“We’re getting slammed,” Frank grumbled to Tony. He tapped the call bell twice. “C’mon Jennifer—pick up orders for tables 11, 5, and 25. You gotta hustle during the lunchtime rush…”
Jennifer wheeled around and flipped the cook the double bird. Without breaking her stride, she refilled glasses with lukewarm water.
“Jennifer—!” Frank bellowed.
Without a word, Jennifer reappeared, giving the cook a murderous look before stomping back to the pass and picking up entrées.
“So I gotta waitress and bus tables?”
“Yeah. We’re short staffed.”
“So get these orders out.”
“I’m doing the best I can,” she complained, angry tears forming in the corners of her eyes. She swallowed to hold them back.
“Food down, check down. Don’t double your efforts. Don’t let the customers run you either.”
“How am I supposed to do that when I’m getting triple-seated? Tell the hostess—”
“The hostess just left. She almost passed out on the register—apparently she’s dehydrated,” Frank mumbled. “I need you all to drink plenty of water, all right? I can’t have anyone else calling out sick. What about you, Tony? You feeling alright?”
“I’m snug as a bug in a rug,” Tony joked.
Jennifer rolled her eyes.
As bad as the food and service were, the diner’s patrons weren’t in any mood to leave the overheated diner. Sweat glistened on their faces, pooled in their armpits, ran down their backs.
“Tell them to go back to their dormitories,” Jennifer grumbled to Tony. “They’ve already eaten. They should move along…”
“Can you blame them?” Tony said. “Once Aboveground Tourists see the dry river beds and city ruins, there’s nothing much for them to do until things cool down. They should go nap until the stars come out.”
“Tony, I only have a couple of months to make some money before we go back under. I need to turn my tables.”
“The high season is almost over, Jennifer. You’ll make enough cash to last until November,” Tony reassured her. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll open early next year. Maybe it’ll be under 120°F by October?”
“It’s still triple digits in Minneapolis. If the heat doesn’t break, we’ll be back in the Underground by Valentine’s Day.” Jennifer loaded up her serving tray, fumbling with a piece of pie. It fell facedown on the filthy floor.
“Jesus!” yelled Frank.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Tony said, laughing at his own joke.
“I’ll need a reorder of shoofly pie,” Jennifer called out smugly. She glared at Frank, daring him to say something, sidestepping the mess. Tony leaned down to clean it up.
“How can you stand that girl?” Frank asked, squinting at a stack of new orders. “She’s the worst waitress I’ve ever hired.”
“She’s busy as a bee,” Tony replied, throwing his grimy towel into the sink. He started scrambling a high-protein omelet. He held up a large spoon, dripping its gooey contents onto the sizzling grill. “Don’t let people bug you, Frank.”
“Hi folks! What can I get you?” Jennifer smiled at the four-top in front of her.
The parents had the ghostly pallor of recent Undergrounders. The children looked agog at the bustling scene, unused to the strange noises and bright lights and odd smells.
“We’ve just arrived,” the mother apologized, looking at the menu. “Could you explain some of the items on the menu?”
“I’ll be happy to—” Jennifer started to reply. But before she could speak, the diner’s door jingled open. A shrill wave of loud buzzing roared into the diner from the outside.
“What’s that?” cried one of the children.
“That’s the mating call of one of our specials tonight,” Jennifer answered. “Our cicada entrée is only available once every 17 years.”
“Can we get cicadas, Dad?” the children whined.
“Ah yes, cicadas,” the father sighed with pleasure. “I remember trying those in college. Do they come boiled or fried?”
“They are blanched first, then sautéed in spicy sunflower seed oil.”
“Delicious! We’ll take two dozen.”
It was nearly dusk when the last of the Aboveground Tourists returned to their lodgings, leaving the diner’s staff utterly spent. Jennifer washed the tables and chairs. Frank finished making ketchup, using his own hydroponic-tomatoes. Tony prepped a mountain of potatoes—ones that thrived in the Underground’s growhouses—for a dozen different side dishes.
As she cleaned the counters, Jennifer looked up to see Frank enter the dining room.
He sat down with a heavy sigh. “Can I ask you a favor?”
Too tired to object, Jennifer nodded.
“Manny’s sending bodies over from the morgue. He’s dropping them in fifteen minutes or so.”
“What’s that got to do with me?” she asked.
“Tony can’t unload them by himself, and I gotta start harvesting for tomorrow. I’ll pay you fifty.”
Tony and Jennifer looked out of the diner’s windows as Manny remotely dropped bodies from a drone—one by one—down a metal shaft into the diner’s cellar.
Thud…Boom. Thud…Boom. Thud…Boom.
One right after another.
“You ready?” Tony asked, pulling on a pair of latex gloves. “You up for this, or do you have butterflies in your stomach?”
Shaking her head, she followed him quickly down the stairs.
It was easily fifteen degrees cooler in the basement. Tony and Jennifer had laid out the corpses as Frank walked into the room.
“What’s on the menu for tomorrow?” Tony asked, rubbing his eyes.
Frank shined a small flashlight over the carcasses, noting which organisms had started to feed.
“Let’s see. Blow flies, maggots…Gees, Tony. Look at this dried-up old hag. Yes! Beetle larvae!” Frank cut open the corpse, scooping up the fleeing grubs in wide-mouth jars. “Gotcha,” he laughed, screwing the lids on tight. “Stir-fry tomorrow?”
Tony nodded in agreement.
“Frank?” Jennifer asked, seizing the moment. “Any chance you’re looking for another cook?”
“Maybe,” Frank muttered over his shoulder, walking up the stairs, taking his jars with him. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
“He’s not such a bad guy,” Jennifer said, more to herself than Tony.
“Who, Frank?” Tony replied with a grin. “Frank wouldn’t hurt a fly.”