Playing Favorites – Chapter 4


Christopher

I like the morning shift. It’s rarely the most busy part of the day, and customers tend not to bother with small talk before they have their dose of caffeine; even bad customers are less abusive. Zula is frequently working this shift as well, that’s certainly a plus.

Zula is one of the two managers of the Toulouse’s in which I work, and my favorite coworker. She’s the one who trained me during my first weeks here, because she’s been here the longest -and, despite the turnover, that means something. She’s kind, patient, hard-working, and probably the only employee who knows how to make all of the specialty drinks without looking them up in the recipe book. The fact that she knows how to deal with asshole customers (usually by killing them with kindness) makes her particularly popular with the younger employees.

“Chris, one latte macchiato and one caramel toffee macchiato, please,” she says.

“You got it.”

As I get started on the drinks, she turns back to ring up the customers, her heels clicking on the tiled floor as she does. I’ve always been low-key impressed by how she can walk around in those things. Zula is rather on the thick side, with big thighs and a big butt which get commented on by customers at least once a shift. That’s one other thing I like about her: she doesn’t shy away from the fact that she is a plus-size, and is actually proud of it. Although you had better not call her a fatass…

Between her size and some of her traits -notably her large nose and her surprising resistance to hot liquids-, rumor has it that she’s got an Orc or two in her family tree.

“There you go,” I say, putting the two drinks on a tray and sliding them to her.

“Thank you! Can you take over the register for a few minutes? I have to start on the next batch of croissants.”

“No problem.”

She logs out of the POS tablet, allowing me to take over. I look at the time as my account shows up; my shift is nearly over. That’s good, because the activity is winding down, and I’m getting bored. Not to mention, I’ve got another group study session right before classes start, and I’d also like to have eaten by then.

“Welcome to Toulouse’s. What would you like to-”

The corporate greeting dies on my lips as my eyes shoot up to my first customer, who looks just about as happy to see me as I am to see her.

“Jacinda,” I mutter.

“You work here?” she says, her jaw tensing up.

“No, I’m just wearing the uniform to rob the place,” I say, the snarky reply escaping my mouth before I can catch it.

She makes a tutting noise between her fangs.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“Is that how you talk to your customers?”

Oh, the things I could retort to that if my paycheck didn’t depend on it. I swallow as much of my frustration as I can and try again:

“What would you like to order?”

“What are your specials today?”

Is she for real?

“They’re on the board,” I say, pointing my thumb to the right side of the counter.

She gives the board a quick glance, then asks:

“Are you having a special on croissants?”

“If it’s not on the board, then no,” I say, trying my damndest not to sound impatient.

“Do you do student discounts?”

Fuck’s sake.

“This place is right by campus, so obviously yes, we do student discounts.”

“Well, excuse me for making sure.”

She looks at the menu boards above me, crossing her paws behind her head and taking her sweet time to decide. Unfortunately, there are no customers waiting after her, so I can’t tell her to hurry up.

“I’ll have a green tea,” she says.

“What size?”

“What sizes do you have?”

“It’s on the board,” I say. Don’t let her get to you, don’t let her get to you…

She looks again, and it couldn’t be more obvious she’s trying to rile me up, because there’s no damn way it can take her one freaking minute to decide.

“A large.”

“A large green tea. Any sugar or milk?”

“Hmm…”

More pondering.

“No.”

“Would you like anything else with that?” 

Say no. Please.

“Let me think about it for a second.”

Ugh.

“Hmmm….”

“Okay, is this payback?” I ask bluntly.

“Excuse you?”

“For the other time?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she says with a scowl that clearly indicates otherwise.

“Sure you don’t.”

“Just get me my green tea. And… I think… I’ll take two croissants.”

“What. Kind. Of. Croissants.”

She taps her lower lip, her scowl turning into a smirk, and hums loudly. As aggravated as that makes me, I can’t help but look at that lip and think about biting it until she moans. Or just nibbling on it a little. Two minutes pass, which is apparently all the time my id had left before it decides to take over.

“For crying out loud! Plain, butter, chocolate?”

“Christopher!”

I freeze. Of course this is the moment Zula chose to come from the kitchen, carrying a large plate of baked goods. She puts it down, then crosses her arms and stares me down.

“Go to the back,” she says. “I’ll handle this.”

“I…”

“We’ll talk about this in a moment.”

Deep breaths, deep breaths. I walk to the back, making sure not to look at Jacinda as I do, because I know that if she’s smiling about this, I’m going to blow up.

“I’m sorry about this,” I hear Zula say before I shut the door. “Would you like a butter croissant on the house? Fresh from the oven.”

Oh, great, and she gets free stuff, too.

Fuming, I take off my apron; my shift ends in a few minutes, and I haven’t taken my break yet. I go to the manager’s office, which is also sort of the employees’ break room. It’s barely bigger than my dorm room, and most of the space is occupied by a desk and an old couch. I grab my smartphone, open the college app, and try once again to distract myself with schoolwork. Sadly, being pissed off doesn’t help with my math skills. Eventually, I give up, and lie down on the couch, staring at the ceiling until Zula comes in.

“What happened out there?” she asks.

“I’m sorry,” I say, rubbing my forehead.

“This is the first time I hear you speak to a customer like that.”

“She… She just pissed me off. I’m really sorry, Zula.”

“Do you know her?”

“Yeah, we go to the same college.”

“Is she your ex-girlfriend or something?”

“What? No!” I say.

She sighs, lifting her large shoulders.

“Well, she didn’t want to file a complaint, so I’m only giving you a verbal warning this time. I know that some customers can be difficult, but it’s on you to remain calm and professional so long as they’re not actually abusive.”

“I get it. Again, I’m sorry.”

Zula shakes her head.

“Have you clocked out yet? Also, I had to change the schedule because Tory quit. Do you know when your next shift is?”

“Yes. And yes. See you next Monday.”

I stand up and walk to the door, but stop before I open it.

“She didn’t want to file a complaint?”

“No. She didn’t even want the free croissant I offered.”

Huh. Good to know she’s not a complete bitch. But I’m still not letting her off the hook.

After going home for a quick shower and a bite to eat, I pull up my smartphone. Hayley has sent another group text, asking if we’re all available for another study session tonight. I’m really not looking forward to meeting with Jacinda again, especially so soon, but I’m not going to skip on my duties as a project partner. With a sigh, I text back that I’ll be available this evening after five.

I grab my backpack and leave my room, heading to my next class -math. My phone buzzes again as I cross the foyer. It’s a call, once again from an unknown number. Hmph. Filter it. I’ve already had enough trouble from unknown numbers. Which reminds me I still have Jacinda’s number saved. I have yet to block her. You know, since she’s part of my group project. Heck, if I was petty, I’d use it to… But I’m not. I’m not petty. So I’m not going to do that.

 

Christopher: Thanks for getting me in trouble with my manager, Karen. Enjoy your tea.

 

Right, well… I’m having a bad day.

My phone rings again. Another call, same number. I filter it again, and leave the dorm. Barely a minute goes by before the same number calls again. Someone else probably would have picked up, in case this might be important. But that’s a risk I refuse to take. I frown when a third call comes in just as I make it to my math class.

“Phones off, please,” Mr Ivanov, the teacher, says.

“Sorry, sir.”

I turn off the offending device, and drop it down my backpack as I fish out my laptop. The class begins. In spite of my best efforts -well, my second-best efforts-, I once again can’t manage to engage with the subject. It seems math will continue to be my weakness, even in college. Fortunately, it’s a weakness I can overcome by working hard. Working extra hard, actually. 

Ergh. At least Jacinda isn’t in this class.

To top it off, Mr Ivanov gives us some homework at the end of class. Great. More algebra. The best way to end the day. Given that it’s due for next week, I decide that I’ll work on it during the weekend. I’m not usually one to procrastinate, but I doubt I’ll be in any mood to work this evening.

The teacher gives us some recommendations as the class begins to leave, but I can’t hear his low, raspy voice over the noise of dozens of chairs scraping the floor. A surprise springs at me as I turn my phone back on. The same unknown number has called me again, seventeen times. It also sent a series of texts. I feel as if an invisible hand encroaches on my throat as I read them.

 

Unknown: I know this is your number

Unknown: I want my money

Unknown: Pick up the damn phone

Unknown: YOU FUCKING THIEF

Unknown: PICK UP THE PHONE

 

Horror begins to fill my brain, overwhelming my rational mind and shutting my body down. My lungs are burning as I take smaller and quicker breaths, as if there was suddenly no more air around me. Spasms descend along my legs; before I realize, they can no longer support me, and I crash against a door. I pull on the rubber band around my wrist, but it’s not enough.

It’s him. It’s him. It has to be him.

No. I can’t do this. I can’t lose it. No. Not again. Breathe, breathe. Think of something else. Focus. Ground yourself. Come on. Look around. What do you see?

White ceiling. Green wall. White floor. White sink. Red and black shoes. Pink toilet paper.

Okay. Okay.

As I regain my grasp on reality, I notice I’m in a stall in the bathroom -the male bathroom, thankfully. I must have rushed there when… when it was happening. I stumble to one of the sinks, and splash some cold water on my face. Then, I splash some more. And a third time. The cold helps me focus on the present, on the now.

So what do I do now? I need to think.

Right. First of all, block the number, obviously, like I should have done in the first fucking place. Ah, crap. I’ve already erased the texts, and even my call history. I don’t even remember doing that… All right, well, that’s fine. Second of all… Let’s see… Yes, I have to contact my phone provider and get a new number. I open the relevant app and send a request. An automated response informs me that my number will be changed within 72 hours. That will have to do. I turn my phone off again.

My heart rate feels normal again when I leave the bathroom, although one last look in the mirror above the sink tells me I’m still pale. Thank God I don’t have any classes left today. I do have the group project meeting, but it should be fine if I take it easy.

Hayley greets me with a large smile and a wave when I find her on the second floor of the library. She’s wearing a light blue sundress with white tennis shoes and white socks; a dark blue cardigan lies on the back of her seat.

“Good thing you’re here,” she says, with a nervous giggle. “I’m not very organized when it comes to these things. I don’t even know where to start! Would you mind helping?”

She gestures at the chair to her left.

“Sure, no problem,” I say, sitting down. “Is Jacinda here yet?”

“She just sent us a text saying she’ll be running late.”

“Ah. Okay.”

“Guess it’s just the two of us for now.” She smiles. “Shall we get started?”

“Absolutely.”

We start working on our chapter dedicated to king Béla IV of Hungary; I browse an edition of The Hungarian Illuminated Chronicle that I’ve found online on my computer, reading it out loud and adding a few comments, while Hayley takes notes. After a few minutes, she says:

“Whew. You’re a fast reader.”

“Sorry. I’ll go slower.”

“No, no, no, this is fine. You really like this stuff, huh?”

“I do, yeah. History’s one of my most favorite subjects.”

“I could tell,” she says. “The way you talk about it, it’s like you’re narrating a documentary.”

“Boring and pontificating?”

“Not at all,” she giggled again. “It’s really interesting. I like hearing you talk.”

“Oh, uh, thanks.”

She cleared her throat and went back to her notes. Eventually, we decide that we have enough material and begin writing the actual chapter. At first, we both make propositions on how to phrase various sentences and take turns typing, but after a little while, I realize that I’m dictating the majority of the text while Hayley types it on her laptop. Feeling a bit guilty, I ask:

“I’m sorry, I’m making you do all the work.”

“No!” she immediately says. “You’re the one coming up with all the good ideas. At least this way, I still do my part of the work.”

“Well, if that’s alright with you…”

“It is.” She nods.

“Okay.”

Scratching the back of my head, I keep going. Eventually, we finish the part about Béla IV’s rule before the Mongol invasion. We’re now over twenty minutes into our study session. Where is Jacinda? I mean, I don’t really care to see her right now, but she had better not be slacking off. As I go back to my reading so we can broach the part concerning Béla IV during the war, Hayley says:

“Can I ask you something?”

“You just did,” I say with a smile.

“Oh, err…” She chews on her bottom lip, looking a little miffed.

“Sorry, just teasing. Go ahead.”

“Ah, okay. Um, well, maybe it’s none of my business, but…”

She pushes her hair back behind her shoulder.

“Is there something going on between you and Jacinda?”

Seriously? First Zula, now her.

“No, nothing,” I say, a bit harshly. “Why?”

“Oh, it’s just… I’m just curious,” she says, waving my query off.

“Uh-uh,” I say. Whatever. So, Batu Khan sent his demands of submission to Béla in December 1240…

“Are you seeing anyone?” Hayley asks.

“Err, no,” I say, a little surprised by the question.

“Damnit!”

We both immediately turn our heads, startled by the exclamation. About twenty feet away from our table stands Jacinda, holding two plastic cups on a tray, with a third one on the floor. Between the large dark stain on her sweatshirt, the tired expression on her face, and the librarian by her side trying her hardest to wipe the aforementioned stain with tissues, it is pretty easy to guess what just happened.

“I’m really sorry,” the librarian, a red-haired, bearded man in his late twenties, says.

“It’s okay,” Jacinda says. “It’s alright.”

After ruining about a dozen tissues in vain, the librarian gives up, apologizes again, and scurries out. Sighing, Jacinda joins us at our table. I try not to openly enjoy this, but judging by her glare, I could try harder. I could.

“Sorry I’m late,” she mutters. “I got you some drinks as an apology…”

“Whose drink are you wearing right now?” I say.

“Mine.” If looks could kill, my life would be flashing before my eyes right about now.

Hayley grabs the cup with her name on it, and takes a sip.

“Ooh, mint iced coffee! That’s my favorite. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Jacinda says.

“I feel a bit guilty that I still don’t know your favorite drink; all I know is you don’t like coffee.”

“Oh, she’s a big fan of green tea,” I say. “Really big fan. You could say she can get really crazy about it.”

I meet Jacinda’s glare, and drink from my cup. She got me regular coffee, black. Hayley smiles awkwardly, as if I just told a joke she’s not privy to. Which I guess I kinda did.

“Don’t you want to take off your sweatshirt?” Hayley asks.

There’s a hint of nervousness in Jacinda’s raspberry orange eyes, and suddenly she forfeits our staring contest.

“No, I’m fine.”

“Did you get a green tea? I hope it wasn’t hot anymore.”

“It was, but that’s okay. I can handle heat.”

“You’re taking this better than I would,” Hayley says. “I’m super sensitive, I’d probably be screaming. You didn’t even snap at that librarian.”

Jacinda glares at me one more time, for a nanosecond, as she adds:

“Oh, I’d never take out my issues on others.”

Something acidic raises in my throat.

“Patience is a virtue,” I say.

“Agreed,” she retorts with the fakest polite smile I’ve ever seen -and I work in customer service.  “It’s important to take your time.”

As I’m preparing my next salvo, Hayley clears her throat. She does it twice, as the first time she barely manages to make any noise.

“So, huh, should we get back to work?” she says timidly.

“Sure,” Jacinda says.

In the next hour, Hayley and I manage to finish our chapter focusing on Hungary at the time of the first Mongol invasion. While I proofread it, Jacinda and Hayley start a convo about their favorite coffee places -well, tea places for Jacinda.

“I went to Toulouse’s a couple of times,” Hayley says. “It’s nice, but kinda expensive.”

“I prefer Leaf In The Wind,” Jacinda says. “They have great customer service.”

Don’t. Don’t notice how she inflicted the “they”. Even though it’s clearly meant as another snipe, don’t pay attention. Don’t let her get a rise out of you. In fact, don’t let her get any kind of rise out of you, damn it! Ah, great. Well, cross your legs, now.

Mulling the next chapter’s text in my head over and over doesn’t help me get over this. That last jab was the one too many. Insinuating I don’t have good customer service? After she purposefully annoyed the shit out of me? And got me in trouble for it? Like hell I’m going to let that go.

“We should totally have a girls’ night, sometimes,” Hayley says excitedly. She’s standing up. So’s Jacinda. Wait, is our study session over?

“Yeah, okay,” Jacinda says, somewhat overwhelmed by the other girl’s enthusiasm.

Hayley chuckles, then hugs Jacinda, who sort of stiffens from the unexpected attack. Before the latter can recover, the former has moved to me. She hugs me too. I had time to prepare for that, but not for the kiss on the cheek.

“See you soon!” she calls out as she skips away.

Jacinda stares at me quietly for a few seconds, then turns on her heels and starts to leave. Oh no you don’t. I jump out of my seat, disregarding my computer and the rest of my stuff, and chase after her. Under normal circumstances, I’m 99% sure Jacinda could outrun me without breaking a sweat, but the fact that we’re in a library means she’s forced to walk. She’s still pretty fast, and I have to rush a lot to finally catch up to her. I’m not sure what I’m thinking when I grab her by the shoulder and drag her towards one of the private reading rooms. Manhandling Jacinda probably ranks very high on the list of stupid ways to die. I’m also really not sure why she doesn’t resist at all as I push her against the wall before closing and locking the door behind us.

The only thing I’m reasonably sure of is that whatever’s going inside my mind is not smart. As if something other than my brain is guiding my actions…

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