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It doesn’t matter the time of day — Ula Maria’s soda pop shop and diner glows neon purple.

The sign itself is old, dented and scratched and missing a few purple bulbs. It’s been that way for as long as I’ve been here. It’s hard to say how long it’s been since I arrived, though. Time moves differently in this realm. To be honest, it doesn’t really move at all. Our shifts at the diner go until our feet ache and we’re paid accordingly. Sometimes.

Normally my shifts are spent at the soda bar, mixing milkshakes and malts and adding in fluorescent flavoring syrups that can’t do anything good for the human body. Then again, most of our customers aren’t strictly human. Most of them aren’t even close to human.

Those shifts are usually filled with a mixed bag of customers. Sometimes there are couples whose idea of a romantic date is coming to a slowly decaying diner on the edge of the galaxy. It’s a bit cliche if you ask me; I’ve seen it more times than I care to count. Still, there is a lot I would give to trade places with them.

They gaze into each other’s eyes for a few hours while sharing a shake or nibbling on a plate of fries, which are anything but the kind mere humans could imagine. Trust me, I’ve seen the way Julius prepares them in the kitchen. It involves dethawing a large faintly yellow brick of something I still haven’t quite been able to identify then cutting the mystery product into slabs and frying it in oil. Again, not the kind you’re imagining, but I won’t get into that. Customers don’t seem to notice.

More often than the star-crossed lovers, though, are the Passers. Or at least that’s what Ula takes to calling them. Those who wander in, but have no intention of staying long here at the edge of the galaxy. I should have only ever been one of them. Instead, I’m still stuck here.

Sometimes these customers are large and grey-skinned with flexible armor that chafes against itself with every movement — those are the Universal Alliance agents on a routine scouting of this part of the galaxy. I keep my head down when I pass them. There are enough of them that it’s unlikely it’ll be one that recognizes me, but I don’t take any chances. I ask Ula to make sure they’re seated the moment they come in. I don’t want them near my spot at the counter. 

Other times these customers are a variety of haggard, vaguely human-looking customers all wearing dirtied clothing — those are usually the Shippers, transporting goods throughout the intergalactic systems, just stopping through for a bite to eat. Typically, the Shippers are nice enough, and usually leave a few coins that I promptly pocket, despite the dark grease almost always covering them. 

I always make an effort to tease out the customers’ stories. Mostly because I need the tips. It’s easy enough to do that behind a counter.

I like my spot behind the counter. It’s familiar. There are metal sheets of sweet-smelling, brightly colored milkshake mix-ins. Usually, I am there alone with no need to talk with the others on the waitstaff. The cooks mostly leave me alone too, but sometimes Julius will slip me some of those untrustworthy fries. 

Tonight, though, I’ve been given a section of the floor to cover, a corner near the back of the diner and close to the music box. Ula knows I hate working the floor, and I always try to avoid it.

“You have to take a shift there every once in a while,” they say. I don’t ever argue. Ula may be several inches shorter than me with a body more wrinkled than my apron after a long shift, but I know better than to cross them.

One glance towards my section and I already know tonight is going to be a long one. At one of the tables in the corner sits four feminine magenta-skinned customers. Their clothes are difficult to understand, with bizarre cuts and silhouettes, form-fitting layers overtop of loose ones, and smatterings of jewelry that catches in the dim light of the diner. But they are easily recognizable — definitely a younger generation from a nearby system. They are talking excitedly, hand gestures flying. Their animation is countered by my hesitation, as I worry that they’re going to spill any drinks I give them.

When I reach their table, I hear the tallest one with the shortest hair say something about the Universal Alliance. I almost want to laugh, tell the young revolutionaries not to waste their time. Little do they know that I’ve already tried that once, and look where it got me.

Instead, I nod towards the entrance of the diner. “Better keep your voices down, Agents sometimes come around here.”

The one next to the tall one has a nose ring. Several nose rings. “All the more reason to talk.” Their tone is light, challenging me.

But I keep the rest of my thoughts to myself. I know how idealists like them think. I know they’re convinced that they can make a difference in the large scope of the galaxy, but I am more than positive that they can’t. I’m not going to be the one to tell them that though. It’s exhausting to keep forcing myself to relive my own mistakes, especially when I know I can’t change their minds. It’s not worth my time, and I have other tables to get to.

***

The first half of my shift goes well enough. At least most of it. A bug-eyed terrestrial left goopy purple snot behind on the black and white checkered floor. It sent my unsuspecting self straight to my ass, a tray filled with half-empty cuts clattering to the ground with me. Other than that, it’s been fine.

I spend the entire shift only thinking about going home to the tiny dented ship tethered to Ula Maria’s where I spend my sleeping hours. It isn’t a home, I suppose. I haven’t seen a home in so long that my memory of it is starting to fade. Ula Maria’s was never supposed to be permanent, but it’s become more of a fixture in my life than even my past has.

I am about to clock out for my break, when I hear a guttural sound near my shoulder and turn to see someone in a different waiter’s section staring straight at me, trying to get my attention. His skin looks like it’s made of molten stone. There is a feather in a hat perched atop his head. He is chewing on what appears to be a stalk of wheat. Where he got wheat this far away from any planet that produces it, I don’t know. Nor am I going to ask. Not when he looks like something ripped from the flyers filling the walls of the diner.

He isn’t seated in my section, and I should be off the clock.

“One moment, sir. I’ll grab your server–”

No.” The sound is rattling, like he swallowed some of the plasma rolling off of him.

I smile. I hate this part. “Really, it’s diner policy. I’m not supposed to serve outside of my section.”

From across the room, an orchestral ballad starts playing from the music box. I want to rip my hair out. My shift is far from over, despite my aching joints and failing patience.

Then a slender blue-fire wisp of a man sits next to him. He wears a tailored suit and cufflinks. He offers a placid smile, but I am tired and don’t have the energy to offer the same politeness. I want nothing more than to extinguish his flames.

“Apologies,” he says. “I noticed you earlier and asked my friend here to get your attention.”

“Yes, well, again, I’m not your server–”

“Who have you lost?”

The man cuts me off, and I find myself blinking at his words. When I speak, my voice is hollow.

“What did you say?”

“You’ve lost someone. I can sense it.”

I have to force a smile to keep tears from springing to my eyes. All this time and I still can’t bring myself to talk about that with anyone. I turn away, saying I’ll get the other server. But the blue-fire man does not relent. He calls for me even as I’ve crossed out of earshot.

“I’ll be staying here a while, in case you change your mind.”

I laugh. “No one stays here long.”

No one, that is, except me. The longer I try to get away, the more tightly I’m bound here. Not by some cosmic force, just by pure financial bullshit. Shifts at Ula’s hardly pay enough for food and the fee Ula charges me for docking outside. I can hardly ever put away something to pay off my debt, or try to get myself back on my feet. Most days I think I’ll never get away from here. Most days the only thing that gets me through a shift is a microbe of hope that maybe one day I’ll prove myself wrong.

***

There is something vicious dripping from the ceiling in the break room. It is an acidic orange color and just looking at it makes me feel dizzy. 

On my way there, Julius handed me a small electric cylinder, one standing about the size and shape of a pen. I know from my years as a student that inside the cylinder is a small dispenser containing a pink liquid. Breathe in the steam and you’ll feel more awake and settled. 

I never used them for the intended purpose. I always emptied out the pink liquid, filled the dispenser with something much more volatile, something that could practically disintegrate your lungs if you breathed it in. Then I’d hand it off to some unsuspecting target and watch — just like Julius did to me. Only I know he didn’t swap the pink before he gave it to me. There is nothing dangerous in this pen.

The door creaks open. 

“Taking a break?” Comes the raspy voice of Persephone — sometimes Percy. She’s close to my age, maybe a few years older. I never bothered to ask. She may be the only person here I’d consider a friend.

“So what if I am?”

“It’ll cut into your paycheck.” 

She sits on the chair across from me the wrong way around, leaning her arms into the back of it. Her dark hair is pulled away from her face. There’s something wrong with her eyes, but I can never pinpoint what it is. Maybe it’s that the white areas seem to melt out of their sockets and drip down her cheeks if you look too long. Maybe it’s that sometimes her skin seems to shimmer if the light hits it just right. 

I can’t be sure.  

“Oh, I’m fully aware.” I take a drag from the pen. “Have the two from table eight left yet?”

Persephone narrows her eyes at me. A milky white liquid starts slowly dripping down her cheek. I force myself not to look at it.

“They asked you, didn’t they?” She says. “About–”

“Citra,” I say before Persephone can continue. “Her name was Citra. Is Citra.”

Persephone lets out a low whistle as she stands. “When are you going to let the past go?”

I say nothing as Persephone leaves. I take another drag, but it doesn’t help, because now I’m thinking about Citra. If I think too long about her, I won’t be able to get myself to my feet and finish my shift. And I need to finish if I want even the possibility of ever seeing her again.

I throw the metal cylinder on the table in front of me — Julius will find it later — and get back to my feet. 

Statement Columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at mdhubb@umich.edu