1. Attack of the Aardyvists
“Pasta’s up!” Jack shouted from the kitchen. Smells of fresh spaghetti and the rumble of steady chatter reverberated off the walls of Aardvark Pasta. Marissa sighed. Being the restaurant’s only waitress at nights was hectic on Fridays, but tonight was pandemonium.
Marissa fiddled with her apron strings and approached a table where a couple of new patrons, a middle-aged man and woman, were sitting.
“Hi there. Are you guys ready to order?”
“Give us a minute, please. Can’t you see I’m in a conversation?” the woman said. Her conversation was an arduous text message she typed on her phone to some unseen recipient.
“Sure thing, ma’am.” Marissa shifted her focus. “Are you here tonight for the Meteor Meatballs, sir?”
“What are those?”
“Our regular plate of spaghetti and meatballs, just three bucks cheaper, to celebrate tonight’s meteor shower.”
“Marissa, pasta’s up!” Jack announced again.
The cell phone lady was still texting. Her husband shrugged. “Why don’t you take care of that and come back. We’ll be ready for you then.”
“No problem.” Marissa started to walk away.
“Wait! Where do you think you’re going?” the cell phone lady asked without looking up.
Marissa wheeled around, “Oh, sorry. You’re ready to order, then?”
“Marissa! Pasta’s up. Now!” Jack hollered.
“Well no,” said the cell phone lady, “but do you have breadsticks?”
“We sure do. I’ll bring you some and some sauce on my way back from the kitchen. Sound good?”
“I don’t know. How spicy is the sauce? Garlic doesn’t sit well with my stomach and I don’t want to pay—”
“Breadsticks will be just fine,” her husband interrupted.
“You got it.” Marissa sprinted back to the pick-up counter.
“Pick up the pace out there, Marissa,” Jack chided from across the counter. “Don’t spend so much time at one table. People won’t eat cold spaghetti. Meteor Meatballs for them, too?”
“I don’t know. We never got past breadsticks. Hey, Jack, the next time you scheme up a promotion do me a favor, will ya? Get me some help—especially if you want everyone out before the Aardyvists show up.” Marissa loaded two heaping plates of spaghetti in each arm. “By the way, what would you do if I ripped a cell phone out of a customer’s hands and finished her text message for her?”
“Are you being serious?”
“Never mind.” Marissa turned to face the crowd. “I’ve gotta get back to work.”
She balanced the plates on her arms and worked her way toward a family at a booth. A scream, louder than the music playing overhead, pierced the room. Marissa jumped. Her arms flailed and every platter clattered to the ground, but not before smearing spaghetti down her apron and all over her pants.
Patrons took pictures of Marissa with their phones as she located the source of the commotion. The cell phone lady snapped her fingers and beckoned Marissa to her table while her husband tried to hide behind a menu.
“Wha—What is that—that thing that made me scream?” She scrunched her face and pointed toward the cash register.
“That thing is Aardy, the restaurant’s mascot. Only he’s not a thing. He’s an aardvark.”
“Well, whatever he is, he’s making me lose my appetite.” She looked everywhere in the restaurant except at Aardy before bowing her head and breathing with heavy sighs. “No. I’m sorry. I just can’t do it. I tried, but I can’t eat so close to that animal. Do you have any tables outside instead? It’s our anniversary and this was supposed to be a very special night.”
Spaghetti sauce soaked through Marissa’s favorite jeans. She forced a smile to remain on her flushed face. “I’m sorry, ma’am we don’t have tables outside, but if we did I’d be more than happy to put you there. Maybe you could trade places with your husband so you weren’t facing Aardy.”
“No thank you, miss. I’m absolutely sure I’d be more creeped out knowing it was watching me with those beady little eyes and I couldn’t even see what it was doing. Can’t you cover up its cage with a blanket or something until we leave?”
“Sorry, ma’am. We can’t do that. Some of our customers, the less ridiculous ones who don’t scream as much, actually come here to see Aardy.” Marissa pulled a noodle out of her hair. “I’ve got an idea that might work though. How about I get a bag from the back and you can put that over your head? Would that help? If not, you could always just take your breadsticks to go, and, you know, go.”
Marissa marched into the kitchen. She peered above the counter, relieved to see the cell phone lady storm out of the restaurant as her husband trailed behind her.
In the kitchen, Giovanni “Jack” Capanella and his twin boys, Dante and Marco, scrambled to keep up with the orders. Jack was a stocky man with graying hair and a large belly whose white apron was perpetually stained with one sauce or another. The boys, with their jet black hair, were younger, less chubby replicas of him. Jack barked commands at his sons. He looked at Marissa.
“What happened out there?”
“Aardy.” Marissa fished more noodles out of her apron pockets.
For most people, Aardy was their first and only encounter with a living, breathing aardvark. Most observers were disappointed that Aardy didn’t look anything like the pictures of healthy, wild aardvarks they found on the Internet. Aardvarks gallivanting across their native savannas, whose perfect bodies resembled a crescent moon with each tapered end pointing downward; one point of the moon the aardvark’s head with stocky rabbit-like ears and elongated snout; the other end the aardvark’s thick tail brushing against the ground. From beneath the arch of the back, four thick, muscular legs protruded.
These were the aardvarks people expected to see, not the distortion they found at Aardvark Pasta lounging behind hard clear plastic walls with an indifferent stare. Aardy’s reddish-brown fur was missing in patches and his body was more of a crescent moon that swallowed an enormous bloated football shape. His once firm legs had atrophied from years of captivity-induced inactivity. People joked he was the only aardvark they’d ever seen with chicken legs. They were often disappointed when they met him, but the cell phone lady’s outburst was the most extreme reaction Marissa had ever witnessed.
Jack looked at the five dollar bill Marissa slipped into his shirt pocket. “What’s this for? This won’t cover the spaghetti you spilled.”
“It’s not for the spaghetti, Jack. It’s for a side of breadsticks.”
“Let’s just say I’m pretty sure the people who ordered them aren’t going to pay for them.”
Jack frowned. “Get back out there. They’re already showing up.”
The they Jack referred to were the Aardyvists. Friday nights at Aardvark Pasta were made for them. As the name suggested, the focus of their attention was Aardy the Aardvark, but the name was tongue-in-cheek. One night, a couple of years ago, a few Abundance University students were drinking at the restaurant.
“Dude, we’re like Aardy activists, or something,” one of them piped up.
“No, like Aardyvists,” said another.
One bad pun deserved another and soon the Aardyvists were holding weekly Aardyholics Anonymous meetings every Friday night. Jack was determined to keep the crowd coming. He installed a big screen TV in the dining area which was soon followed by a GameBox video game console and one game; Annihilation Syndrome.
Jack’s only stipulation was the Aardyvists wait until after 9:00 to play the game. One video game reviewer had sardonically recommended a new rating, “MM” for “More than Mature”, be commissioned for Annihilation Syndrome. Better to let the wholesome crowd, the crowd not yet desensitized to gratuitous violence, vacate the building before the refuse of twenty-something men were freed to revel in their breadsticks, beer, and computer generated debauchery.
Marissa glanced at the clock. 8:30. This is going to be a long night.
She couldn’t keep track of the exact number of Aardyvists. They came and went so frequently their seating arrangement had devolved into a vast tangle of tables and chairs. The chaos wouldn’t subside until Jack kicked everyone out at 11:00 and the Aardyvists stumbled home.
“Those guys can eat!” was Jack’s unwavering response to anyone who asked him why he allowed Pond Hollow’s only dine-in eatery to be overrun with miscreants every Friday night.
Non-Aardyvist customers began to finish their meals and trickle out of the restaurant. Marissa was left drowning in a frothy sea of testosterone, gunfire, and the all too frequent fart joke as she catered to the horde of inebriated and manner-less boys masquerading as Aardy’s retinue of loyal followers.
People assumed Marissa’s determination to put herself through college and escape Bonanza County was what kept her at her job. While this logic was her primary reason for staying, Marissa had also become fond of Aardy. Not in a fanatical “We must free the aardvark from captivity!” way, or a creepy “Aardy and I, well we’s jus gonna settle on down in this old rundown farmhouse. When you’re already feeding fifteen cats, what’s one more mouth to feed?” kind of way. Marissa treated Aardy like she was his protective older sister. She felt bad about his situation and was determined to make sure people treated him with respect.
Aardyvists weren’t known for respect.
“Hey Marissa, you sleeping over there? We need some Aardvark Ale,” one of the Aardyvists called out.
Marissa looked at the clock, 8:45, and then at the four empty pitchers of beer already at their table. She sighed. They’re starting early tonight.
As she approached the table to reclaim the empty pitchers, Brant, one of the most vocal regulars, looked her up and down. “Rough night?” He laughed.
Marissa glared at him.
“Hey Marissa—or can I just call you Missy?”
“No, you may not.”
“Your loss, baby. What are you doing for fun tomorrow night?”
“Again? You wouldn’t have to if you’d take your Daddy’s money, you know. Think of all the time you’d have for a little fun with me then.”
“This conversation is over.” Marissa scooped up the pitchers and walked away.
“Hey Missy, you don’t always gotta be so uptight. You don’t want to end up like your old man.”
Marissa bristled. Two more hours. I can do this. Just two more hours. Marissa refilled the pitchers with cheap beer and carted them back to the brood.
“Here’s your Aardvark Ale.”
“Dessert’s up!” bellowed Jack.
“Sorry boys, I gotta go.” She was thankful to have a few customers left that weren’t Aardyvists.
Marissa carried bowls of gelato to a small family. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Brant by Aardy’s pen, coaxing the aardvark closer. People constantly tapped on Aardy’s glass, made faces, and tried to take pictures with him. What alarmed Marissa was the breadstick with the crude canal carved down the length of it in one of Brant’s hands and the pitcher of beer in the other.
“Will you excuse me for a moment?” Marissa hurried over to Brant.
“Here Aardy, Aardy, Aardy,” Brant cooed. Coaxing wasn’t necessary. Aardy had learned long ago to amble to the ventilation holes any time there was the slightest possibility of getting fed. Brant grinned as Aardy neared. The Aardyvists cheered.
“You like this stuff don’t you?” Brant hoisted his makeshift delivery system to the largest ventilation hole and poured. As the first ounces of fluid trickled down the inside wall of his enclosure, Aardy sprawled out his long, extensible tongue and lapped up the amber liquid.
“What are you doing?” Marissa screamed. Aardy skittered away from the free beverage and cowered in a corner. The pitcher clattered against the faux tile floor and splashed beer everywhere. A hush fell over the room as all eyes focused on the ensuing confrontation between angry waitress and unruly patron. A handful of Aardyvists laughed loudly from their table, but Marissa’s stony glare silenced them.
“Now look what you’ve done, Missy. You made me spill my drink. I was just sharing some with my buddy Aardy. You do know what sharing is, right? Oh wait, you’ve never shared anything in your life, have you?” Brant took a step closer to Marissa. “Look, baby. I was just having fun. Nothing wrong with that, right?” He put his face so close to Marissa’s she was getting second-hand drunk from his breath.
A couple of Aardyvists stood up. “Easy now, Brant. Sit down. She doesn’t want you getting Aardy drunk, that’s all. Can you blame her? People do stupid things when they’re drunk. I mean look at you.” More laughter erupted from the Aardyvists.
“Just sit down. Go and sit down now,” Marissa said in the calmest, yet most demanding voice she could muster.
“Or what? I ain’t nothing to you. Don’t tell me what to do. Now, why don’t you run along like a good little girl and get me another drink. Then you can clean up this mess you made.”
Marissa’s pulse quickened. She backed up, but her heel collided with Brant’s foot and she fell to the floor.
Did he seriously just trip me? Marissa didn’t have time to dwell on Brant’s discourtesy. Aardy ran full speed and hurled himself at Brant, growling as he flew through the air. A thud echoed off the wood-paneled walls of Aardvark Pasta as Aardy collided with his barrier.
The spectators emitted a collective gasp. Small but visible cracks spidered up and down the plastic wall, the epicenter being the precise point where aardvark and barrier had so miserably failed to merge.
Brant, turning in time to see the fury-propelled aardvark lunge at him, screamed and jumped backward. His feet slipped on the wet floor and his arms and legs flailed for a brief second until, Brant, too, found himself lying on the restaurant floor. Aardy rose slowly, growled once while shaking his head, and slunk back into a corner of his enclosure.
Marissa, on her feet now, stomped over to a table and grabbed a half-eaten plate of meatballs.
“I ain’t your baby.” Marissa unceremoniously dumped everything on the plate all over Brant’s balding head. “Now who’s having the rough night, Brant?”
“Marissa?” Jack approached the debacle. He had heard smatterings of the commotion from the kitchen, but had only seen Marissa assaulting Brant with one of his promotional dishes.
“Don’t even— I quit.” The applause of customers, including many of the Aardyvists, serenaded Marissa as she walked to the front door of Aardvark Pasta.
A small crowd gathered in the parking lot and watched Marissa removed her apron, crumple it up, and fling it to the ground. Inside her car, Marissa pulled out a burnt CD titled “Angst” and shoved it into the player. As she cranked the volume she wished the bass from her speakers sounded better and her car had more swagger so her exodus from downtown Pond Hollows could be more impressive.
Jack watched Marissa stop a couple of times for pedestrians and maneuver her car over speed bumps before finally disappearing beyond the horizon. He groaned when he looked inside his restaurant. Aardy had retreated to his quarters, but the spiraling cracks in the glass were a vivid reminder of the damage he had caused. Brant and the other Aardyvists were gone, offering no assistance or apologies. Dante and Marco were dutifully cleaning up.
The situation with Aardy was getting worse. Left alone to stew in his thoughts, a cliché repeated in Jack’s head: “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” The timetable for doing something desperate had just been accelerated to now.