Been a while since last update. Been busy—no notable updates worth mentioning.
In the meantime, here’s a short story featuring a young drifter who stops in a small diner and finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict that may be much more than it initially appears.
“Hey, I already told you: you can’t sleep in here!”
I thought the cook was yelling at me, but he pointed at the woman sitting in the booth behind me. Her head jerked up, as if stirred from a bad dream. She had a single cup of coffee in front of her that looked like it had been sitting there untouched for some time.
“Sorry,” she said, rubbing her eyes. She glanced at her coffee and tightened the strap of her shoulder-bag. A cane or walking stick sat on her lap, wrapped in cloth. She held it close and looked out the window as if expecting something.
I didn’t mean to stare, but there was something very striking about her. She had long, dark hair and pale skin, which made her look almost like Snow White. She was beautiful, but looked exhausted. I couldn’t tell if the circles beneath her eyes were from lack of sleep or running make-up, but either way, she looked like she was in dire need of rest.
The cook appeared from around the back and approached her. “Look, lady,” he said. “I’m not running a hotel. If you’re just going to sit there all night, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m sorry.”
“No, no,” she said. “I’m fine. Really. I, um, I’m waiting for someone. Someone’s coming to pick me up.”
She took a sip from her coffee and offered a weak smile, as if to assure him she wasn’t wasting time or taking up space. I felt sorry for her and was tempted to say something on her behalf. From the look of it, even if she did have somewhere to go, she didn’t want to.
“Um,” she said, seeing the cook wasn’t buying it. “Do—do you have a phone?”
“It’s in the back.”
“Thank you,” she said, sliding out of the booth and heading to the back of the diner.
The cook watched her and shared a glance with the waitress. I couldn’t tell what silent exchange they were having, but I got the impression this was something they’d encountered more than once. Maybe not from the woman, but people looking to use the diner as a place to hide out.
I couldn’t say I blamed her. I only came in to get out of the cold myself. It was the kind of night that makes you think of desolation. There was no snow—the streets were bare except for the occasional frozen puddle. The sky was clear, but there were no stars and the moon was a glowing coin in a vast empty void. If you were sane and had a place to go, you were tucked in someplace warm by now.
The wind was the worst. It was the kind of breeze that felt like it cut into your skin. My face had been burning when I found the diner. I wasn’t hungry, and I had little money to pay even if I was, but the prospect of warming up for a just a little while was more than enough.
The diner was a small, unmemorable place located on some random corner at the edge of town. The streets were deserted save for the jets of steam coming from the sewers. The surrounding buildings were dark and silent. The diner’s parking lot had a pair of cars and a truck, and only a handful of patrons were inside.
Warmth greeted me the instant I stepped inside, along with the smell of coffee and fried food. Aside from the woman and I were two big trucker-looking guys sharing a booth and a thin, balding man with glasses at the bar. A bored waitress was reading a magazine by the register, while in the kitchen the cook scraped the stove with a spatula.
I managed to afford a simple cup of coffee which I planned to nurse as long as possible. I think, like the woman, I hoped to stall long enough until dawn when … well, it wouldn’t get much warmer, but at least the sun would be out.
The woman went to the phone booths, picked up a receiver and started talking, but there was something off about it. I couldn’t be sure, but it almost looked like she was pantomiming. While pretending to talk, she would glance around the diner with an anxious look on her face.
After mumbling at the phone for several minutes, she returned to her seat. She looked at her coffee, and then started searching her pockets, as if in the vain hope she might discover some money she’d forgotten about. When she found her pockets empty, she resumed staring at the coffee. She looked ill.
It was none of my business, but I was concerned all the same. Was she in some kind of trouble? Was she some runaway with nowhere to go? I knew I couldn’t offer much—I didn’t even have enough cash for myself, let alone this girl and whatever her problem was—but I felt obliged.
“Mind if I sit down?” I asked.
She looked at me, and I was struck by her eyes. They were yellow, like gold, and she appeared so tired and worn down.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sitting across from her. “I couldn’t help but notice you seemed … I don’t know. Stressed.”
She looked uncomfortable. She kept her hand wrapped around the strap of her shoulder-bag and had a look as though something was about to explode.
“My name’s Kyle,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “Kyle Walker. Um, are you from around here?”
“Passing through, eh?” I said, taking a sip from my coffee. “I know the feeling. I left home last year. Ditched college and my folks kicked me out. I’ve been on the road ever since.”
Her eyes drifted toward the window and had a lost, longing look to them. She sighed, and I wondered if maybe she was in a similar situation. She looked about my age, and I could imagine any number of reasons she’d be on her own.
I was about to continue, when she said, “You should go back.”
“I should what?”
“You have parents,” she said. “They love you. Don’t throw that away.”
I forced out a chuckle that had little life in it. “Nice thought,” I said. “But I don’t think that would work out. See my folks wanted me to study for computer engineering and crap like that. A safe, secure future, they called it. But that’s not for me.”
“I know how it sounds,” I said. “But I don’t want to spend my life wasting away in some office, punching a keyboard until I die. I know there’s something more for me out there. I don’t know what, but …”
I shrugged and noticed she was rubbing her eyes like she had a headache.
“What about you?” I asked. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m not,” she said, her voice flat and lifeless. “I’m running.”
It wasn’t until then I saw the dull bruise on her eye and understood. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“Listen,” she said, slapping her hand on the table. “You seem like a nice guy, but you shouldn’t be talking to me.”
The picture started to become clearer, and in it I saw an abusive boyfriend or something similar. “If you’re in trouble,” I said, “maybe I can help.”
“You really can’t,” she said. “Please just leave me alone.”
“What’s wrong? What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not!” she snapped. “I …”
She trailed off and froze, and for a moment, I thought she might cry. Whatever color she had drained from her face. There was helplessness in her eyes that struck me cold, and I realized whatever it was, she was terrified.
“And who is this young fellow, Ash?”
I felt a draft, but didn’t think anything of it until I saw someone had entered the diner. The man standing over me was a huge figure dressed in a black trench-coat. His pale, grinning face was long and pointy, and his irises were pure white, which made the rest of his eyes appear bloodshot and yellow.
I turned to Ash, and she had the look of someone who’d just been caught. Her fists clenched on the table, she said, “He’s nobody, Thorne. Just some kid trying to talk to me.”
Thorne nodded, still grinning. “I’m afraid the lady is spoken for, my good man,” he said, stepping aside to let me pass.
It seemed obvious to me she didn’t want him around. I looked at her again, but she only stared at me. I wanted her to speak up—tell this guy to leave or to bring attention to what was happening. But she just sat there with a sullen look of defeat on her face. It made me sick to my stomach.
I slid out of the booth, my eyes locked with Thorne’s. I think he saw my intentions, because his grin widened with a smug glint in his eyes. I was very close to throwing a punch, when Ash said, “This isn’t your problem, Kyle. Go away.” She cleared her throat and added, “Not here, Thorne. This doesn’t have to turn ugly.”
“Doesn’t it?” Still smiling, he sighed and said, “Very well, dear. We can be civil. Run along now, Kyle.”
He slid into seat across from Ash, and she gave me a look that reminded me of my mother or a stern teacher. I took my coffee and returned to the bar, feeling like a boy who’d been sent to his room.
I’d never been one to get into fights—certainly not over women—but our exchange had left me seething. I heard them whispering to each other behind me, and though I couldn’t make out much, the situation was all too clear to me. Ash was running from this guy, who was probably beating her, and now he’d caught up to her.
I looked over my shoulder and the sight made me angrier. Thorne leaned forward, still grinning, and looked like he was taunting her. She was sweating and sat bolt upright, like someone backed into a corner, and clutched the strap of her shoulder-bag. I felt the tension from where I was and wondered if anyone else in the diner did, too.
“… just hand it over,” I heard Thorne whisper. “You don’t have to hurt anymore.”
“No,” Ash replied, and I could hear the desperation in her voice. “I won’t let you …”
It was hard for me to understand why she insisted I stay out of it. If this Thorne guy was hurting her or harassing her, why wouldn’t she want someone to step in and put a stop to it? I know some women end up trapped in abusive relationships and can’t bring themselves to get out. I don’t understand it—especially when someone actually offers help. Why would she let him get away with it?
Whatever they were discussing escalated. Ash leaned forward with a strained, almost panicked look. Thorne had a smug smirk on his face, and I heard him say, “You know what I can do. It doesn’t have to get messy.”
She slammed her fist on the table. Trying to keep her voice low, she said through gritted teeth: “Not here! Don’t involve these people!”
Thorne snatched her hand and said, “Then you shouldn’t have come here. You know better than that, dear.”
He squeezed, and she winced in pain.
“All right, that’s enough,” I said, standing up. “Let her go.”
Thorne was unimpressed. “You sure you want this, boy?” he asked. “I promise you don’t know what you’re getting into.”
Ash had turned white. “Kyle,” she began. “Don’t—”
“You don’t scare me, asshole,” I said. “Why don’t you leave her alone and get the hell out of here.”
By now the rest of the diner had noticed our little scene. The balding man and waitress watched, but said nothing. The two truckers stood up and were waiting to see if they should get involved. The cook said something, but I didn’t hear. I was focused on Thorne’s smirking face.
“Is this what you want, Ash?” he asked. “Have you found a knight in shining armor to defend you?”
“No!” she said, her voice shaking. “I don’t know this kid! I just met him tonight!”
“Ash,” I said, keeping my eyes on Thorne. “Don’t worry, I’ll—”
“For Christ’s sake Kyle, shut-up!” she barked. “I told you to mind your own business!”
Thorne laughed, and I was taken aback. Didn’t she understand I was trying to help? It would be one thing if she was afraid I’d get hurt, but I’m not a small guy and I was confident at least the two truckers would back me up if I needed it.
“That’s right, Kyle,” said Thorne, still chuckling. “Just walk away. This doesn’t concern you.”
My mood turned black, and I felt my face flush. Maybe Ash didn’t want this to escalate, but I was starting to hate Thorne all on my own. Maybe he’d broken her down so much she couldn’t fight him, but I sure as hell could.
“What seems to be the problem, guys?” asked one of the truckers.
“We’re not going to have trouble, are we?” the other one asked.
Thorne smiled and got out of the booth. He stretched his back and said, “I don’t know. Maybe we will.”
“No!” Ash shouted. “Stop it! Thorne, I’ll go with you! We can leave now! Please don’t do this!”
Thorne looked me in the eye, and despite everything, I felt a chill. Behind me, the cook yelled, “Not in here, boys! Take it outside if you have to!”
“Outside?” Thorne said. “In this weather? No … I’d rather do this right here.”
He grinned, and I saw his eyes turn red. Ash shouted, and the next thing I knew I was hurling through the air. I landed on a table at the other end of the diner and crashed through it. The world started to spin and the taste of blood filled my mouth. He had hit me, but I never saw him move.
Then the screaming started.
I tried to get to my feet, only to fall back to the floor. My vision blurred, and all I was aware of was the sound of violence around me. Glass shattered and the floor shook. I heard something pop, and then the lights started flickering like a lightning storm.
The two truckers shouted something before I heard what sounded like meat being torn. Amidst the crashing that followed, I heard a woman I think was the waitress shriek before being abruptly silenced. Someone else screamed—it might have been the cook or the bald man—but it too was cut off with a sickening rip.
I tried to get my bearings, but I was too stunned. Nearby, Ash slammed into another table. Unlike me, she sprang to her feet with a fierce look on her face. Gritting her teeth, she charged back to where the violence was worst. I think she had a sword in her hands.
There was more shouting, and I had managed to reach my feet, when something in the kitchen blew. A force of hot wind hit me like a speeding truck, and I was knocked to the floor with the roar of an explosion. The smell of smoke filled the small diner, and breathing became a challenge.
Dazed and with blood dripping down by face, I tried to focus my vision through the dark and smoke. Ahead of me, I saw a massive figure with burning red eyes. He seemed to be wearing a black coat, but it moved like it was alive.
Ash tackled the shadow, and they wrestled into the kitchen. I stumbled toward the diner’s exit, only to slip on a puddle of something thick and sticky on the floor. My stomach lurched upon realizing what it was, and I knew if anyone else was still in the diner, they were dead.
I pulled myself up and limped to the door. I hesitated when I saw Ash fighting Thorne amidst the burning kitchen. They tore into one another like two beasts—hitting with thunderous blows and slamming each other into walls and the ceiling. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen except in movies.
She swung her sword—which seemed to be glowing—but he caught the blade with a demented grin. She glared at him, her golden eyes burning like the flames around her, and I was awestruck by what I was witnessing. As unbelievable as it seemed, I had become a part of something incredible.
I wanted to do something. I had no idea what, but before I could think of anything, the ceiling collapsed and the world went dark for me again. What followed was a blur, but I remember another loud pop and wave of heat.
The next thing I knew was the night sky and cold. I was dragged from the burning diner to one of the parked cars. Dizzy, delirious, and my ears ringing, I almost didn’t believe it when I looked up and saw Ash. She was sweating and bleeding from her forehead, but otherwise calm and determined.
She propped me up behind a nearby car and said, “Stay hidden until help comes.”
I tried to speak, but only half-formed words and mumbling came out.
“Stay hidden,” she repeated, sheathing her sword. “Wait until the police and fire department comes.” She looked around and clutched her shoulder-bag. “I have to go.”
I tried to ask her to bring me with her, but it was too late. I blinked, and she was gone.
Shaking my head and coughing, I lurched to my feet and limped into the street. The diner burned behind me, and I was left alone to wonder what I had just witnessed. Who was she? What was she? What had just happened?
But even in my awe and confusion, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Why couldn’t she have taken me with her? Whoever or whatever she was, she clearly needed help. Didn’t she see I was willing? How could she believe she was better off alone?
“She’s quite a woman, our dear Ash.”
My stomach dropped upon hearing the voice behind me. I turned and saw Thorne emerge from the diner, unharmed by the flames. He approached me, brushing himself off, with a calm, almost pleasant look on his face.
“I can see why you were so drawn to her,” he said. “But alas … I’m afraid you are not the hero of this story, my friend.”
He smiled and then plunged his fist into my chest.
If you would like more, check out
Ones & Zeroes: A Short Story Collection
This and 13 other stories available on Amazon for 99¢
Review from BookLife here
©2018 by M. Walsh