An excerpt from the novel, VIRAL

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VIRAL comes out on December 9, 2016, everywhere books are sold.

Copyright © 2016 by M.A. Barrett


I am the black muck on the floor, eye level with his boots. Fried chicken turds are encrusted in the leather where the shoes are starting to wear near the toe. I have a horrible tingling sensation in my gut, like maybe I want him to catch me here, crouched on the floor with my skirt around my waist, my GoCam exposed in my hands. Maybe he’d understand what I’m doing back here or maybe he’d turn around and walk away. Maybe he’d grab me and throw me against the dry goods cabinet and suck my lips off, then scoop me up and carry me home, King Kong style. I could record that. I have a pretty good script of it in my head already. We could act it out. Right here behind the bread racks or in the closet behind me. It would be the only thing worth the wasted space on my SD card at this point. He takes another step closer, just a couple of feet from me. My breath catches. He thinks he sees something? I hold my exhalation, my heart thumping against my throat. Can he hear it? Can he smell me?

“Lucky, get off my clock!” Joe bellows from the bowels of the restaurant. Lucky steps back, teeters, finally turns and leaves me there alone. I wait twenty seconds before standing, making sure the coast is clear. There can’t be many of them left. I’ll have to wait here until the last one leaves, until I’m alone with myself and the nothingness of what I’ve done. I finger the crumpled stickie note that holds the alarm code in the front pocket of my apron.

Someone cuts the musak at the front of the house and I’m left with just the dull hum of the walk-in coolers all around me. I smell what was fresh bread this morning souring with bacteria. We’ll serve it anyway. That’s something I could have captured in the eight hours since I planted my GoCam — molding bread going out to unsuspecting guests. The Boston Globe would have jumped on that story. When this chick in Miami, Marni Reyes, stuck a camera in the prep kitchen at the Assisted Living Facility where she worked, she captured cooks dumping sleeping pills into the mash potatoes and serving them up to the kiddies to get them to stop banging their heads against the walls. She shot that. It went viral and the bastards were arrested.

But I will have to do this shit again tomorrow. I’ll have to risk it again, sneak in early, rig the camera, maybe even manifest something; a little white lie, reality television style. Maybe drop the steak for table 27 on the floor on purpose and see how fast Joe snatches it out of the chemical jelly we walk through every day before sending it back out to the guests. That would do it. And it would only be a little set up on my part, not a lie really. A little produced reality never hurt anyone, until it does. But this is something Joe does every day, scraping fallen food off the floor and dumping it back on a plate. Except today. No one did anything revolting or that would violate health codes today.

If I could direct these bozos, I would, just like I used to, but I can’t.

I duck down fast as a couple of cooks leave. I hear the front door slam. I check my camera and see that I’ve got about an hour left at 720p with 60 frames per second. When I stand again I feel a loose shard from one of the metal bread racks slowly dig into my flesh, tearing through the thick black tights I popped out of a plastic egg this morning. The new run dominoes up my thigh and gets lost under my regulation black skirt. I bite back a yelp as the blood drools down my leg, but as I move to adjust for pain, the sound my thighs make when I drag my no-slip shoes through the crap on the floor, is something like pfft, pfft, pfft and seems louder than my outburst of pain would have been. I wonder if the mic picked up my burning thighs or my insane heartbeat or the voices in my head screaming at me to get the hell out of here and stop trying to shoot for glory, stop trying to make something of myself. Just be here now and accept my fate. I am no longer a story producer. I am no longer anything, but a waitress. I am no longer a resident of New York or Los Angeles, but sometimes I go there in my head.

Margie leaves next and I dive for cover again. She pulls on her coat and comes right at me. I tuck my face into my knees as she looks back over her shoulder and says, “I’m out!” She waits for a response, but gets none. “Don’t give the new girl a hard time, guys. She’s never closed before,” she says to no one in particular. I train my camera on her and find a moment of hesitation in her eyes, a maybe I should stay look that subsides quickly when she remembers that LaDasha’s been with the babysitter for seven hours now. At this point, Margie just worked for free. There’s no money left, not even for a pack of smokes, only one-way fare back to Watertown and cash in hand to the sitter.

She zips up her coat and walks by me. She hits the switch on the wall on the way, which casts the back of the house in an eerie blue haze from the security lights. My lowlight on the GoCam isn’t great, but I can still see through it. The blue hue makes everything cold. I hear someone set the alarm. I reach into the left pocket of my apron and feel for the crumpled stickie note. Still there. I think of yesterday, this morning — hell, half an hour ago. Time before now feels like another dimension, a dimension where the jerks I work with were perfect fucking saints all day. Not very interesting at all for my new YouTube Channel, which I haven’t actually gotten around to creating yet. But I can do that part when I’m home. In five minutes or so I’ll be in the clear, steady and on the last green line out of the Convention Center T station, headed back to Somerville, where the air smells like the sulfur of the Mystic River met up with townie beer breath. I can at least set up the YouTube so today won’t be totally wasted.

“Don’t worry. It’s hard to get the hang of it.” Joe’s low, grumbling voice comes out of the shadows and it feels like someone opened one of the freezers just wide enough to chill my spine.

My breath catches in my throat. At first it looks like he’s talking to himself, but then as he passes a ray of blue light, I see that he’s with Quinn, the newbie who started floor training last week. Her bright pink polo contrasts with her dark, caramel skin and is stained with some conglomeration of ranch and ketchup like a birthmark in the middle of her shirt. The collar has been tucked under all night and no one told her. Her ponytail is at its wit’s end, wispies gone haywire all around her head. She’s all legs-for-days and hope on the verge of tears. I roll my eyes at Joe’s lame attempts to play it cool with her.

“You don’t owe us any money tonight, sweetheart. Everybody miscounts their bank in the beginning. We’ll just call it even, okay?” Joe says and his voice sounds syrupy, teeming with bacteria.

“Thanks, Mr. Marino, but I can’t keep doing this. I have rent to pay,” she says and I can hear her words shake in her mouth. No one calls him by his Father’s name. Joe has his hand on her shoulder. It’s an awkward gesture tinged with possession. Without another thought I slowly pull my GoCam up and hope that it’s trained on them. This might just be weird enough to capture. I start to pray that he’ll make a move and ask her out. Workplace harassment. Bam. Fuck yes. Sure to make a splash on the old interweb. If I were still producing, I’d have two cameras on this, as well as a bird’s eye view and I would bark orders from the safety of command central into Cam1’s earpiece to get in close on Quinn’s incredibly uncomfortable expression. I’d tell them to make sure they get the collar and the ketchup stains. Make sure you sell it that she’s a mess and she’s poor and he’s an awkward dude with a whole lot of power over her and probably (definitely) a huge boner.

“I’ll do whatever I can to help you out,” he says, darkness creeping into the crevice of his words. This peaks the interest of some tiny monster in my gut. At this I’d tell my camera guys to not make a sound. Let them forget that you’re here. Let this moment play out, whatever happens. Don’t stop shooting. Even if your hands go numb.

Through tears, Quinn says, “I just feel like I can’t get the rhythm right.” Joe smirks at this, an I can show you a thing or two about rhythm kind of smirk. I’ve never seen him act this way before. It’s like he’s parading around the house in a suit and hat that are four sizes too big for him, the heels of daddy’s shoes banging on the marble as he walks. I notice then he’s only half-paying attention to her, nodding and pouting like he understands what she’s saying, but not listening to a damn thing. I see his eyes divert to the hot kitchen and he hesitates before leaning in to kiss her neck, only he misses her neck and his lips — and his teeth, I think — scrape along her jaw. She rears up suddenly.

“I…I don’t think I should — ” she starts, and I’m hoping my frame catches her fists pressing against his chest. She’s being polite, as polite as she can be so she doesn’t lose her job, but he’s not taking her hints. As he leans in further she leans back and I imagine that yoga is a daily practice for young Quinn. The whole thing is cartoonish and I should want to laugh, but the immense fear rising in my gullet keeps the hysterics at bay.

When Joe finally lands one, he looks like he’s trying to swallow her face. I can see his gummy teeth glinting in the light. She pushes him again and says, “Mr. Marino, I don’t want to kiss yo — ” and there is an awkward stillness between them for a few seconds while Joe pushes himself into her. She digs her knuckles into his chest and shoves him hard, her other hand sweeping his face, her nails raking into the mushy, rubbery, acnified flesh of his cheek. In the blue light I can see a sheen of wet on his face, but can’t tell if it’s blood or pimple ooze. He hits the coolers behind him hard. Not yoga, Crossfit I think, before a stack of fry baskets totters and almost comes down on Joe’s head. He holds his cheek then pulls his hand away to look at his fingers. Now the scratches on his face look like black war paint and his palm is covered in what looks like a thin sheath of molasses.

I am panting. I can hear myself. Why can’t they hear me? This would all be over if they realized someone else is here. My breath is running sprints around my ribcage.

“I’m sorry — ” she starts to say when Joe grabs her wrist, draws it tight up her back, and spins her away from him. The move, another awkward one, almost doesn’t land. But then the sound of her body smashing into the metal prep table and the subsequent crashing of pots and pans on the tile floor is astounding in the hollow space surrounding me. I know that she is trapped.

My phone is in my left hand and my camera in my right. I don’t know when I pulled my phone out of my apron, but it doesn’t matter. I swipe the lock screen and the sinking feeling in my gut plummets to the floor. I’m at 1% battery. I didn’t have a chance to charge it this morning. Joe’s voice again takes over the space around me.

“I know you’re there,” he says and my heart skips into my jaw.

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