“And the worst part is, none of it's my fault.” As she spoke the words, Jessica slowly rotated the paper coffee cup between her hands. She regretted buying it. Water would have cost her nothing. The bus fare to the coffee shop cost her two dollars, and it would be two more dollars to get back home. That would leave seventy six dollars and fifty two cents in her bank account for the next two weeks, until a check arrived in the mail again. The utility bills hadn't been paid yet. They were due before the check came—that would mean late fees again next month.
Molly sipped her mocha-latte with two pumps of extra milk and one lump of sugar once, twice, three times. She had taken in every last word of Jessica's story, and Jessica's honesty regarding her desperate situation left Molly searching for the appropriate response. This was not the sort of conversation Molly expected to have when she arranged to have coffee with her old high school pal for the first time in ten years. “It's like you're cursed,” Molly said.
“Seriously. And the worst part is, there's literally nothing I can do about it. I'm basically stuck in this situation whether I want to be or not. Nobody's hiring, and even if they were, I couldn't take a job and leave my grandma at home by herself. She can't be alone. She's so out of it she'd probably kill herself on accident.”
“What's wrong with her? I mean, sorry. I don't mean to pry. I haven't done much socializing with anyone besides patients—nursing doesn't really leave you with too much free time.”
“At least it pays the bills. And we have no idea what she has. We've taken her to a bunch of specialists but every time they think they've found out what it is, they find something new that disproves it. I seriously question the quality of universities these days if doctors can't even do their jobs right.”
Molly sipped her latte again. She felt a bit stung by the comment—her experience in university had left her feeling enlightened. Many of her friends were doctors. She understood that diagnosis wasn't always an easy thing. Jessica was clearly suffering, though. Now wasn't the time to make waves over a comment that came from an unhappy place. If Jessica were one of her patients, Molly thought, good bedside manner would be to comfort her.
Jessica looked down at her empty cup of coffee. She decided the cup was too small. For what she paid, Jessica expected a larger size. There was no way she could have known this place was so expensive. It was Molly who had picked it. Molly with her fancy mocha-whatever. Molly with her big fancy college job, who didn't know what life was like in the real world for people who actually had to think critically about how they spent their money. She decided to forgive Molly for her ignorant choice of meeting place—they hadn't spoken in ten years, but now that she had explained her situation, Molly had no more excuses, she decided. Jessica checked the time on her cell phone. The bus would be at the stop in twenty minutes. It was a fifteen minute walk from the coffee shop to the bus stop.
“Anyways,” Jessica began.
Molly stopped sipping, relieved. She was still searching for the right words.
Jessica rolled her thin lips in to her mouth, and they disappeared. “I got to get going. Grandma's been home alone for two hours already. I can't stay any longer.”
“Oh. Well, good luck with everything.”
The bus was ten minutes late and smelled of vodka and vomit. There were three screaming babies and three apathetic mothers to go with them seated in the center. They were on the bus before Jessica stepped in, and they remained on the bus when she got off at her stop. Jessica tried to lose herself in her thoughts, directing her gaze to the window. But the screeching of the children rooted her in reality; the window reflected her chubby, acne covered face and provided a fitting, dismal backdrop of factories and dilapidated buildings.
When she reached her stop and took her first step off the bus, she wished the trip had been longer. She made the walk up the stairs to her second floor apartment as long as she could.
As soon as the door clicked shut behind her, Grandmother's yell reached Jessica's ear. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Grandmother had expected Jessica home much sooner. In truth, she had told Jessica it was a bad idea to leave at all. The neighborhood wasn't safe. And how cruel could a grand-daughter be to leave her ailing and needful Grandmother at home, all alone, for hours on end?
“I'm home, Grandma,” Jessica said, setting her keys down on a table near the door. She tried in vain to hide the anxiety in her voice. Grandmother could hear that Jessica was not at all pleased to be home, when she should be. Every person should appreciate their family—and that was something Jessica never did. Grandmother wondered what she had done to deserve such a selfish grand-daughter.
“Don't you greet me like that!” Grandmother's voice boomed into the hallway from the living room. “Where have you been all damn day? Can't you think of your own grandmother's needs for once in your life?”
“I told you before I left, Grandma,” Jessica said, hanging up her sweatshirt, and holding back a heavy sigh. “I met a friend from high school. We haven't seen each other for ten years. I couldn't pass it up.”
“What makes you think you can spend all your time dilly-daddling with your little friends when your own grandmother needs help?”
“What is it Grandma? What do you need?” Jessica stepped in to the doorway, rolling her eyes. Her expression changed when she saw Grandmother seated in front of her beloved laptop, mashing the keys, her fingers sticky with soda. Three clear two liter bottles lay empty on the floor atop an orange stain on the grey carpet. With all her might, Jessica held back the tide of rage that boiled in in her body.
“I need help! Use your eyes, child!” Grandmother didn't understand how Jessica couldn't tell what was so obviously wrong. On on the other side of the soda bottles, Grandmother's walker lay on the floor on its side. Her cane lay beside the bottles, soaked and sticky. The computer was flashing a bright red box on the screen, and unresponsive to her commands.
The soda bottles had all been full and in the fridge when Jessica left. Grandmother brought each one over, one at at time, and proceeded to knock each one off the narrow table as she fought with the laptop. After her last trip back from the fridge, she knocked her walker over as well, and only managed to push it farther away when attempting to reach it with her cane. “Get over here already! I'm not going to live forever, you know.”
Jessica took in a deep breath with each slow step of her left foot, and exhaled with each slow step of her right. She closed her eyes and thought about her favorite heroes. For a brief moment, she was Bruce Banner. Deep inside, she wanted to free the Hulk—it would be satisfying—but for now, it would be necessary to remain calm, and assess the damage to her poor baby. She knew she was a better person for taking the high-road. “Tell me what you need.”
“Are you blind?” Grandmother gestured towards the computer screen. “I'm typing it in and the damn thing won't play my movie.”
“Why don't you watch a movie on TV?”
“Ain't nothing on the TV! I wanted to watch that movie about that smart ass talking dog. But this damn thing isn't working!”
“Grandma, that's not how computers work. And stop mashing the keys! You're going to break it!”
“Don't you tell me what to do! I know what I'm doing!”
“You're going to break it!”
“It's already broken!” Grandma slammed the laptop closed. “Well, I guess this poor old woman's going to have to go without even a nice show to watch when she's spent the whole damn day alone and miserable with no one to take care of her. Are you happy now?”
They argued for an hour before Jessica realized that Grandmother, having knocked over her walker, had been stuck in the computer chair for an hour before Jessica came home, and had relieved herself in her pants. The cushion of Jessica's computer chair would have to be cleaned, as would the carpet, the laptop keyboard, and Grandmother's ass. When it was all done, and Grandmother had been put to bed, Jessica sat down at her laptop with a bowl of hot ramen, and sank in to an uncomfortable plywood chair dragged over from the dining table.
“Poor baby,” Jessica cooed, and slid her fingers across the laptop, opening it up. “I won't let mean ol' Grandma get to you again, I promise.” She turned on the laptop and allowed herself to be washed in the dim light of its screen, feeling the ecstasy of total immersion in a world she could control.
Offline, she was a loser. Unemployed, living with her grandmother, no higher education, no money, no boyfriend to speak of, ugly, socially awkward. That was reality, and she knew it. There was no hiding from it. She did not intend to lie to herself about the plain truth. But she was also so much more than that, she knew. Intelligent, open minded, articulate, mature, kind, appreciative, giving, gentle, realistic, logical, funny, and a fighter. But no one ever appreciated these qualities in her—except online. Online these qualities shone like stars in the deepest blackness of the foul internet. Others, stars in the night like her, saw these qualities in her, recognized her. More than anything, she sought out these other stars. She needed them to remind her that these qualities in her were real. If no one ever said it, she knew, she could not believe it. She was a scientist in all ways. She needed evidence. And so she logged on to her hugbox.com account, to once again hear the voices who sung in harmony with her own wild, geeky rhythm.
One week later, Molly called Jessica. She had been worried about her old pal ever since she watched her sulk out of the coffee shop. Jessica's story had touched her—it was the sort of tale of misfortune she would expect to hear statistics about on the evening news, but had never heard from a stricken human voice, from a body tangible, sitting before her. Molly made a mental note to remind all of her friends to vote Democrat this year. But she had to do something else, she knew. Something direct, something to help out her old Geek Club buddy.
Jessica's phone rang three times before she answered.
“Hey Jess, it's Molly. Have you got some time to talk?”
“A little. Grandma's napping. But if this is about coffee, I can't afford to do it. To be honest, I shouldn't have bought any last time. I'm in deep, deep trouble with money and—”
“Oh, no, don't worry. It's something else. So remember how I told you I'm going to be working as a nurse at Oak Willow?”
“Yeah, I remember.” Jessica wondered where this was going. She decided it probably wasn't anywhere interesting. She didn't need to hear more about how amazing Molly's life was. Jessica felt that being a good friend and a good listener were qualities she was cursed with rather than blessed with.
“Well, my dad owns the place, and—”
Jessica rolled her eyes.
“—I told him about your situation. When I mentioned that you couldn't get a job because of your grandma, but that you had great bookkeeping skills, he told me that there was a position open that you qualified for.”
Jessica was surprised and flattered—Molly had been thinking of her all along. Molly wasn't as self-centered as she believed. Even so, it seemed to her that Molly did not remember everything she had told her. “You know, I would love to take you up on that offer. But, my grandma. She needs me. I can't leave her alone, and I wouldn't be a good employee if I had to limit my hours so low. Couldn't get anything done.”
“That won't be a problem, if you and your grandma are OK with this situation. You would be a full time worker, and your grandma could stay at Oak Willow free of charge.”
“Wow, that's, that's—that's awfully kind of your father. Aren't nursing homes usually expensive? And, uh, do you guys get cable for your customers? The old people I mean—I'm going to need to convince Grandma.” Her dreams were coming true. All that positive karma she'd been building all of these years was finally catching up to her. Grandmother could move out of the apartment. Jessica could get some sleep. The bills would be paid. She could afford to support her hobbies again—it was almost too perfect. But it was real. Molly's voice was real.
“Yes, we get cable,” Molly laughed. “And he's not as nice as you think. He can write it off his taxes as a charity, and there are a few open bedrooms as it is that don't look like they're going to be filled any time soon. When could you come down for an interview?”
Jessica wore her best and only suit to the interview. The moths had gotten to the jacket while it hung in the back of her closet for five years, but the damage had only been done to the inner lining, making it itchy in all of the places where loose ends of fabric poked through her shirt. The bus was late.
Oak Willow was near the suburbs. Not an unattractive area compared to her own, Jessica thought, though the building itself looked a bit gloomy with all of the shade from the over grown willow trees. The interior was brightly lit, with the white tile and white walls reflecting a sterile glare. The place was quiet and empty. As Jessica approached the receptionist's desk, the top of a short young woman's head became visible.
The receptionist stood up. She was a slender woman blessed with feminine curves in only the right places, and a cute face with large green eyes that reminded Jessica of an anime character. She wore a name tag on a lanyard that read “Winona W.”
“Hello, can I help you?” Winona dabbed her cheek with a napkin.
Jessica noticed a half eaten slice of chocolate cake on her desk. Some women had all the luck, Jessica thought—a single slice of cake would put ten pounds on her own hips. If she could even afford to buy cake. “Yes, I'm here for the interview.”
“Oh, well I'm afraid you'll have to wait. Boss' running late today. Have a seat.”
Jessica breathed a sigh of relief. Another stroke of good fortune. There may still be a chance for her to land this job yet. “What time is it?” She asked the receptionist, and glanced back down at the cake again with hungry eyes. A keychain sat on the desk beside the cake. One of the ornaments was a silver pentagram. That struck her as rather interesting. Perhaps an indicator for some geeky fandom?
“Ten past one. He should be back from his lunch any minute.”
“Are you a fan of Supernatural?” Jessica asked.
“Uhm, what?” Winona looked quizzically at Jessica. She just wanted to go back to her cake. Her not-quite-so-delicious, sugar and gluten free cake, but cake none-the-less.
“Your keychain,” Jessica pointed.
“Oh.” Winona hoped the conversation would end here.
“Well, you have seen the show right? Am I right?”
“Yeah, I've seen it.”
“I knew it,” a big smile formed on Jessica's face. Perhaps she could even make some new geeky friends here. “Who's your favorite brother?”
“I can't actually say I like the show. I'm not really a fan.”
The receptionist felt a bit silly, but couldn't think of another answer besides an honest one. The entire conversation had taken her off guard. “It's very inaccurate.”
“What do you mean?”
“They don't get their lore right.”
“Then why do you have that if you're not a fan of the show?” Jessica couldn't stand posers. Especially fake-nerd posers. Those damn teenage hipsters who never had to go through being ostracized for their interests didn't know what it meant to be a real geek. The whole point of displaying geek paraphernalia was to get other geeks to talk to you about it. What a frustrating person this idiot receptionist must be.
The boss walked in through the front door. “Ah, you must be Jessica. Forgive my tardiness. I'll see you in my office shortly.”
Molly's father looked back up at Jessica after glancing over her resume. Though she had been out of work for five years, she did have the skills he needed. Molly claimed to him that Jessica was a hard worker, and he trusted the judgment of his daughter. Even so, the nervous beads of sweat trickling from Jessica's forehead caught his attention. He wanted confident, strong workers, who could handle the stress of the job. He pondered over this as Jessica adjusted her smile and scratched her wrist. He decided to give her the benefit of the doubt—from her perspective, he thought, there must be quite a bit riding on this.
“Everything looks good,” he said. “You can start Monday.”
Grandmother moved in to Oak Willow over the weekend. At first she was hesitant, but she decided it would be a good idea. Jessica was a lousy caretaker. Perhaps some time apart would teach her to appreciate having her family around. And Oak Willow's bedrooms came with cable TV.
Jessica was excited to have her first night of uninterrupted restful sleep in five years, but kept herself awake with anxiety and excitement. Monday came quicker than she hoped.
With enthusiasm, Molly toured Jessica around the facility, introducing her to the staff and a few of the residents. She was excited to have someone she knew around. Most of the other nurses were old enough to be residents themselves, aside from Diedre, who had recently been hired. Molly hadn't spoken to her much. Diedre was young and fresh out of nursing school, and kept to herself when she wasn't with a resident. But Jessica was sure to make working here more interesting. They could catch up on life, or talk about their favorite geeky hobbies in the break room.
“And this,” Molly opened the door and spread her arms in a flourish, “is your own office.”
Jessica's heart pounded. Her own office? She'd never had such an important job before. At her old jobs, she was always assigned a cubicle. The thrill of it evaporated when she entered the office. It was very small, and windowless. The furniture looked as if it had been bought on sale at Ikea, and the computer that sat on the desk was an early 2000's Dell. She could tell how slow it ran by looking at it. “Oh,” was all she managed to say.
Molly hoped Jessica would've been more excited. It must have been silly of her to expect someone to be excited about a job at an old folk's home, she decided. “All of the financial records are in that bookcase, and there are also copies on the computer. The passwords are on the sticky note next to the monitor.”
“You mean I have to do paperwork?” This job was looking dimmer and dimmer, Jessica thought.
“Yeah, my dad's a bit old fashioned like that. He insists on keeping hard copies of everything. Don't worry too much about it, though. Just print everything and sort it by date. And another part of the job is keeping inventory. That's actually super important—I wasn't supposed to tell you, but the guy who had the job before you lost it because he messed up the inventory records, and my dad had to go back and fix them himself.”
“Don't worry. You know me—I'm like a machine. Pure logic. I won't fuck up.”