Stuart moved slowly as he rinsed down the stack of chipped plastic dishes, feeling the double breaded popcorn chicken settle in his stomach like so many rocks. It was getting dark and he could just see the flickering glow of the Henrietta’s Chicken Shack sign start to light up the parking lot. He was exhausted just from standing at the sink, most of his body’s energy going towards more pressing issues, such as what should be done about the double breaded popcorn chicken.
It was all Janice’s fault. She’d slacked off again and left him to handle most of the dinner shift by himself. By the end of it he was so behind that he’d been forced to wolf down that morning’s discards on a stool in the back room. There’d been a bucket of secret sauce sitting on the counter, in between the lard and the fry oil, and one by one he’d dunked the misshapen blobs of flesh in the bucket before shoving them in his mouth.
Stuart had already forgiven Janice. He would have forgiven her anything, but it had been an especially hard week for her since Lucy stopped showing up. When he’d called out to her from table 5, she’d paused with one hand on the door and looked at him, a look that said “I’m going outside to wait for Lucy, my one true friend.” But day after day, Janice waited and Lucy did not come back. There were rumors, of course, that she’d talked to some reporters, that she’d been digging into company secrets, that she knew what went into the secret sauce.
Things were slowing down for the night, as the grease and fat settled over the customers like a heavy blanket so comforting that you welcomed its slow smothering. Stuart’s stomach churned as he mopped up, and he stopped in the back room to stare balefully at the bucket of secret sauce. It stared back, seeming to churn itself as shadows from the ceiling fan flitted over its viscous, dull orange surface. Was something moving? Stuart dropped the mop, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and leaned over the bucket.
“Do you wanna know what’s in there?” a voice whispered behind him.
“Cheese and fries, Jan!” Stuart exclaimed as he whirled around in surprise.
“No,” she said quietly. “It’s not cheese and fries.” She looked scared. And sad, like she’d just come back from a funeral. “Please don’t look, Stu. That’s all Lucy did was look, and that was enough.”
“What are you talking about,” Stuart muttered. “It’s just sauce.”
He dipped a finger in the bucket, despite Janice’s whimper, and sloshed it around, the smells sending his stomach on new roller coasters. He was just pulling his hand out when it brushed against something furry and rough. It wasn’t just floating, it was moving. Squirming. He looked wide-eyed at Janice, but she had her eyes shut tight and was halfway out the door. He heard her wails recede into the distance as he compulsively turned back to the bucket. They were so obvious now, the things that were living in there. They drank the secret sauce and excreted it, slept in it and played in it. It fairly bubbled with their furious motion, globs of thick liquid spewed this way and that as they cavorted and danced in the fluorescent light. Stuart was sick to his stomach. One of them laughed, and the orange sauce bubbled out in a froth. A chunk of black sludge was nibbled at by two or three tarry mouths. Two more were going at each other so wantonly that jiggling sprays of syrup were sent airborne with every salacious thrust.
The room spun as Stuart stumbled out the door. Everyone had gone home except a well dressed woman in a black pinstripe skirt suit.
“Stuart Brenner?” she asked, standing and extending her hand. “My name is…well, I’m the corporate liaison for this branch of Henrietta’s.”
The logo of Henrietta’s Chicken Shack was embroidered on her breast pocket.
“Please sit down,” she continued. “I’m here to talk to you about the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Lucy Rusman’s termination.”
Stuart sat dully, holding his stomach with one hand.
“Are you feeling quite well?” she asked in a concerned tone. “How ’bout a stiff drink? It’s after hours, isn’t it?” She took a flask from her bag and mixed it in a plastic cup with Coke from the machine.
Stuart stared at the cup for a second before taking an ambitious sip. “Lucy…” he began.
“Yes,” the woman said, smoothing her skirt and smiling as she took the seat opposite. “I’m afraid we had to let her go, but I can tell you we’re very pleased with your performance in her absence. You and… Janine, is it?”
“Ah. Yes. I should really write that down.”
Stuart wondered how many sips it would take him to gather up the courage to tell the lady about what had happened in the back room. She was scribbling something in a little notebook, and crossing something off. He took another sip and the woman smiled as his eyelids fluttered and drooped. He resolved to say something after just three more. He needn’t have worried though; as it turned out, one sip was more than enough.