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dreams not to keep

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The worst thing about starting a minimum-wage customer service job in the food industry—aside from having to work a minimum-wage customer service job in the food industry—is the training. Even just smiling and nodding through the insufferable lecture on Company Values has Min-Gi clenching his jaw so tight he’s giving himself a headache. And that’s just the first five minutes. Or maybe five hours! It’s hard to tell when second by miserable second drags at an excruciating crawl.

And really, what’s the point? Who believes this crap? Min-Gi isn’t here to devote his life to the smiles of happy customers for the sake of Dumpty’s corporate kingdom. No one is! They’re all here for a paycheck and that’s it, so the whole pointless farce surrounding the bare-bones practical knowledge he’s actually here to get—it’s just a waste of time and energy for everyone involved. But it’s a waste he’s got to endure otherwise he’ll be fired on his first day.

Which, honestly, doesn’t sound so bad.

Min-Gi sucks in a breath and grins even brighter at the manager training him—some old guy with a bushy mustache and a bald spot. Something like Harvey, or Harry, or Humphrey, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Min-Gi manages to nod at all the right places and offer a carefully calculated “Yes sir!” whenever it seems appropriate. And, somehow, he makes it to the end of a speech about The Dumpty Spirit without any casualties. 

“Now,” Harvey-Harry-Humphrey says, laying an unwelcome (probably unwashed) hand on Min-Gi’s shoulder, “pay attention boy, this training video will teach you everything you need to know.” The manager pops a tape into the VCR attached to a small cheap-looking TV. The screen fritzes out and flickers, which makes the manager curse. He bangs ineffectually on the top of the TV, then starts fiddling with something at the back of it, which at least gives Min-Gi the chance to take a break from the grimace of a grin he’s been keeping on his face.

This isn’t a bad job. It isn’t the worst start. Tons of people work food service jobs, and it’s probably not ideal but it’s doable. And besides, a job isn’t supposed to be something a person enjoys, it’s just… something that has to be done. Something he has to do. And really, what else could he be doing—

“Hey, Min!”

Min-Gi jolts at the familiar voice, whirling around to look for his—his… friend. His best friend. But Ryan’s nowhere in sight, of course he’s not, no way he’d be in the dingy breakroom in the back of a Dumpty’s. That’d be ridiculous.

But then there’s a laugh, and it’s so… can it be considered nostalgic if it’s only been, what, a couple months? It’s a sound Min-Gi used to hear practically every day—Ryan could always find something to laugh about—and when Min thought back, even just the memory of it still managed to squeeze his heart in a vice-grip, so, so hearing it in person…

“Wrong way, dude!”

When Min-Gi turns again, Ryan’s—

In the TV?

“What are you wearing?” Min-Gi asks, eyes locked onto the stupid Dumpty’s apron that makes everyone look like an idiot. Everyone but Ryan, apparently.

Ryan laughs again. Alright, now that he’s obviously laughing at Min-Gi it’s gotten annoying. “Don’t tell me you didn’t read the employee handbook!”

“Handbook? I didn’t get a handbook,” Min-Gi says, frantically trying to remember if that manager mentioned anything about a handbook. No, the only thing that’s happened so far is a series of endless lectures, so, great! Absolutely fantastic. There was a whole handbook he probably could’ve read instead of being subjected to that hostage situation.

“Hey, I got your back!” Ryan says, and someone tosses him a spiral-bound sheaf of papers from somewhere offscreen. Without even looking, he flips it open and points at a passage Min-Gi can’t see. “Every individual employed by Dumpty’s Diner must wear Dumpty-approved work pants (tan) paired with a Dumpty-approved button up (white) and Dumpty-approved non-slip shoes (black). A standard Dumpty apron will be provided and must be worn at all times.” Ryan tosses the handbook over his shoulder, using his now-free hands to strum a chord on the guitar he’s apparently had this whole time.

Min-Gi stares at Ryan. “You don’t work here,” is all he can manage.

“Min,” Ryan says, eyebrow raised and a slightly condescending smile on his face, “I’ve worked here longer than you. That’s why I’m here. For your training! Got some tips just for you.” And Ryan has the audacity to wink.

“You can’t be serious.”

Ryan rolls his eyes, as if Min’s the unreasonable one in this situation, but instead of taking the time to explain anything else (like what he’s been doing, how he’s been, is he back for good) Ryan reaches towards—then through—the TV screen, grips Min’s shoulder, and pulls him in.

 


 

Ryan’s idea of training is, apparently, dumping a ton of work on Min and heckling him while playing guitar. The worst part is that the music would honestly sound pretty good if Min-Gi wasn’t elbow-deep in near-scalding sanitizing solution trying to fish around for stray trays. 

“Min, dude, you’re way too slow,” Ryan says, somehow perched on a towering pile of dirty dishes. “You’re seriously going to scrub each and every one of these? Just dump it in the next sink already!”

“It’s not clean,” Min-Gi grits out, biting back everything else he’s dying to say.

“Uh-oh, would you look at that! More dishes!” Ryan, completely ignoring Min-Gi, kicks out a leg and knocks over one of the towers right into the sink. Which splashes sanitizer all over Min-Gi, and that’s. Great. Absolutely perfect. While Min-Gi uses the apron to wipe off the worst of it, Ryan keeps strumming and says, “So, like, why don’t you use the thing?”

“What thing,” Min-Gi says, keeping his voice level.

“Y’know, the—” Ryan stops strumming to make a vague flapping gesture with a hand “—fssshhh. That thing.”

“What thing,” Min-Gi repeats, and yeah, he probably sounds aggravated. Because he is.

Ryan hops off the trays to stand next to Min-Gi, and—and—reaches around his waist instead of doing the reasonable thing and nudging him out of the way.

“Do you really have to—” Min-Gi starts, but his voice cracks (for no reason) and he has to clear his throat. “Can’t you just tell me where it is!?” Min-Gi says in a normal way at a normal volume.

“Here it is!” Ryan pushes a panel of buttons on the outer rim of the sink—have those been there the whole time?—and something in the sink whirrs to life, tumbling the dishes around the tub. “Isn’t that way easier?” Ryan grins up at Min-Gi, still practically plastered against Min-Gi’s side. For a second Min-Gi’s stuck, caught between pushing him away and—and not doing that. 

But just for a second.

“Ryan,” Min-Gi says, carefully blank. “Why didn’t you tell me the sink could do that.”

“It’s in the handbook!”

Of course, the handbook that Ryan somehow knows cover-to-cover. The one Min-Gi’s never gotten the chance to even skim through once. Min-Gi doesn’t get the chance to bring up this completely valid point before Ryan steps away.

“This is taking too long,” he says, ducking under the guitar’s strap so he can grip it by the neck. With a little flourish, he winds back, then swings it at the piles of dishes, knocking every stack into the sink.

 


 

“Dumpty’s,” Min-Gi says into the receiver, voice raised, straining to be heard over the cacophony of all the other ringing phones. “How can I—”

“Nope!” Ryan pauses whatever stupid song he’s playing to grab the phone out of Min-Gi’s hand and toss it out the window, leaving Min-Gi staring after the long-gone phone. 

That’s coming out of his paycheck, probably. 

“Why did you do that,” Min-Gi says.

Ryan pulls out the handbook, shoving a page in Min-Gi’s face. “When answering the phone, a Dumpty’s Diner employee must use the standard greeting: introducing the brand in full, introducing the current specials, introducing the employee, and don’t forget—“ Ryan reaches over to pinch Min-Gi’s cheek. “A smile!”

Not quite seething, but pretty close to it, Min-Gi smacks Ryan’s hand away. “Ryan, can you just—”

The thought stalls. What exactly does Min-Gi want? For Ryan to be less insufferable, definitely, but the thing is. The thing is. It’s bad enough that he has to get bossed around in a Dumpty’s. Fulfilling all the typical back-breaking minimum-wage job requirements while learning the ropes (and getting them wrong), it sucks. And Min-Gi’s prepared himself for it. He’s resigned himself to it. No one goes into this job hoping for more than the bare minimum of dignity and respect. But for it to be Ryan who sees him like this, just—it’s—it’s humiliating. And relying on Ryan through the whole agonizing process is humiliating. 

And this doesn’t even get into what a terrible teacher Ryan is. 

The phones are still ringing.

Min-Gi takes a deep breath, then motions for the handbook. “Could you just let me look at that for two seconds?”

Ryan laughs, tucking the handbook into the pocket of his apron. “We don’t have time for that, you’re in the middle of training!”

Great! Absolutely great! It’s just so great to just not know anything and have the one thing that could maybe help him dangled right out of reach because apparently it’s just better for Ryan to decide what he needs to know without ever even telling him!

With what’s no doubt a borderline manic smile, Min-Gi picks up one of the phones. “This is Dumpty’s Diner, home of the Scramble Special, Min-Gi speaking! How can I help you?”

Ryan gives Min-Gi a thumbs up, like an asshole. “Better be quick, we’ve got, like, a hundred people on hold.”

“Hang on—”

But Ryan just shoves another phone towards Min-Gi, then another, then another, then another, then another—

 


 

“Next!”

“Wait!” Min-Gi shouts, frantically pounding at the keys of the cash register, all of which have stopped working. “I’m not done!”

“Next!” Ryan repeats, punctuating his demand with another strum of a chord. He’s sitting on the counter, completely carefree as Min-Gi’s swarmed by a steadily growing crowd of people expectantly holding out fistfuls of cash and change.

“Just, just give me a minute!” Min-Gi tries, but either his voice is being drowned out by the guitar or Ryan’s just ignoring him. It’s probably the latter!

After resorting to just straight up hitting the top of the register, the drawer finally pops out. Of course, since nothing else is working, all he can do is grab the closest wad of cash. “Uh, $0.80 for fries, $0.30 for cola, $2.35 for the scrambled sandwich, so that's—”

“So close!” Ryan cuts in. “That guy also got the onion rings.”

“—$1.50 for the rings, that’s, uh, eight, one-one, three-four $4.95!” Min grabs the change from the drawer and shoves it at the customer, who’s immediately replaced by the next, leaving no room to breathe, thanks a lot Ryan! But he can’t really do anything except take the cash, calculate the change, shove it towards the customer, repeat again and again and again. “You could—you could at least help!”

“I am! That’s what training is about, right? Helping you be the best you can be!” With a carefree smile, Ryan starts a riff, and he doesn’t even bother looking down at the fret. As much as Min-Gi wills him to fumble once, just once, just a single note out of place, it never happens. Which is absolutely infuriating. And, after finishing his little guitar solo, “Next!”

“No! No next!” But it’s pointless because the crowd just keeps growing no matter what Min-Gi says or does to try to get it under control—

 


 

“Why are you doing this to me!” Min-Gi shouts, finally. He just—he can’t take it anymore! Not the stupid endless tasks, not the stupid endless “tips”, not the stupid endless music, none of it! And Ryan’s doing it on purpose! He has to be! There’s no way he can be watching Min-Gi go through this—no way he can put Min-Gi through this—without knowing!

And, in the face of Min-Gi’s demand for some answers, some empathy, anything, Ryan laughs. Again.

“Oh, Min,” he says in that obnoxious sing-song tone, slinging an arm over Min-Gi’s shoulder, and he’s—he’s close, too close, way more close than he needs to be; even after everything he’s been doing, Min-Gi’s heart thuds stupidly in his chest. “Min, Min, Min.”

“Min.” He’s leaning forward, bangs obscuring his face. “Min.” The grip on Min-Gi’s shoulder tightens. “Min.” 

And then he looks up. 

If he’d been pissed off and ready to start a fight, Min-Gi could’ve handled that. Would’ve welcomed it, even. But the expression on his face is a cold contempt that freezes Min-Gi in place. He’s never—Ryan’s never looked at him with such an absence of warmth, not a spark in his eye. An inescapable terror claws out of his chest up through his throat, choking the breath out of Min-Gi.

And Ryan knows what this is doing to Min-Gi. 

He just doesn’t care. 

Without breaking eye contact—in a voice that cuts Min-Gi to the core—Ryan says, “You always were—”

 


 

Min-Gi jolts awake, gasping for air. He nearly falls off the bed in his scramble to flick on the lamp at his bedside. After a couple of seconds—a couple of minutes—a solid while, he’s finally able to take some deep shuddering breaths. By the time he gets his heart rate down to something more reasonable, he’s wound himself up into a tight ball, arms and knees pulled to his chest. But he’s fine now. He’s fine. 

From a glance at the alarm clock, it’s four in the morning, so two hours before he’s supposed to leave for work. The dream is quickly fading now, its shape blurring into a faint impression. The few concrete details that are sticking seem pretty ridiculous, now that he’s awake and lucid and grounded in real-world logic. Like, he really just accepted he’d have to pay for the phone Ryan threw out a window. And the customers—were they people or mannequins? And right before he woke up—

Min-Gi shakes his head. 

It was just a weird stress dream. He doesn’t need to think about it any more. No, what he needs to think about is what to do for the whole two hours he now has to himself.

On his desk is his cassette player, which has—for the past week—been playing the same tape to the end. The tape which is probably responsible for that weird dream, the one that he’s absolutely not thinking about. So the smart thing to do would be to give himself a break from it, maybe shove it in a drawer to gather some dust.

Min-Gi flips the tape and hits play.