The metal door slammed on my way out, startling me. The wind must have caught it and now it had locked behind me. That’s all I need, I thought, rolling my eyes and dumping the two heavy trash bags I was carrying on the ground.
Working at Budget Burger hadn’t been my dream job growing up but here I was. It’s only temporary, I would tell myself every single evening when I arrived. I’d been doing that for months. And yep, here I still was.
I wondered if anyone would realize I’d been locked out. Probably not. There were only three of us on tonight - myself, dopey Dustin who probably wouldn’t notice if the sky fell in, and 'manager' Sandi who had shut herself in the office to ‘do the accounts’ (more than likely she was texting her boyfriend).
Banging on the door wouldn’t be of much use, since they wouldn’t hear me anyway, and I couldn’t walk around to the front from here unless I wanted to scale an 8-feet wall. Which I didn't.
So I guessed I’d just have to wait until one of them noticed my absence.
I rolled open the dumpster and picked up the first trash bag, swinging it over my shoulder and lobbing it in. I repeated this with the second, wishing I’d brought my cell phone out here with me. If I couldn’t get through to Dustin, Sandi or the main restaurant number, at least I could entertain myself. I rolled the dumpster lid closed and stared up at the sky, glad of the warm breeze at least.
Working all night and sleeping during the daytime meant I missed the sunny days, but at least I usually had the moon for brief company when I came out here with the trash. Tonight it wasn't even visible.
Ugh, was this really my life?
“Goddamn unbelievable,” I muttered to myself, aware that the dumpster area was lit by a single bulb overhead and the rest of the yard was pitch black.
“Hey,” a man’s voice said, and I nearly screamed.
“Who’s there?” I demanded, wishing I’d brought a knife from the kitchen, the CS gas canister currently in my purse in the staff room, or anything. Only two weeks ago, a woman had been raped and strangled in this town, and knowing my luck, I would be the next one.
“Who’s there?” I tried a little louder, although my voice had developed a high squeak which probably didn’t sound very menacing to the rapist-murderer.
“It’s OK, I’m not going to hurt you,” came the voice again, “I’m down here.”
I realized the voice was coming from the far side of the dumpster. Still not completely reassured, I craned my neck around the dumpster and saw for the first time who I was talking to. Well, he hadn’t stood up or made any move to rape or kill me, which had to be a good sign.
“Got locked out, huh?” he said.
“Uh, yeah,” I responded, trying to mentally summon either Dustin or Sandi to my aid. Telepathy obviously wasn’t a natural skill, since neither of them showed up.
“I’m Dale,” he said.
Dale. An unusual name. Wait, I knew a Dale, back in high school.
“I remember you. You’re Nell, right? We were in the same English class.”
And just like that it all came flooding back to me. English class. High school. My ex. Getting pregnant. Splitting up. Having the baby alone. Finding myself here at Budget Burger while mom watched the baby.
“Dale?” I questioned, “I - I remember you too.”
I didn’t remember much actually, just a lanky, long-haired guy who often sat behind me and never really said a great deal. I looked down at him huddled by the dumpster. His hair was longer and looked like it hadn’t been washed in forever, while there were dark shadows under his eyes. He looked pale and skinny and very much alone.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. He looked down and shrugged.
“Things didn’t go so well for me, I guess,” Dale said, “I hang around here at night. You guys throw out a lot of perfectly good food.”
I was horrified. I wouldn’t call Budget Burger’s offerings ‘good’ when served hot (well, lukewarm) at the counter, never mind the leftovers we routinely tossed into the garbage can.
I wasn’t sure what to say.
“What happened?” I asked, genuinely shocked and curious. There were a lot of homeless in this city, but I’d never met one I knew before.
Dale hesitated before replying.
“Oh you know. Stuff.”
Actually I didn’t know and I just looked at him.
Dale rolled his eyes.
“You want to know?” he asked, “I’ll tell you, but first give me something to eat.”
“But I don’t have - oh.”
I cranked open the dumpster lid as Dale watched me, reaching inside for one of the bags I’d recently tossed in there. I gingerly put it back on the ground and opened the top. Bad smells assaulted my nostrils. Dale crawled over and started to rifle through the contents of the bag, picking out a few morsels. I tried not to look grossed out.
He started to chew on whatever he had found and I just stood there.
After a while, Dale started to speak.
“So after high school I didn’t find any work. I guess I got in with the wrong crowd.”
He paused to chew.
“I made a bit of money doing this and that. Mainly selling dope and stealing car radios, you know.”
No I didn’t know, but I wasn’t going to interrupt his flow.
“Anyway, I was lucky. I never got caught. I mean arrested, you know. But I did start enjoying the dope a little too much. My girlfriend kicked me out. I was staying on a friend’s couch and, well, he got sick of me too I guess. I don't blame him."
Another chewing break.
“So you just… live on the street?” I asked him.
“I guess,” Dale replied, “I like it back here at night though. Like I said - plenty of free food. It’s quiet too.”
I didn’t ask but I did wonder how many times I’d come out here to toss the trash and he’d been right there, on the other side of the dumpster, waiting for me to go back inside so he could scramble into the dumpster like a wild animal for some food. I felt bad for him.
Maybe my life wasn't so bad.
“Dale,” I began, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
I stopped speaking, hoping I hadn’t sounded as condescending as I thought. I wasn’t sure what to do next when I heard the sound of Dale starting to cry. I felt even worse now. What should I do?
Should I hug him? Should I bang on the door again?
Where the hell were Sandi and Dustin anyway? Was my absence really that unnoticeable? How could it be? I was the only employee in that place that ever did any damn work!
“I’m sorry,” he gulped.
What? Why? What did he have to be sorry for? I stared at him.
“I’m just embarrassed I guess.”
I tried to smile but I guess it came out as more of a grimace.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly, opting for honesty, “I’m not sure what to say.”
“Well, look, maybe now you know I’m here, you could maybe, I don’t know, give me the first choice of the trash before you toss it. Or maybe bring me out a burger every now and then, if you can get away with it?”
He looked at me hopefully and my heart melted a little bit.
“Of course I can!” I said, “look, if I can do anything else… I don’t know what but…”
The door opening interrupted my sentence and I stared up into the confused face of Dustin.
“The door was locked,” he informed me, as if I didn’t know.
“Yes Dustin, no shit, I’ve been locked out here. Why didn’t you check on me sooner?”
He looked at me in that blank way he often did. It creeped me out sometimes.
“Not my job, is it?” he replied, looking me up and down, “Sandi didn’t tell me to get you, and we don’t have any customers.”
“I still thought you’d notice I’d been gone all this time, Dustin,” I reprimanded him, his slack-jawed face starting to creep me out again, "you really are an idiot."
A flicker of annoyance flashed across his face.
“Always think you’re better than everyone else, huh, Nell?” he said, in a tone I couldn’t quite place.
Dustin came closer towards me, his slack jaw snapping closed and a calculating look appearing on his face. I’d never seen him like this before.
“Uh, Dustin? Can we just go back inside now?”
“No,” Dustin replied, “I think it’s about time I taught you a lesson.”
Before I knew it Dustin had spun me around and pinned me to the wall, his hand over my mouth, his body starting to press into mine. His eyes were suddenly clear, intelligent even.
Who was this man? Dumb Dustin? Dopey Dustin? No, this was somebody else. He looked into my eyes, into my soul. He wanted me dead. Dustin wasn’t who we’d all assumed he was. And now it was my time to die.
Except it wasn’t.
A pair of dirty but very strong hands encircled Dustin’s neck suddenly, making him release me in surprise. His eyes never broke contact with mine though, even while he was gasping for breath. Dustin was stronger than me but apparently no match for Dale. I watched the fingers press into Dustin’s neck. He was nearly lifted off the floor. It all happened so fast. Dustin dropped to the ground.
Dale, apparently my savior and new best friend, winked at me, and sprinted away.
Another five minutes later, or it could have been an hour, I couldn’t tell you, Sandi finally appeared. She looked at me, then at Dustin lying on the ground. Then back at me. Yes, I guess I had some explaining to do.
The cops didn’t seem to believe me when I told them an ‘unidentified man’ saved me in the nick of time and then vanished into thin air. But I knew what had happened and that was enough.
I took a few days off and then I switched to the daytime shift. One day, while outside tossing the garbage into the dumpster and feeling regretful I hadn’t seen Dale since that night, I glanced up at the sky.
The sun was behind the clouds and I could see rays of light trying to break through. I decided then and there I was going to go back to school. Not just for myself but for my baby girl as well. She deserved a good life, and now I had another chance to live mine, I could start to improve myself and make a new life for us both.
I haven’t seen Dale since that day but Dale: I wish you the best in life.
Things might have turned sour for you once, but the sun is always there you know.
Sometimes it’s just behind the clouds for a while.