toast the garlic bread, drop the pasta, assemble these six salads, pull the wings, pull the garlic bread, pull the pasta.” You say it out loud and grab the wings.
“Jerry, I’m still waiting on the sundae for table six.” It’s Alan. Fuck you, Alan.
“Coming up, Alan.” You’re sweating. Can the customers see you sweating? Are you sweating in their food?
“But the thing is, Jerry, Lebron doesn’t give a fuck, you know what I mean?” Perpetual Rizz is leaning so far across the bar his ass isn’t even in his seat. “Lebron. Don’t. Give. A. Fuck! Right, man?!”
“Yeah, Rizz! You know it!” you shout, but you really just want to grab his puffy red face and put it right into the fryer.
“Jerry! Where the fuck is that sundae?!”
“Alan, goddamn it, just…” It isn’t Alan. It’s Lyndon.
“Table two, Jerry! It’s been forty fucking minutes!”
“Right, right. Next up, promise.”
The bars are rattling so hard inside you that you feel like you’re going to explode. You can see your heartbeat. The whole restaurant is throbbing. Jesus fucking Christ. You just want everything to be different. Every single thing. You are fighting with a powerful urge to curl up on the floor behind the bar and sob.
You look at Rizz with his big dumb smile, dumping another IPA into his face, and everything freezes in place as the blackness of night behind him explodes into intense white, like noon daylight on a clear, sunny day. The whiteness pulses brighter and brighter, and the air comes alive like there’s a current of electricity running through it. A thrumming vibration lower than sound courses through your body, and instantly the light goes out, leaving nothing but blackness and quiet all around you. Not a speck of light. Not a sound. You feel as if you’re floating in the vacuum of space.
“Jesus,” Rizz’s voice whispers through the stillness. “What the fuck was…”
You feel a rush of air all around you as bits of broken glass whip across your body like sand in a storm. You feel your backside hit the rubber matt underneath you, and plates and glasses shatter on the floor next to your head. In the aftermath, there is a roar of people screaming, thunderous commotion of tables scuttling on the floor and feet stomping, and all kinds of unidentifiable chaos. Cars crashing into buildings in the distance.
“Okay, everybody, just stay calm.” Jamie’s voice calls out from somewhere behind you. “Is anybody hurt?”
Your eyes begin to adjust to the darkness as you stand again, even as the sound of commotion fades into a kind of dull static. The wall of windows opposite the bar, now completely devoid of glass, looks out onto 46th Avenue, which is darker and more still than any street in San Francisco has been at any time in your memory. But the blackness outside the restaurant is different from the blackness inside. There is a blueness to it, an artificial coolness, and as your eyes adjust, it becomes more pronounced. Yes, there is a faint blue glow out there, and you can make out the shapes of the cars parked along the street.
Absently, almost without thinking, you make your way out from behind the bar. Children in the far tables near the back are crying. Perpetual Rizz is shouting about his phone not working. Jamie is walking from table to table speaking in soothing tones, trying to assure everyone, but no one more than himself, that things are going to be okay. As you pass through the opening that leads from the bar into the dining area, your elbow bumps a bottle that somehow hasn’t fallen over, and instinctively you grab it. It’s a full bottle of wine, unopened. You continue around the bar to the windows, and step over the short wall, through the missing window pane, and into the street.
Now, standing in the intersection of Noriega, you can hear pandemonium coming from all directions. Even the beach, only a few blocks away, sounds as if it were full of panicking people. But these sounds of chaos are not what holds your attention.
The sky above you swims with red and blue bands of glowing light. The beauty of it takes your breath away. Ribbons of ruby and azure wave and ebb against the backdrop of stars like something from a lucid dream, or a particularly good acid trip. You recognize that what you are seeing is the aurora borealis, although you’ve never seen it in person before. Only photos and videos. But you are sure. This is what you are seeing.
Somewhere in your mind, you are vaguely aware that what usually causes these lights has something to do with the Earth’s magnetic field reacting to some kind of radiation. But beyond this vague fact, you know nothing about the phenomenon you are witnessing, least of all why it is happening now, above the city, where it has never been known to happen before.
As you watch the lights above you, you are brought back to reality by the commotion behind you growing more intense. People are spilling out of the restaurant now, angrily demanding answers from each other. Jamie is shouting now, asking if anyone has a working phone. You look at the bottle in your hand. It’s corked. You would need a corkscrew. It’s not the most difficult problem to solve, but suddenly, the bottle seems to have fewer answers than it did when you picked it up. It just feels heavy. Pointless. You open your fist and let the neck slip through it, and it shatters on the ground at your feet, enveloping you with its acidic smell. The electricity in the air seems to grab the hairs of your flesh, lighting them up, making goose pimples that brush against the fabric of your clothing as it gently ripples in the wind.
You look to the sky again and see three pinpoints of light in a triangle, off to the east, near Sutro Tower. They spin evenly in place, and then zip across the horizon, disappearing behind the restaurant.
You turn and take a step. And then another. And without a thought, you find yourself walking toward the beach, right down the middle of Noriega Street. Ahead, to your right, there is a baby blue Jeep that has smashed its front end through the windows of Sam’s. Gus is there. He’s trying to open the driver’s side door, and he’s shouting in Greek, hysterical. You turn away when he gets the door open, but you’re not quick enough to avoid seeing the body fall limp, dangling out onto the sidewalk.
As you approach the Great Highway that runs along the coast and separates the beach from the streets of the city, you begin to understand why there is so much commotion coming from that direction. Cars are scattered helter-skelter across the stretch of pavement, each of them having come to a stop without power steering or brakes. Some are wrecked into each other, or stuck in a sand dune. And the people that were once in these vehicles are running erratically from vehicle to vehicle, shouting. Demanding explanations.
And there are others, screaming in terror.
The backdrop to all this chaos should be the gentle and perpetual, timeless pulse of the ocean, but instead, there is that sub-audible thrumming, now louder than it’s been since you left the restaurant. You feel it all around you, above you, inside you. Growing louder.
Some primal instinct grabs your spine, and you whip your body around to look behind you. There is a shape there, only feet away, that is vaguely human. But it is not made of anything physical. It shimmers the way those lights in the sky shimmer, a distortion of the images behind it; but it has no substance of itself, save for two giant eyes like black holes.
It reaches a warbling arm out toward you, and you turn again and run. It is a mindless, animal run through the red and blue darkness. No thought or awareness of where you are going. Only adrenaline, and terror, and the thundering pulse of your heart against that ever present thrum. A screaming, empty run through the nothing until your feet stick in the wet sand, and you fall, tumbling, wet, and cold. You lift your face and see the swirling and waving ribbons of blue and red shimmering in the sky, reflected against the glassy, dead-still surface of the Pacific Ocean.
Warm hands grab your limbs and drag you back onto the sand. Empty, black sets of eyes peer into yours, and many fantom hands grab and poke at your chest and limbs. Strange sounds that are not voices carry in the air, and the eyes look to each other, and to you, and to each other again. Slowly, the sounds begin to resemble human voices, and one rises above the others, now clear, speaking English.
“This is the one.”
“Yep. Same one,” another agrees.
You try to ask what the voices mean, but the many hands are now pressing hard against your chest, and you are having difficulty breathing. The air around you lights up, a bright white, and the shapes now take more solid form, glowing even brighter against the whiteness. One of them looks directly at you with its black hole eyes.
“Yes,” it says in a warm voice. “He’s the same one.”
The shapes all lean in, all sets of eyes piercing through you, and they all press firmly on your chest. It hurts. The pain is more intense than anything you’ve ever felt, and the thrumming gets louder. The white light gets brighter. The black eyes get larger. And it all comes to a roaring, hot, angry pain behind your eyes.
“Poor kid. I don’t think he’s gonna make it this time.”