Maria took the bread out of the oven, and then moved to stir the bubbling water, where pasta cooked over the burners. The little bell rang, signaling another order ready. She needed more help here. Servers ran in and out of the kitchen as if fire burned their feet. Infinite orders popped in through the window to the bar. Maria refrained from looking at the clock, breathed in deep, and started cutting the bread into pieces.
A sudden waft of burned skin tickled her nose. The chicken. She pulled open the oven to see several pieces, dried and black.
“Table two is asking about their order again. Did we forget to put in table two?” one of the servers asked, checking the counter of prepped meals, anxiety ringing in her voice.
“Tell them it’ll be right out!” Maria said, opening the other oven. She usually had some in the warming drawer for emergencies.
As she spoke, more tickets piled up on the counter. How did the restaurant even have this many tables? She ignored the pressing feeling of panic as she realized the nights were soon to get busier as winter approached. She clenched her jaw, and kept going.
Later that night, Maria sat on the steps leading to the restaurant’s back door, in a glum alleyway. A single streetlamp cast a weak bluish light on the stones and dirt. She knew she should be grateful that the business was doing well, especially in this city. But she felt tired. She lit a cigarette and exhaled with an air of defeat. It wasn’t a cold night, but she felt a chill in the air.
Through the cigarette smoke, she saw the silhouette of a small frame. Beggar children always tugged at her heartstrings. She never gave them money, but she gave them food when she could spare it. This city was poor, and it wasn’t uncommon to see kids roaming the streets.
The girl came more into focus as the smoke dissipated, and Maria was shocked to see the state of her—her torn clothes hung ratty, with holes, and her gaunt skin appeared grey. Maria’s first thought was to take the girl to the hospital.
“Hello there,” she said, trying to make her voice sound soft. The girl peered up at her with big, black eyes. “It’s alright. Do you want some food? What’s your name?”
The girl stared, unblinking, and then gave Maria a slight nod. Maria stubbed out her cigarette, and walked back in the now deserted kitchen. She put chicken and rice in a to-go container and brought it outside.
The girl had moved closer to the steps. Maria sat down and offered the meal. The girl didn’t move to take it.
“Shy little one, aren’t you?” Maria said. She set it a few steps beneath her, and then sat back. The girl sat on the steps and started eating the rice, as though famished, which, Maria realized, she probably was. “Where are your parents?” she asked the little girl. She didn’t answer. Maria wondered if she was mute.
When the girl finished eating, she returned her still gaze to Maria. Something unnerved her. Maria was about to try questioning her again when a loud YELP sounded down the alleyway. Maria saw a stray dog dart around the corner. The animals usually came to beg for scraps after closing too. Maria wondered what spooked it.
“Do you want me to take you anywhere?” Maria asked the girl. “I know of a shelter.” The girl shook her head and backed away several paces.
“Well, I’ve got to get going. Come back any time if you want food, okay?” Maria said. She felt guilty leaving the girl there, but she was somewhat relieved that the girl didn’t want to come with her. Maria could feel the girl’s eyes on her back as she walked away from the restaurant. Hopefully the poor thing had somewhere to go. When Maria turned the corner, she felt a strange rush of relief.
The next night, as Maria took out the trash, she saw the girl in the alleyway again. For the second time, she brought food. Maria wondered if this was the only time the girl ate. She appeared even more sickly than the previous night. Maria tried speaking to her again, but the girl never responded. Maria tried coaxing her into her car to go to the hospital after she ate, but she shook her head, and retreated further down the alleyway, walking backward into the darkness. She kept her eyes on Maria.
The little girl appeared every night for several days, and their interaction repeated itself. The girl ate and left, refusing help, and not speaking. Maria’s obligation to help her persisted, though each night she became more and more anxious about seeing the little girl’s ghastly pallor.
One morning, Maria was informed that the restaurant was preparing to host a massive gathering the following evening. She woke up before dawn to prep dough and start baking early. Her body moved to cook through adrenaline and muscle memory, as she hadn’t been sleeping well. She stayed up late into the night, thinking about the little girl, not sure what to do. Whenever Maria closed her eyes, heavy from exhaustion, the girl’s face lingered in her mind, clear as day—with her big, dark, unblinking eyes.
That afternoon, one of Maria’s servers called in sick. They were already understaffed. Maria spent the entire morning and afternoon arranging pastries, fruits, cheeses, and meats on platters. She found the silver serving spoons lodged in an unused cupboard, and she triple washed the wine glasses. She had her friend Linda drop off a spare set of black clothes so she could help serve during the event, despite the fact she rarely left the kitchen.
The hours flew by, and guests started arriving earlier than planned. The few servers there whisked the trays away. Maria checked on the entries in the ovens, waiting to replace the first round of food.
“We need someone to do the salads,” one of the servers said. Maria hastened to look presentable in her friend’s dark slacks, and grabbed the salad tongs on her way into the dining area.
Immediately, Maria became overwhelmed by the crowed in a blur of black outfits. Mourners. She saw a woman sobbing amongst a group of other people. They took turns comforting her, hugging her, and letting her cry on their shoulders.
Someone had set up a table near the food station, with photographs. Maria stopped as she passed it, and dropped the tongs on the ground.
It was the girl.
The large black eyes peered out from a much healthier face, and her clothes weren’t torn in the photograph. Goosebumps erupted down Maria’s arms, and up her neck. It took her several minutes to recover from her shock.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” a man said in a raspy voice, coming over to look over her shoulder.
“What happened to her?” Maria asked, her heart racing.
“She was trying to sneak some food from the top of the pantry, and she fell off the counter and crushed her head. It was ugly, I’ve heard. Poor little Bella.”
Maria felt bile rise in her throat. She stared at the photograph, unbelieving.
“When did it happen?” she asked.
“A week ago,” the man said. He walked away, leaving Maria at the table.
Before she knew what she was doing, her feet carried her back through the kitchen, to the back door. She threw it open, and she ran down the steps into the alley.
The kitchen door slammed shut behind her. Through the weak light, the girl appeared. She walked closer, and Maria saw more clearly the girl’s deteriorating skin, and her lank hair. She saw the big, dead eyes. An unfelt wind blew the girl’s ragged clothes as she moved closer, hungry.
“I know what happened to you, Bella,” Maria whispered.
The girl froze, her expression unreadable. Then she turned away from Maria, and began moving into the dark. Maria saw the hole in her head then, a split with dark ooze and bone gleaming in glow of the streetlamp.
When she was out of sight, a terrible odor filled Maria’s nose. She turned and looked down. A week’s worth of food lay littered in the alley, untouched, rotting.