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5: Fringe

Rhonda had been working at the Stardust for about two months before Jim, the fry cook, found the portal behind the freezer. He called her into the kitchen after close and the two of them stood in the glow of the cosmic orifice, trying to work it all out.

“What you figure?” asked Jim. “Raccoons?”

Rhonda stepped closer and felt a current of electricity. It smelled like copper and fireworks. “I don’t know, Jim. We should maybe call Mick.”

Mick, the owner, was none too thrilled at being called back after midnight on a Saturday. He showed up in a trench coat and pajamas, ready to let Rhonda have it. When he opened the kitchen door, Mick saw Jim, hair on end, staring blankly into the undulating vortex of purple-white light.

“I think maybe it’s raccoons,” said Jim, turning, eyes glassy and bloodshot.

Mick patted him on the arm. “I think you should head on home, buddy. Get a good night’s sleep. Maybe don’t mention this to the old lady.”

“Yeah. You’ll probably want to get an exterminator before the Board of Health finds out.” Jim staggered away, rubbing his eyes. “Crazy what them raccoons can do.”

Rhonda watched Mick watching Jim walk away. Jim was a sweet kid. Not too bright, but a real wizard with patty melts. This kind of thing was well beyond him. Well beyond her, if she was being truthful, but a soul doesn’t always get to pick what life sends barreling down the tracks.

“What do you figure?” asked Mick.

“Don’t know.” She shrugged. “I’m sure as shit not sticking my head in to find out. Maybe we should call the law.”

But she knew as soon as she said it, Mick wouldn’t. He didn’t much care for the police, and if this was some kind of UFO shit, they’d probably call in the Feds. Mick wasn’t much interested in tangling with the G-men, or really anyone who might take too hard of a look at the Stardust’s financials.

“Let’s sleep on it,” he said. “Maybe it will clear up by morning.”

It didn’t. By morning, the hole was bigger and louder. Jim, transfixed, could hardly work. He kept nearly reaching in, which so unsettled Rhonda that she almost fell in herself trying to hold him back. She finally put Calvin, the dishwasher, on duty to watch Mick so she could go to the bathroom. By the time she got back, both men were strewn across the floor with glowing arms, and new appendages.

“Look here, I got me a bonus thumb,” said Jim, wiggling it.

“That don’t look much like a thumb,” said Calvin, considering the claw, currently curling out and away from his own elbow. “Wonder what would happen if you were to, you know, take off your trousers, and you know . . .”

Jim’s eyes widened. He started to untie his apron—“Avert your eyes, Rhonda”—but before he could get to his belt buckle, the portal shifted, the light turned reddish orange, and out popped a woman.

She wasn’t technically a woman. Later, she, or more accurately it, would try to explain. A collection of atoms, forming a whiff of cloud, that in its home dimension, existed as a kind of all-knowing being of pure consciousness. The woman-formed thing—which called itself Jean—had been yanked out of its universe and abruptly reconfigured into something humanoid and evidently in need of a job.

Mick hired her on the spot, over Rhonda’s objections.

“She’s not human,” said Rhonda. “She’s some kind of alien.”

“That’s prejudicial talk, Rhonda. I don’t like hearing that from you. We have all types here. Mexicans. Texans. Whatever Jean is.” Mick said, as he handed Jean her signature Stardust black fringed bikini uniform. “Also it’s a blonde. Blondes are good for business. You think she looks a little like a movie star? Like what’s her name? Kim Novak?”

Rhonda looked over at Jean, still naked and glowing, trying to eat the uniform. She didn’t look much like Kim Novak. Fact was she looked a little transparent.

“I don’t know about this, Mick,” she said. “I got a bad feeling.”

“You always got a bad feeling, Rhonda. But you gotta turn that frown upside down, little girl, or I’ll have to replace you with Jetso the Space Buffalo or whatever else comes out of that there swirly looking for work.”

Begrudgingly, Rhonda started her shift. She had to admit: Jean was a pretty good cocktail waitress. Being omnipotent gave it a real edge in sussing out the customers’ orders. Also, it was able to fill in for Jim on the grill once it became clear that the new bonus finger was going to take some getting used to. It didn’t even mind standing over the hot grease with a bared abdomen.

“I don’t think physical sensation is quite a thing for me yet. It’s hard enough to keep a handle on my matter,” said Jean. “The Laws of Physics are quite different in this dimension and my atoms just have a mind of their own.”

Rhonda said she understood, because she did have kids and a split-level home, and what do you say to a new coworker when you’re trying to be amicable? Several times, she had to reach from the fringed waistband of Jean’s uniform bottoms because it was fixing to levitate. And after she stopped Jean twice from eating the spatula, Rhonda found Jean out back, on a so-called smoke break, snacking on bits of dumpster. Not the trash. The dumpster.

“Is this not a thing that humans do?” asked Jean.

“Not really,” said Rhonda.

“How peculiar.”

The customers seemed to like Jean. If the Friday regulars noticed something was strange, they didn’t say anything. This part of Texas was known for being hospitable, and the Stardust was a family of a sort. A kind of sleazy, scuzzy family, sure, but family nonetheless.

“I think Jean’s going to fit right in,” said Mick. “I’m already thinking about asking Myrtle if we should ask it to Easter. You think they have Easter where she’s from?”

Rhonda didn’t reckon. She was too busy keeping an eye on Calvin as he told Clint the barback his theories on the portal and male anatomy. “You’re gonna have to keep a close eye on those boys,” she said. “Before one of them sticks his peter in that sparkly pie hole.”

Mick nodded, disinterested, and waved her off to greet a table of guests. Rhonda wandered back over to the grill to check on Jean’s progress on table three’s pork chops. Jean was fritzing a bit—her word for when her atoms started to blink and break apart and she became hazy as a spring rain. The customers didn’t appear to notice, or at least didn’t appear too distraught about it.

“That new girl glows like an angel,” said Inez Patterson, over at table seven.

“I know,” said Eunice Monteagle, looking back at Inez. “She looks just like Kim Novak.”

Rhonda rolled her eyes. Blondes. She gave only a passing thought to the pinpricks of light and the vanishing ceiling over the bar, as it stirred and began to swirl into something otherworldly.

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