“He said ‘special,’ right?” Jeremiah was pacing around, chin-to-chest so his head wouldn’t hit the metal ceiling. He and his bandmates called it their “tour bus,” but really it was just a rusted and hollowed out van they had paid $600 for three years back. Lily was trying to care, but all she wanted to do was leave and pick up her packages.
“And then he said ‘talented.’ They want talent. Well, I’m pretty damn special and I think we all can agree I’m talented.” He wasn’t really even talking to her.
“Oh ya, sure.” He seemed so small-minded, so arrogant. He had no idea just how un-special he was. He played in a garage band and he was no closer to leaving his job at Starbucks than when he had started. Before, Lily had believed he was special. She had been there at every show, watching and supporting his Midwestern dream of “making it big.” And the glow of being the lead man’s girlfriend had been enough for a while. Before, she had felt lucky as she looked out at his small but dedicated fan base made up of screaming tween girls. Before, she had looked at him like he was the only thing in the universe. She could have stared
at him forever. But not now. Not anymore. Not after they had arrived.
As Jeremiah rambled on, she thought about them, the Jewels, those who had come down and introduced themselves a few weeks back. Their representative gave a speech to the nation from the White House. Lily thought about the look on the President’s face as he stood behind him. It was a mixture of joy and fear, elation and terror.
Good evening. It is a pleasure to be here tonight.
She thought about how normal it seemed, like they had just moved into the neighborhood from another city.
We appreciate your hospitality. We have traveled a very long way to see how your spectacular race lives and works and participates in its community. We are impressed.
He looked human, mostly. His eyes were larger, and more oval. He wore a dark blue suit and a red tie. He stood tall and straight at the podium, looking directly into the camera. His hands rested gently on the edges, his fingers were thin, longer than human fingers but still human in shape and color and form. His voice was soft but clear. He didn’t need the microphone. It was as if he didn’t need to use words. He was able to be understood without speaking at all.
We will not be imposing upon you long.
He never looked away from the camera. Lily got the feeling that he could see her, looking right at her, but after the speech, that’s what everyone said.
We will be seeing some of you soon.
“Lily, hello?” She snapped back to the “tour bus.” “I mean, come on. Let’s listen to the last song one more time and tell me what you think.” Jeremiah crawled in the front seat and restarted the CD. He looked smaller than she remembered, hunched over the steering wheel, staring at the radio, looking young and hopeful and scared.
She suddenly didn’t feel like wasting any more time with him. She knew he wouldn’t get picked. He wasn’t what they were looking for, not that she knew. She opened the side door to leave, already late for her rounds.
“I’ve gotta go. I’ll see you later.” She stepped out and shut the van door.
“K.” He said distractedly.
And just like that, he was no longer her entire universe.
She circled around the back of restaurants, knocked on the locked doors of closed bakeries, waiting for the managers, chefs, and bakers to hand over the dried up and picked over pastries their customers hadn’t chosen from the day before. They were just going to throw them away; they might as well let Lily take them off their hands for a neat $20.
Once back in the kitchen, away from Jeremiah, Lily set to work. The serrated knife cut the pastries easily, the blade connecting to the wooden prep table with a hollow thunk after making its way through an old cinnamon roll. The recently purchased pile of rejected rolls and croissants lay waiting to be sliced and repurposed into pudding. She tried to keep her mind focused on what was in front of her, having cut herself more times than she could remember at that old and beaten prep table. Her boss walked by, stood across from her, and smiled.
“Your bread pudding does to celiac sufferers what Dr. Atkins’ death-by-heart attack did to his bacon-munching followers. I swear girl, no one can resist this stuff.” He walked towards the front, too hot to stay long in the kitchen but happy to see she was getting her job done.
Because the pudding was the only thing he let her cook, Lily had begun to resent his praise. She wanted to try something else, anything else, and the heat just made her angrier. The air conditioning was broken again and the fan wasn’t doing much more than blowing around the humidity from the ovens and the boiling stock pots. The icing from the cinnamon rolls was starting to melt and stick to the knife’s blade and handle. The sugar and warm dough gummed between her fingers, gluing them together.
Then surprisingly, she felt a cool breeze. She thought maybe one of the chefs must have come up behind her and opened the freezer door. But she didn’t hear the door open or the approach of squeaking shoes. She turned around to look and in shock dropped the knife. A Jewel was standing behind her. He was tall and lean and smiling.
Are you ready to go, Lily?
The knife stood balanced on the blade where it had dropped, the sticky handle unwilling to fall. And then it did, slowly, but Lily was not there to see it.