Today I’m sharing chapter two of my work in progress, Mile Marker 139:
You can read chapter one here: Chapter One
Chapter Two: Sarah Wilcox
“Four years and all that money, and this is what you’re doing with it?” Mrs. Wilcox asks for what feels like the hundredth time that week as Sarah readies for work.
“Sorry, Mom! Jeez, shove it down my throat, why don’t you?” Sarah grabs her to-go cup with her freshly brewed coffee in it, tosses on her coat, and moves toward the door.
“You’re not even going to have some breakfast?”
“You know all I need is coffee.” Sarah smirks.
“Hmph. That explains a lot.”
“Hey, it’s a job, isn’t it? Beats sitting around here tomorrow all day listening to Uncle Bob and Dad argue over politics. The election was a freaking year ago. Get over it already.”
“I still hate how every store is practically open on holidays nowadays,” Mrs. Wilcox grumbles.
“Oh, Mom.” Sarah sighs, taking pity on her mother, and kisses her cheek. “Maybe Brewing Up Some Happiness is overpriced to you. Maybe it’s got corporate America written all over it, but it’s paycheck. And I like their coffee. Lots of people like their coffee. It’s job stability while I try to figure out my future.”
Mrs. Wilcox half-smiles. “Get going, then, daughter. Will you be home in time for dinner?”
“I don’t know. First day on the job and all. I’m supposed to get off at 5:00, but we’ll see. It’s gonna be crazy today. Lots of travelers. Anyway, gotta go. Can’t be late!”
Sarah climbs into her Ford Focus and zooms through suburbia, ready to leave her vanilla, cookie-cutter neighborhood. Four years at Yale to pursue a bachelor’s degree in fashion design hadn’t exactly been what her parents had planned for their only daughter. The school wasn’t the problem. The degree was. For Sarah to attend her parents’ Alma Mater was an honor to the family and a testimony to their daughter’s success and hard work. Now, what her mother deemed a “useless degree” hangs framed in Sarah’s room. She has been back with her parents since May, hoping for a career to emerge. She’s tried submitting her resume for any job she thought might open the door to opportunity for her, but every door closed with signs that read “more experience needed,” “not the right fit,” “too young,” “need more education,” and “not looking for anyone at this time.”
So, it is to the new coffee shop at the nearby rest area that Sarah drives today. When she arrives, the lot is full. Employees are supposed to park as far away from the building as possible, giving access to the customers — at least that’s what her soon-to-be-boss told her during the interview last week. Sarah checks herself over in the rearview mirror. Makeup isn’t too heavy on her olive skin. Her dark hair and eyes are the beauty of her mother’s Italian side, but she’s got her father’s straight-toothed smile. Sarah’s a pretty girl. She would’ve done well in the fashion industry if only there weren’t a thousand other pretty girls just like her.
She flashes that brilliant smile at her reflection. “Here we go.” She exits the car.
If Sarah thinks her bubbly personality will rub off on her coworkers, she finds herself gravely mistaken as she spends the next five days training. That’s Thanksgiving break for many, but it’s no break for her. She’s deep in foaming milk and espresso for hours each day. She’s just trying to keep her head up enough to prevent drowning in coffee and the cynicism that’s caffeinated by too much of the on-the-go lifestyle of customers. She smiles at them, is the perfect picture of kindness, and works hard. But all they want is their coffee. To them, Sarah is just another faceless, nameless worker behind the counter, the clear separation between them. She serves a function and nothing else. Five days in, Sarah is exhausted in every sense of the word.
She started late in the day that Sunday. It’s now eleven at night, and business is finally slow. The janitor pushes his mop and bucket into the dining area and begins to work.
“What are you doing here tonight, Mike?” asks Janice, middle-aged mom who’s been working alongside Sarah every day.
The janitor looks up and smiles. “Ah, you know how it is this time of year, Janice. No day off, even for us veterans.”
“So, did you wind up seeing your son for Thanksgiving?”
“Nah.” Mike frowns. “Needed my sleep. Ain’t driving all the way to Detroit for that.”
Sarah thinks she gets why Mike doesn’t care for the holiday. “I didn’t wanna spend the time with my messed up family either.”
Janice glares at her, then looks at Mike. “That’s too bad. I wish I would’ve had more time with my family. The kids are growing up too fast, and ever since Ted ran off with that hussy with the boob job, I’ve had to rely on my parents too much.”
Mike moves his mop in circles for several seconds, considering his answer. “I wish my son relied on me more. Consider yourself lucky, Janice. Well, I’ve got to get this hellhole clean, well, as clean as I can, before the sun’s up. Good night.”
“Have a good one, Mike.” Janice begins to wipe down the cappuccino machine. The steam wands are especially filthy.
Sarah stands next to her, wraps a wet cloth around a wand. “What was that glare for?”
Janice sighs. She’s not normally one to glower, but Sarah’s sure something goes unspoken between Janice and Mike in front of others. “Mike’s been the janitor here for as long as I can remember. He’s a good guy, but don’t push him.”
“He seems lonely.”
“You’ve worked here for a few days, Sarah. You don’t know anything about him.”
“Okay, well, I just…”
“Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but you’re young. People like Mike, and even me, we’ve been through stuff, you know? You can’t pretend to understand something you’ve never lived.”
Sarah’s brow furrows. “I didn’t mean to assume anything.”
“Well, you did.” Janice finishes cleaning off the machine and tends to the next customer, leaving Sarah staring at the back of her.
Fifteen minutes later, Sarah finishes up her shift and clocks out without saying goodbye. She’s due back in a few hours, so she gets what little sleep she can. Mrs. Wilcox’s disapproval of Sarah’s job grows as her daughter bolts out the door Monday morning, too high on caffeine.
“They work you too much,” Mrs. Wilcox calls after her, but it’s too late. Sarah is in her car again, and minutes later, she’s on the turnpike, speeding at 85 miles per hour to work.
When Sarah arrives, it’s still dark. She sits in her car and stares into the blackness divided by a few patches of brightness from the parking lot light posts. Clustered next to the large building that houses the restaurants and restrooms are picnic tables on some grass. Sarah imagines families sitting there in the warmer weather and has a hard time picturing sunshine and summer in this moment. Just when she thinks no one in their right mind would sit outside at one of the picnic tables, she sees it: a form dimly lit by the closest light post.
Sarah leaves her car and begins walking toward the building, but as she does so, she can’t help glancing in the direction of that odd figure. It’s freezing. She can see her breath and wants nothing more than to get back inside, so who would stay out there?
Probably just someone taking a cigarette break, Sarah thinks. She enters and puts what she saw out of her mind…
…until she returns the next day for another early shift. Everything is the same: the cold, the darkness, and the figure in the same location. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Sarah is sure it’s the same person. Of course, maybe it really is just someone taking a cigarette break at the same time.
Sarah’s schedule falls into a routine of waking very early and going to work all week and into the next. Sundays are her days off and every other Wednesday. Two weeks in, Sarah can make you a half-caf, soy, extra hot, no whip, one extra shot mocha or any other drink you might want, but she’s no closer to understanding why the same person sits in the exact location every day she comes to work. Crazier still is that the person is there when she leaves in the early afternoon, by which time Sarah can see it’s most likely a woman. A woman with really short hair that Sarah doesn’t find flattering. Why isn’t she at least wearing a hat?
Sarah’s kept quiet at work ever since Janice told her not to talk about things she didn’t understand, but she can’t take the silence anymore. Well, it’s not really silent at work, not with the in and out of customers and the steaming of milk and the clang of metal.
During a slow moment, Sarah turns to Janice and asks, “Do you know anything about that woman outside?”
“You know, the one who sits at that picnic table every day. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen her.”
“Oh, her. She’s always there.”
“Does she ever stop in and get coffee?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Hmm.” Sarah isn’t convinced. It’s like this mystery woman is there but not. The workers know she exists, but they pretend she’s just part of the ornamentation and overlook her like a spot on the floor.
The questions start in Sarah’s mind, and she can’t shut them down. She needs to know more.
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