“Is everything okay here?”
“Well, it’s fine. But, can I ask you, I mean, I don’t know if you can do anything about it, but—”
Kali waited beside the table, her fist tightening around the handle of the coffee pot she held. She couldn’t care less what the problem was. She wondered if her customers realized she was contractually obligated to ask them if they were enjoying their meal and if she could get them anything else.
And with this guy, it was always something. He came in every morning the second the door was open. Breakfast started at 7am and she dreaded seeing his face peering through the glass, without fail, at 6:55. He sat himself at the same four-top table, table 32, and set himself up like a king holding court. Extra napkins. Fresh cream – not just the same half and half they gave out in individual cups – but he wanted the cold stuff from the cooler. A separate trip, extra steps, a separate glass. Stevia, more stevia than any human could possibly need. Somehow he managed, every day, to spill sweetener all over the table. Kali wondered how a man came to be over fifty years old and never mastered the simple task of opening a sugar packet without raining it all over everything. The coffee didn’t come fast enough. His food wasn’t hot enough. He sat in her section for hours, demanding she drop everything and talk to him. He tipped $3.
It filled her with rage. She was as cool to him as she could get away with, being, after all, in the service industry. But this guy made her blood boil and she wondered if he could feel the disdain and revulsion as it came off her in waves. She waited.
“I don’t know if maybe this stuff fermented?” he held up the small bottle of Tabasco sauce.
Kali narrowed her eyes. She waited. She refused to understand. If people were going to say stupid things, she insisted on making them say all of it. She would not try to help or soften the experience. She wanted them to say the whole thing, out loud. It was important to her that they hear themselves.
“It’s just,” he continued, “it’s just really hot. Does that happen?”
“The hot sauce is too hot?” she couldn’t be hearing this.
“Well, maybe it’s just me,” he said lamely.
Kali stood quietly for a moment, allowing his words to take up all the air between them.
“Would you like me to bring you another bottle?” she said.
“I mean, maybe,” he said, looking at the Tabasco sauce as if he were really trying to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Without another word, Kali swiveled on her heel and made for the kitchen.
This fucking guy.
She grabbed another bottle of hot sauce from the shelf, identical to the one on his table, and headed back. She set it down and kept moving. She refused to waste another second of her brain power listening to his nonsense.
Approaching another table, she shook her head to clear away the negative energy. The two women chatting over tea in the corner booth did not deserve her wrath. She smiled at them and took their order. Pancakes and bacon. She went back to the kitchen and placed the order with the cooks.
Kali leaned against the wall and took a sip of her coffee. It had gone cold and she grimaced, swallowing the bitter liquid. She refilled her cup with fresh coffee and allowed her mind to wander.
It had been years since she decided to play human for a holiday, giving herself a much needed break from eons of being the Goddess of Time, Creation, Destruction, and Power. She loved her job. Destroying evil to protect the innocent, consuming the blood of her enemies, being the Divine Mother of the Universe; it was a pretty sweet gig. But, like many deities, every once in a while she needed a vacation.
She took the form of a human woman and went to Earth. She spent a couple centuries in India, keeping a low profile, mixing it up with her devotees. It was amazing to her how many people had her all wrong. Some thought she was an evil demon, intent on blood lust and killing.
Damn, she’d thought, you go berserk and slaughter a bunch of people ONE time and that’s the only story they ever tell.
She roamed the Earth for a long time, interacting with many different people from all different cultures. She laughed at their singular ideas, their individuality, their delusion that they were all separate from one another. Kali could feel the energy that coursed throughout everything and she felt a part of and one with the Universe. So it was easy for her to move fluidly from one faction to another. She loved humans, the same way she loved stars and salamanders and brugmansia flowers blooming with the full moon.
After a particularly enjoyable conversation over tea with her friend, Hanuman, Kali decided to take on a role being of service to humans. It was the 70s. The counterculture optimism of the past decade was receding. People were disillusioned, despondent, and cynical. Kali felt the war fatigue, the apprehension, and she wanted to help in some small way. Hanuman was always helping people, that goofy monkey face carried joy wherever it went.
“Why not be of service?” he proposed, over a steaming cup of jasmine tea.
“Eh,” she shrugged, “That’s not really my thing.”
“It could be fun,” he said, “try something different.”
She thought about it for a while and eventually decided to give it a shot. She was delighted to find a literal “service industry” in the U.S. and she dove in, taking on the role of a cocktail waitress in a smokey bar in Jersey City. Every few years she would move to a new spot, trying out different facets of the business– a bartender in Denver, operating a cash register at a McDonald’s in Syracuse, a hostess in Provo, and most recently, a breakfast waitress at a diner in Philadelphia.
The cook placed two large plates of pancakes in the window and brought Kali out of her reverie. She set her coffee down and took the food to the women at the corner booth. On her way back, she deftly scooped a few dollars left as a tip off an empty table.
15 percent, she thought, rolling her eyes, like the extra two bucks would have killed you?
The guy at 32 was flagging her down, trying to get her attention by waving one of his 800 napkins at her.
Good lord, what now?
She approached his table. Sure enough, there was Stevia everywhere. She took a deep breath, tried to appear neutral while the scorn rose like bile, bitter in the back of her throat.
“Yes?” she said.
“Could I get some fresh coffee? This is cold,” he gestured to the pot that she’d left so he could refill his own mug.
Of course it is, she thought blackly, you’ve been sitting here for two hours.
Stifling a snarl, she snatched up the pot and went to refill it. When she returned he motioned to the half-full cup that was sitting beside his plate.
“Can I get a new cup too?”
Kali didn’t trust herself to reply. Rage was bubbling up inside her. It seemed trivial, but when the same irritations arose, day after day, it felt like Chinese water torture to her soul. A death by a thousand cuts.
She put it out of her mind and finished up the rest of her shift. She knew once she let herself go it was very difficult to get her emotions back in check. She didn’t want to risk burning the entire block down because of this asshole.
Later that evening, Kali was in her apartment, washing dishes in the sink and listening to records. Rock and roll was one of her favorite things about life on Earth and her hips swayed rhythmically as Iggy Pop’s voice bawled over the animal sounds of Ron Asheton’s guitar.
“I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm . . .”
She opened her cutlery drawer to put away her knives. She noticed a small, disorganized clutter of plastic packets heaped towards the back of the drawer. Ketchup, soy sauce, honey mustard—single serving takeout sauces were piling up. Kali rifled through them, intent on clearing out the space, when she realized she hadn’t indulged in Chinese takeout for months. The pleasure centers in her brain began lighting up as she thought about dumplings and vegetable lo mein from the restaurant around the corner. Greasy noodles in a thick, tangy sauce, packed tightly in a white paper box. She abandoned the rest of the dishes and headed out, her head clouded by thoughts of fried rice and broccoli with garlic sauce.
She turned the corner and the yellow awning of the Chinese restaurant came into view, glowing softly in the midst of the deepening twilight. She heard the bell over the front door as a young couple, arm in arm, pushed their way out into the night. Kali was about to walk in when her eye caught a familiar silhouette through the glass door. It was table 32. The same salt and pepper hair, the same deeply lined mouth, he sat alone in a poorly upholstered booth the color of wine against the far wall.
Kali stopped in her tracks, her eyes riveted on the waitress standing beside his table, not “32” here, perhaps 11 or 89. She wondered if he frequented this place in the same manner he did her diner. From the look on the server’s face, she guessed he probably did. The server was a slender wisp of a woman, dark hair pulled back loosely in a hurried ponytail and large eyes that were trained down at the floor in front of her. Kali noticed the girl’s hands were clasped together in front of her. Her fingers seemed to grip each other in an attempt to stay still, fighting the urge to writhe and fidget nervously. The girl looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there. Kali knew that look well. But while 32 always seemed to elicit a seething disgust from Kali, she noted the emotion coming off this waitress was different. She seemed defeated.
Kali walked through the door and the waitress looked towards the sound of the bell, visibly grateful to have an excuse to leave the table. She made an apologetic gesture as she hurried toward the front of the store. The man didn’t pay any attention to Kali and she was glad he didn’t recognize her. She figured it was one of those strange phenomena where one could see a person everyday, but in a different context or backdrop, they appeared unfamiliar or strange, like seeing a teacher outside the classroom over the summer.
“You okay?” Kali said to the girl, who appeared to be in the process of shaking off a bad case of the creeps.
“Yeah,” the girl shrugged. She looked at Kali conspiratorially and motioned over her shoulder. “That guy is a jerk. He always complains.”
Kali suppressed a smile.
“I know the type.”
She placed her order and sat down to wait, deliberately choosing a seat next to a large, potted plant that obstructed her view of the dining room. When the waitress brought her carryout containers to the register, Kali paid and slipped the girl a ten-dollar bill.
“Hey,” she said, nodding toward the man in the booth, “why don’t you tell that guy to go someplace else if he doesn’t like it here?”
The waitress shook her head.
“No,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper, “a girl tried that once. Maybe last year? She said to him ‘you always complain. You are never happy. Maybe you find another restaurant.’” she looked at Kali sadly. “That man complained to my boss and my friend got fired.”
A wave of anger flowed over Kali’s body, causing goose flesh to break out all over her arms. She felt it like a hit of cocaine—powerful, fast and sharp. She looked at the waitress.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. She thanked the girl as she grabbed her food and brushed out the door. Her plans for the evening had changed.
Instead of walking home, Kali turned down an alley to the right of the Chinese restaurant. There was an overturned milk crate near a dumpster and Kali set her takeout bag on top of it. She crossed her arms and waited. It didn’t take long.
Maybe ten minutes later the bell above the door jangled and the man walked out. He was trying to jam his wallet into the pocket of his jeans as he passed the mouth of the alley so he was surprised when he heard Kali call out to him.
“Hey!” she said.
He looked toward her, trying to make out her shape in the shadows. She took a step towards him. Recognition dawned on his face and he actually smiled at her.
“Oh hi,” he said. He looked around at the alley, obviously confused. “What are you doing here?”
“I live around here,” Kali said. It was the most information she had volunteered to this man in over a year. She took a step back, deeper into the alley, away from the streetlights.
The man instinctively took a step towards her.
“Oh you do?” he said.
“Yes. Hey, I want to show you something,” Kali’s voice was low and smooth. She smiled and beckoned for him to follow her. The man found himself moving further into the dim, trash strewn corridor.
The moment he cleared the mouth of the alley, stepping all the way into the shadows between the buildings, Kali reached behind her and brought fourth a long, slightly curved blade. The sword’s double edge was razor sharp and it glinted in the moonlight as it swept down in a deadly arch. Kali’s weapons were always available to her, even if they couldn’t always be perceived by the physical world. When her sword appeared, she reverted to a truer version of her physical form. Her skin took on a bluish tint and a third eye, bloodshot and terrible, opened in the center of her forehead. Her hair writhed, dark and wild and two additional arms sprouted from her shoulders.
The man’s eyes widened with horror in the split second before Kali’s sword cleaved his head from his shoulders. The body fell forward, spurting blood as the head hit the ground. It rolled and came to a stop under the dumpster like a forgotten cabbage. As she sheathed her sword and stepped over the body, a bright red tongue, impossibly long, snaked out from between Kali’s lips and licked at the blood that covered her face. She felt better. She felt better than she had in a long time.
On her way out of the alley she picked up her takeout containers. She began to hum cheerfully to herself as she walked the block and a half home. Iggy’s words echoed in her mind’s eye.
“ I am the world’s forgotten boy . . .
the one who searches and destroys. . .”
Emily is writer originally from Akron, Ohio. She enjoys traveling the world, learning new languages, and adding to an ever-increasing book and record collection. She has lived all over the country but finally found her forever home in Philadelphia in 2019. In addition to finishing her first novel, she hopes to soon be fluent in Hungarian and master the art of making the perfect avocado toast.