Excerpt from The Lost
Things I lost:
a stick of Chapstick
a few quarters
one turquoise earring, a gift
my old college roommate's new phone number
my left sandal
Mr. Rabbit, my favorite stuffie from my preschool years
For the first hundred miles, I see only the road and my knuckles, skin tight across the bones, like my mother's hands, as I clutch the steering wheel. For the second hundred miles, I read the highway signs without allowing the letters to compute in my brain. Exit numbers. Names of towns. Places that people call home, or not. After three hundred miles, I start to wonder what the hell I'm doing.
In front of me, the highway lies straight, a thick rope of asphalt that stretches to a pinprick on the horizon. On either side of the highway are barbed wire fences that hem in the few cows that wander through the scrub-brush desert. Cacti are clustered by the fence posts. Above, the sun has bleached the blue until the sky looks like fabric stretched so thin that it's about to tear. There are zero clouds.
I should turn around.
Instead, I switch on the radio. Static. For a moment, I let the empty crackle of noise spray over me, a match to my mood, but then it begins to feel like prickles inside my ears. Also, I begin to feel self-consciously melodramatic. Maybe as a sixteen-year-old, I'd have left the static on, but I'm twenty-seven. I change the station. Again, static. And again. Again.
First option: an apocalypse has wiped out all the radio transmitters.
Second, much more likely, option: my car radio is broken.
Switching the radio off, I drive to the steady thrum of the car engine and the hiss of wind through the cracked-open window. I wanted the radio so I wouldn't have to think. I listen to the wind instead and try to keep my mind empty.
I won't think.
I won't worry.
I won't scream.
The wind feels like a snake's hot breath as it coils through the car. It smells of dust and exhaust. All in all, though, it's not so bad. The palms of my hands feel slick and sweaty from the steering wheel, but otherwise, I feel like I could drive for hours... and hours and hours until the car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere and I slowly die of dehydration while the cows lick the remaining moisture from my limp body.
That would make for a humiliating obituary.
Half my funeral audience would consist of family and friends, a few aunts and uncles I'd never met, neighbors who had never spoken to me (except to complain about how I always parked my car askew), friends I'd meant to have lunch with... The other half would be heifers.
Great plan, Lauren, I tell myself. All of this... very well thought-out. Kudos. I have no reason to be out here on Route 10, three hundred miles east of home. No rational reason at all, except that I am sick to death of rational -- of facts, of hospitals, of test results with predictions that feel as cold and impersonal as the expiration date on a gallon of milk.
I keep driving as the sun sears its way toward dusk. Sinking lower, it blazes in the rearview mirror until I blink over and over. Soon, the sun will set. Soon, Mom will return from her doctor's appointment. She'll try to pretend it's a normal day: set the table, lay out extra napkins, switch on the TV for the PBS NewsHour, and wait for me to come home with our favorite burritos -- our Tuesday night tradition.
I haven't eaten since breakfast. Burritos would be nice. Seeing Mom... I don't know.
Glancing at my cell phone, I see it has zero bars. Next town, I promise myself. I'll call Mom and ask about the new test results. Just ask. It might be fine. False alarm. Silly me for worrying so much. She'll laugh; I'll laugh. After that, I'll call work and claim I was sick, perhaps toss in a colorful description of vomit. I'll say that I've been glued to the toilet all day. No one ever questions a vomit excuse. Then I'll fill up the tank, and I'll drive back and celebrate the false alarm with Mom.
It's a decent plan, except that I don't see a next town.
I scan the highway for signs. Speed Limit 75. Watch for Deer. Littering $500. With the road so straight and flat, I should see at least the silhouette of an exit sign. But I don't see any exits at all, either behind or before me.
It's an endless highway. There will never be an exit. Or a turn. Or a hill or a valley or a bridge... I know I saw signs at some point in the past hour or so. I remember looking at them; I don't remember what they said. I'm not even positive what state I'm in. Arizona, I'd guess. Possibly New Mexico. I don't think Texas yet.
It is strange that there aren't other vehicles on the road.
I watch the wind swirl over the highway as the sun stains the sky a rosy orange. The low light makes the desert earth look red, and the asphalt glistens like black jewels. It's a wide highway, two lanes in either direction, and except for me, they are empty.
I should see some cars. A few tourists with kids in a minivan, off to see the Grand Canyon or visit Grandma in Albuquerque. A pickup truck with a bed full of rusted junk, shotgun rack in the back. Maybe a motorcyclist with bugs in his mustache.
Or maybe there really has been an apocalypse.
Dust blows across the highway, and dried weeds impale themselves on the barbed wire fence. I'd feel better if at least one truck would barrel past me. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel faster, faster, and the needle on the odometer creeps higher like the needle of a blood pressure gauge on the arm of a stressed patient. I need to find a town soon.
As the sun dips lower, shadows stretch long from the setting sun. The fence post shadows cut stripes in the red dust. A man in a black coat perches on one of the fence posts.
Leaning forward, I stare over the steering wheel, as if those few extra inches will help me see the man clearer. He's a quarter mile away, and his coat blows in the wind like a superhero cape. I can't see his face.
Closer... it's a mesquite tree with a cloth caught in its branches. I lean back as I pass the tree. It's leafless and twisted, half-dead, with dried thorns that have captured a strip of black fabric. For an instant, it was something uneasy and beautiful.
Ahead, the highway is blotted out by dark dust, as if a dirty cloud drifted onto the road. "Real estate changing hands," Mom said once of dust storms. "If I wait long enough, the wind will send me a swimming pool and a fully planted vegetable garden."
"You have an ocean twenty minutes away. You never swim in it."
"I could be mauled by a sea lion," Mom said. "And when was the last time you swam in the ocean? I used to have to haul you out of the water kicking and screaming at the end of summer."
I remember that, those summers when I'd be so waterlogged that I'd feel like driftwood when I washed into the start of the school year. I'd spend the year drying until I was light and brittle. "I blame the sea lions," I told my mother. "Vicious things."
This storm is more like a smear of dust than any sort of storm. It has no energy or power or movement. It looks as if a painter slapped bland reddish tan across the blue, black, and red of the sky, highway, and desert. I tell myself that dust storms like this are common out here. The few bushes and cacti can't hold the parched dirt onto the cracked earth, and it rises up with the wind. But common or not, coming now, it only adds to the sense of surreal aloneness. I'd write a poem about it...
into the earth that gravity lost --
Except that I don't write poetry. And besides, I'm driving to escape my feelings, not wallow in them. Unfortunately, I seem to have packed all my emotional baggage for this impromptu road trip.
Rolling up the window, I silence the hiss of wind. I only hear the whoosh and hum of the car itself. I fiddle with the radio again. Still static. And I drive into the cloud of dust.
It is as dark as if the sun has instantly plunged beneath the horizon. I switch on my headlights and illuminate the swath of reddish tan in front of me. It glows but remains opaque. I can see a few yards of pavement plus a few feet on the side of the highway. Ghostlike, a fence post appears in the dust and then disappears. Another and then another appear and then vanish at regular intervals, as if marking time in a timeless place.
It feels as if the rest of the world has disappeared.
It feels almost peaceful -- and also as if I am in my own apocalypse.
I'd like to think if I were to invent my own apocalypse, it would be more colorful. Brilliant chartreuse horsemen of the apocalypse trampling the earth beneath their hooves, while the earth bleeds green into the sea... All the screams would rise up at once in a cacophony that sends the birds to blacken the sky with their wings, and the mythical snake (or dragon or whatever) that wraps its coils around the world would squeeze at the same time that the turtle that supports the earth would flip, and the resulting earthquakes would disgorge a thousand monsters to prey on the survivors... Yeah, that would be much cooler than dull tan. Also, messier.
Real apocalypses happen in clean, white rooms, delivered in long words by men and women with kind eyes and sterile scrubs. Or by a woman who is both your best friend and your mother over crab rangoon and spare ribs or a burrito.
It's harder and harder to see the pavement. I peer through the windshield and hope I'm still in my lane. At least no one else is on the road. I don't have to worry about crashing into an eighteen-wheeler or a motorcyclist who can't see any better than I can. I slow to a crawl just in case.
My headlights catch the silhouette of a person.
I slam on the brakes.
The car jolts to a stop.
There is no person. I stare into the empty dust. Overactive imagination, I tell myself. I've been the victim of an overactive imagination for years, ever since I was a kid with my blanket tucked up to my chin, staring at the shadowed shapes in my bedroom, trying to convince myself that the shapes weren't ten-armed monsters, men with axes, rabid rats, or the kid from my junior high who liked to draw nightmarish cartoons of women's parts in his math textbook.
There is no way a person would be wandering down this highway in the middle of a dust storm this far from the nearest town. I focus on the dotted white lines that divide the lanes and follow them as if they're bread crumbs leading me through a forest.
Again, I see him.
This time, he is directly in front of me. Yanking on the steering wheel, I swerve right. I feel the tires run off the road and hit dirt. I yank the wheel left, and the car jumps back onto the road.
I look in my rearview mirror. Still standing in the road, the man is dressed in a black trench coat that falls to his ankles. Beneath the coat he wears black jeans and is bare-chested. His chest is decorated in a swirl of black feather tattoos, and he is almost unbearably beautiful. I slam on the brakes again.
When I look in the rearview mirror this time, he is gone.
That's it, I tell myself. No more horror movies. Ever.
Concentrating on the road directly in front of me, I drive and drive and drive. By the time I emerge from the dust cloud, it is night. The car clock says 8:34. Stars speckle the sky, and a full moon has risen low and fat over the desert. I loosen my grip on the steering wheel and roll my shoulders back until my shoulder blades crackle. I look behind me again -- and the dust cloud has vanished. The road stretches endlessly back, clear and empty.
I wish there were someone else with me to verify that the dust had existed, to confirm the man had existed. But if someone else were with me, I would have turned around before I'd even left Los Angeles. I would have taken that left at the light like I did every day and I'd have parked in the office parking lot and later returned home by the same snarl of highways. I wouldn't have driven straight for no reason other than I was afraid of the possibility of bad news.
I glance again at my cell phone. Still no bars.
I check my gas gauge. Low but not empty. Stretching my neck, I try to relax.
New plan: find a town, stop for dinner, maybe check into a motel for the night, and drive back in daylight when I'm not so wrung out that I imagine bare-chested tattooed men inside dust storms. Mom will understand. She'll probably understand better than I want her to. I'll call from the motel room and explain that her daughter's a coward with an overactive imagination, and she'll tell me...
She'll tell me how much time she has left.
In less than a mile, I spot an exit. It's unmarked but paved. It must lead to a town. Taking it, I find myself on a one-lane highway. A few minutes later, I see a sign.
The sign is carved wood, like an old-fashioned New England town welcome sign. Faded blue paint peels around its curved edges. My headlights sweep over golden lettering that reads:
Just a mile past the welcome sign, the neon word Vacancy flashes orange: on, off, on-on-on, off, on, off, in no discernible pattern. It is mesmerizing in its syncopation, like a drunken firefly, and as I drive toward it past darkened houses, I wait for it to flash... on! Off, off, off... on! Closer, I see that it blinks above a half-lit sign for the Pine Barrens Motel. A desiccated saguaro cactus is planted next to the sign, and a clump of prickly pears grows beneath it, as if to emphasize the fact that there are zero pine trees in the area.
The motel itself has seen better days, perhaps in 1920. Paint peels over so much of the surface that it's impossible to see what color the motel was supposed to be. Dingy gray, I think. One lobby window is boarded up with plywood, and there are no cars in the parking lot. But the vacancy sign continues its show, and so I turn into the lot.
The car bounces over the chopped up pavement, and I feel my jaw rattle. I am driving over bottles and cans and other trash -- the motel is obviously not AAA-rated. This may be a mistake, I think, and then wonder how many horror movie heroines thought that before they checked into the zombie motel or decided to visit the basement after the electricity died. I pull into a parking spot between two clumps of thorny weeds and, taking my purse and phone, I step out of the car.
The night air is warm but the breeze is nice. It tickles my neck and whispers in my ear. I imagine that it's whispering warnings, such as "This place has bed lice. Also, zombies." But I am here, and I have already parked. And I'm not ready to go home yet, lice or not.
I click the car locked and head across the parking lot toward the motel lobby. The parking lot is littered with soda cans and beer cans that roll and clatter in the breeze. I step over a soiled sweatshirt. There's a wallet lying on the curb. I pick it up and flip it open to see a driver's license and an array of credit cards. I'll hand it in at the lobby.
I find a second wallet outside the lobby door. And a third in the cacti. I pick them up as well and wonder what sort of party involved flinging wallets and empty cans around a parking lot. I hope it's quieter tonight.
Chimes tinkle over the door as I enter the lobby. A teenage girl lies on the counter. Her legs are crossed. She's wearing '80s leg warmers up to her knees and has enough hairspray in her hair to counteract gravity -- even lying down, her hair doesn't budge from the halo around her face. She's wearing bright blue eyeshadow and yellow nail polish. She doesn't look at me or react to the door chime in any way. Instead, she tosses a tennis ball toward the ceiling.
"Hi," I say.
The girl tosses the tennis ball again.
"Um, I'd like a room, please."
"I'd like world peace, sunshine, and apple pie. Oh, and I also want to kill myself." The girl tosses the ball a third time. She wears thick rings on each of her fingers. One is a mood ring. It's gray. "I think I will step in front of a train."
She says it so casually. "I wouldn't recommend it," I tell her. "You could be tossed from the tracks, break your bones, and be in horrible pain hooked up to tubes in the hospital for the rest of your life. Besides, there are no tracks here. No tracks, no train."
"Of course there's a train. Everyone always misses the train." She swings her legs to the side and sits up. Her name tag says she's Tiffany and she's happy to help me. "Catch." She throws the ball.
I catch it, barely.
"You're new to town," Tiffany says. "Lucky you." Her tone implies that I should step in front of the train now and save myself the horror that is to come. But perhaps I am reading into the situation too much. My mother says I do that. A lot.
"I'm only passing through," I say. "I'd like a room for the night." As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I know I should take them back. I should find a gas station and drive home right now. But then that's sooner that I'll have to face Mom and the future. This town is a temporary escape, and I know it and I'm taking it even though I know it.
Tiffany waves at a wall of keys. "Your choice. Just not twelve. It's rented long-term. Also steer clear of two, five, six, and fifteen. And twenty-three smells like skunk piss."
"Charming." It's just like a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains, except not at all. "How much?" I fish for my wallet and then remember the three I found. "Oh, these were in the parking lot." I lay them on the counter, along with the tennis ball I'd caught. A wastebasket full of tennis balls is behind the counter, as well as a box of keys.
"Anything good inside?" Tiffany asks.
"Do you really work here?" Despite her name tag, she does not seem to possess that certain air of professionalism that actual employees of such fine establishments... though given the state of the place, she could be the only employee.
"Hmm... define work." She fetches another tennis ball and tosses it against the wall. It smacks into a velvety painting of a flower, knocking it askew.
I have many definitions, most not appropriate for polite company, even though I like my job. It's an ordinary young urban professional kind of job -- I'm a project manager at a consulting firm in L.A. -- with reasonable hours, decent coffee in the kitchen, and free access to nice pens. I even like my coworkers, mostly, though I don't see them outside of work and we have never talked about anything deeper than which lunch place has the best panini. (Tigerlily's. Their goat cheese and fig panini are bliss.) As a rule, though, you aren't supposed to like your job. Anyone who says they do is lying. Or lucky.
I am not lucky. I always pick the longest checkout line, the one where the woman at the front of the line has fifty expired coupons and intends to argue each one. I always lose the receipt for the appliance that breaks (but find the one for the stereo I ditched five years ago). Traffic lights turn red when I approach. Supermarkets run out of milk. Cars splash through puddles the moment I walk past their part of the sidewalk. One day, I'm certain a meteor will crash through the atmosphere and land on my apartment... Or maybe, as Mom says, it's only that I am a little bit disorganized and a little bit paranoid. To which I remind her, it's not paranoia if the meteors really are out to get you.
But Tiffany is waiting for a response. "Work is the daily activity that sucks your soul but pays your bills," I say. "It's the path your feet walked down while your head was stuck in the clouds."
Tiffany blinks at me. "Yeah, you'll fit right in here. I'd take room eight. Nicest view of the pool. Don't try to swim in it, though. Leeches."
"I am a perpetual teenager, and I have no sense of humor." Tiffany plucks the key to room eight off the wall and hands it to me. She then smiles brightly, a false cheerful full-teeth smile. "Welcome to Lost."
"Uh, thanks." As I take the key, I note that her mood ring is still gray. Probably broken, since those haven't been in style since the 70s, and I don't think they worked then, either. Still, though... "Listen, if you meant what you said before... about the train... I mean... there are phone numbers to call. People who can help." I feel my cheeks heat as I fumble the words. Christ, I'm not good at this. I'm better with people in my own familiar environment: my apartment, or my office -- my bubble-tower-matrix-fishtank, where I can pretend everything is under control, at least on days without new test results.
Tiffany rolls her eyes like a quintessential teenager faced with an over-the-hill twenty-something. "Need anything else, or are we done?" Her tone is that perfect mix of derisive and bored. I remember using that tone with my mother more than once. I should apologize. To my mother, not Tiffany.
I have no idea how I am going to apologize for coming here.
I'll figure it out later.
"Actually, I do need something else." Toothpaste, certainly. Deodorant would be nice. Brush. Soap. Razor. Fresh underwear. Change of clothes. A spare bank account with enough money to cover all the hospital bills. "I, uh, forgot a few toiletries."
Tiffany hops off the counter and throws open a door behind her. "Take whatever you need. Free of charge... this time." She smirks, and then she lies down on the counter again in the same position she'd been in when I'd entered the lobby.
I scoot around the counter and into the supply closet. It's crammed with toiletries, tons of travel-size three-ounce containers of shampoo, conditioner, and gel, plus minitubes of toothpaste. People must have left these behind after they stayed here. I weed through them and select a few that look unopened. I also find a brush without too much hair on it, a travel toothbrush that looks unused, and a still-sealed deodorant. Triumphant, I emerge from the closet with my trophies.
Tiffany hasn't moved. The three lost wallets still lie beside her on the counter, untouched.
"Thanks." I lift the toiletries into the air to indicate that I found what I needed. "This is perfect."
Tiffany waves one hand in the air, an acknowledgement or a goodbye or just a twitch, as I leave the lobby. The chimes jingle behind me.
Outside, the air has cooled, and I wish I'd checked the closet for a coat. There are sweatshirts and jeans and other clothes strewn throughout the parking lot, but they've been ground into the filth. I could return for a second dip into the closet... but then I'd have to have another discussion with the living stereotype of teenagerhood. I'd rather shiver coatless.
I pass by other rooms on the way to eight. A few seem occupied, though there are no cars other than mine in the parking lot. All the shades are drawn, but I see the silhouette of a man in room twelve. Low voices emanate from room six.
Room eight is dark. I stick the key into the lock. I haven't been to a motel with actual keys instead of magnetized cards in years. Leaning against the door, I push it open. A wave of musty air whooshes over me, and I hop backward in case a herd of rodents decides to stampede out. When no rodents attack, I turn on the light.
Yellow fluorescents flicker on overhead and illuminate a bed that's piled high with twenty or so garish throw pillows: striped square pillows, round polka-dot pillows, a few plaids, others with prints or birds or flowers or elephants. Some have fringe. One is paisley with velvet trim. It looks as though a rogue seamstress stole upholstery from several dozen old ladies' living rooms and then stitched them into pillows. She then went on to decorate her orange prison jumpsuit with flower appliqués.
I kick the door shut behind me and carry my collection of three-ounce toiletries to the bathroom. All the fixtures are 1950s lime-green. I dump the toiletries beside a shell-shaped green sink and try not to notice the circle of mold around the taps.
I know it's too much to hope for a minifridge. Even if there were one, I bet its contents would be a decade past their sell-by date, and I'd spend the night with food poisoning, vomiting on the hideous throw pillows -- which couldn't hurt their appearance but would hurt their odor. I check the motel room drawers and cabinets anyway and find a Gideon Bible, one gold earring, and a white sock. Everything I touch is coated with a layer of dust. The carpet is sticky. One very short night, I tell myself. I'll leave as soon as it's light out again.
First, though, I need food before I'm tempted to gnaw on the throw pillow that features an embroidered still life of a fruit bowl.
And then I'll call Mom.
Leaving the room, I lock the door to protect my precious toiletries. A man combs through the parking lot, kicking at the piles of discarded clothes and poking in the bushes. I hurry past him, and I slip my hand into my pocket and relock my car doors. Twice. Mine is the sole car under the streetlamp. It looks on display, a shiny please-steal-me exhibit. But obsessively locking and relocking it is the best I can do.
I leave the car to its fate when I see there's a diner across the street, the Moonlight Diner. It's lit up with every holiday decoration possible: plastic blinking Santas, jack-o-lanterns, American flags with neon fireworks. I trot across the street toward the gleaming beacon that promises French fries, pancakes, and milkshakes in a veneer of kitsch. Also a point in its favor: Moonlight isn't spelled Moonlite. There are still no cars moving in either direction, though a few pickup trucks, Cadillacs, and old station wagons are parked by meters -- all expired.
The diner looks open. I can see a few figures through the window, hunched over their coffee mugs and dinners. It reminds me of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, except with a lot more neon.
I open the door and walk inside. The bell over the door rings. Every person in the diner turns his or her head to look at me. A man who'd been stirring his coffee freezes midstir. All conversation ceases. Only the diner's jukebox churns out any noise, a tinny drumbeat and a singer wailing out a song that I don't recognize. I feel like a deer caught in neon headlights, and I freeze, too.
"Table for one, or do you want to make a new friend?"
A woman in a waitress uniform crosses the diner toward me. She plucks a menu out of the hands of another customer. She looks more like she belongs in a business suit than the checkered Dorothy-Gale dress with apron that she's wearing. Her black hair is slicked back, model-like, and her makeup was expertly applied to highlight her almond eyes. Her rich brown skin is so perfect that she looks poreless. Her voice is smooth, almost mocking, with a hint of a New York accent. I feel rumpled in comparison.
"One, thanks," I say.
"Anywhere you want." She waves at the tables and hands me the purloined menu.
I pick a booth by the window, away from the stares of a trucker guy who is halfway through a greasy cheeseburger, a kid who has three sundaes in front of him, a woman in a pink tracksuit who doodles on her place mat, and a man in a thick winter parka who huddles by the air conditioner. I open the diner menu in front of me both to read and to block their view of me. All the dishes are named after cosmological objects: the eclipse éclair, the solar flare flounder, the meteor meatloaf. They're printed in the curve of a crescent moon.
Despite my menu shield, a woman slides into my booth. "Welcome to Lost!"
I am not in the mood to make pleasant conversation with random overly friendly strangers. Not that I ever am. I don't want to hear about which relatives are visiting, what the weather will be like tomorrow, or why I'd look much better if I didn't dye one strip of hair white.
For the record, it isn't white; it's colorless. I am keeping it stripped of all color until I decide whether to dye it blue, pink, or purple.
Or maybe it's merely cowardice, not indecision. I know my office won't approve of blue, pink, or purple hair. Clients come in, and we are told repeatedly that we represent the professional face of Daybreak Consulting Services. But they can't object to white hair, or they'd have to censure our CEO.
Regardless, whatever this woman wants to chat about, all I want is food and sleep -- and a decent excuse not to call Mom until morning. "I don't mean to be rude, but..." I begin.
"That's what people say when they're about to be stunningly rude." The woman smiles to soften her words. "Just came over to offer you a little advice."
I have to concentrate on not rolling my eyes like Tiffany.
The woman is older, about sixty, with a face that's unmemorable. Not pretty, not ugly, just pleasant. She has laugh lines around her brown eyes, and she wears tasteful gold earrings. She looks like the kind of woman who has raised two children and both have turned out well-adjusted. She leans over the table, as if to impart confidential information. "Order the pie. You'll like it. They have an assortment of last slices."
This isn't what I expected her to say. I touch the white stripe in my hair and twist it around my finger, a nervous tic that I haven't bothered to stop. "Last slices?"
"You know, the slice that's always left behind because no one wants to take it," the woman said. "Victoria, slice of the rhubarb!"
"Girl wants to be alone, Merry," Victoria calls back. "And she needs protein. It's important to keep your strength up when you're in a new place."
"You never worry about my strength, Victoria," the trucker says mournfully.
"Can you still lift your ass out of that chair?" Victoria asks.
Victoria applauds sarcastically. "Eat your food and quit complaining." She picks up a coffeepot. "Decaf tonight. Raise your mugs if you want some." Several customers raise their mugs. The diner seems to have relaxed again. Still, no other conversations have started up.
It's probably my mood, but it all feels a little off, as if the banter were staged for my benefit, as if they'd normally sit in silence.
"I'm Meredith," the woman across from me says. "Folks here call me Merry. It's on account of the fact that I like to smile. Also, it's the first two syllables of my name." She smiles again, and I think she must be sitting in an odd patch of light. She has glints of light on her arms and a soft haze around her hair.
"I'm just passing through," I say. The kid at the counter continues to stare at me. And the trucker is shooting me looks between bites of his cheeseburger. Grease clings to his beard.
"Ahh, staying at the Pine Barrens. You'll want to avoid room twelve."
I nod in mock seriousness. "Dead bodies?"
Merry laughs and then sobers. "Just stay out of twelve."
The waitress Victoria swings past and drops a plate of steak and mashed potatoes in front of me. "But I haven't ordered..." I begin to say.
Merry leans across the table again and says in a stage whisper, "Don't argue with Victoria. She knows what your body needs. Besides, that's New York strip steak. You won't see that here every day."
I am going to say that I'd wanted a soup or a simple sandwich, but my stomach yawns and I don't have the energy to argue anyway. A steak in a diner can't cost that much. This isn't L.A. I cut a piece and put it in my mouth. My eyes instantly water as pepper fills my sinuses and tickles my throat. I swallow and cough.
"Guess it didn't need that additional seasoning," Victoria observes.
"Told you," a man says from the kitchen. "Came preseasoned. If you'd let me taste it earlier, I could have told you what seasonings."
"You're not licking uncooked beef." Victoria swings a finger over everyone in the diner. "And none of you are listening to this conversation."
"No, ma'am," the trucker says. He focuses on his food with intensity.
Merry reaches across the table and pats my hand. "You finish your dinner, honey. We'll talk more later, when you're ready." She slides out of the booth and saunters toward the back of the diner. I watch her disappear down a hall and think I see the odd haze of light following her, but then I decide that I must have imagined it.
I eat quickly. The faster I eat, the sooner I sleep, and the quicker I leave here. The potatoes are cold and have congealed into solid lumps, but they're thick with garlic so I eat them anyway. Driving must have made me extra hungry.
The other customers keep glancing at me.
I pretend I don't notice.
Merry doesn't return -- the diner must have a back door. I'm glad. I don't want any more conversations tonight. I've had my fill of this town already.
Finishing, I look up to catch the waitress's eye... She is watching me, waiting. "Check, please," I say. I fish my wallet out of my purse and take out my credit card.
She shakes her head. "Your cards are no good here."
"Oh, sorry." I hadn't noticed the lack of credit card signs. I don't carry much cash, but I should have enough to cover a meal at a diner, even a steak. I look through my wallet. "How much?"
"It's on us," the unseen man in the kitchen pipes up.
"Oh, no, I couldn't." This diner can't possibly serve many tourists. Plus my job may be soul-sucking but it pays me enough for dinner.
"Your money's no good here. Barter system only, and you have nothing we need," Victoria says. "You can pay next time, after the Missing Man explains the rules."
I feel a chill. I don't like the certainty in her voice when she says "next time," and I don't want to know what she means by "rules." Also, what kind of diner doesn't take money?
"I don't know ‘the Missing Man.' And as I said, I'm just passing through. I won't be back." Leaving my table, I cross the diner and press a twenty-dollar bill into Victoria's hand. "Steak was great, even with the extra seasoning."
Victoria follows me as I flee to the door. All the customers are staring at me again. "You need to talk to the Missing Man," she says.
"I need to get some sleep," I say. "Long drive tomorrow."
I bolt out of the diner and across the still-unused street. Not a single car drove past during the entire meal. Crossing through the parking lot, I spot yet another wallet on the ground. This time, I leave it there.
Ahead, the forbidden room, room twelve, is lit from within, but its shades are drawn.
At my motel room door, my hands shake as I fumble with the key. I shoot a look back at the diner, its bright lights and garish decorations lightening the dark sky. Above, a fat moon has risen. It hangs above the neon diner sign. Every crater seems to glow brighter than I've ever seen it.
I let myself into the room and lock the door behind me, shutting out the town, the diner, the moon, and the road home.
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Text Copyright @ 2014 by Sarah Beth Durst
Cover Art Copyright @ 2014 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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