Reflections – A Novella – Part 2
We’d walked only half a block before he led me into a little diner. Despite the short distance we’d traveled my legs had begun to throb so badly that the pain in those limbs had become heavy competition with the raging in my skull.
We’d just barely crossed the threshold when I heard a man’s raspy voice shout, “Stop!”
The authority behind the command was enough to make me falter.
Mort though, seemed undaunted by the order. He continued into the diner, pulling me along behind him easily enough despite my frail resistance.
I was uncertain, searching the faces of each patron, wondering where the order had come from. I found only disinterest in those eyes. They continued sipping their coffee and picking at their plates as though I didn’t even exist.
Again I had that sneaking suspicion that I was just a phantom; a disembodied waif left to wander alone in some horrible purgatory.
Mort gave my elbow a gentle tug reminding me that at least someone saw me.
The diner’s interior brought to mind one of those retro 50’s joints that had become so popular in recent years. Only, it was more as though this place had actually been constructed in the 50’s, and was then left to slowly crumble and decay.
There were chunks missing from the black and white checkered floor tiles; the white of them more an aged, sickly yellow reminiscent of nicotine stains. The walls at one point must have been white as well, but that same yellow staining was evident everywhere I looked.
There was one absence where the chipping paint and sullied tile still maintained at least some of its former purity, and judging by the size and shape of the void I guessed that one of those old fashioned jukeboxes must have stood there at some point.
Cheap art prints hung on the walls here and there; more voids where others pictures had likely once called home but had since been removed.
“Laney?” Mort beckoned, rousing me from my thoughts.
I glanced at him and he motioned that I should join him in a booth. As I started to slide into the bench across from him, I heard the angry voice rise up in protest a second time.
“Stop! Didn’t you hear me the first fucking time?”
My head snapped around and this time I did see the source of the voice.
He was a pudgy, balding man standing behind the counter at the far end of the restaurant. He was brandishing a meat cleaver in one hand and nervously wiping the palm of the other on the dirty apron that draped his girth.
He was glaring at me – no, more so he was glaring right through me – but when he spoke again he was speaking to my escort.
“She ain’t welcome here. Mort, you get that fucking tweaker out of her. You can stay, but the trash should stay in the streets where it belongs.”
I saw Mort roll his eyes. Again he motioned for me to sit. “Don’t you worry about that loudmouth, Laney. Sit. It’s okay.”
“No it is not okay,” shouted the other man.
“Listen Charlie,” Mort grunted. “She’s okay. Okay? I’m buying, she’s with me. She’s fine. Now move your fat ass and bring us a couple of menus.”
The balding man – Charlie – grumbled something I was fortunate enough not to hear. A moment later, sans cleaver, he came shuffling towards our table. He dropped two, plastic-clad menus in front of Mort and grunted before turning and shuffling back the way he’d come. He paused momentarily to growl over his shoulder at me. “None of your shit.” And then with a snort, he disappeared behind the wall that separated the dining area from the kitchen.
The tabletop was more of the same black and white checkered pattern that covered the floor. There were chips in the cheap acrylic as well as a few cigarette burns, but the white of them was a great deal whiter then the time-yellowed floor tiles.
The benches were covered in red vinyl. It was worn, stained and even torn in places, but the seat beneath me was spongy enough to pass as comfortable.
It felt good to sit and rest my aching limbs.
I leaned forward across the table and whispered, “Why is that man so mad at me?” I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me; his hostility was completely unfounded.
Mort studied my face. I read pity in his honey-coloured eyes, but there was curiosity there as well. “Don’t worry about him, Laney. He’s an ass.” He pushed one of the menus towards me. “You order whatever you want, okay? My treat.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said. My stomach betrayed me by growling just then. “I just want to go home.”
“I know Laney, I Know. First we’re gonna feed you though. And I promise you one thing,” he said with a grin as he jerked a thumb in the direction the cook had gone. “Fat as that man is, you know he can cook. We’ll get you fixed up in no time. Then I’ll get you home. Okay?”
Without waiting for my response he turned and shouted, “hey Charlie! What’s the special?”
From somewhere behind the wall I heard the bald man grumble again. “Check the fucking menu. Under specials. Wednesday. Christ Mort, you may be a patsy but you ain’t fucking illiterate.”
Mort chuckled and muttered, “Jackass,” under his breath. Loud enough for Charlie to hear he shouted, “Just bring us cheeseburgers and a couple of cokes.”
He turned to me, “that work for you kid?”
But my mind was far away and the last thing I was focusing on at that moment was food.
Oh my god.
The party had been on Thursday. THURSDAY! Had I really been missing nearly a week? Why couldn’t I remember any of it?
A fresh flood of tears erupted from my eyes, streamed down my cheeks and fell on the table top.
Why the hell couldn’t I remember an entire week of my life?
Where had I been? What had I been doing? And… oh god, what sort of living hell had my disappearance put my parents through?
Mort reached across the table and put a hand on my shoulder. He gave a little squeeze. “It’s gonna be okay Laney,” he insisted.
I was shaking my head. My mouth was moving but no sound was coming out. I needed to stress the importance of getting home; of getting to a phone. I didn’t want food or the comfort of a stranger; I just wanted to get the hell out of this nightmare.
I could hear myself breathing too heavily and knew that I was on the verge of hyperventilating if I couldn’t win back some semblance of control.
I could hear my father’s voice in my head reminding me to breathe deep; to find my inner peace; to stay in the driver’s seat of life. He always said things like that. The residual ideality of a one-time hippy I think.
He was right though, and I knew it. If I could reconnect with self-control, I could work through the haziness in my mind and find some way out of this mess.
I rubbed at my eyes with lightly balled fists. I cleared my throat and forced myself to draw slower, deeper breaths. Slowly, by degrees, my panic began to subside.
It occurred to me then, if only briefly, that maybe I was better off not remembering the last week of my life. If my own mind had found reason enough to block the memories from me, perhaps it was for the best.
I glanced around the diner as I fought to clear my mind. It was my mother’s voice I heard in my head then. “What a dump,” she would have said, scrunching up her nose and squinting her eyes like she always did when looking upon something she found distasteful.
My father would have teased her about being such a snob. They both would have laughed and my mother would have kissed him and told him that he was the only thing that kept her grounded.
I pictured her turning to me and saying, “Laney-Jane, if the dining room looks this bad, just imagine how awful the kitchen must be.”
She wouldn’t have been wrong.
The entire place reeked of grease which on any other day would have disgusted me. For some reason on that hell of days the smell actually served to make my mouth water. My stomach growled so loudly that I looked up at Mort embarrassed. He seemed thankfully unaware as he continued to watch for Charlie’s reappearance.
Mortified nonetheless, I slunk down a little further in the booth.
I noticed a burn mark on the tabletop and absently scraped at it with the tattered remains of one fingernail.
I realized then how odd the noise level in the diner was. Nearly a dozen other costumers in the place and yet, other then the constant whooshing of an unseen fan, and the muffled clinks and clanks coming from the kitchen, the place was silent.
I had that eerie feeling one must get in a mortuary. It made my skin crawl.
I scratched at the flesh on my left arm.
I had an abrupt impulse to jump up and run out. I was wasting time. I didn’t need Mort to help me find a phone. I was a big girl and perfectly capable of doing that on my own.
I didn’t run though. I didn’t bolt up and shoot for the door.
I just sat there, alternating my attention between scratching at my arm and picking at the burn mark.
I just sat there, all but oblivious to the steady stream of tears that leaked from my tired eyes.
Even when Charlie reappeared with our burgers and heaping plates of greasy fries, the tears did not abate. They fell silently and soaked into my shirt.
The chunky man shook his head in disgust before turning away.
Mort pushed one of the plates across the table, “There you go, kiddo.” He said. “Eat up. It will help.”
For the first time I realized how incredibly famished I was; how parched.
I slurped back half of the Coke in three mouthfuls and attacked the food.
My little sister had always teased me about eating like a bird… she would have been shocked to see me that evening as I tore chunks off the burger, letting the grease run down my chin; as I scarfed down mouthfuls of the crisp fries as quickly as I could, barely chewing.
But as the food worked its way down my gullet my stomach began to cramp. Whatever toxin or sickness had infected my body seemed to be aggravated by the introduction of food to my system.
I dropped the burger and doubled over in the pain.
I clutched at my belly, waving off Mort’s good-natured concerns as he leapt up and hurried to my side.
I moaned, and it must have been much louder then I thought because all eyes in the diner were suddenly fixed on me. I felt a flush come into my cheeks even as I moaned a second time.
I felt as though I’d been trying to swallow stones rather then the greasy mess before me.
“I-I can’t,” I muttered, pushing the plate away. “It… hurts.”
“You get that bitch out of here!” Charlie bellowed from behind the counter. “I told you Mort! I told you I didn’t want that broad in here. You get her out!”
“Shut the fuck up Charlie!” Mort growled, slamming his fist down on the table.
To me he said, “Listen Laney. You really need to get some more in you. I know it hurts now, but it will make you feel better in the long run.”
“I just can’t,” I all but shrieked. And I couldn’t. The pain that came with attempting to eat was not worth the nutrition he seemed so adamant I get.
I tried to explain.
I tried to apologize.
What escaped my lips did not sound human. It was not speech at all but more akin to the tortured cries of a wounded animal.
“It’s okay. It’s alright.” Mort said. He was endlessly patient; fatherly.
“Get her out!” Charlie shouted again.
Mort spun around and glared at the other man. “Charlie, make yourself useful for a change. Get your fat ass over here and box this crap up. Then we’ll go.”
A little too eager to get rid of me, the cook came scurrying over in a rush. He scooped up the plates and quickly vanished.
“I’m s-s-sorry,” I managed to stammer.
Mort gave my shoulder another gentle squeeze.
“Why does he hate me so much?” I wondered aloud.
For a minute Mort’s face clouded with something like uncertainty. He gave my shoulder yet another squeeze and shook his head. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much Laney. The man’s a raging jackass.”
I clutched at my belly and continued to cry.
Five minutes later we left the diner.
To be continued…