"A Room Where The Light Won’t Find You," 1st Prize Winner of the Filitsa Sofianou-Mullen Creative Writing Competition
We are publishing "A Room Where The Light Won’t Find You" by Ivanela Arabadzhieva ('20), the first-prize winner in the prose category of the second annual Filitsa Sofianou-Mullen Creative Writing Competition.
Olivia despises working the morning shift at the diner. That’s the one thought running through her mind as she wipes the counter with a damp cloth. The jukebox is playing a Beatles song, but the coffee grinder is loud enough to drown out John Lennon, and for once, she’s grateful for it – she’s despised The Beatles since her first boyfriend dumped her when she was sixteen, and had the audacity to ask for his Beatles CD a week later. The grandfather clock on the wall indicates that it’s nearly time for the morning crowd to start rolling in – grumpy men and women dressed sharp, all in a hurry to get to work, all in a hurry to get their coffee, all snappy, and rude, and cold, none of them sparing her more than a haughty glance. At the end of the day, she’s just a waitress in a diner. Sometimes it makes her blood boil, the fury quietly bubbling under her skin, crawling like a viper, buzzing like a hornet’s nest. Most of the time she lets it go.
Olivia much prefers the night shift, because she’s grown quite fond of the peculiar cast of characters that like to spend their nights at the diner – men and women that have become the constant speck of color in her dull, gray life. The homeless guy that lives on the corner of Fifth and Chatham, right next to Walgreens who sits on the counter and sips coffee, his moth-eaten dusty red beanie resting next to him; the old lady that lives upstairs, who always wears a pearl necklace and comes down after eight for fries and a milkshake; the bunch of widowers who play bridge at one of the window booths, and always tip her even though they only order coffee. Besides, when the night shift is over, she has plenty of time to get home and take a shower, and wash off the stench of grease and coffee that she can sometimes swear has seeped into her very bones.
It’s the stench of diner that she hates the most about her job, because even after she’s scrubbed herself clean for an hour (with cold water, because she has to pay the water bill, after all) she can still catch a whiff of bacon and burger and fries. She doesn’t hate being a waitress, she tells herself; it’s a job, like any other, and it helps pay the rent, and it helps reduce the phone calls home – but she still dreams of a time when she will have a job that doesn’t come with a stench, and when she’ll be able to take a hot shower, and when she won’t have to share an apartment with that weird girl she barely knows --
She can tell Pauline from the night shift has been slacking all night – there’s a stack of dishes in the sink, and the booth by the door hasn’t been wiped (crumbs, and cup ring marks, and a ketchup stain), and the stocking hasn’t been done (the empty spots gape like missing teeth on the shelves) – and Olivia despises working the morning shift because she always has to pick up other people’s messes from the night before, on top of her list of morning duties. She mops the checkered tile floor, but her mind’s not in it. She’ll have to rush through traffic after her shift; she has a calculus midterm to tackle in the afternoon, and then her regular night shift since she’s covering this morning for Charlie (Olivia gets those stupid butterflies in her stomach every time she gets a text from Charlie, even if it’s always a plea for her to cover his shift). She leans on the mop, and wishes she’d gotten more than four hours of sleep last night. She also wishes stupid Charlie with his stupid smile would give her the time of day.
It’s been raining and the large windows are rain-splattered, but she can still see through them people hurrying down the avenue on their commute – a tall man with a bushy moustache and a copy of The Wall Street Journal carrying a burgundy leather briefcase and a paper cup from Starbucks pauses to take a sip from his drink and glance at his watch; an elderly lady with a headscarf and a camel coat is swinging around what looks like a fisherman’s net full of tinned cat food and a single red apple; an Indian man is unlocking the delicatessen across the street. There’s too much life, and too much color, and too much noise during the morning shift. Olivia glares at the rain – it only means a muddy floor that will have to be frequently mopped, and customers that have only ducked in to hide from the rain, but will still take up a table, and will still order a coffee, and then not tip her, because that’s just what people do.
She can tell, from the racket in the kitchen, that the cook has arrived, and has started prepping for the day. Olivia can smell the grease sizzling in the pan, and she thinks she would maybe get a text back from Charlie if she didn’t smell like burnt bacon all the time (even though that’s what Charlie smells like, too).
When the clock strikes six, she unlocks the door, then casually slides behind the counter to brew a carafe of decaf. Amidst the sounds of brewing coffee and frying eggs, and John Lennon claiming that he feels fine, the first string of customers comes in. The old TV is playing the news channel on mute, and she can see, in the corner of her eye, the President foaming at the mouth over something or other, and an aide covering his face up in mild shame at whatever the President has said. It’s a day like any other, and soon enough the place is humming with the sounds of people, and the sounds of kitchen, and the sounds of Bowie, when a group of art kids stop by on their way to school.
She’s learnt to distance herself from it; it’s like she’s watching a movie instead of living her life. Around eleven, she gets to take her break, and she stands under the drizzling rain, in her yellow diner waitress uniform, and sobs quietly by the dumpster. She has to deal with disproportionately bitchy people when it’s raining out; and rent is due tomorrow; and the tip jar is empty; and Charlie has left her on “Read”; and her college advisor wants to talk to her, which means she’s on her way to failing another class because of poor attendance. She can hear sirens in the distance – a police car, an ambulance, a fire truck; but she’s so used to the sounds of the city it doesn’t really register with her. When she punches back in after her break, her moss green eyes are brimming with tears, and she almost lashes out at her first customer because she’s having such a shitty, shitty day.
The customer is a teenager in a black hoodie – a bad case of acne, pale, the shadow of a moustache above his chapped thin lips, mousey eyes wide with teenage anxiety. He’s shaking, a thin coat of beaded sweat covering his forehead, and when he reaches out to get his change back, his unsteady hand sends the nickels flying all the way across the diner. Olivia bites the inside of her cheek and gives him her plastic customer service smile. The kid apologizes in a small hollow voice, picks the coins up and retreats to a stool at the far end of the counter.
Olivia enjoys the hour between eleven and noon; it’s a sweet few moments of quiet in between the breakfast and lunch rushes, and she absently wipes the handle of the carafe as she’s waiting for a fresh pot of coffee to brew. It’s like time has stopped. The cook is washing dishes in the kitchen and humming off-key, and cashier #2 (a skinny blonde with a chipped tooth and too much jewelry) is flirting with a construction guy in a paint-stained brown T-shirt and a reflective vest that’s a little too loose on him. Someone’s put Madonna on the jukebox, and she’s inviting people to get into the groove. An exceptionally tall brunette in ripped jeans, Dr. Martens boots, and an ankle-length green coat approaches the jukebox with a spring in her step, and is then disappointed to discover it only contains a string of 80s hits. The brunette switches to a Prince song. An elderly woman in a floral skirt is sipping her coffee in a chair by the window. Her fingers are gripping the polka-dot-covered mug, much like the claws of a hawk. The rain is incessantly tapping at the windows like an impatient child.
Olivia glances at her phone (a text from her roommate to “pleas bye milk”; a text from her sister to call her back “this millennium please”; a text from Charlie that she’ll never get to read), then notices that the teenager in the hoodie is looking up at her with bloodshot eyes. He hasn’t touched his grilled cheese, but she sees his mug is empty and walks over to give him a refill of fragrant, steaming hot black coffee. She remembers when she was his age, and mad at the world, and gives him one of her special crooked smiles – eyes lit up, one corner of her mouth turned up, and he shoots her a glare. His face is unnaturally pale now, eyes wide and wild, and Olivia is about to ask him if he’s okay.
The lady in the floral skirt suddenly gasps audibly – loud enough over the George Michael on the jukebox; over the clatter from the kitchen when the cook drops a pan; over the cook’s loud Spanish cursing; over the construction worker’s coarse laugh; over the tap-tap-tap of the rain on the glass; over the noisy coffee grinder. The teenager in the hoodie tenses up, his spine as straight as an arrow, and Olivia looks up, face frozen in her crooked smile. It takes a second (or a minute, or an hour, or a decade) for her to realize the lady’s looking at the TV screen, which is flashing images of the high school two blocks away. The teenager glances at the TV over his shoulder.
Ambulances. Police officers. A devastated girl with box braids and a blood-splattered yellow sweater, the crimson in stark contrast with her ghostly white face. A group of kids with horror-stricken faces, clinging tight to each other. The words “exclusive” and “shooter” and “at large” flashing across the screen, their faces wet with tears. A woman, perhaps a teacher, with horn-rimmed glasses askew, and mascara streaming down her cheeks. Olivia can vaguely hear the sirens in the background. A vaguely familiar face flashing across the screen – black curls, mousey eyes, the whisper of a moustache. It takes a second (or a minute, or an hour, or a decade) for it to click, and then Olivia is pressing the tips of her fingers to her lips, the breath trapped in her chest like a bird that’s rapidly fluttering its wings in distress. She lets out a choked sound, her hand gripping the counter.
The teenager still hasn’t touched his grilled cheese. Instead, he’s holding a Glock 19, as black as the leather jacket Charlie let Olivia borrow one night when they both worked the night shift and she was cold; as stiff as her sister’s hug the last time she saw her several Christmases ago; as shiny as the future she imagines for herself when she works a double shift and gets home too tired to even take her uniform off. The brunette in the green coat is standing by the jukebox, frozen still with a quarter in her slender fingers.
“Welcome to your life… There’s no turning back…” booms from the jukebox.
Olivia takes a step back, still clutching at the counter. Stupidly, she thinks about her calculus midterm, and how she never got to read Charlie’s text, and how her roommate never buys the goddamn milk herself. She hears the gunshot first. It takes a second (or a minute, or an hour, or a decade) for her to feel the pain, blooming like a flower in the middle of her chest.
Olivia despises working the morning shift at the diner.