Chapter 1: Grand Entrance
Jemilla felt a swell in her chest as she stepped back, the decorations finally finished, and just in time to open for the day. Leaf garlands hung from the walls and pumpkins dotted the tables, as Corporate had mandated, but there was also bright apples, leaves hanging from the ceiling, a basket full of apples from the local orchard (labeled “FREE”, so her manager wouldn’t get reemed for selling them), and a few strings of white fairy lights around the coffee shop-- out of Jemilla’s own pocket, but it was worth it. The extra effort really made a difference. She was sure the customers enjoyed her work, even if they weren't always so... forth-coming.
She checked the time and frowned. There was a new girl supposed to start on her shift this morning. Or maybe that was tomorrow? Either way, she was alone.
She didn’t mind. Jemilla was a powerhouse in the mornings, and it had very little to do with the coffee she bought from herself every morning, thank you very much. She just loved mornings. They came late in the fall, so customers often did, too. It was still dark as she opened, and she was still the only one working. She watched the sun rise between the few early morning regulars. By the time there were rays coming in the windows, while wiping down the counter, she was considering calling her boss. Even though they were way smaller than the other locations near campus, they’d be busy soon and-
A crash of feet and the door slamming open startled her upright.
“Sorry!” called a frantic-looking girl, about Jemilla’s age, at the door. Her jacket was half on, as was her bag, and her hair was a mess. She ran back behind the counter.
This was her? Jemilla thought. Seriously? Late on her first day. Jesus.
She pretended to be focusing really hard on a non-existent spot on the counter, listening to the girl fumble around in the back, punching in and, it sounded like, struggling pretty hard to get her uniform on. She rounded the corner, hair flying, still tying the string of her apron. Her eyes were wide, wild, and, uh, hazel.
Jemilla stood straight and cleared her throat.
“So, you’re Zazzalil?” she asked. She glanced around the store. No one was in, fortunately for Zazzalil’s grand entrance.
“Uh, yeah.” She looked sheepish. “My friends call me Zazz.”
Jemilla considered it. She liked to get along with her coworkers, but to be honest, she was pissed off at “Zazz”. Just because she could open alone with no problem doesn’t mean she should have to.
“Hi, Zazzalil. Jemilla.”
A group of customers came in, obviously not together, but they always seem to come in waves.
Jemilla decided to pretend that she didn’t see Zazzalil look a little disappointed. She felt a bit bad, but she had customers to attend to. She took the counter as Zazzalil stationed herself at the machines. Jemilla could hear her shoes drag on the floor as she walked. She tried to ignore the anger prickling at her neck as she took orders, but she couldn’t help it. She comes in late, on her first day no less, and now she’s not even trying to make up for it? She put on her best service smile-- it really was good-- and watched Zazzalil out of the corner of her eye when she got the chance.
She was sort of keeping up, she guessed, but she wasn’t quick enough. If Jemilla was working the machines, there’d hardly be a wait at all. Zazz was putting the orders out way too slowly, and her voice dragged like her feet as she called the names. It annoyed the shit out of Jemilla. When she was done with orders, she went to help her, to get the orders out, and found the machines a mess. She grumbled in her head about it. How was she so slow if she wasn’t even being neat?
“Excuse me,” a man said. He looked a little timid as he approached, so Jemilla put on her warmest smile and stopped what she was doing.
“How can I help you, sir?” she asked.
“I’ve been waiting a very long time for a hot chocolate.” He fidgeted with his glasses. “I don’t want to be late.”
Jemilla looked at Zazzalil, who wasn’t even paying attention. She took a deep breath.
“Sorry!” she said. “I’ll make that right now for you.” And she did, adding extra whipped cream as an apology. She handed it to him personally. “Sorry again.”
He looked relieved and shoved a dollar in the tip jar as he rushed out the door with a “Thank you!”
Jemilla threw out orders at double Zazzalil’s speed, swarming around and behind her as she did so. She could have two drinks out and tips received before Zazz got done with one. It was a long morning, to say the least.
At one point, there was a lull, and Jemilla turned to Zazzalil, to try to make small talk, and saw the girl on her phone.
“Are you kidding?” Jemilla said, louder than she meant, which was not saying it at all.
Zazzalil startled. “Sorry?” she said, jumping. Her voice was a little harsh. It only fueled Jemilla’s fire.
She tensed, but tried to suppress her annoyance. “Can you please put your phone away?” she asked, summoning her service smile. “The machines need cleaning. I’ll get the tables.”
Zazzalil looked at her like she was being ridiculous. “I can’t take a second?”
Jemilla ground her teeth. “No,” she said through them. “Lunch rush will be here soon.”
Zazzalil sighed a little too pointedly, but she did as she was told.
And that’s how it was. When Jemilla was working, her manager wasn’t usually around, unless she wanted more hours that week or something. She trusted Jemilla to run the store because she’d basically been doing it, and doing it well, since she started. Jemilla didn’t want her manager’s job, really, because that would mean more hours than she was prepared to work, being a student at the same time. But Molag often joked that she could take it from her in a heartbeat, and that she’d do a better job at it, too. Privately Jemilla agreed, but she loved her boss like a mother.
It just so happened that Zazzalil’s schedule was really similar to hers. She had to work with her, almost always alone, really often.
And she hated it.
She was constantly picking up Zazzalil’s slack, reminding her to stay off her phone, making sure she clocked out for her breaks, cleaning up after her, filling her orders.
Closing with Zazzalil was the worst of all.
She was so fucking lazy. When it was time to close, she would disappear into the back, or magically get the urge to have a cigarette. That meant Jemilla was always counting the register, resetting things behind the counter, restocking, stacking chairs, cleaning, doing basically everything. It drove her fucking crazy.
One night, she had to leave early. She had a doctor’s appointment. Molag had approved it, but she waited to tell Zazzalil because maybe she thought it would be a good/funny idea to trap her into closing. Ten minutes before she had to go, she broke the news.
Zazzalil sounded unbothered, but she fiddled with her apron, not looking at Jemilla. “So I’m closing alone?” she asked.
“Yes, but you know how to do that, right?”
“Yeah,” Zazzalil said. “But like, can you just do it before you go?”
Jemilla felt like she’d fall over from the shock. She thought she’d be pissed, not refuse to do it. She stammered over her words. “What? No, Zazzalil, we can’t close 30 minutes early. You can handle it.”
Zazzalil scoffed and turned around, walking away. “Break,” she called over her shoulder.
Jemilla rolled her eyes and clocked out.
Chapter 2: The Till
Jemilla must find out why the till is so off.
She gets her answer, but it isn't what she expects.
The next morning, Jemilla was the first to arrive. She wasn’t working with Zazzalil that morning (thank God) but she was usually earlier than her on-time coworkers anyway. This was really nothing new. She liked to make herself a coffee before they opened, which she paid for later. This morning, though, she felt a little restless from the night before. She couldn’t help thinking about just how much Zazzalil could have messed up. Maybe she shouldn't have left her alone. Finished with her cup, she went through the records and cash from the day before, to check the damage. She wasn’t really supposed to, but she knew Molag didn’t want to do it, and she had to admit that she wanted to see if Zazzalil really knew how to do her job, or if she avoided closing at her last barista gig, too.
“What are you doing?” Emberly asked.
Jemilla’s head shot up. She grimaced. Emberly saw the look on her face and just laughed. Jemilla sighed.
“Look at this,” she said, holding up the closing slip. “The cash is off by like 50 bucks.”
Emberly paused as she counted the money. She was a whiz at math. (She was a whiz at everything, really. The girl was crazy smart. Why she was working at Starbucks of all places, Jemilla could only guess.) It didn’t take long.
“Shit, you’re right,” she whistled. “46 bucks. How’d you manage that?”
Jemilla groaned. “It wasn’t me.” She pinched the bridge of her nose and leaned on the counter. “I had to leave early, so I made that new girl, Zazzalil, close. How did she screw it up that bad? Molag would kill me if she actually cared.”
Emberly teased, “I don’t know, but looks like you’re going to be tilling out from now on!” She twirled her apron around her finger as she clocked them both in.
The next time Jemilla worked late with Zazzalil, she was determined to figure it out. She couldn’t stop thinking about the till. She knew it wasn’t that big of a deal, but her perfectionist brain was going insane over it. Forty-six dollars was such a strange amount to get wrong. What if she forgot to take someone’s-- a lot of people’s-- money? Was she discounting drinks? What if she was stealing? That would all be grounds for termination-- if her boss was anyone but Molag, who would totally take the blame from Corporate. Strangely, Jemilla didn’t want Zazzalil to get fired. For this at least. She felt sort of guilty that she made the girl close when she clearly wasn’t comfortable.
Zazzalil came in late-- as usual-- clinging to a Redbull for dear life, eyes hooded and red. She wasn’t apologetic like she usually was, simply grunting at Jemilla’s shocked face as she walked to the back to clock in. Jemilla watched her, finished taking an order with a smile, and patted SB’s shoulder to hint that she would be back before following Zazzalil. She had to find out. It was eating her alive! (It even interrupted the brainstorming session she had-- with herself-- on her upcoming Bio essay.) She couldn’t take it anymore.
Zazz, slumped over and leaning on a counter, blinked hard, shook her head, and stood up. “Yeah?” Her voice was scratchy.
Jemilla frowned. The interrogation she’d imagined fizzled out at the look on Zazzalil’s face. She felt her brows knit and furrow. “Are you okay? If you’re sick we don’t want you… Wait.”
Zazzalil’s eyes were barely open, bloodshot to all hell. She stared blankly back at her.
“Are you… high?”
“What?" Zazzalil blinked, squinted. "No, I’m not fucking high, Jemilla. What do you want ?” she whined, throwing her arms down at her sides.
Jemilla opened her mouth, closed it, and glared. “ Nevermind .” She looked her up and down again. “If you’re clocked in, you better get to work.” She heard Zazzalil groan behind her on the way back to the cash register.
They just tried to ignore each other through their shift.
When the night lull finally arrived, Jemilla turned from wiping a counter.
Zazzalil groaned on instinct. “Oh my god, what now ?”
Jemilla glowered, then composed herself. She didn’t want to seem like she was yelling at Zazzalil, but she sort of was, so she leaned up against the counter and smiled.
Zazzalil looked suspicious.
Jemilla dropped the act.
“Look, the other night when I made you close-”
The other girl was suddenly very interested in wiping down tables. Jemilla just spoke louder, refusing to be ignored.
“The cash count was off by forty-six dollars. Listen, I’m not trying to yell at you, I just- Zazzalil, look at me!”
She did not.
“I’m just trying to understand what happened! That’s serious stuff. I won’t tell Molag. But like, if you’re stealing-”
“I’m not fucking stealing,” Zazzalil muttered.
Zazzalil spun around. “I just must have fucked it up, okay?! Don’t you ever make a mistake? Or are you Miss Perfect Employee all the time?” She huffed, and turned away.
Jemilla was taken aback for the second time that shift. She made her voice soft. “So let me run it with you.”
“Do it yourself.” Zazzalil threw her rag over her shoulder, walked quickly past Jemilla, grabbed a cigarette, and took her break.
That gave Jemilla ten minutes to think about how the hell she was going to figure this out. She even considered leaving early without telling anyone: something that would have been blasphemy to her before this whole situation. Now it seemed like a viable option, except for the fact that she was pretty sure Zazzalil would just leave, too, instead of being forced to close again.
Let’s try calm and rational, she thought. She can’t escape to break now. She held her breath when the door opened.
She looked like she wanted to kill Jemilla and then herself.
“Can you please just count the money? I’ll do everything else. If you screw something up, I’ll fix it, okay?”
There was a long pause of the two just looking at each other. Jemilla thought she could see tears in Zazzalil’s eyes for a second, before she blinked and sighed. “Yeah, fine. Give it to me.”
As she made sure all the card transactions were accurate and recorded, Jemilla pretended not to watch Zazzalil. It seemed like it was taking her forever. A watched pot never gets done counting money , she told herself, before deciding to stack chairs.
Finally, after what felt like ages-- Jemilla had already mopped the floor and done the dishes-- Zazzalil spoke up. Her tone was hard, but her voice cracked half way through. “Okay, here. Can you check this?” She handed the cash and note to Jemilla without glancing up.
It only took Jemilla about ten minutes and that was only because she checked it twice. She found Zazzalil in the back room, sitting on a stool with her head in her hands. No new position for the girl. This is where she takes naps. Jemilla resisted the urge to say something to her about slacking off.
“Hey uh… how did you get this number?” she asked, sort of timidly.
A tiny whimper came from the girl, but she didn't move.
Jemilla’s mom-friend instincts kicked in and she rushed over, crouching in front of her chair. Zazzalil was crying, softly. “Oh, honey. What’s wrong?” she cooed. She brushed hair out of the girl’s face and gently tucked it behind her ear.
Zazz pulled away, looked away. She wiped her face on her arm and said, “I just hate being wrong.” She wouldn't meet Jemilla's gaze.
Jemilla brought her coworker's face back forward and put a hand on her knee. “Zazzalil, what’s wrong? ” she repeated.
When Zazzalil finally looked her in the eyes, Jemilla was taken aback by the vulnerability she saw staring back at her.
“I… can’t fucking count,” Zazzalil said.
Jemilla could have laughed. The sentence sounded like a joke. She could have laughed, but she didn’t.
Zazzalil must have seen this go on in her head because she sighed and sat up. “I’m not fucking stupid, Jemilla,” she said. “I can count .” A pause. “I have dyscalculia… and dyslexia. Counting large numbers are really difficult for my fucked up brain to comprehend. I get things all mixed up.” Her tone softened, and Jemilla realized she was telling the truth. But just as soon as the walls came down, they shot back up. “So you can tell Molag to fire me or whatever, or you can not believe me but-”
“I believe you, Zazzalil. I’m sorry I made you do that.”
Zazzalil stared at her for a moment, her gaze unreadable. She pushed Jemilla’s hand off her knee and stood up. “Yeah, well, maybe you should fucking stay out of people’s business next time.” She left the room.
Jemilla got up and followed quickly after her. “‘Stay out of people’s business?!’”
And the moment was gone.
Chapter 3: Do Your Job
Zazzalil is still slacking off, but maybe she's not all that bad.
this one's a little longer because fuck you thats why
As much as Jemilla wished that conversation had magically made her and Zazzalil pals, that was not the case. Zazzalil, despite having a pass on closing out the register, was still lazy as shit. Jemilla considered this one morning as Zazzalil came in nearly an hour late, in the middle of the morning rush. Jemilla could have blown smoke from her ears as she watched the girl walk in, feet dragging, bag half on, jacket half off, breakfast burrito in her mouth. She didn’t even grunt a greeting as she clocked in.
Jemilla set to finishing the orders, chewing on the inside of her cheek. She made significantly less tips than usual. Her signature service smile couldn’t even cut through how pissed off she was at Zazzalil. Plus, a machine had broken the day before. It added to both the customers’ and Jemilla’s frustrations, but there was nothing she could do. She was struggling to keep up with taking orders and making them alone. By the time morning rush was done, and Zazzalil was still nowhere to be seen, Jemilla’s fucking head could have been on fire. She stormed into the back when the last customer cleared out.
There was Zazzalil.
Curled up in a ball. Asleep.
Jemilla wanted to kick her head. She wanted to kick her so bad. Instead, she picked up two metal trays, leaned in very close, and CLANG!ed those things together as hard as she could.
Zazzalil scrambled up, blinking hard and fast, eyes darting around the room before they found Jemilla.
“WHAT THE HELL?!” she yelled.
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘What the hell?’” Jemilla mocked. “You were in here sleeping during our busiest hour!”
Zazzalil’s hands balled into fists at her side. Jemilla considered if she could beat the shorter girl in a fight. By the looks of Zazzalil’s arms, probably not.
“Cut me a fucking break.” Zazzalil unclenched her fists and grabbed a rag. “I got like, two goddamn hours of sleep last night. This is the last thing I need right now.”
She went to walk past her, but Jemilla put her arm out in front and then onto both her shoulders, pushing Zazzalil back into the room. She kept them there, forcing her to stay where she was.
Zazzalil bristled and it made Jemilla's skin hot.
“Listen to me,” She said. She surprised even herself with the tone of her voice, strained but low, as if she were reprimanding a troublesome child. “I don’t give a shit how late you were out partying-”
“ Partying ?” Zazzalil scoffed.
“-Or writing an essay you waited till the last minute to start. I expect you to just. Do. Your. Job.” Jemilla’s eyes were wide, intense.
Zazzalil’s eyes were narrow. Threatening.
There was a beat of the two just staring at each other, neither one willing to break eye contact and both trying to intimidate the other.
“Fuck you, Jemilla.” Zazzalil finally said, pushing Jemilla's arms away and storming back into the cafe.
Jemilla followed with a clenched jaw and was met with a line of customers who looked very, very confused and concerned. She cleared her throat and smacked on her smile. It only seemed to unnerve them more.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but we just can’t do that for you today. I can make you something else if you’d like!” Jemilla was beginning to panic.
This maniac had been raving at her for a good 6 minutes (double the ideal friendly interaction time; Jemilla had done the math) and he didn’t seem to be stopping soon. He wanted a pastry that they were just out of. There was nothing she could do.
“I don’t care! You’re going to make it happen, one way or another!”
Jemilla looked around the shop desperately. The whole cafe was looking (or pretending not to look) at the scene he was causing. A couple behind him in line seemed to abandon their potential orders and just left, heads down.
“Sir, I’m sorry but-”
“Let me speak to your manager right NOW.”
“She’s not i-”
“Yes, sir?” a voice interrupted.
Zazzalil appeared beside Jemilla, looking more composed than she’d ever seen her, and wearing a smile that absolutely gleamed . She held her hands folded in front of her, and her voice was high and tight. Jemilla was bewildered. She couldn’t help but stare.
“You’re the manager?”
Zazzalil glanced at Jemilla for a split second. She didn’t wink, but it felt like she had. “Yes, sir. How may I help you?”
Jemilla picked her jaw up off the floor and tried to act natural.
The man straightened, looking a little shocked himself.
“This em-ploy-ee ” he pointed in Jemilla’s face, “is refusing to make me a blueberry scone!”
Zazzalil’s voice sounded like a sickly-sweet commercial for the chain. She took her time through the words as if she had been reading a script. “Yes, sir. That is because we are out of them and can’t make them magically appear out of thin fucking air.” She somehow smiled even wider. “So, you can pick something else to order, or you can get the hell out of my shop and stop scaring the customers off, m'kay?"
Jemilla was biting her lip to keep from scream-laughing.
When the man was finished gaping like a fish, he growled, “Yelp is going to hear about this !” and stormed out of the shop.
There was a collective sigh of relief in the store, and one college jock-looking guy yelled, “Hell yeah!” His buddies joined in clapping and hollering, which made the rest of the shop sort of chuckle before getting back to their own worlds.
“You’re not really the manager, are you?” the next customer in line asked Zazzalil in a low voice.
“You want an ass-chewing, too?”
Jemilla couldn’t keep from laughing that time.
Jemilla was in a significantly better mood after the asshole customer, but Zazzalil seemed just the same as always. Jemilla kept thinking that their decent interactions would somehow change things but nothing ever seemed to happen. Maybe if she had more of them, working with Zazzalil wouldn’t be such torture. She set her jaw when it was time to turn over the shop to SB and Emberly and walked out with Zazzalil, who looked over her shoulder at Jemilla with suspicion.
“Are you following me?”
“What? No,” Jemilla said quickly. “I just- Well, um. Thanks. For dealing with that guy today.”
Zazzalil shrugged and allowed Jemilla to walk beside her, shoving her hands in her hoodie pockets. Their breath glistened in the air as it caught the afternoon sun.
“No big deal. He was being an asshole and I owed you from this morning.” She got that same mischievous grin on her face and nudged Jemilla with her elbow. “Plus, I’ve sort of always wanted to do that.”
Jemilla’s face was hot as she got into her car. That was… nice, she thought. Zazzalil is kind of funny. Who would have guessed? Certainly not her. She was buckling her seatbelt when a BANG on her window made her jump. It was Zazzalil. Of course it was Zazzalil. She rolled down her window.
“Hey, uh…” She looked everywhere but Jemilla’s face, sort of rocking from one foot to the other. “My car won’t start.” She said hurriedly. “I can walk! But it’s really cold and I was just wondering-”
Jemilla knew what Zazzalil wanted, but her obvious discomfort at asking her for help was more than she could resist. She put on her best innocent, dumb face.
Zazzalil stuttered and stammered, but finally blew out a breath and whined, “Can you please give me a ride home?”
Jemilla smiled wide and flicked the unlock button. “Get in,” she said.
Most of the ride was quiet, save for the music Jemilla played. Zazzalil didn’t live far from the shop, but traffic was horrible in the city at rush hour, so the trip was way longer than it should have been. Zazzalil sat bunched up, knees on the dashboard, leaning against the door. Jemilla had to wonder if she was asleep-- the girl slept a lot-- before a song came on that seemed to wake her from the dead.
“I fucking love this song,” she said, shifting so that she could sit normally. Jemilla was silently glad for this. She’d heard sitting like that could break your legs if you were in a crash, even if they were in stand-still traffic. She turned up the car’s radio.
It was a song Jemilla had only recently added to her playlist. She hummed along at first, but was quickly distracted by Zazzalil singing beside her. She tried not to stare, she really did, and Zazzalil was barely singing, but holy shit.
She looked at her.
Did she say that out loud?
Yep, definitely said that out loud.
“Do you need a ride to work tomorrow?” Jemilla asked as her passenger gathered her things to get out of the car.
Zazzalil’s apartment complex looked a little run-down. It was all brick, which would have been pretty if it didn’t look like it was falling apart. There were vines growing up the sides and into rubble of some crumbling bricks. Zazzalil either didn’t notice or didn’t want to notice Jemilla looking at it.
“Oh.” Zazzalil froze for a moment. “Shit, my car. Uh, no. I can take a cab.” She opened the door.
“It’s really no big deal-”
“Thanks Jemilla!” Zazzalil closed the door and walked quickly into the building.
Jemilla frowned after her a moment before driving off.
Chapter 4: Go With Her
Zazzalil looks particularly horrible today. Jemilla calls an ambulance.
spoilers: i obviously have never worked in an ER either. bear with me here
The next afternoon was slow. Jemilla took care of everything for the customers who came in, now accustomed to Zazzalil being late. It was mostly regulars, also accustomed to Jemilla running the shop. If their orders were late because Jemilla was a little distracted, they didn’t notice. When there was a lull, she looked at the clock. An hour and a half after Zazzalil was supposed to clock in.
Maybe she’s not coming , Jemilla thought. She wouldn’t put it past her to be too lazy to get a cab. I should have insisted on bringing her in. Maybe she’d be on time for once. She chuckled to herself and wiped down some counters, restocked some things, did a few stray orders.
It was two hours the next time she looked up to see Zazzalil come through the door, in… a red polo? There was an M on the left of her chest. McDonalds? Jemilla raised an eyebrow at her coworker as she came in, attempting to turn it into a joke they could laugh over together. Zazzalil didn’t look at her, though, and the balloon in Jemilla’s chest deflated. She looked like a zombie. Jemilla gave her a moment before she went to the back.
“Hey, Zazzalil,” she said, tentatively.
Zazz turned around. “Get back to work, right?”
Jemilla just blinked at her. She looked horrible. Eyes sunken, bloodshot, and barely open again. Her ponytail was falling out. Her apron was on, but only barely. Her shoes looked strange. Were they- They were on the wrong feet. “Zazzalil,” Jemilla started.
Zazzalil looked back at her, but not in her eyes, and the words got caught in Jemilla’s throat.
“Um. Okay. Can you wipe tables?”
Zazzalil nodded, slumped, and started towards the door. Her shoulder collided with Jemilla’s, and then, suddenly, she was on the floor, face first.
“Oh, fuck, are you okay?”
Zazzalil didn’t answer and she started to panic. She shook her shoulder. Nothing.
“Oh, fuck,” she repeated. She shot to her feet, ran to the window and flipped the sign to “CLOSED”. As she was locking the door, she was calling 911.
Is she breathing?
Yes, she is breathing.
Is she shaking, foaming, vomiting?
Put her on her side, make sure her airway is clear.
They’ll be there soon.
Is she going to be okay?
Just hang on, Jemilla. The ambulance is close. Can you unlock the door for them?
I don’t want to leave her again.
Jemilla, they need to get inside.
Okay. Okay, it’s unlocked. Please hurry.
Jemilla’s head was foggy. She vaguely recognized the sirens from the ambulance, everything blurry and hard to follow. She answered the questions they asked her, but she couldn’t remember what she said. They flashed a light in her eyes. It felt like she was underwater. They got a stretcher and they put Zazzalil on it and Jemilla couldn’t take her eyes off her. Her mouth was open slightly and her hair was everywhere, around her head like a halo. She watched Zazzalil breathe and didn’t notice that she was holding her own until she was loaded into the truck. Suddenly, everything was back in focus, and it was so very real. It was too real. Oh, god. The lights were blinding and they were starting to close the doors and someone had his hand on her arm and he was holding her. She ripped her arm away. She took off for the truck Zazzalil was in. She couldn't see her anymore. Zazzalil. Zazzalil. Zazzalil. She had to go with Zazzalil.
The EMT looked surprised to see Jemilla lucid.
“I have to go with her,” Jemilla said. It felt like the words were falling out of her mouth on their own.
The ride to the hospital was horrible. She didn’t understand what the EMTs were saying. She kept asking them if Zazzalil was going to be okay. They kept saying they needed to get her to the hospital to be sure. One EMT moved to sit next to Jemilla. She put an arm around Jemilla’s shoulders and the girl just fell apart. She was sobbing. She was almost screaming.
All of this over a girl she didn’t even like, who was always late and so lazy. She was so harsh to her. What if it was her fault? She pushed her so hard. She never listened. She never even asked. Jemilla clung to the EMT, who cooed and tried her best to comfort her, to no real avail.
Jemilla had to wait in the waiting room. She yelled and protested, but security had held her firmly by the shoulders and told her, in no uncertain terms, that she was not allowed back. So Jemilla was sitting. One of the EMTs came back out, to Jemilla’s surprise, and she talked her through breathing exercises to calm her down. Jemilla was grateful, as her brain became capable of rational thought again. She remembered to call Molag, who sounded pretty concerned but said to take the rest of the day off. She would get someone to cover for her. She would figure it out, honey, don't you worry.
She’d been worrying for an hour before a nurse called her name.
The nurse led her down a blinding hallway into a room and opened the door. The lights were dim. “She’s sedated,” she said, in a low voice.
Zazzalil was laying in the cot, in a hospital gown, blankets pulled up to her ears and her hair out of its ponytail, a soft smile on her sleeping face. She looked so much more peaceful than she had the last time Jemilla had seen her.
Jemilla kept her eyes on her as she sat down, as if she would disappear if she stopped looking. The chair was horribly uncomfortable, but it felt like a cloud compared to the waiting room. She felt her shoulders relax.
The nurse lingered. “Is there anyone else we can contact?” she asked.
Jemilla frowned. “She didn’t have an emergency contact listed?”
“Well, ah, you were her emergency contact.”
The air in the room felt stale. The longer Jemilla didn’t answer, the more anxious the nurse seemed. “You aren’t a family member or next of kin, so I can’t tell you anything. I’m sorry,” she said. “She should be awake in a few hours. She can tell you then.”
“She knows what happened?”
“She was awake long enough for us to explain, but she may not remember. She can make the decision to allow us to disclose to you when she wakes up.”
Jemilla nodded. “Thank you,” she said, looking up at the nurse. She meant it.
“Stay as long as you’d like.” The nurse smiled and left the room, closing the door softly after her.
It wasn’t long before Jemilla fell asleep.
Chapter 5: The Bill
Zazzalil wakes up and Jemilla doesn't get it, but she's learning.
CW: parental death mentions
“Jemilla?” a hoarse voice called.
Jemilla blinked her eyes open, confused for a moment before she remembered where she was, remembered what happened. Her eyes locked onto Zazzalil, whose brow was furrowed, eyes half open, looking right back at her.
“Zazzalil,” Jemilla breathed. She sat up. “You’re awake.”
“What am I doing here?” she asked. “What happened?”
“You- I- I don’t know, really. You came into work, and you didn’t seem exactly right, and then I asked you to wipe tables and you passed out and god I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have done that Zazzalil, I didn’t mean to-”
“I passed out?”
“Yeah. I called the ambulance.”
A small smile smoothed out the wrinkles on her forehead, but they came back right away. Zazzalil put a hand on her face. “God fucking damn it,” she moaned. She grabbed at her hair and turned onto her back, staring at the ceiling. Jemilla watched a tear roll down her cheek.
“Are you okay? I can call the doctor-” She pressed the call button.
Zazzalil turned over again. Jemilla had never seen her look so… desperate. Panicked. “Jemilla, I can’t afford this. I don't have insurance.” She gasped as a sob ripped through her. "Oh my god, they're going to sue me. Fuck! FUCK!"
“Hey, hey, it’s okay! What if you took my tips? And I’m sure Molag will give you more hours if-”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Zazzalil barked.
Jemilla shut up.
“I can’t take more hours. I can’t do it anymore.”
She’s right, I don’t get it.
Zazzalil sighed. She sat up in her bed and the eye contact she was holding with Jemilla was sort of scary, but it was the same exposed look she’d had when she told her she was dyslexic. “Do you know why I was in the wrong uniform today?” Her tone was trying its best to be even.
Jemilla shook her head.
“I walked from my job at McDonald’s. Well, I ran.” She paused. “I lied when I said I would take a cab. I don’t have the money.”
“I didn’t know you were working two jobs.”
“Three. Four, if you include being a student.”
There was so much softness in Zazzalil’s tone. She sounded almost hurt.
“That’s why I’m always late. My shifts all end and start at the same time. I’m trying to make it work, I really am, but this is the only way I can make ends meet.”
Jemilla had no words to say that would matter, so she just stared.
“I get maybe four hours of sleep, tops, and sometimes that’s during class.” Zazzalil sort of laughed in a manic way. “I run on caffeine. I thought the smell of coffee would keep me awake at Starbucks, but it didn’t. I’m sorry.”
“I had no idea. I would never have- I’m sorry, Zazzalil.”
Zazzalil flopped back down onto her back, hands on her head. She let out a long breath through her teeth.
“Why are you working so hard?” Jemilla's tone was tentative and gentle, like she was one word away from completely destroying Zazzalil.
“My dad died.”
There was a long silence. Jemilla didn’t want to say anything. She had no idea what that was like, but she was sure Zazzalil was sick of hearing ‘I’m sorry.’
“And my mom, when I was born,” she continued. “I never knew my grandparents. So it’s just me. Funerals are fucking expensive, if you didn't know, and there’s no one to help me with it. That’s why. I’m trying to put myself through school so that maybe, eventually , I can get a better job and I don’t have to do this anymore.” She ran a hand through her hair. “But now, I don’t know. I can’t afford a cab, let alone an ambulance, a hospital stay, and a new car.” She let her hand fall back on the bed beside her. “I’ll have to drop out.”
Jemilla opened her mouth to say something, anything, she didn’t know what, when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” Zazzalil said softly, not taking her eyes off the ceiling.
She was discharged as soon as she didn’t feel the effects of the sedative any longer. They’d said-- Zazzalil allowed Jemilla to stay in the room as the doctor explained-- that it was sleep deprivation and stress that caused Zazzalil to faint. The doctor had given her very strict orders, following a few rather unkind words from Zazzalil, to rest. Jemilla knew, now, that it wouldn’t happen.
Once they were outside, in the cold night’s air, Zazzalil started walking, hands shoved in her pockets, back in her McDonald’s uniform.
“Where are you going?”
“Oh no you don’t,” Jemilla said. She grabbed Zazzalil’s arm. The smaller girl spun around to meet her, defenses up again. Her brow was hard and set. “Let me get you a cab, please.”
Zazzalil didn't answer her, she just stopped trying to walk away.
The taxi ride back to their apartments was silent, until Zazzalil paused half-way out the door, facing Jemilla, haloed by the streetlights flickering behind her.
She put a strong hand on Jemilla’s shoulder. “Thank you,” she said, firmly. There was a beat of silence, of eye contact, and then she was gone.
Chapter 6: Car Guy
Molag finally shows up. Jemilla decides to help Zazzalil.
i also don't know how cars work, just so you know
There was more caffeine than usual in Jemilla’s morning coffee, and yet before she took a sip, her hands were shaking. She was altogether far too tired and far too awake. So she showed up earlier than usual and she drank her coffee, and she tried to care about the deafening silence in the shop, when the door opened and closed.
Molag was not prepared for the bone-crushing hug she got, but she stroked Jemilla’s hair anyway.
“It won’t start,” Jemilla said. “I tried it this morning. I can get it moved but in the meantime-”
Molag put a hand up. “Don’t worry about it, J-mills.”
They were sitting, still, and Jemilla was pretty sure they were supposed to open more than a few minutes ago, but Molag showed no sign of rising any time soon.
“Zazzalil’s car can stay there as long as you need. It’s not like many of these privileged fucks drive, anyway. It’s all Uber this and Lyft that these days. Fuck ‘em.”
Jemilla laughed, and then she stopped laughing.
Molag saw her thoughts. “No,” she said.
Jemilla half whined, half groaned. “Please, Molag,” she begged. “She really needs it. You didn’t see her! I bet-”
“I can’t take her full time, Jemilla!” She reached across the table and put her hand on Jemilla’s. “I know you care about her, but that’s more training than I have time for. Plus, Emberly told me about the cash thing.”
“You know I don’t give a shit and Corporate can go fuck themselves, but I’ve got to stay on their good side for a little while,” Molag continued. “That stunt SB pulled last month with the bagels was a real issue for them. Cash going missing is not how we be good slaves, and that's what we have to do right now.”
“I can train her,” Jemilla said, entirely too quickly. “At least she was a barista before, right? And I know why the cash was off. I can help her with it.”
Molag didn’t look convinced, but sighed again. “Alright. If you can get her to keep the cash accurate, I will consider it.”
Jemilla stood and gave her boss yet another vise-like hug and Molag laughed, interrupted only by a customer knocking on the glass door. He pointed to the hours.
Jemilla got more and more worried every time Zazzalil didn’t show up to the cafe, mostly because Molag refused to give her Zazzalil’s schedule, so she didn’t know if she was supposed to be there or not. (“Just text me if she does show up,” Molag had said. “That’s unfair,” Jemilla had said. “Tough shit,” Molag had said.) Jemilla didn’t know how much Molag knew, outside of their hospital phone call. She didn’t know if Zazzalil had told her anything, but she suspected that her manager knew more than she was letting on. It sparked a strange sort of burning in her chest.
To ease her anxiety-- not jealousy-- Jemilla took to researching car trouble. She didn’t know anything about cars, and she was honestly a little afraid of blowing herself up, but the internet was usually pretty good at explaining things, so i n the morning, before her shift, she would try to start it. She would think about what she’d read, and she would make mental notes of what the fuck was happening, which lights were on, which sounds the car made. On her break, she would research and try things. After she clocked out, she would take one last spin at it before she went home. In a few days time, she bought a battery testing device and found that the ground was loose. All it needed was one part, which was only a couple bucks on Amazon. She would have done it sooner, had she not been distracted by how irresponsible it was of Zazzalil to leave her car, not only unlocked, but with the keys in the ignition, for an unknown amount of time.
Well, she guessed, there wasn’t really any issue with that unless the thief was also a mechanic.
“I quit my job at McDonalds.”
Jemilla hit her head on the hood of the car on her way up. “Ow, fuck,” she whined, rubbing her head, and turned around to see Zazzalil, grimacing sympathetically.
“Sorry." She winced and took a few steps closer, looking at the engine. “Trying to steal my car?” she joked, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Her hair was down. It looked sort of nice.
Jemilla shook herself when Zazzalil quipped an eyebrow up at her. “Uh, no.”
Zazzalil looked tense, but not tired. Jemilla wondered if she’d been able to sleep in the time she had now, instead of working at Starbucks. The usual dark circles under her eyes were gone and she didn’t drag her feet when she walked up. That had to be a good sign. Maybe she was actually listening to her doctor. Wait a minute, it’s before my shift. She’s earlier than she was when she worked here. Is something wrong? She figured that Zazzalil wouldn’t tell her if there was. But then again, why was she here?
“Um. So then what are you doing?”
“I’m- I’m fixing it for you.”
Zazzalil looked up with utter shock. “You what?”
Jemilla showed her and explained what she’d done, but she could tell that Zazzalil was even less interested and more confused than she herself had been when she started researching. “I just have to attach this and it should work,” she finished.
“Jemilla, I don’t-”
“Done! Here, go try to start it.”
Zazzalil hesitated to get in, but when she did, the car started with no problem. Jemilla beamed at herself from in front of the hood before closing it, full of pride, to find Zazzalil staring at her as if she were holy from the driver’s seat. It made her blush a bit, and some sort of noise came out of her that she hoped Zazzalil couldn’t hear over the engine. Zazz was out of the car and lifting Jemilla up by her waist before she could give it much thought.
“I can’t fucking believe it! God, thank you Jemilla!” She put her down with so much control that Jemilla thought she could probably carry her car home if she had to. Stepping back, she added playfully, “I never pegged you for a car guy.”
A little overwhelmed, Jemilla leaned against the car. “There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me, Zazzalil,” she said, trying to sound as suave as possible. Car guys were supposed to be cool.
Zazzalil raised her eyebrows at her. “Really?”
“No,” she said. “I Googled it.”
Zazzalil laughed and it made Jemilla feel less like she just made a total fool of herself.
“Let me repay you,” Zazz said.
“Okay. Tell me why you’re here and we’re even.”
The girl was suddenly closed off again, shuffling her feet and looking at the ground. Jemilla wished she hadn't said it. “I’m just taking a walk,” she mumbled.
“At 4:30 in the morning? If you need a ride somewhere Zazzalil I can-”
“Yes.” She used a tone that made Jemilla stop talking. “At 4:30 in the morning. Thank you, for fixing my car. I’m sorry you had to do that.”
Zazzalil left Jemilla faster in a car than she usually did on foot.
Chapter 7: Air Mattress
It's been a month. Where is Zazzalil?
yo sorry its been like ages lol. got caught up in black friday. there's a piece of dialogue in this one that i really like. can you guess?
It was a month before Jemilla saw Zazzalil again. She had accepted it-- Molag was not going to hire her full-time, and maybe Zazzalil didn’t want to work at some coffee shop anymore. Maybe she had more time, now, and found a better job. Jemilla didn’t know. She wished she did. She wished she’d given Zazzalil her number. In fact, she thought it was pretty irresponsible of her not to. What if her car broke down again? She wanted her to come back to help her. She wanted her back because she couldn’t imagine the guilt she would feel if anything happened to her.
So maybe she hadn’t accepted it.
However, she did stop looking up and hoping it was Zazzalil walking through the door every time it opened. Her life went on the way it had before she’d met her. She went to class, went to work, went home, did her classwork, and went to sleep. Sometimes she went to the gym, especially when she was feeling very anxious. And repeat. Class, work, home, work, sleep. Work, class, gym, home, sleep. Class, work, home-
She was on the front steps of Jemilla’s building, clutching a messenger bag close to her body to keep it from the wind ripping through her hair. It howled through the street, catching every marbled corner on Jemilla’s block.
The two women just stared at one another.
Zazzalil opened her mouth once. Twice.
“I got evicted,” she said.
And Jemilla was angry.
“Where have you been?” She took a step forward, hands balling into fists.
Zazzalil curled up, retreated into herself.
“I’ve been worried sick about you. And for what?” Jemilla threw her arms up and let them collapse at her sides. She opened her mouth again, but nothing came out.
“I’m sorry,” Zazzalil said, in a small voice. Then, bigger, clearing her throat, “I don’t know why I came here.” She repositioned her bag and started off, but Jemilla caught her by both arms before she could make her escape.
“Come inside. I have an air mattress.”
Jemilla’s parents paid for her schooling. They insisted on paying for half her rent as well, but only if they got to choose the apartment. They adopted her at 4, when they thought they were getting too old to have children of their own. They were a neurotic sort of parents, always hoping they were doing the right thing, always trying. When Jemilla came out, they told her, “Can we take some time to research and discuss this before we say anything?” Before quickly adding, “We love you no matter what.” Although she loved them more than anything she’d known, their neurosis was an asset in business, not so much as parents... or as apartment-seekers. Many landlords turned them away just because of all the questions they asked.
Jemilla explained all of this as she walked Zazzalil up to her flat. “I can’t afford this, just, working at Starbucks. Just so you know.” She jiggled the key into the lock and opened the door for Zazzalil, shutting it behind them.
Zazz still clung to her bag as she looked around. “Wow,” she whistled. “Wish my dad had been a little richer.”
Jemilla suddenly realized how touchy the subject of money, especially of money and parents, probably was, but Zazzalil half-laughed. She dropped the subject anyway.
“You like plants, huh J-mils?” Zazzalil touched the leaves of a hanging spider plant, sort of twirling them around her fingers.
“They’re the closest I can get to pets here,” Jemilla replied. She tried to picture her place from an outsider’s point of view as she hung up her purse and took her coat off. Damn, she did have a lot of plants.
“That’s unfair. I’m a dog person.”
“I can go either way.”
The air felt stale for a moment.
Jemilla’s mouth was dry. She cleared her throat. “I’ll, uh, get the air mattress.”
“I can sleep on the couch-”
“You don’t want to sleep on that thing, trust me. It’s great to sit on, but Emberly slept on it once and said she couldn’t move in the morning,” she lilted, already pulling the mattress out of the hall closet.
Zazzalil laughed. “I’ll take your word on that one.”
After they got the air mattress blown up and Jemilla moved the coffee table to the side, she got Zazzalil some sheets, pillows, and blankets. She handed her the remote and said “Hulu,” to which Zazzalil made a face that said ‘hell yeah’. Zazz refused any food or drink, so Jemilla sent herself to bed and tried to sleep to the sounds of some cop show. Live PD maybe? It was definitely the TV that kept her up, staring at the low light shining under her door.
She woke to the sound of her apartment door closing and, baseball bat in one hand, she crept through the hallway and around a corner to the living room. Her houseguest was gone, and so was her bag. The microwave read 3AM. Jemilla let out the breath she was holding and slapped her forehead as she re-locked the door. She still hadn’t given Zazzalil her number.
Chapter 8: More Worry
Jemilla can't focus. Again, Zazzalil is gone. Again, Zazzalil is found.
now get ready everybody,,,, cause whats about to happen next is gonna be real sad.
in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,,,,,
nah it aint that bad lol. can i reuse this author's note later?
Jemilla had the next day off of work, but class was agony.
She couldn’t focus. Fucking Zazzalil. It wasn’t Jemilla’s fault that she couldn’t stop thinking about her. I mean, she left in the middle of the night! Jemilla was just supposed to not worry? It had never been her specialty, not worrying. She was so good at keeping plants alive because she worried about them. She was so good at her job because she worried about not making people late, and of course about making Molag proud. Worrying is good. Worrying is what keeps the apartment clean. Worrying keeps animals safe from predators.
Like the endangered mouse species that she was supposed to be paying attention to. She let her breath out in a frustrated, “Hhh,” through her teeth. Her seat neighbor didn’t look up from his work. It was the end of the semester; he was used to it by now. Jemilla still couldn’t focus.
By the time she got in her car to go home, she was sick of herself, and the constant thoughts of Zazzalil circling in her head.
“Just go home and chill,” she told herself in the mirror, voice sounding shaky and fast, like she had too much caffeine. Chilling was not exactly her specialty either.
She’d just settled in to her small commute, just stopped jostling in her seat and bouncing her leg, when-- Zazzalil. Holy fuck.
She was walking along the road, still holding her same bag, still in her same clothes from the night before. She looked small. Was she hallucinating? Had it gone that far? Jemilla grabbed her steering wheel to the left, hard , and pulled into the alleyway in front of her. She rolled her window down.
“Zazzalil!” she called, beaming unconsciously.
Zazz looked shocked for a moment, then her brow furrowed.
“What?” she said, practically yelling over the traffic. There was something in her voice, familiar and yet very much not, that set alarms off in Jemilla’s head. She ignored them.
“What are you doing out here? Do you need a place to stay?”
Zazzalil’s face twitched. “I’m fine.”
Jemilla paused. She tried to read her, but she couldn’t tell what she was thinking. “Come on.” She pulled her voice up, went as hard as she could for as friendly as possible. “Get in!”
“Fuck off.” Zazzalil started around Jemilla’s car.
Jemilla rolled her eyes as she flew out of the driver’s seat. “How many times are we going to do this?” she said, cutting Zazzalil off.
Zazzalil might have taken a step backwards, but it felt like she charged through Jemilla. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“It means, when are you going to stop running and just talk to me? Like normal human beings do!”
Zazzalil stormed past her. Jemilla let her go.
“If you just talked to me, I could help , you know!?”
Zazzalil spun. “HELP SOMEONE ELSE!” she yelled. One finger pointed at Jemilla’s chest, she took three long steps towards her until Jemilla could feel her breath on her face.
She was looking down at Zazzalil, but it felt like it was the other way around.
“Find a fucking puppy to rescue or some shit, I don’t care! You can’t fix everything, you know? You just keep trying to fix it! Why don’t you just leave me the fuck alone!” Each word was accented with a prod of her index finger on Jemilla’s chest, pushing her backwards as Zazzalil stepped forward.
Jemilla felt tears in her eyes, but she was frozen.
“I can take care of myself,” Zazzalil said. “I’ve been doing it for 22 years.”
Again, they stood where they were, neither willing to step away.
Jemilla watched Zazzalil’s face as her eyes searched her own. The anger in them burned, shimmered, and then went out. The buzz of the traffic had disappeared. Everything felt quiet and still. They were the only two people on the planet.
Jemilla reached out and touched the hand still pointed into her chest. There were what looked like circular bruises all over Zazzalil’s knuckles, some new and some old.
She felt a tear roll down her own cheek as Zazzalil’s unmoving, unblinking eyes became shiny.
“I have an air mattress,” Jemilla said.
“Okay,” Zazzalil said.
There was no chatter this time, not in the car or in the elevator or in the hallway outside Jemilla’s door. The air mattress was still set up in the living room when they got inside-- remade, of course. Zazzalil still clung to her bag and seemed afraid to touch anything. She sat tentatively on the couch, without touching the backrest. Jemilla sat on the opposite side for a moment, before she couldn’t stand to be still with the air so heavy.
“I’m going to make dinner,” she said, in her we-didn’t-just-cry-in-public-together-est tone. Rushed. Like she could outrun whatever happened, whatever kept happening between them. “Do you want some?”
Zazzalil said no.
Jemilla handed her the TV remote and turned to the kitchen.
“Hey, uh, Jemilla?”
Zazzalil looked small again, swallowed by the couch, both hands on her bag.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Jemilla didn’t say anything.
“I’m… struggling.” Zazzalil looked away, but she felt present. Her eyes wouldn't settle on one area. “God, I hate saying that. Listen. It’s really hard for me to let anyone do anything for me. I’m… I don’t want to feel helpless. Dependent. A burden, especially.” Her voice wavered and became strong, fast and then slow, and again, some words easier to say than others.
“I see that,” Jemilla started. “But accepting help doesn’t mean you’re weak. And you can’t be a burden when someone is offering."
“I’m sorry for snapping at you.”
“I’m sorry for wanting to fix everything.”
“What are you making for dinner?”