The sirens in the distance did little to drown out the strangled, pained screaming of the man in the drive thru.
Phoebe’s right knee bumped into mine. We sat, huddled close, on the curb outside the fast-food restaurant we had worked at together for more than three years. The concrete was scorching beneath us. A customer who deemed himself “a Good Samaritan” stood a few feet behind us, talking comfortably with 911 on the phone he held flush against the side of his head, his free hand propped on the gun holstered to his hip. Female, early twenties, red hair, the man said loud enough for us to hear. I have her detained.
Towards the far end of the building, a crowd of coworkers and customers gathered around the open door of a black SUV. The driver sat slumped backwards in the front seat, letting out sharp yelps of pain due to the fresh burns on his face. Ten minutes prior, Phoebe had thrown a full cup of boiling hot soup out the drive thru window and into his idling car.
I only managed to catch a glimpse of the aftermath from my position at the front counter but could make out the melting features of his face: watering eyes, ropes of snot hanging from his nose, eyelids absent of eyelashes, the beginnings of second-degree burns transforming his skin color from dusty pale to a brilliant ruby red. The man’s face appeared tight and gleaming, smooth to the touch. The chain from the necklace he wore had somehow burrowed into the burnt flesh of his chest leaving an angry red imprint. He wailed and wailed, grasping in vain at his damaged face. Phoebe did not stay to watch the aftermath she inflicted and instead, walked calmly away from the window and out the main door.
She didn’t ask but I followed.
I held Phoebe’s hand between the two of mine. She managed to burn her left hand somehow during the assault. I wrapped the burnt skin in my soiled apron doused in cold water from the soda fountain and told her to keep held close to her body. Phoebe’s jaw trembled despite the early summer heat. Her chattering teeth echoed off the parked cars. I waited for her to speak first.
“Think this might get me in a little more trouble than a speeding ticket?” She asked.
“Yes,” I told her the truth. “At least you don’t have to pay rent in jail.”
Phoebe smiled though it didn’t reach her eyes. I moved a few stray hairs from her face and pretended that I would still see her when she got home later, though I didn’t know what punishment would be waiting for when the police arrived or the amount of the bail that she wouldn’t be able to pay.
“I knew I couldn’t make it here another summer,” Phoebe said, voice unwavering. “The sun comes out and makes people mean.”
Customers were always horrible, but something about summer temperatures made working another level of miserable. We worked slowly in the cramped, hot, oily kitchen, chewing ice to pass the time and taking turns seeing how long we could last in the walk-in freezer before the familiar ding signaling that someone was waiting for their order to be taken. Some nights during the summer, Phoebe and I only worked the night shift and used that time specifically to smoke stale weed that always made my sinuses hurt. The restaurant was never really a restaurant past 9PM.
“I know,” I told her after a few moments. “I think I would’ve done the same thing.”
Before the burnt man became the burnt man, he ordered a large number five (crispy fish sandwich, potato wedges, and drink of choice) and a large cup of our soup of the month (spicy tortilla). The transaction seemed like any other. Phoebe even passed me with a smile as she spooned the steaming liquid into a Styrofoam bowl. I went back to the counter and continued taking orders before the tense voice of a man’s voice crackled through the wireless headsets we all wore. I turned the volume up with my free hand as where the fuck is my soup, slut? comes in staticky through the left ear of my headset.
Commotion afterwards: the burnt man howling in shock, customers grabbing for their children, our line cook gagging at the sight of soup-induced facial burns, Good Samaritan springing into action (following us outside telling Phoebe to sit the fuck down and wait for the police and see you in five to ten, bitch). Our nineteen-year-old manager stood a few dozen feet away in the parking lot, hands interlocked behind his head like he was struggling to catch his breath. I started going through different ways I could wipe the security footage before the police got there despite the sirens inching closer with every exhale of Phoebe’s breath. There was no place for us to run and hide.
Phoebe leaned into me, head on my shoulder. I could feel her tears soaking the fabric of my greasy uniform as she said, “Who the fuck orders soup in June?”
Katie Strubel (she/her) is an MFA student and educator in the Pacific Northwest. Her words have appeared in FEED, warning lines, Archetype Literary, and are forthcoming in Diet Milk Magazine. In her free time, you'll find Katie watching professional basketball or updating her Letterboxd. She is on Twitter @katiestrubel and Insta @ktstrubel.