A Tip

The alarm’s piercing shrill cut through the darkness, as it did on so many mornings before. The sun wasn’t yet out, but that had become normal. Megan slapped the snooze button, bleary eyes struggling to make out the digits on the clock face. Goddamnit, she’d already turned it off twice more than she should. She struggled out of the blankets and towards the bath; she’d have to cut her morning shower short, but at least there was still just enough time for one.

She was still covered in suds when the snooze timer ran out, the incessant screech reminding her that she was running behind already. She hurried out to turn off the screaming devil-box and reprimanded herself for, once again, ignoring her well-documented need to be in bed earlier. Maybe tonight, she told herself. She knew it was a lie, but it still made her feel better to pretend she’d get her shit together somehow in the next 12 hours.

Bare-bones makeup and a hastily chosen outfit later, she was out the door. She muttered thanks to some unknown god that the car didn’t take its time starting up despite the cold. Megan hated the winter; it wasn’t just the chill in the air, but the whole package. The wet weather, the nuclear-family holidays, the obligatory postcard pleasanties. Not everything needed to be pumpkin-spice flavored, but even less people needed to be shamed for liking things that were. Winter was bullshit.

She pulled into the mostly empty lot, her dashboard whining about low fuel. That was a problem to deal with later, like most problems. For now, it was time to set to work preparing the tables and getting the coffee pots going. A small perk to working in an ass-backward’s town’s biggest breakfast joint was the coffee. Yeah, it wasn’t exactly premium brew, but it was better than instant and they made it plenty strong. It did its job, like everyone here.

Mick and Jerry were already outside, smoking cigarettes by the dumpster. At least, they were probably cigarettes, not that it mattered. Washing dishes and stocking the kitchen didn’t really rely on having your wits about you, anyway. Megan waved a distant hello as she made her way inside, ready for another day of mostly familiar faces; taking orders here was mostly done for show, the few road-weary travelers on their way to someplace interesting aside.

She got the coffee pots going, setting aside her morning cup to be used as soon as they were ready. Cammie didn’t mind her using the diner’s cups, and all the ones she’d bought had been broken or lost within a matter of weeks, so she’d given up trying. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, realizing she’d forgotten to do so before leaving for the morning. Rushing out the door has ways of playing havoc with the details, no matter how automatic. At least she hadn’t forgotten pants.

The sign near the door flickered to life, and the daily routine started. Cops on their way to the station, nurses grabbing a bite after a long night, truckers on their routes that carried them back and forth across the interstate; Megan knew most of them by name, and almost as many knew hers. Coffee helped keep the smile on her face, however forced it felt at times, and the morning went by well enough. She tucked a few bills from the first tables’ tips into her bra, remembering that she’d need it to fuel up after work.

The morning passed without much event. There was a bit of a buzz in the kitchen over some strangely-dressed visitors, decked out in wild colors and beads, like some kids that got lost on their way home from a rave in 1995 and somehow landed here and now. Besides looking out of place, though, they were nice enough, if a bit indecisive about their orders. The group caught more than a couple of stares from the locals on their way out the door, but Megan was caught up in the tip they left behind — a solid 30% in cash, and a small plastic baggie with a curious-looking orange pill stamped with what looked like a corporate logo of some kind.

She tucked the pill away in a pocket without much of a thought. It was an interesting gesture. Megan hadn’t ever fallen into drugs; around here, all you’d find was low-grade weed and amphetamines of dubious origin. Still, she had the weekend coming up, and the kids sure seemed like good folks. Maybe it’d be a way to kill some time, forget the crappy weather, and otherwise distract her from winter’s overall awfulness.

The rest of the day passed without much of note. The tips were good, the jokes were bad, and the coffee was a bit of both. For all the negatives in the worst season’s offerings, people tended to be a little more generous with their cash, and Megan’s struggling bank account was thankful for it. She grabbed up her things and headed off, letting her hair down as she made her way to the car.

Damnit. Gas. The dashboard offered a friendly reminder as she turned the key, so that was her first stop. She pulled the wad of cash from its hiding place while driving, knowing that whichever greasy-faced high schooler happened to be running the register today would surely have some color commentary to accompany the action. Still, foresight can’t account for a teen boy’s dedication to degrading bullshit; she did her best to brush it off and considered buying herself a medal for avoiding an assault or arson charge.

She headed home, stewing about the terrible people and the terrible season and the terrible town; she wondered why she didn’t up and leave, but she knew she wouldn’t act on anything so impulsive. As she pulled in to her cramped parking lot — where the hell had all these cars come from? — her mind turned the small pill stuffed into her pocket. Once she was inside, she extracted the baggie and looked more closely at the bizarre customer’s gift.

The pill itself was unremarkable. A dull orange color flecked with darker spots, and the stamped-on logo. The design reminded her of some faceless corporation’s emblem, the product of old white men in suits arguing over proposed icons put together by design-school “interns” desperate to make some meager stipend off of their student loan debts. Turned one way, it resembled the front of an old European castle; another, it reminded her of a jagged-edged bird of some kind. It felt vaguely familiar, but not enough so to stir any direct connections.

“Fuck it,” Megan said aloud to nobody. With the help of a glass of cheap wine, she swallowed the pill and sat back to see what awaited.

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