Mar 14, 2020
This story was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was inspired by the madness of the year 2017, but unfortunately it appears no less relevant three years later.
by R.S. Benedict
Mara has no past.
Until a year before I met her, she had no social security number and no birth certificate. A search of her fingerprints and DNA will pull up no previous criminal history. Officially, she was never born and does not exist.
But her good looks and a recommendation from me are enough to get her a job waiting tables at the country club, and one unusually warm February day she ends up working a very important party in the West Parlor.
Before the afternoon is over, there are sirens, and now Mara has no future.
There’s a girl staring at the cheese stand.
It’s late September in Connecticut, somehow still T-shirt weather. I’m at the farmer’s market. I pass the stand one, two, three times over the course of a half-hour, and she’s still there, muttering to herself, “There’s so many kinds.”
She’s strikingly beautiful, even under a clumsy haircut and a mismatched outfit: a red layered skirt with a tuxedo jacket, pink tights, and those white sneakers everybody’s racist aunt wears.
By the look on her face I figure she’s stoned, and by her odd clothing I guess she’s a hipster, so I have to show her something daring. I point to the Morbier. Illustrating the structure with my hands, I tell her, “It’s got two layers: the end of the day’s curds on the bottom and the beginning of the next day’s curds on top, with a layer of ash in between.”
Mara intercepts Ivan, our bartender, as he approaches me with a special request: carrot sticks, sliced bell pepper, celery, raw broccoli crowns, olives. Whenever he’s assigned to a private party, Ivan entertains himself by serving our guests repulsive concoctions, like bacon daiquiris or bloody Marys with Baileys Irish Cream.
“It’s a campaign of sabotage against the bourgeoisie,” he says. “There’s no way I’m the only person who likes making rich people eat gross shit. How the fuck else did foam become a thing?”
The guests never seem to recognize that they’re consuming trash. The club serves stuffed grape leaves from enormous Sysco-brand tubs, whipped dessert topping from spray cans, and panini with Kraft singles; and yet our clientele of business leaders and heiresses happily pay in the hundreds for a meal.
Today’s party will include a much-requested culinary atrocity: a chocolate fountain.
A chocolate fountain is a biological weapon disguised as a dessert. Once deployed, the fountain burbles out an invitation for every guest who has just scratched a rash or picked a nose to stick their germy fingers into the brown downpour. For fear of injury lawsuits, the chocolate (which is always of low quality) is not hot enough to kill the bacteria—instead, it is diluted with generic vegetable oil to maintain its runny consistency. By the end of the night it becomes a sweet, burbling petri dish.
To avenge those unfortunate members of the proletariat who have to clean up after the thing, Ivan makes it his mission to coax guests into thrusting green peppers, cherry tomatoes and the occasional sardine into the hated chocolate fountain.
But not today. Mara digs her nails into Ivan’s arm and yanks him aside. “I will pay you to cut that shit out,” she says. “I need this to go right.”
I see her at the market again a week later. It’s still too warm for autumn. She’s choosing tomatoes. She looks at me, smiles and waits. I tell her sunbursts, for casual snacking. Her clothes aren’t quite as odd now: jeans and a zebra print top. Retro 80s. She is learning.
Before the servers can leave for the West Parlor, they are stopped by Peggy, a frizzy-haired girl from the dining reservations department. She’s carrying a clipboard and a pen.
“Poll of the day,” she announces. Ivan, Mara, and a chunky waiter named Jake gather.
To save herself from the ennui of her job, Peggy spends every shift devising a poll question to ask her coworkers. Once she has collected enough responses, she classifies the answers by demographic factors like department, age, gender, and socioeconomic background; she then organizes these statistics into tables, full-color graphs and pie charts, and posts them all to a blog that only a dozen people ever read.
This is today’s question:
“Who would win in a fight: a thousand chickens, or one T-Rex?” She points at me. “Trish?”
“T-Rex, of course,” I say. “I’ve probably cooked more than a thousand chickens, and I’m way smaller than a T-Rex.”
“My vote is for the chickens,” Jake argues, “based on years of research playing The Ocarina of Time.”
“Depends on whether or not the chickens show class solidarity,” Ivan says, rubbing his beard. “If they unite, they will overthrow the tyrant lizard.”
And Mara says, “They won’t. The chickens will panic and scatter. T-Rex wins.”
Mara tells me early on that she is crazy.
It’s the third week in a row I’ve seen her. We stop by the baker’s stand for scones. She gets pumpkin; I get feta herb. As we sit on a bench together to eat, she says:
“The doctors think I experienced some kind of long-term trauma so bad my mind totally repressed it. And my brain filled the hole with false memories.”
“What kind of memories?” I ask her.
“Totally ridiculous stuff,” she says, with an entrancing blush. “Time travel.”
“Time travel,” I repeat.
“When they first found me, I was telling everyone I was from the year 2093,” she says, picking at her scone.
“Is it the shiny Star Trek future, or one of those dystopian kinds?” I ask.
“The second one,” she says.
Jake is first to leave the West Parlor, about seventeen minutes after the party’s scheduled start time.
“Guess who just got fired again?” he announces, jabbing his thumbs into his chest. “New record!” He whips off his button-down shirt, striding through the kitchen in a wifebeater as the head chef bellows at him about armpit hair and sanitation.
Jake tucks a cigarette behind his ear. “Later, nerds,” he says. “It’s Taco Tuesday.” And out he goes, into the sinking sun.
Mara has a talent for pleasing difficult people.
Guests adore her, and she in turn endures them without complaint, no matter what they inflict upon her. While taking a neighboring table’s order, she deftly dodges dinner rolls hurled at her head by a pair of twins the servers call les Enfants Terrible. She smiles and nods and feigns startlingly realistic interest when a jowly guest dubbed Baconetta grabs her hand and tells her, at agonizing length and in excruciating detail, about the virtues of a low-carb keto diet. When an oil baron’s son—a creep who earned the nickname Pepe Le Pew by stalking a biracial waitress until she was forced to quit—makes blunt innuendos at Mara, she parries his advances like Zorro, somehow disarming him without offending his pride.
But she amazes us most of all when she wins the favor of Helmut Geier.
We have a nickname for Geier: the Replicant. It’s not just because he owns a tech company.
Helmut Geier never makes eye contact with anybody; he either stares at his shoes or focuses on some unspecified point fifty feet into the distance. He speaks at a low mumble and refuses to repeat himself. He wears a blank expression on his face at all times. But he does, evidently, experience emotion of some kind, because partway through every meal he will lean to his assistant and whisper something into her ear, and the assistant will relay the message to a dining room manager. And every time, the message is, “Fire that waiter.”
And because Geier is a billionaire, the manager will always obey, and make a show of discreetly escorting the offending server off of the dining room floor.
But because Geier never directly looks at other people, he is unable to remember the server’s face. So what usually happens is that the “fired” server is given $50 cash and is instructed to take the rest of the night off but return on their next scheduled work day. Geier has never noticed.
From my vantage in the kitchen, I don’t see the first party guest get sick. A busboy hauling dirty dishes from the West Parlor mentions that the birthday boy’s grandmother, a withered old harridan who glowers at everyone and only speaks to spit out an ethnic slur or a weight-based insult, has fallen ill. Her personal assistant and her personal physician escort her to her room. The party continues. She is well-known for hypochondria.
Some friends of ours—James and Geoffrey—announce that they’re getting married. We’re brunching on Mimosas and brioche French toast.
“It was time to make it official,” Geoffrey says.
“Officially gay,” James quips.
I raise my glass and propose a toast: “To official gayness.”
Mara is shaking. “The government has you on a list now,” she says. “Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.”
Every single server who works in the dining room for more than a month gets fired by Geier at some point. Now Mara’s turn has come. It’s early November, and the leaves are screaming red and yellow through the window.
I warn her in advance. This is not typical; new servers are supposed to experience the Replicant without warning. But I’m the only one at the club who knows how fragile she is.
Her beauty conceals her mental illness. It makes her strange mannerisms and odd clothes look cute and quirky. She’s a manic pixie dream girl, not a psycho.
And she’s remarkably good at acting resilient in public. Mara is the only waitress in the entire country club who has never hidden in the pantry to cry during a shift. Not even after one of the club’s owners jammed his hand up her skirt while she was taking his order. Not even after a chef cornered her in the walk-in cooler and lifted his apron to show that his fly was unzipped and he wasn’t wearing underwear. Not even after a guest threw vichyssoise at her because she served it to him cold, and when she went back to the kitchen a cook bellowed at her for fifteen straight minutes that it’s supposed to be cold, God damn it, and if you even think about putting it in the microwave I will punch you in the fucking cunt, and so on, and so forth.
But Mara just cleans herself up and keeps her back straight and only ever lets me and her therapist see her cry. More than once, she has curled up into a little ball after returning home from work, and all I can think to do is to wrap myself around her like a fat housecat until she stops shaking.
After a year and a half of therapy, the doctors still haven’t figured out what happened to her. They suspect human trafficking, or some kind of trapped-in-a-bunker Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt situation.
Mara checks the refrigerator, shuts the door, leaves it, returns a few minutes later, checks it again, leaves it. As we sit together on the couch, I catch her turning to glance at the kitchen every now and then.
“You can have the rest if you’re still hungry,” I tell her.
“No thanks,” she says.
I can feel her muscles twitch. She wants to go back.
“It’s not going anywhere,” I tell her. “I’m not going to steal it. I know you’re saving it for lunch.”
“I know,” she says.
“No one’s going to break into the apartment and take your leftover spaghetti.”
“The cat hasn’t figured out how to open the fridge. He can’t get in.”
“It’ll still be there tomorrow,” I promise. “You won’t have to forage or fight anyone for it. Just open the fridge and it’ll be there.”
Later that night, I am awakened by the shifting of the mattress as she leaves. I lie with my eyes open. I see the light of the refrigerator blink on and off, and then Mara slips back into bed. She has not eaten.
“Helmut Geier,” she says quietly. And again: “Helmut Geier.”
“You’ve heard of him?” I ask.
“Maybe,” she says.
“Are you okay?” I ask. “You could switch tables with somebody else. Jake’s on shift tonight. He’d probably do it. It’s Wing Night at that gross bar he likes.”
Jake has been fired by the Replicant more than any other member of the dining room staff. He does it on purpose to give himself an excuse to leave early and head to his favorite dive. The managers know what he’s up to. They dislike his poor work ethic, but they don’t stop him. Jake’s great aunt is a Holocaust survivor, and Geier’s great-grandfather built the family’s wealth designing the ovens at Buchenwald, and the club’s managers have decided it’s better to let Jake do what he wants rather than risk a lawsuit.
Mara shakes her head. “I’ll manage,” she says. “He’s just another rich asshole. I’ve waited on hundreds. I’ll see you at home, okay? Bring something tasty.”
I’m already working out how to steal one of the good cans of caviar from the pantry.
The second party guest to leave is the birthday boy’s uncle, complaining of stomach pains. But he is a heavy drinker and a chronic overeater, so no one is worried.
“Two down,” a busboy laughs, coming back to the kitchen with a tray of sticky brown plates.
Mara returns quickly from the dining room. She has already put her order through the point of sale system, but she still comes to me directly and says, “Mr. Geier is ordering off the menu. I’m going to ask for something very specific.”
Then, in a singsong voice, like a school kid reciting Spanish verb conjugations, she says, “Helmut Geier wants an item from every food group in the proportions dictated by standard nutrition guidelines. A ciabatta, steamed chicken breast, a half cup of steamed broccoli, an apple, sliced, two mozzarella balls, and a single dark chocolate truffle. And a cup of peppermint tea served boiling-hot, three-quarters of the way full, to aid digestion.”
I check the ticket. “Did he ask for all that?”
“I couldn’t understand a word he said,” she answers. “He just sort of mumbled. But this will work.”
She continues, “The assistant will not eat. And the boy…” Her throat closes.
“Okay, real quick,” Peggy says. “Poll of the day.”
It’s two days before Christmas, and there is little time to talk. A few of us have darted out back for a quick cigarette in the tiny gap between lunch and afternoon tea, and we stand shivering though there is not yet snow on the ground.
“Today’s question,” Peggy continues. “If you had to lose one of your five senses, what would it be?”
“I need taste and smell,” I say. “And touch, I guess. And sight. So it would have to be hearing.”
“Deaf chef,” Peggy says, writing something on her clipboard. She turns to Jake.
“Taste,” he says without hesitation.
“But you love food,” I tell him.
“Yes, obviously,” he replies, pinching his generous gut. “Too much. I’d be ridiculously hot if I didn’t like tacos so much.”
The next person to answer is Willow, a tall blonde server who smokes even more weed than the rest of the wait staff. “Smell,” she says. “A lot of my friends are hippies, and a lot of hippies believe that soap is unnatural.”
“Smell,” Peggy writes. “Dirty hippies.”
Now it is Mara’s turn. She holds her cigarette between her fingers and carefully studies the tip, where a long line of ash hangs beyond the glowing ember.
“Sight,” she says.
Somehow, despite being unable to look directly at another human being, Helmut Geier has managed to impregnate a woman and produce a child named Hal. Hal is eleven now, and according to the servers he spends every waking moment playing an inappropriately violent video game or watching an inappropriately sexual anime on his smart phone. The boy is even more taciturn than his father, preferring to simply grunt rather than mumble. The mother is never seen; I assume she moved on and left Helmut with the child. Or maybe Helmut had her killed. That’s the rumor we like to tell.
Mara takes a deep breath and composes herself. One finger moves to her temple, where a tidy little scar hides beneath her bangs. “Hal Geier has a taste for fried foods, but he doesn’t like to get grease on his device. So every item of food on his plate must have a toothpick in it to keep his fingers clean. He wants chicken tenders and those little French fries shaped like smiley faces. Put broccoli on his plate too, but only to satisfy his father—the boy will not eat it. And he’ll want a big squeezy bottle of ketchup to go with it all.”
“How did you figure all this out?” I ask.
“Research,” she says.
“It’s an implant,” she tells me once.
“Like a smartphone you can’t lose. It sends vibrations through your inner ear so only you can hear it,” she says. “It’s still there, but it doesn’t work. The satellite it links to won’t be launched for a few decades. And the battery finally died, thank God. The ‘no connection’ beep was driving me crazy.”
I press my finger onto the scar, feeling for a chip or wires. Nothing but hardened flesh.
I personally fill the order just as Mara specified, and she carries it to the table to lay before the Geiers. With a polite nod, she backs away, stopping by only to silently refill their water glasses. She never once asks them how they are or if they’d like anything else. She never even looks at them.
At the end of the meal, Helmut Geier whispers in his assistant’s ear, and the assistant calls over a dining room manager. Soon after, the manager finds Mara and relays the following message to her:
“He wants you to wait on his table from now on.”
I’m at the farmer’s market again. It’s springtime, all puddles and pollen. The girl is gone and she’s not coming back.
The kitchen staff have started a betting pool as to who will succumb next. A pastry chef named Camille wins. Her prize is the best bottle of wine she can steal from the cellar while the rest of us distract the sommelier.
Camille guessed Chase, a fat blonde boy who has a habit of snatching other guests’ food off any tray carried by an unwary passing server. Chase’s mother never corrects him when he does this; she only chuckles from the bottom of her vodka martini and says to the server, “You’d better head back to the kitchen.”
Just as I pop the cork out of a bottle of cabernet, Mara’s cellphone rings.
“Don’t get it,” I tell her, but she does, and it’s work, of course.
“Geier’s on his way up,” she says. “He’s going to be there for the next couple of days.”
“So you’re working breakfast, lunch and dinner? For days? When are you going to sleep?”
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “There’s free coffee. And they give me a hundred dollar bonus with every paycheck.”
“A hundred bucks in exchange for eighty-hour weeks,” I said. “It’s not worth it. It can’t be good for your mental health.”
“We need the money.”
“You’re going to miss a counseling session.”
“At least ask for more money,” I tell her. “Geier’s a billionaire. They can afford it. Your entire week is worth more than a hundred bucks.”
“Plus wages,” she says. “Plus tips from my other tables.”
“They’re taking advantage of you,” I tell her.
“I’ve been through worse,” she says.
A fourth party guest collapses, a black-haired tween named Gertrude. Suddenly it’s not funny anymore.
The main dining room is no longer seating customers, even those with reservations, and the kitchen is no longer filling orders.
Ambulances come. The sick are discreetly ushered out on stretchers through a rear exit so as not to alarm the guests at the front of the house.
In the kitchen, we are ordered to put down our knives and step away from our counters. Bussers and runners are enlisted to scour the pantry for anything past its expiration date and throw it into a garbage bag for the assistant dining room manager to drag to his car and dispose of at some undisclosed location.
It’s simple food poisoning, we think. A bad batch of chicken nuggets. A chef with norovirus.
I am standing outside myself, as I always do during a rush, watching a stocky woman in a white jacket running on auto pilot, emptying fryers and scrubbing surfaces. Part of me knows that this is no routine disaster. But, I think, if I behave normally then everything will be all right. Schrodinger’s cat is not truly dead until somebody opens the box.
“Why did they send you back in time?” I ask her. It’s not something we often talk about. It’s probably psychologically harmful to mention it. But we’re both unbelievably stoned on home-made edibles, staring at the water stains on the ceiling, bloated with Thanksgiving leftovers. “You’re not like a scientist or a special ops or whatever.”
“Experiments need guinea pigs,” she replies.
Ivan staggers back to the kitchen, blank-eyed, a bottle of Delamain de Voyage in one hand. He has learned something about himself tonight.
He offers me a swig of the cognac, snatched from the private bar installed for the parents of the party guests. No one will notice the Delamain’s absence. Not now.
I take a sip, about $280 worth. I can’t even taste it.
“Mara’s still out there,” he says. “It’s bad.”
This is my cue to sleepwalk to the West Parlor. It is time to open Schrodinger’s box.
The club is nearly empty in January. A layer of gray ice has buried the gardens and golf course. The seasonal staff have all gone. People don’t go out much this time of year. They’re tired of celebrating.
But the locals and the lifers are still here, and a smattering of us have gathered out back for a smoke break, wrapped in our heavy coats. It would be better for my career if I hung out with the other cooks instead of the wait staff, but the cooks snort cocaine and swap rape jokes, and Mara needs me, so I socialize with the servers.
Peggy strides up to us, clipboard in hand. This is today’s poll:
“If you could go back in time and kill Hitler when he was still a baby, would you?”
I look at Mara. If she is distressed, I cannot see it on her face.
The prevailing response is yes, of course, although Willow answers, “I’d teach him how to draw better, so maybe he could grow up to be a successful artist instead of history’s greatest monster.”
“Art lessons,” Peggy murmurs, writing a note on her clipboard.
Jake takes a drag of his cigarette. “I’d kill the shit out of baby Hitler,” he says.
“I’d shoot baby Hitler in the face,” Ivan replies, miming a pistol with his fingers. “Right through the itty bitty mustache.”
“But he’s a baby,” Willow protests.
“I’d drop kick baby Hitler into a vat of acid,” Jake says.
“I’d put baby Hitler on the Hindenburg and watch it burn,” Ivan says.
“I’d feed baby Hitler to President Taft,” Jake says.
Peggy turns to me. “Trish?”
Painfully aware of Mara standing beside me, I mutter, “Pass.”
“Pass?” Jake asks. “What, are you alt-right or some shit? You are a lesbian.” He punctuates the last five words with a wave of both arms.
“This is the failure of identity politics,” Ivan says. “A class-based critique of social hierarchy that promotes worker solidarity across demographic lines is essential to—”
“Jesus fucking Christ, guys. I’m not a Nazi,” I say. “I just don’t know how to answer that question. Maybe everything’s predetermined. Maybe you can’t really change the past. Like there’s a million Twilight Zones about guys who go back in time to kill Hitler and it always fails somehow.”
“You have to at least try,” Jake says.
Peggy records my answer and turns to the last person on the loading dock. “How about you, Mara?”
Flicking some ash onto the pavement, Mara says, “Killing baby Hitler isn’t enough. There were a lot of people involved in the Third Reich, and a lot of other historical influences. The bad economy, the problems caused by World War I, the West’s long history of anti-Semitism and colonialism, all that stuff. If you only kill baby Hitler, someone else might step into the role.”
“Whether great men make history, or whether history makes great men,” Peggy says. “Interesting answer.”
“So what’s your solution?” Ivan asks.
Mara burns through the last of her cigarette, down to the filter. “You have to kill a lot more people.”
All the party guests are gone from the West Parlor. There’s a handful of employees mopping the floor and clearing plates off the tables. They don’t yet know they’re interfering with a crime scene.
The decorations—silver ribbons and gold-foil balloons—still hang gaily about the room, along with an enormous banner of burgundy cloth which reads, Happy Birthday Hal. Massive stuffed toy lions and wolves stand sentry at the center of every table.
The buffet hasn’t been disassembled yet. Half-empty chafing dishes of chicken fingers, lobster mac-and-cheese, and foie gras sliders are growing cold in the late-afternoon light. The sun is nearly gone.
Under the gaze of an ice sculpture eagle melting onto the tablecloth, at the center of it all, stands the chocolate fountain.
And there is Mara.
It must have been easy to drop something into the fountain. A dozen different people handled that thing and its putrid chocolate during the set-up process. It’s a dish meant to have foreign objects dipped into it. And, Mara knows, it’s something the staff will not eat. The perfect delivery system.
Mara has a toothpick between her fingers, stained red from what must have been a strawberry. She licks her lips and says, “You shouldn’t have come.”
Then she adds, “I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t a Hollywood death, where the heroine wilts daintily into her lover’s arms and expires, leaving a tragically beautiful corpse. Juliet did not vomit pink foam as her insides liquefied, or go into a seizure, or spend several days in an intensive care unit before dying of sepsis.
There were no final speeches either, nor a suicide note.
I don’t know what atrocities Hal Geier and his friends were supposed to have grown up to commit. I don’t know whether Mara planned this all out from the beginning, or whether the circumstances that led her here—the job, the fountain, the party—were only a series of coincidences that conspired to trigger a traumatized woman’s lurking madness. Do monsters make history, or does history make monsters?
But I have begun to understand how she must have felt day-to-day, navigating a world that was not hers. This new life I have fallen into is not real. I’m sure of it. Yet every morning I fail to awaken to the correct one, the one in which I’m not a person of interest in a murder investigation, the one in which I’m not stalked by reporters. It’s a life cut in half by disaster, and the past lies buried beneath a layer of ash.