LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some may find offensive.
I'm through the doors of Buddha Burger seven minutes past my shift start time, which, if you ask me, is within the realm of acceptable. But not so for our manager, Mr. Babcock. He's waiting by the clock, his bushy mustache scrunched into a hairy M above a tight frown. He makes a point of looking at the clock, then at me.
"Hi, Mr. Babcock," I say, punching in.
"You're late, Cameron." Wow. And you, sir, are incredibly observant.
"Yes, sir. Sorry about that. I had to take my mom's car and it kept stalling out..."
"Cameron, I'm gonna give you a piece of advice, son. Never explain, never blame."
He stares meaningfully at me. I think the human interaction manual says that I'm supposed to supply a comeback here, something to show I have "understood the message."
"Yes, sir. That's good advice, sir."
He puts his arm around my shoulder like he's my life coach. "Son, I don't know what your home situation is." In his thick Texas drawl, "situation" has about ten syllables. "Maybe you don't have a daddy at home. Maybe you do. But here at the Buddha Burger, I like to think of us as family. You know what that means?"
There's yet another place where I can feel awkward, resentful, and out of touch?
"It means that while you work here, I'm like your daddy. I make the rules. And when I say you need to be here on time or even ten minutes early for your shift, I mean it. You got me?"
"Yes, sir," I say. Mr. Babcock pats my shoulder. He smiles, and the caterpillar mustache — the envy of state troopers everywhere, I'm sure — straightens out again. I hear that on the weekends, he's a part-time security guard with mirrored sunglasses and a gun. He probably poses in front of his bathroom mirror to see how he looks saying "Freeze!"
Mr. Babcock is pleased that I have "heard his message."
I'll bet he feels all cuddly inside that he may have "put another youth on the path to responsibility." I make a mental note to write Kick Me on the back of his shirt sometime.
I'm working with Lena today. Just great. Lena's the most literal person I've ever met, with the heart and soul of a district attorney. When Lena is shift manager, she expects you to work your ass off — no skipping off to the walk-in for a secret smoke or pretending to clean the bathrooms for thirty minutes. It's by the book all the way.
She hands me a rag. "Late again, Cameron."
"Just by seven minutes. That's not really late, Lena."
She swivels around, hands on hips. "Yeah? That's seven minutes I had to cover for you. Not cool."
"It's not that big a deal." I busy myself stocking the napkin holders on the counters, but I can feel her eyes on me, like she sees straight through to my inner assholian, irresponsible core. I look up and she's studying me.
"Can I ask you a question, Cameron?"
"I think you just did. Or did you mean an additional question?"
Lena doesn't even bother to dignify this with a new facial expression. "My question is this: What's wrong with you?"
She's staring at me with those big brown eyes, waiting.
And what I want to say to her is I don't know. I honestly don't.
"Right. I'll just go wipe down."
Lena shakes her head slowly, judge and jury. And then she does that thing I can't seem to do. She shakes it off, puts on a smile, and turns to the next customer. "Hi, welcome to Buddha Burger. How can I help you?"
Only six more fun-filled hours to go.
The tables are a mess. Every inch of the fake bamboo tables is covered in the sticky, mushy remnants of Buddha Burgers, Meditation Fries, and Fresh Fruitiful Frothies. People come here because they think it's healthy and they're saving the environment while they chomp their fast food. There are lots of framed pictures showing smiling indigenous peoples who are absolutely not being exploited by the corporate office. In the back is a Zen water fountain supposed to induce feelings of peace. Mostly it makes people have to go to the bathroom. New Agey chant music is piped through the speakers. Rug rats run around playing with their Buddha cow toys, making moo sounds and fucking up all my cleaning efforts.
Lena summons me to the front over the mike. It's her break time, and she is very, very serious about taking her break at the same time every shift. I take over the register just as Staci Johnson and her crew walk in. On the bell curve of high school humiliation, this rates the top grade.
"Lena," I beg in a whisper. "Can you take this one for me, please?"
"Ha! Funny." She holds up her Star Fighter graphic novel. "I'm on break."
"Look, I'm sorry I was late — "
"That makes..." She counts heads. "Five of us."
"Really, really sorry. It won't happen again. Just please take this one."
She makes a show of drumming her fingers on her chin like she's thinking hard. "Hmmm. Let me see. Um. No."
"Lena. Please. Pretty please. I'll be your best friend."
"I have a best friend. Her name is LaKeesha. You'd know that if you ever paid attention to anyone else."
"Okay. I'm a jerk. A self-involved jerk. But I swear, if you just take this one order, I will get the soy cheese from the walk-in for a week. Promise."
For a minute, I think she's considering. Then she flips her book open to the ribbon-marked page. "Sorry. I'm at a good part. The fate of the universe hangs in the balance." Lena shoves her card into the time clock. I hear the gunshot-hard click-punch of it seal my fate.
"Excuse me, could we get some help?" Staci calls out.
Lena jerks her head in their direction. A smirk pulls at her lips. "Sucks to be you."
Resigned, I trudge over to the register, wondering if girls can smell your total fear, like wolves or very experienced serial killers.
"Hi, welcome to Buddha Burger. Can I take your order, please?" I say, pulling out a plastic tray and putting a one hundred percent recycled paper liner on it. I avoid eye contact by staring at the useless factoids: DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the genetic code that makes you uniquely you! Before they're your cruelty-free burgers, Buddha Burger cows are raised with sunshine and happiness. That's why they taste so moo-velously good! Recycling is good for the planet — and you and me. Let's all get recycled!
"Excuse me?" one of the girls says, snapping her fingers to get my attention.
Staci Johnson and I are separated by a cash register and two feet of counter. "Wow. It's Cameron Smith. I didn't know you worked here." Staci stifles a giggle. "Nice hat."
Here's a heaping plate of I Hate You. Would you like fries with that?
Staci & Co. change their order four times just to mess with me. They all want Fresh Fruitified Frothies, which are a pain to make. It's February, girls. Order coffee. I'm at the blender for what seems like hours, developing carpal tunnel syndrome, or aggravating the carpal tunnel syndrome I've already brought on by frequent self-abuse, which I suppose I could cut back on. Then again, everyone needs a hobby. The Frothie-making must have been harder than I thought, because when I bring out the tray of drinks, my hands start to twitch and jerk. Every muscle in my arms is break dancing. I can't hold on to the tray. It goes flying, splattering Staci in blueberry-strawberry-peach soy moo.
Staci lets out a little scream. "You did that on purpose, Cameron Smith."
"I swear I didn't," I say. My left arm is still shaking. I use my right to hold it steady, which makes it look like I'm trying to hug myself.
"He totally did do it on purpose," one of the wannabes says. She rips four or five eco-friendly napkins from the popup dispenser and hands them to Staci.
"God, he is such a freak," Staci mutters just loud enough for everyone to hear. Even the ankle-biters in the joint have stopped running around screaming, more interested in the action going on up front.
Mr. Babcock struts around the fry vats, hiking up his pants.
"What seems to be the trouble?"
"He threw our Frothies at us." Staci shows off her wet shirt.
"Cameron? Do you have a problem?" Mr. Babcock says, tearing his eyes away from Staci's Frothie-drenched chest.
"No. It was an accident. I don't know what happened. It's like I lost control of my arms or something and — "
Mr. Babcock holds up his silencing finger. "Never explain or blame, Mr. Smith. Ladies, at Buddha Burger, we take safety seriously. Your meal is on the house. Lena, could you retake these girls' order?"
Lena doesn't look up from her graphic novel. "I'm on break. Fifteen minutes. By law."
Mr. Babcock sighs. "Fine. I'll do it myself. Cameron, I'm gonna have to ask you to hand in your Buddha badge."
Every pair of eyes is on me as I hand over my Meditating Buddha Cow pin and hat. Only one person isn't watching. A bronzy girl with pink hair in the far corner eating a Buddha's Bounty Hot Fudge Sundae. She's all lit up from the afternoon sun. And she has wings. No, that's ... ohmygodyes! There they are — white, fluffy, big-assed wings tucked behind her back. No, dude, that can't be right. People do not have wings.
"Huh?" I say, turning back to Mr. Babcock.
"Take your things and leave now. Don't forget to clock out."
Staci and crew form a little huddle. They make it seem like they're trying not to laugh, but really, they're enjoying the show. And when I turn back to look at the table in the far corner, it's empty.
Excerpted from Going Bovine by Libba Bray. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House Inc. Copyright 2009 by Martha E. Bray. All rights reserved.