The old woman was frighteningly thin, with dark, beady eyes hidden beneath old, droopy eyebrows plucked clean of hair. Her pursed lips and wrinkles made her look as if someone had shaved a pug and stretched its skin out. The woman also looked vaguely pissed, as if she resented having been shaved and stretched out. Regardless, Clarissa was pleasant. “Your total is six dollars and thirty cents,” the girl said with a smile from behind the register.
The woman handed over a twenty. Clarissa punched a couple of buttons and the cash drawer popped open.
“Thirteen seventy is your change, ma’am,” Clarissa said, holding out the money.
The woman never even made eye contact. She was eyeing something in her purse. “Is that with the senior discount?” she asked.
You know damn well—
“Um, no, it’s not,” Clarissa said, innocently.
The woman’s eyes came up and seemed to stare through the girl. “I wanted my discount,” she intoned.
I’m not giving this old… thing an inch.
“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am. You have to ask for the discount,” Clarissa said, tamping down the venomous urges.
“I’d like my discount,” the woman said again. The talonlike fingers of one hand curled up slowly and she put her fist on her hip.
“With all due respect, ma’am, on a six dollar order the discount’s only going to amount to… about thirty cents,” Clarissa said. She tried to make eye contact, but couldn’t; the dark beads staring back were too intimidating. “For a transaction already completed, I’ll have to go get my boss, if you’ll—”
The woman suddenly made a wordless sound of contempt about three seconds late. “Don’t tell me how much it’ll be, you little brat.”
For the first time since she’d started her counseling in seventh grade, Clarissa Hoesly snapped.
“Brat?! Listen, you hag, it’s thirty flipping cents. It’s not worth my time, it’s not worth your time. At the rate the food here will kill you, those thirty cents will matter even less.”
The woman twitched almost violently, shuffled backward and turned to find a seat. Clarissa, the red mist fading, realized what she’d done, gasped, turned, and ran into the back of the restaurant.
Twinkie was working the next register over, helping a family of five. As Clarissa ran off, he blinked for a moment. He then turned to the seven-year-old boy that was scraping at the counter, trying to pull himself up to look at Twinkie’s side of the register.
Twinkie leaned down. “Hey. What’s your name?” he said with a grin.
“Billy!” the boy replied, smiling.
Twinkie smiled and reached out, hoisting the boy over the counter and setting him down in front of the register. He looked up at the family. “Billy will be taking the rest of your order. I have to run,” he said, darting back after Clarissa.
And Clarence, watching one more employee snap at a customer via the security cameras in the office, simply began to laugh.
Twinkie quietly turned the corner into the storeroom. It was an E-shaped room, every wall lined with metal shelves, two more racks dividing up the room into three niches. Twinkie crept around the corner into the soda nook, where an enormous rack of hoses connected a dozen bags of soda syrup to a carbonation tank and sent the product out to the dining room and drive-thru soda machines.
Clarissa was there, tucked between the bottom and middle shelves where spare bags of Diet Pepsi would be if they had any. Diet Pepsi always sold the fastest – after all, the perfect way to cancel out a dinner covered in cheese, full of fat, and partially deep fried was to have twenty-four ounces of a zero calorie drink with it. That made it all better.
She was sobbing softly and Twinkie crouched down next to her.
“I can’t do that to customers,” she said quietly, wiping her nose. “I h-have to be the nice one.”
“Says who?” Twinkie asked.
“Says me. I’ve gotta… Clarence got a promotion because of me being nice, but he can’t benefit from it anymore. I have to be nice because he’s an ass and someone has to make up for it. Show that’s not what Cliff’s is about.”
“It’s not?” Twinkie asked, straight-faced.
She looked up at him, still wiping tears from her face. “No! It’s about being friendly and serving…” Here she sighed. “Serving horribly unhealthy food to people.”
“The customers are only going to get worse,” Twinkie observed. “Every annoying adult turns a little more into an old person, and the old people don’t die fast enough.”
“Yeah,” Clarissa said softly. “I know.”
“Either you find an outlet for all that stress or you go crazy,” he added.
She blinked. Twinkie was the kid who she’d once seen steal an apron and come to work the next day in a newly customized cape. Now he was the one with wisdom. “How do you deal?” she asked.
“Either you find an outlet for all that stress or you go crazy,” he repeated.
Her countenance dropped back down to where it had been. “I see,” she mumbled. She stuck an arm out and he pulled her free of the soda racks, and the two shuffled back up front. Clarissa screamed when she saw that a seven-year-old was taking an order from an elderly couple.
Twinkie walked over, hoisting the boy back up and over the counter. “Good thing I didn’t pay you for that or I’d be in all sorts of trouble,” he said with a grin. The boy smiled.
His father was still at the counter, fuming. “Oh, you’re still in trouble,” he warned. “You can’t do that to my son.”
Twinkie blinked. “Why not? Wilson’s special exception to state labor laws says that children of any age can work to help their families. I’d say he was helping you. And the kid doesn’t look too unhappy.” Twinkie winked at the boy, who beamed.
The father was at a loss for words. A few noises came out before he finally said, “Unacceptable. I want to speak to your manager. Now.”
“I came as soon as I heard,” Clarence said, already in the doorway leading to the back of the restaurant. “Actually, I came when I heard a scream. Figured that either something bad or something fun was happening and that either way, I’d better come see.” He was leaning against the frame, arms folded, and now stepped forward, hands clasped behind him, head tilted up slightly as he looked down at everyone.
“I demand you fire this brat of a clerk,” the father said.
“No,” Clarence said. “As Twinkie pointed out, we’ve broken no laws here.”
The dad blinked. “Eh… Twinkie?”
“And if Twinkie here can work one of these cash registers, any seven year old should have no problem getting your order correct.” Clarence turned around, grabbing a few things from the window to the kitchen, setting them in place on the tray. He turned back around to the customer. “In fact, I believe your food is ready.”
The man took the food, now looking bewildered. “I… but… everything’s here.”
Clarence smiled. “Wonderful. Glad you have everything you need. Good day.”
The smell of bacon was disarming, and the best the father could now offer was an unsteady, “Wait?”
“I said good day!” Clarence said, already walking away.
Defeated, the father turned back to bring his family his food.
“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?” Clarissa mumbled as Clarence passed her on his way back to the office.
“Love that movie,” he said softly.
“Because you’re half a person too?” she called after him, but he didn’t reply, just entered the office and shut the door.