Home > Surface Scratch

Surface Scratch
Author: Gale Ian Tate

Chapter One


Caleb furrowed his brow, chewing on the inside of his lower lip as he stared at the neon green HELP WANTED flyer taped to the blacked-out glass of the nightclub before him. He could hear voices coming from inside, dashing his secret hope that the club would still be closed and he could just go home without having to fill out another application. How many had he filled out already at the shops along this street? Twelve? Twenty? He didn’t feel good about a single one.

He stuffed a hand into the messenger bag on his right hip, feeling blindly for his cellphone as he stepped closer to the ad and squinted to read the smaller print.


He ran his thumb over the cracked face on his phone to swipe away the lock screen and check to see if he had missed any calls or texts. Nothing. He frowned, the scar tissue running down his lips tingling as he did. Ok, maybe it’s worth a try, but it probably won’t matter. It’s not like any of the other places have even bothered to give me an interview. Why would this place be any different? He had two weeks left to come up with another $550 for rent or he was going to be out on his ass right as an undoubtedly awful Illinois winter was due to hit.

He didn’t hold out hope that things would work out. They never did. Life had a funny way of handing him the worst cards in the deck no matter what he did. He had pretty much resigned himself to the fact that his new life was going to be spent at one of the local homeless shelters. Not one place he’d applied to in the last week had called him back. Why would this place be any different? They’re going to take one look at me and throw my application in the trash.

But he really didn’t want to be homeless.

He took a deep breath in through his nose, closing his eyes as he breathed out through his mouth to calm the anxiety vibrating in his gut. You can do this, Caleb. You have to.

One of the metal hinges on the front door squealed, forcing his eyes open as he took a step back. A young woman appeared from behind the door, a frown plastered on her tawny, freckled face. She squinted at him, looking him up and down before stepping fully out from behind the door to reveal a small but intimidating figure in an oversized black hoodie that stretched down to her thighs. “Are you going to come in and fill out an application or just stand out there all night?” she asked, her voice sounding both high-pitched and bored.

Caleb opened his mouth but paused. She looked familiar. He couldn’t place where he had seen her last. Maybe the hospital? She didn’t even look old enough to drive, so she couldn’t have been a nurse there. Maybe a visitor to a patient on the same ward his mom had been on? It wasn’t like he knew a ton of people to begin with, so he had to know her from somewhere.

The door closed behind her and she leaned back against it, crossing her arms over her chest as she glanced down at her black boots. Her curly, brass-colored hair flattened against the door, making her seem bigger. More intimidating.

“Are you going to come in or just stare at me?” she asked impatiently, a finger tapping against the top of her arm.

Caleb felt his face grow hot. “No, I wasn’t—I didn’t mean…” He bit down on the tip of his tongue to stop himself then cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’d like to fill out an application.”

She unfolded her arms and cocked an eyebrow as she moved toward him, stopping just before her toes touched his to look him up and down again. She reached out and grabbed his bicep. “You ever work in a bar or nightclub before?”

Caleb flinched, wanting to knock her hand away and take a few steps back. He didn’t want to put her off if she was an employee, but her demeanor was making him more nervous. “Um, no, I haven’t. But I worked at a gas station that sold alcohol,” he said. He felt his ears growing hot, matching the heat in his face. Why did I include that? Gas stations and nightclubs are nothing alike.

She nodded, her expression blank, as if she hadn’t heard what he said. “Can you handle being around weird, horny, drunk people? Or aggressive douchebags who pick fights?” she asked. She pulled her cellphone from her hoodie and took a step back.

He breathed a sigh of relief that she was no longer as close to him. “I think so,” he said. He realized in that moment it didn’t sound convincing. Was he blowing this before he even got a chance to fill out the application? “I-I can, but if the job is for barbacking—”

“Yeah, you’re not like a bouncer or anything, but shit happens and sometimes we all pitch in,” she said, waving one hand to dismiss his statement as she scrolled through her phone with the other. “What’s your availability?” She didn’t look up at him, her eyes darting back and forth across the screen.

His gaze wandered back over the front door that she had emerged from, unsure where he needed to focus. He realized his lower lip was partially sucked against his teeth, automatically going to chew on the inside of his cheek before he pursed his lips and tried to relax his mouth. He was trying hard to break that habit.

A sense of dread that he wasn’t going to get this job either began to fill his chest. “I want to work as much as possible. Full-time, if possible,” he said, glancing down at the mop of brassy curls below him before his eyes snapped back up to the door as if she were going to look up at him any second. She was very small, but she exuded the confidence of a seven-foot-tall man.

“He could probably find enough work for you,” she mumbled. “How soon would you be available to start?”

His heart jumped in his chest, a sudden hot and cold feeling washing over him. “I could start tonight!” he blurted. Too eager. Say something else so you don’t sound like a desperate loser.

He opened his mouth before his mind found the words but flinched again as the woman thrust the screen of her phone in his direction.

“Aha! I knew I knew you from somewhere,” she said, her eyes meeting his with a light behind them that made him feel more disturbed than relaxed. Something was just wrong about her.

Caleb looked at the phone, waiting for his vision to adjust to the small screen. It was a picture of a yearbook page with rows of faces and names. “That’s you, right? Caleb Walsh?” she asked, still holding the phone out.

This time he did take a step back, sudden panic washing over him. She knew him from school? He looked at her again, then back at the yearbook page displayed before him, scanning each face until he settled on one that stood out among all the acne and poorly grown-in facial hair. The face on that page was younger, with rounder cheeks and shorter hair, but with the same bored, barely alive eyes burning into the camera.

“Ophelia Graves,” he read out loud then looked back at her. “You’re the one that skipped a few grades, right? And showed up on the back of a motorcycle.”

She withdrew her phone, clicking it off as she placed it back into her hoodie pocket. “Yeah, and you’re the quiet kid who disappeared halfway through freshman year. We all just thought you died,” she said with a shrug.

The heat in his face was back. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and shifted his weight onto one leg, staring at the ground and unsure what to say.

Ophelia broke the silence first. “If you can start tonight, we’ll take you. The owner will be available soon and he might want to interview you, but I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t hire you. Come start some paperwork,” she said. She turned so they both faced the doorway and patted his back, almost as if she were pushing him to the door with her.

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