She missed the days of middle school. Things were easier then, she wasn't so worried about college or friends. But now she didn't have any friends, and she may not get college.
All she had were her grades, a shitty job as a barista, and a shitty apartment she had to pay for herself. Whoop de doo.
If she didn't get good grades, she wouldn't be able to get any scholarships, which were her only chance at college, at a life better than what she had. None of that would matter if she couldn't pay rent, though, and she couldn't pay rent if she didn't do her job.
Ashleigh sighed inaudibly as she rinsed out the last mug of the stack. She'd been washing them while her coworker, Emma, served customers. Or tried to, anyway, between singing every time someone tipped. Ashleigh liked singing, on her own time. Not when she was forced to. Emma hated it even more, though.
Speaking of whom, Emma grimaced as she brought another tray full of dirty mugs to be washed.
"Your turn up there," she muttered. "If I have to sing for one more entitled asshole, I'm gonna blow a gasket. Or a hole in Nora and Zoey's heads." She winked at Ashleigh, bumping her hip to nudge her away from the sink.
Blowing a loose strand of hair from her face, Ashleigh stepped up to the front counter and started wiping it down as she waited for the next customer to enter. When the front door's bell jingled softly, she glanced up and instantly deflated inside. But she put on her best customer service face and voice and said,
"Hi, welcome to Beanie's, what can I get you?"
Peter, her former best friend and now academic rival, openly stared daggers at her as he ordered his usual. He ordered it every time he came in, even back when they were still friends.
"A large hot chocolate, please." He paid, and then made eye contact with Ashleigh as he put a dollar in the tip jar.
She suppressed a sigh, and sang a short tune, one of the ones Nora— her boss— had suggested.
"I've been brewing up your coffee," she sang, trying to not look as annoyed as she felt. "All the live-long day. I've been brewing up your coffee, just to pass the time away. Can't you hear the kettle blowing, rise up so early in the morn'... can't you hear the bosses shouting, 'you got their order wrong!'"
Satisfied, Peter nodded and moved to wait at the table he always sat at. He always did his homework at Beanie's, seemingly just to annoy Ashleigh while she worked. Or maybe it was to show off how easily and quickly he finished it. Ashleigh didn't know, and she didn't care. She didn't.
She started to make the hot chocolate, but then a bunch of people came in at once, and she had to get Emma's help. Ashleigh was back to washing dishes about fifteen minutes later when she heard the shouting.
"That sign's bullshit!" A man spat at Emma, swearing to not come back.
"Oh my god, so mean," Emma mocked, flipping the guy off.
"Emma, what's the deal over here?" Nora asked, coming out of her office.
"That guy just flipped out on me for practically no reason," Emma said, dismissing the dude as just another asshole.
"She wouldn't sing for him," someone else piped up, and Ashleigh refrained from rolling her eyes. Peter had come back up to the counter. "And I still haven't gotten my hot chocolate!"
"Sorry, I'll get right on that," Ashleigh mumbled. "That's my fault, Nora."
"I have very low blood sugar," Peter said, going back to his table, and Nora promised him a voucher before turning back to Emma.
"I've already warned you twice!"
"Well it's embarrassing, Nora," Emma groaned. "I mean, God, maybe Zoey's okay with the whole singing thing because she majored in theatre..."
"I think it's a really fun idea, Nora," Zoey drawled, joining the conversation.
"Why aren't you working?" Ashleigh asked testily. God, she hated Zoey.
"Oh, I'm on vocal rest," she said sweetly, tapping the hollow of her throat as she whispers the answer.
"What?" Emma said, pretending not to hear her.
"I'm on vocal—" she started to repeat herself louder before realizing what Emma was trying to do. She cursed and went to make herself some tea. Nora stared at Emma in disbelief, who sighed and said,
"Look, can't Zoey just do the singing? I don't like it."
Nora shrugged and said, "Well then I guess you must not like having a job."
"Nora—" Emma rolled her eyes, going to make the next person's order.
"You know what, just don't even bother showing up for your next shift!" Nora started to walk away. Emma nearly dropped the kettle, and hurried after their boss.
"Woah, wait, wait—! I— I'll do the singing," she groaned again.
"Yeah, you will," Nora replied with a threatening air. "Now move your asses, the both of you. You've got a line!" With that, Nora retreated to her office.
Ashleigh went back to the dishes, while Emma attended to the next customer, who had an obvious crush on her. Ashleigh saw him in Beanie's all the time. He always got a black coffee for himself, and sometimes a caramel frappe as well for someone else.
She started humming while she did the dishes, trying to tune out everyone else until the end of her shift. Just a few more minutes...
"Excuse me!" Peter's voice rang out. "I have been waiting a very long while..."
Ashleigh giggled as she let her best friend lead her up to her own room. They were six years old, wanting nothing more than to play with her superhero toys. He liked Batman, she liked Spiderman. They used her Barbies as the supervillains, and had Batman and Spiderman team up to rescue the only good Barbie doll, Ashleigh's favorite, the one with the pink, glittery bathing suit painted right onto her hard plastic body.
"Take that!" Peter cried, making Batman karate-chop one of the evil Barbies—a dark haired one that came with a rubber mermaid tail that could be taken off— in the throat.
Ashleigh made the 'thwip' noises of Spiderman's webshooters, and slammed another evil Barbie— this one blonde and wearing a fairy princess costume— to the carpet. "Haha!" She said in a deep voice. "Victory is ours, Batman!" She switched to a higher-pitched voice, and started moving the good Barbie around. "Oh, thank you, heroes!"
Ashleigh tried not to think about those days as she rode her bike home that evening. It was easier to pretend they didn't exist than to let herself mourn them. The rain was coming down thick, cutting into her skin like little daggers as she rode.
Pulling up outside her run-down apartment building, she locked up her bike tightly with not one but TWO locks, and went inside. Hers was on the first floor, which was the only nice thing about it, but between her hourly wage at Beanie's, low tip average, and the emancipation checks she got in the mail, it was all Ashleigh could afford.
She tossed her keys and work apron onto the couch and went to collapse on her bed face-first. She was soaked to the bone from the ride home, but didn't bother to change into anything dry. She just laid face-first on the bed and groaned into her mattress.
Thunder boomed overhead, and Ashleigh grabbed her pillow and pressed it over her ears in an attempt to block the sound. It didn't really do much good.
She sighed and dragged herself back out of bed to get a quick shower and change into her pajamas. The water pressure was dismal, and the temperature ocellated on its own between too hot and too cold, but at least it was predictable enough that Ashleigh was able to have a routine to avoid the cold moments. She washed her hair, rinsing away the strands that came out between her fingers, then scrubbed her whole body down from head to toe until she felt raw, before finally rinsing herself off.
Once she was dry, she changed into sweatpants and a teeshirt and went back out into the main room to grab some dinner. There wasn't much left— tomorrow was grocery day anyway— so she grabbed a granola bar and a spoonful of peanut butter. She sat on the couch as she ate, moving her keys and apron to the upside-down cardboard box she used as a coffee table.
She ate as slowly as she could, trying to savor every bite. When she finished, she washed the spoon and threw away her garbage before heading to bed. More thunder ripped across the air, and in the distance was a faint whistling sound, like something falling.
Ashleigh slept with her pillow covering her head instead of under it.