A Fly’s Work By Paul Magnan

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a-flys-workColleen walked through the door of Grandma’s Own Donut at six and was assaulted by a wave of cold air tinged with cinnamon and raspberry. As usual, Vinnie had the air conditioning on way too high. Colleen wished she had brought a sweatshirt.

The place was dead. What else was new? The two girls behind the counter who worked the afternoon shift, Leslie and Cheryl, stood listlessly as they pecked away at their phones. They did not look up as Colleen joined them.

“Hey,” Colleen said in greeting. Leslie and Cheryl mumbled in response, their eyes glued to the tiny screens. Colleen went into the storage room to drop off her purse. She peeked into the baking area and was not surprised to see it empty. Rick had called out again. Colleen knew better than to complain about it to Vinnie. Those two went way back. Vinnie figured that as long as the morning baker showed up, then everything would be fine.

She emerged to see Leslie and Cheryl’s behinds as they dashed out the door to freedom. Nice talking to ya. Colleen perused the remaining donuts in the racks behind the counter. Two sugar-frosted, one glazed, a few jelly sticks, a handful of chocolate-frosted, and a solitary coconut stick, all sitting on grease-marked paper.

The ice coffee container was nearly empty, and filthy besides. Colleen threw out the old coffee and grabbed a bucket from the back room. She filled it with hot water and a splash of bleach and cleaned the inside of the container. She did the same with the decaffeinated coffee dispenser and the cappuccino machine. She refilled the ice container and the blender that made the Igloos, the frozen flavored drinks. Then she got some new coffee brewing.

Next came the sandwich station. It was nearly empty. Just what did Leslie and Cheryl do for the past six hours besides play on their phones? Sadly, this was the norm. Colleen returned to the back room and opened the refrigerator door. It was empty.

Oh, Vinnie…I hope nobody wants a sandwich tonight.

Colleen shook her head and walked back to the counter. A middle-aged woman with wild, bleached-white hair stood there, looking at Colleen as if she had just flipped her off.

“Well, it’s about time! I’ve been waiting here for ten minutes.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Colleen said. “I was only back there for a minute to check on something…”

“You were back there a lot longer than that,” the woman retorted. “I know how long I’ve been waiting here, young lady. I have a mind to complain to your manager!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Colleen repeated, stamping down the helpless anger within her. “What can I get for you?”

“I need a medium French vanilla regular.” The woman eyed the display case with disgust. “Is that all you have to eat?”

Colleen got the coffee ready. “I’m afraid so, ma’am.”

“Unbelievable,” the woman muttered.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Colleen said for a third time as she placed the coffee on the counter. “Will there be anything else?”

“What else is there to have? This will be it.”

Colleen rang it up. “That’ll be $2.14”

Instead of paying the woman took the lid off the cup and took a sip. Her face scrunched and she spit the coffee onto the floor. Colleen stared at the woman in disbelief.

“When was this coffee brewed, last week?”

“No, I brewed it just a few minutes ago.”

“What did you use, toilet water? I want a fresh cup, and I want to see you brew the coffee this time.”

Colleen’s cheeks flushed. She actually spit on the floor! Her hands reached for the coffee grounds. She filled the filter and shoved it into the machine, and then filled the coffee pot with water from a sink that looked nothing like a toilet, poured it in, and turned on the heater. The customer watched her every move.

A few minutes later the coffee was ready. The woman watched Colleen pour the cup, as if suspecting a trick. Colleen put the cup on the counter and waited, feeling like a prisoner at the whim of a sadistic guard.

The woman brought the cup to her lips and sipped. She nodded once.

“That’s better.”

That’s the same fucking water I used for the first cup, you bitch…

Colleen merely smiled and repeated the price.

The customer looked at Colleen in annoyance and opened her purse. She laid out two dollar bills and fourteen cents in change, as if to say I’m not going to leave a tip, not even by mistake.

Colleen rang up the sale. “Thank you. Have a nice day.”

The woman snorted and stormed out the door.

Colleen went to the back and got the mop and pail. Thankfully, the woman’s spit had hit the tile floor and not the carpet in front of the counter. Colleen shook from the woman’s incredible rudeness. What a horrible person.

Something moved in the spittle.

Colleen froze. A spider was trapped in the brown saliva. It was pulling itself out of the mess, looking for dry ground.

Colleen’s mouth went dry and her heart accelerated. Her breath came out in gasps. A spider. A terrible, crawling, little monster. And it was making its way toward her.

Colleen screamed and thrust the mop down on the creature. She pushed against the handle and smeared the spider on the floor to make sure it was dead. Colleen had to concentrate on keeping her stomach stable as she quickly cleaned up the spit and the spider both.

She thrust the mop and pail into a back corner. Hopefully someone would clean it in the morning. Colleen couldn’t do it.

She took a deep breath, washed her hands, and went back to work.

Her phone rang. Colleen took it out of her back pocket and looked to see who was calling.

Ugh…

She hesitated before she answered. “What is it, Andy?”

“‘What is it’? Is that any way to greet your future husband?”

“I’m at work, Andy. I’m not supposed to take personal calls here.”

“Yeah, like Vinnie would care. Anyway, I’m just calling to let you know we have plans for Saturday night. We’re going to Steve and Laurie’s.”

Colleen felt herself deflate. “Do we have to, Andy? You know Steve gets on my nerves.”

“Steve is my friend, Colleen. I can’t stop being his friend just because we’re getting married. Besides, you’ll be talking with Laurie all night.”

Oh, boy. An entire evening of listening to an overaged teenager boasting about all the latest things she’s bought for her wonderful self…

“Andy, I have so much to do around the house. The bathroom doesn’t clean itself.”

“This is Saturday night, Colleen. You won’t be cleaning then.”

Colleen sighed. She wasn’t going to win. “Okay, Andy. But can we please make it a short night?”

“Why are you being this way? What’s wrong with going out and having some fun once in a while?”

“Forget it, Andy. I gotta go. A customer just walked in.”

Colleen vaguely heard Andy say “Wait!” before she hung up. She looked out over the empty donut shop.

#

The next night was as dead as the previous one had been. On the way to work Colleen passed two Dunkin’ Donuts and a Honey Dew. All three had been loaded with customers. Grandma’s Own was as empty as the beach in winter. Colleen wondered how long it would be before Vinnie ran the place into the ground.

Of course Rick hadn’t shown up again. Colleen leaned on the counter, watching the traffic pass by outside. The afternoon sun blasted through the windows, right into her eyes. Despite the air conditioning, Colleen felt warm. She grabbed a cleaning cloth and went to wipe the tables down for the fifth time.

A movement at the counter caught her eye.

A fly, black and bloated, crawled up onto the counter. It was huge, easily the size of a quarter.

Colleen screamed and threw the cloth at it. The fly took off and flew by Colleen’s head. She screamed again and grabbed a fistful of paper napkins. The fly landed on the glass window for the drive-through. Colleen tossed the napkins at it one at a time and opened the window. She threw more napkins at it, trying to drive it out. Brown paper napkins littered the ground outside the window. The fly stubbornly refused to leave.

Colleen was out of napkins. She looked around in a panic. She spotted a spray bottle of Windex beneath the counter and grabbed it.

The fly took off again. She sprayed at it, leaving droplets of window cleaner on the cups and lids. The fly sailed serenely through the air, zigzagging with ease, avoiding the spray. Colleen shrieked in frustration and threw the bottle at it. The fly disappeared behind a table.

Colleen retrieved the bottle and slowly walked to the table. She got ready to spray and looked behind it.

The fly was gone.

Colleen looked around. There was no trace of it anywhere. She went back behind the counter and cleaned up the mess she made, keeping an eye out for the winged beast. It didn’t show. Colleen kept a supply of napkins and the Windex nearby for the rest of her shift.

#

What the hell…

Chocolate sprinkles littered the baking area floor. Colleen was closing for the night when she noticed them. Rick had shown up tonight, but, unsurprisingly, had left early, apparently in such a rush he couldn’t have been bothered to pick up his mess.

As much as she wanted to, Colleen couldn’t just leave it. The place would be swarming with ants in the morning if she did.

Colleen went to the storage area for the broom and dustpan. They weren’t in their usual spots. Colleen looked around. They weren’t anywhere.

This is all I fucking need right now.

After fifteen minutes of searching she found them in the men’s restroom. Goddamn Rick. She took them and went back to the baking area.

The gigantic fly was in the middle of the sprinkles. Colleen yelled and swiped at it with the dustpan. The insect flew off and disappeared out front.

Colleen couldn’t believe the fly was still around. Hadn’t anyone else noticed it? The thing was a monster. Surely even Vinnie would have tried to get rid of it.

Colleen bent to sweep up the sprinkles. The area in the middle where the fly had been was clear, except for a few stray pieces, as if the fly had been making a space for itself. Colleen looked closer. The pattern of the remaining sprinkles was unusual. It didn’t look random. In fact, they looked to have been placed together deliberately, to form a word…

FRIEND

No. No way. It had to be a coincidence. The fly had buzzed around there, its wings had scattered the sprinkles haphazardly, and it only looked like they had formed a word.

But that legibly? And properly spelled?

I must be seeing things. It can’t be. Flies can’t write, not even with jimmies.

Colleen swept up the sprinkles and threw them out. She heard the door open and someone walk in.

She put the dustpan and broom away and walked out front. A man stood at the counter, wearing a baseball cap and looking around with a sense of nervousness. Colleen’s chest tightened.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re closed for…”

The man pulled a gun from his back waistband and pointed it at Colleen. It was small and silver, but the black hole aimed at Colleen’s face meant business.

“Gimmie the money. Now! Hurry up!”

Colleen’s mouth went dry and she shook as her fingers tripped over the register buttons. Several seconds passed. Her fingers couldn’t do what they normally did without thinking.

The man’s body vibrated with tension as he slapped his free hand down on the counter. “I said hurry up! Open that fucking drawer!”

Colleen jumped and tears sprang from her eyes. All she could see was that black hole in the gun. Death was inches away, and she couldn’t open the cash register drawer.

The drawer popped open, full of money. Colleen hadn’t cashed out the drawer yet. She grabbed handfuls of bills and thrust them at the robber, who stuffed them in his pockets.

“Lift up that tray, that’s where you keep the twenties. Do it!”

Colleen lifted the tray. There was one twenty dollar bill. She gave it to the man.

He looked at her in anger. “That’s it? Where are you hiding the rest, bitch?”

“I’m not hiding anything,” Colleen sobbed. “That’s it, I swear!”

The man’s eyes glittered as he aimed the gun between her eyes. Colleen felt the horrible realization that the man was high on something.

“Please, let me get my purse, I’ll give you what I have. Please don’t kill me.”

The man never blinked. “Too late for that, bitch.” His finger tightened on the trigger.

The fly swooped down and landed on the man’s face. He twitched with annoyance and brushed at it. The fly crawled up into the man’s ear and entered it. Colleen watched the bloated black abdomen wriggle and disappear inside the ear canal.

The robber screamed and the gun went off, shockingly loud inside the donut shop. The bullet hit the display behind Colleen, blasting a stale French cruller into crumbs. Colleen shrieked but could not move; her legs refused to obey her command to run.

The man dug into his ear with his finger. He bent and twirled around, a grotesque dance movement that did nothing to dislodge the unwanted intruder. In desperation he used his gun as a cudgel, bashing it against the side of his head over and over. He continued to scream incoherent obscenities as blood flowed from his mangled ear and spattered on the floor.

The gun dropped from his hand and he fell in a twitching heap to the floor.

Colleen’s legs finally got the message. She ran to the back room, took out her phone, and dialed 911.

The police arrived three minutes later. They took the shaking man into custody and questioned Colleen about what happened. She explained everything that had happened, but left out the part about the fly. She wasn’t sure why.

It didn’t matter. The cops took one look at the man’s eyes and concluded he was, indeed, high on something, and that was what led to his inexplicable meltdown. They asked her if she was all right and if there was someone who could come and pick her up to go home.

Colleen shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You just went through something pretty traumatic.”

“No, I’m okay. I’ll be fine. Thank you.”

Vinnie arrived, having been informed by the police that his business had been the place of an attempted robbery. Vinnie posed the same questions to Colleen and she gave him the same answers.

The cops dug the bullet out of the wall, took the video from the security camera, and left with the robber. Vinnie locked the doors and went into the storage room to get the mop and bleach to clean up the blood. Colleen stood at the counter and forced herself to control her shaking.

The fly landed on the counter.

Colleen could only stare at it, fascinated. The fly had saved her life.

The fly walked forward, leaving tiny red stains on the counter. It lifted its head and looked at her with its compound eyes.

Colleen’s fear melted away. A new feeling bloomed within her, a confidence and surety that was new and warm and welcome. Colleen embraced it.

She bent down, her face inches away from the fly’s own.

“Thank you.”

#

“Um, excuse me.”

Leslie and Cheryl, on their way to the door, turned around. Their faces showed blank annoyance at having been addressed.

“You’ve left the flavor shot machine empty again,” Colleen said. “And you haven’t refilled the sugar bowls. This happens too often with you two. I’m getting sick of it.”

The girls looked at each other in disbelief.

“Well, so what?” Cheryl said. “This place is dead. You can do it.”

“That’s not the point,” Colleen said. “Each shift is supposed to set up the shift coming after. You two never do that. Why should I be stuck catching up all the time?”

“What’s gotten up your ass?” Leslie’s put-upon expression was so comical Colleen nearly laughed.

“You two have. It’s time for you to start doing your jobs instead of playing on your phones all day.”

Colleen was vaguely aware of heat emanating from her face. The two girls blanched.

“Okay, all right, jeez, no need to pitch a fit about it.” Leslie and Cheryl came back and refilled the sugar bowls and flavor shot machine. Once they were done they cast backward glances as they walked out the door.

Colleen found herself panting for breath. Her hands shook. Yet she had never felt better.

Above her, the fly flew in lazy circles. Colleen smiled.

#

Oh, no. She’s back.

There was no mistaking that bleached-blonde hair. Miss Spit-On-The-Floor had returned.

The woman’s eyes narrowed as soon as she saw Colleen. “Do you think you can make my coffee drinkable this time?”

Colleen held down the anger that flared within her. “Yes, ma’am. Medium French vanilla regular?”

The woman seemed surprised that Colleen remembered. “Yes.”

Colleen got the coffee ready. She put the lid on the cup and placed it on the counter. “$2.14, please.”

Just like the last time the woman took the lid off the cup and brought it to her lips. Again, she grimaced and turned to the side.

“Don’t even think about it.”

The woman’s head swiveled back to Colleen, outrage in her eyes.

“You’re not going to spit the coffee on the floor again,” Colleen said. “That’s disgusting and unsanitary. Your coffee is fine. It is not stale, and it was not made from toilet water. Me remaking it will not make it different.”

The woman spit the coffee back into the cup. “How dare you speak to me like that? I demand to talk to your manager!”

“He’s not here. It’s just me.”

“Then I’m going to return when he is here. And you, young lady, will be out of a job.”

“I don’t think so, especially since you’ve spit on the floor once already.”

“Hah! I’ll deny it. It’ll be my word against yours.”

“No, ma’am,” Colleen said. She allowed herself to smile. “See that dark glass dome on the ceiling? That’s a security camera. It recorded you spitting on the floor. It will be your word against the camera’s.”

The pancake makeup on the woman’s face could not hide how red it was getting. “Why, you little bitch,” she hissed. She slammed the cup on the counter, spilling half of it. “I’m not paying for that!”

“Fine,” Colleen said. She cleared away the cup and cleaned up the mess with a cloth. “If you are not going to purchase anything, you must leave.”

The woman trembled with indignation. She spun around and headed for the door.

“And ma’am?” Colleen said in her sweetest voice. “You are not allowed back in here.”

The woman said nothing as she stormed off.

The fly landed on the counter as Colleen finished wiping away the last of the coffee. She smiled at it.

“I think that’s the last we’ll see of her.”

The fly lifted its right foreleg and held it in the air. The gesture was clear. Slap me five.

Colleen tapped the leg with her index finger.

The fly buzzed away. Colleen scooped some chocolate frosting from the back and put it on a small paper plate. She placed it on one of the tables. She watched fondly as the fly settled on it and started to eat.

#

Two nights later Colleen’s mood had taken a turn for the worse. It was Sunday night, and she didn’t usually close on Sundays. But Terri had called out, so here she was.

The night before had been a disaster. Colleen had gone out with Andy to see Steve and Laurie. Colleen’s dour mood had not improved as Steve and Laurie kept trying to pump her for all the gory details of the botched robbery. Colleen hadn’t wanted to talk about it, but they persisted. Her monotone answers left them bemused and unsatisfied. Later Andy had tried to apologize for her, saying she had been going through some “mood swings” lately. On the drive back home Colleen and Andy had fought about it.

What’s with you lately?

What do you mean, what’s with me?

You’re always in such a bitchy mood lately. How come?

How am I a bitch?

Why wouldn’t you talk with Steve and Laurie?

All they wanted to talk about was the robbery. I didn’t want to talk about that.

So what? They were curious. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that I didn’t want to talk about it, and they wouldn’t change the topic. And who are you to apologize for me? What gives you the right to do that?

Andy had given a “why me?” gesture with his hands.

I can’t believe you’re acting this way. I hope things change once we get married!

Colleen remembered the exchange with a hollow heart.

The fly landed on the counter.

Tears rolled from Colleen’s eyes. “That really was ‘friend’ you spelled with the jimmies a few days back, wasn’t it?”

The fly buzzed its wings once.

“And you have been a friend. To think I was terrified of you when I first saw you. I tried to kill you! Can you accept my apology for that?”

The wings buzzed once.

“Thank you.” Colleen sighed and looked away. “I think I’ve changed since you’ve been around. Is this a coincidence?”

The wings buzzed twice.

“No, I didn’t think so.”

Colleen took out her cell phone and looked at it.

The wings buzzed once.

Colleen’s laughter was tinged with trepidation. “You’re telling me to go ahead with it.”

The wings buzzed once.

Colleen took a deep breath and called Andy’s phone. It rang once before he picked up.

“Yeah, Colleen, what is it?”

“Andy,” Colleen said. She took another breath. “We need to talk tonight after I get home from work.”

“Talk about what? Can’t we do it over the phone?”

“No, it wouldn’t be right. We need to do this face-to-face.”

Andy was silent for a moment.

“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

“I’m not saying anything more now. We’ll talk when I get home.”

“Colleen, please…”

Colleen hung up.

The fly remained still upon the counter.

Colleen was nervous, but she also felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her chest. In a few more hours it would be over.

And she would live on her own terms.

“Would you like some more chocolate?”

The wings buzzed twice. The fly lifted up and headed for the door.

Fresh tears sprang from Colleen’s eyes. “Oh, no. You’re leaving?”

The fly landed on the glass door. Its wings buzzed once.

Colleen cried, but she went to the door and opened it. The fly flew around her head once and sped off into the night.

“Goodbye. And thank you.”

Colleen released the door and it closed on the darkness.

 

Bio: Paul Magnan has been writing stories that veer from the straight and narrow for many years. He lives in Rhode Island with his family.