No one had bothered to show for work tonight. Not even my boss. It was a nightmare.
A bloody nightmare. A room full of people. Rich people. The kind who could (and would) find fault in anyone or anything, and I was the only server who’d bothered to come in and offer my faults. At least the bar was stocked. That was something. No bartender, though. Judy usually ran a tighter ship than this. I took a deep breath, plastered on a smile I didn’t feel, and headed into the storm. Looking down at Calgary from the Tower, the tail lights and headlights cutting veins and arteries through downtown didn’t have their normal flow, they sat, instead, as if at a standstill. As if the entire bloody city was waiting for something to happen. It felt weird. I felt weird.
My whole bloody day had been weird. I never should have showed up in the first place.
I pawed at the nightstand. Pulled my pillow over my head. Phone. My phone.
I’d put it on silent. I was sure I’d put it on silent.
Why me? Why today?
I squinted. To my sleepy eyes, the display light on my phone blazed brighter than the sun. Normally I dimmed the brightness before bed. Evidently, I’d forgotten to do that, too.
The call was from Toppers, the all-day breakfast joint I waitressed for. I wasn’t scheduled for today.
The call went to voicemail. The phone immediately rang again. I answered.
“Kathleen didn’t come in.”
Manager Barry couldn’t be bothered to say “hello” first, I noticed, let alone “good morning.” He never did. I didn’t point this out. From the background hustle I could tell they were already slammed. I was his go-to relief waitress because I lived in the neighbourhood. A fact he’d promised not to take advantage of when he’d hired me, but always did.
“I closed last night,” I said.
“You owe me.”
“Like, you really owe me,” I said. “I want two days off in a row. I want a real weekend.”
The “please” got me. I heard it so rarely. I sighed. “Be there in thirty.”
I popped a couple ibuprofen. It ended up being twenty-eight minutes. Pretty much the last thing that went right.
I normally recognized Toppers’ morning regulars, but two strangers crowded a four-top, looking out of place for our family breakfast vibe. Although, stealing glances between serving my tables, I wasn’t sure where they’d fit in.
A slight, shabbily dressed man in an ill-fitting suit sat next to a hulking bruiser. The smaller man looked like a con artist. His eyes twinkled watching the chaos, and he talked endlessly—loudly—in the big man’s ear.
The big guy looked hungover. Bloodshot blue eyes, coffee hand trembling as he raised it to his lips and ignored his loud companion. Unkempt red hair and a beard, both streaked with grey, stood out from a trucker hat with a band name I didn’t recognize. His U of A hoodie looked too new to have been bought whenever he’d been a student. He was probably from Edmonton.
I tried not to think of Edmonton. If I lingered on it, on the Day, I’d never get through my shift.
Arms tattooed to the knuckles said maybe he was a musician. Or a biker. Hell, he could be a barista. No telling these days what he was, other than trouble.
The big man’s tats looked viking-y, and he looked familiar. Maybe I’d seen him in a mug shot. There’d been problems in Alberta with the Spears of Odin, a white supremacist biker gang who’d harassed me, attacked some of my friends, and done much worse to others.
The cops had done nothing. I was glad the two strangers weren’t my table. Thugs, I could handle. The knifein-the-back sort he sat with, they were another story. Reminded me of my old boss, Christian. Smiles while they’re killing you. That job felt a lifetime ago.
While the odd couple weren’t my problem, my eye kept being drawn across the restaurant to them. I was distracted, tired, and my tips said I should’ve stayed in bed. But they were an island of calm in the chaos of dropped plates, dropped orders, and, thanks to the local colour, dropped pants. And complaints, complaints, complaints. Jeannie said they tipped well.
There was new graffiti on the wall in the alley behind Toppers when I finally had time to grab a smoke. “Smoke” was the wrong word. “Break” was more accurate. What I missed most about smoking was the excuse to leave a situation and have it be socially acceptable. “Graffiti” was also the wrong word. This wasn’t simple tagging, more like a mural. A man, glowing incandescent, fist raised, grasping lightning. Behind him, a volcano swallowed a city. Fiery monsters lay fallen at his feet. I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be saving the city, or trashing it. The wreckage evoked the very real, and surreal condition of Edmonton after last summer—another reminder that what I’d experienced had actually happened—only Calgary Tower was pretty clearly outlined in the mural’s background, fire bursting from its top, over a broken skyline. There’d been no mural last night when I’d closed.
Rough, scratchy letters—like a heavy metal font—above him read: The Red Headed Stranger.
I pinched the bridge of my nose. A storm was coming. Years in Alberta, and I’d never adjusted to the weather. It was calm at the moment, but days like these, I knew it’d be wild. I wished I’d bummed a smoke on my way out. It wouldn’t have helped my headache and I’d regret lighting up tomorrow, but “never quit quitting” was my roommate’s motto. I distracted myself from the nicotine craving by staring at the mural instead.
I was still thinking about it as I drove home after my shift. The Edmonton wedding I’d catered. The fancy club hosting the reception that blew up when flaming monsters attacked. I’d been saved by a bridesmaid with a sword and the scariest woman I’d ever seen. Seriously, it was like looking on the face of death with a feather cloak and better cheekbones. I could’ve sworn I’d lived through a B-movie. Except the budget for the destruction was way too high. The people who’d listened to them lived, those who’d ignored them, died. I hadn’t wanted to believe any of it was real, but I’m still here, so I guess I did.
Now weirdness happened everywhere with greater frequency.
Calgary was as red with fire as the Tower on Flames game days. The violence that’d always been a part of the city had become more inexplicable. People acting like jerks, never novel, had escalated into a rash of arsons. I kept looking over my shoulder for the creatures I’d seen, and even though I hadn’t seen them in Calgary, that didn’t shake my belief in what I’d witnessed. I knew I was never getting my old normal back.
And I wasn’t the only one. These days, directly over the remains of Edmonton’s city centre, the sky glowed red, a grim, inverted aurora. Reds and purples were closer to the ground there than the usual greens. While there were plenty of scientific explanations for why the aurora seemed closer to Earth since the Day, few people warranted it had anything to do with monsters attacking the city.
I didn’t have that luxury. They’d almost killed me.
Read more of Ballroom Blitz in When the Sky Comes Looking for You!