LATE NIGHT AT THE LOW ROAD DINER
The only way to tell that the woods lining the road are brown is because the sky above them is so black. The night is warm but not friendly. The diner is dwarfed by the sweep of the road, a tealight in a cheap tin lantern.
Marisse, like the little dark core of a candle flame, moves around the diner. This is the heart of the night, and the only things in the building except her are yellow light and empty tables and the smells of coffee and old grease. From the inside, the windows are printed with a long reflection of the empty room, backed with the ghost of the parking lot. Once in a long while something goes by outside. Usually it's a car chasing the fan of its headlights or a big truck garlanded in running lights.
Something comes by slower than most and she hears it pulling into the empty parking lot and around the diner, circling right to left, before it heaves into one of the spaces and the engine growls itself to sleep. It's parked under one of the blown lights and she can't see it clear, but she has an impression of some dark not-black colour, green or brown, on an old car. One of the big ones, a sedan made out of steel and hard angles.
She hears one of its doors slam and watches as two people come towards the diner, open the door and get into its light and warm air. One's a boy that probably thinks he isn't, mean mouth and thin clothes with cheap bravado printed on them. He's paying more attention than Marisse likes to who else is in the diner (nobody) and which ceiling corners are home to cameras.
The other one. Well.
It's pale enough that even next to the boy, Marisse thinks of it as the white one. It's quiet in more senses than one, hard to pick out even standing right there in the room, and if it had been putting on a proper face, she might not have noticed anything odd, certainly wouldn't have seen it for what it is.
Since it's not dressing itself up properly, Marisse guesses it's either very new or very weak, maybe both.
The two of them take one of the booths next to the window and she comes over with a carafe and a pair of mugs. "Coffee?"
"Sure," the shabby boy says. He glances at her for a second but doesn't really see her, looks across the table at his travelling companion. It looks like milky glass, almost translucent, but this close Marisse notices its eyes. Traffic-light-green, like the last place you have to get through in the city before you can hit the open road.
"You know what you want?"
The boy starts speaking, couple of specials off the plastic menu standing neatly in its slot next to the salt and pepper, and she nods and gives back rote responses (white or rye? extra-crispy?), and he doesn't notice her watching him. His eyes are full of the pale thing across the booth from him, and some of the mean goes out of his mouth while he's gazing.
She's pretty sure the food will only make a difference to one of them, but she goes to cook it up. Glances through the serving hatch from the kitchen and sees the boy drinking his coffee, both hands wrapped around the cup, and the other one just gazing indifferently into space. After a moment the boy says something, leaning forward and speaking soft, and the pale one picks up its coffee and drains it at a go, never mind the steam coming off it, and puts it down and goes back to looking at nothing.
The boy looks like he's going to break something, but that's probably just his version of wanting to cry.
Marisse brings the food out on one arm, coffee in her free hand. She's not looking to start anything, but if the boy gets to be sudden trouble it won't be the first time she's cracked someone over the head with a carafe. Keeps her smile up, though.
"You been driving long?" she says, and maybe it's the smell of food or her just being the kind of person that kind of boy would never care to notice, but he answers while he's looking at the white one.
"Couple of weeks. Road trip." He frowns a little and drops his voice. "Babe, c'mon," he says to the white thing. "Please." It picks up its knife and touches it to the food on the plate.
This close, from the corner of her eye, Marisse can see it's wearing nicer clothes than the boy; a dark button-up shirt, maybe. Its hands are drowned-white, but clean, the nails pale as lilies; the boy has red-rimmed nails, a streak of dirt grimed into the knuckles of his littlest and ring finger on his right hand, a thin cluster of slowly healing scratches across the base of his thumb.
"Well, it's a good car to do it in, I guess," she says, topping up their coffee. "Lots of trunk space."
The boy looks up at her fast and ready to be angry, and sees her standing there wrapped in friendly-diner-waitress, and tries to cover his reaction with a laugh.
"It's rusted shut," he says. "It's an—it's an old car."
Way he looks at the white thing makes Marisse guess he'd jump if she asked if he was using the back seat, so she just nods.
"Well, good thing it still runs," she says. "You both got everything you need?"
The white thing seems to have forgotten its food in favour of gazing out the window and not moving.
"Yeah, we're good." The boy's voice is angry-going-to-cry, and Marisse takes the coffee and goes back behind the counter.
The flattop grill in back will be too hot to clean just yet. The coffee is down to the dregs and she pours it out. She's just measuring out new grounds and water when she hears the boy getting out of the booth and coming up to the counter.
Marisse thinks of the chewed-raw nails and the anxious shiver and decides she doesn't need to really worry yet. Not when he's drunk her coffee and probably eaten her food.
The sound of the gun's safety clicking off is not a surprise. She resists the urge to tell him just a minute and puts the carafe in the coffee machine, then turns around, wiping her hands on the dishrag hooked into her apron.
It does not look like the first time he's pointed a gun at someone. His hand is shaking a little, but his eyes are clear and looking at her, as much as he cares to, and that mean set is back on his mouth.
"If you give me all your bullets," she says, "I'll teach you how to keep your friend from starving."
Whatever he was expecting, it wasn't that. His mouth drops open a little and his eyes go wide. His grip on the gun loosens and its weight pulls it down enough that the well of the barrel, black as the night outside, dips away from her face. No denying that makes her feel better.
He takes half a step back. Marisse doesn't lean over the counter, but folds her hands on it.
"Fuck do you mean," he says finally, which as far as it goes is a sensible question. Doesn't feed her anything that she doesn't already know, and he probably wants to be very careful about that right now.
"Your friend," she says, pointing past the boy with her chin. "How long have you two been together?"
"Weeks," he says in a slightly strangled voice, then rallies. "Met him a couple of weeks ago. Like I said. We're on a road trip."
Him is good to know; Marisse doesn't want to argue with however the boy sees it. She nods. "And you buy the food and take care of him, but he's not eating?" The boy draws the gun back and points it a little more down, which is as good as a nod. "Or if you insist, food makes no difference. And sometimes you worry that he's thin enough to see through, that he's just going to fade right away?"
The boy doesn't say anything, but his mouth pulls down and breath heaves through his teeth like he's readying for a fight.
"You're not wrong," Marisse confirms. "Give me all your bullets, and I'll teach you how to feed him. Some way you can both live with."
The wanting is easy to see. The suspicion is as ground into this boy as the meanness. "How'm I supposed to know what you'll tell me actually works?"
"You'll see it for yourself. Right here." She looks past him at the white thing. "What do you have to lose?"
"My bullets," he says, sounding like his throat's dry, and lets out a confused little chuckle. Marisse feels bad for him a minute, but she'd still prefer to see that gun unloaded.
"Well," she says, "what good will they do you if you can't take care of him?"
It's a calculated guess, with the softening of his mouth and the worry over the white thing eating and the anxious babe. A couple of weeks isn't long but Marisse doubts a boy like this has much to look back on or forwards to, and once you look at the thing its green green eyes would be easy to find striking, even if you hadn't been travelling with it.
He does something ratchet-sounding to the gun. Its magazine clunks free, and then a single bullet falls out and skitters on the counter next to it. She sweeps them both towards her and puts them under the cash register, then turns back to the boy.
"Alright," she says. She takes out her order pad and marks what he's already ordered PAID across the bottom; better not to clutter up the lesson with outstanding debts. "What money do you have?"
"Hey, you got the bullets—"
"This is for your friend." Marisse doesn't look towards it direct, but the corner of her eye and the hairs on her arm catch movement; the white thing is on its feet, standing by the booth. "It will hurt a little. It will not do you any harm. Take out your money." She taps the counter.
He glances back at the white thing and then shoves one hand into the tight pocket of his jeans, pulls out a crumple of faded green and sets it between them. Marisse stirs it a little, so no one bill is completely hidden by the others, and leaves her finger on the pile.
"You see this?" she says. He leans forward a little, looking down and frowning, and Marisse punches him with her other hand. Her knuckles split the thin softness of his lip as it's jammed between her fist and his teeth, and blood spatters thinly across the money. He barks in pain and staggers back a step, and she sweeps up the bills.
"You had better keep listening to me, for his sake." She doesn't raise her voice, but she points past him and that gets his attention. He looks back at the white thing, which is watching her with the patience of a cat waiting for a mistake.
But it's watching, and he swallows back the cursing so he can listen, one hand across his mouth. He bleeds easily, and that has probably never made his life easier, but she guesses he'll be glad of it now.
"Look," she says, holding the bills up but not out. They're flecked with a dirty red haze, studded with a few fat drops. "This is what it takes. Money that blood was shed for and shed on. This is how you feed your friend."
"He doesn't eat money." The voice is slightly strangled, a little thin and a little high. His eyes are bright, in a way he would not want noticed.
"No," Marisse says. "Here. I give you this," she rubs the bills between her fingers, and they make a soft dead-leaf sound, "and then you use this to buy him food. Or shelter—gas for the car, a room for the night. Clothes, if he needs them."
Any material thing that would sustain the living, food or shelter or clothing, will do the same for the dead if it's properly paid for.
The boy's staring at her. She puts the bills down and after a moment he jerks forward and sweeps them up, fingers pressing into their awkward folds.
"Now," she says calmly. "Get him food with that—paying up front works fastest—and it'll help him."
He touches one hand to his mouth and glances at the white thing. It's standing behind him, nearly at his shoulder. It's shorter than he is; she hadn't expected that.
He looks back at her, tries for a cocky smile and drops it when it pulls at the split in his lip. "What's the best I can get him with this?" he says, holding a ten out to her. There's a thin line of red across Hamilton's face, like a long papercut.
"I'll whip something up." She takes the ten and tucks it into her own pocket, goes back to the kitchen. When she comes out with a plate, the white thing's sitting neatly at the counter, and the boy's hovering behind it like a nervous parent watching his kid ride a bike down the road for the first time.
Marisse wonders how they met, but doesn't guess either of them will answer if she asks. She sets the plate down in front of it, and it picks up the cutlery without prompting and starts poking gently at the eggs with a fork. The boy's holding his breath, and Marisse pretends not to notice him letting it out when it scoops up a forkful of eggs.
The three of them stay there in silence for a moment, except for the hum of the lights and the tink of steel tines on the thick plate.
"Just pay for things with money that I bled on?" the boy says carefully after a minute.
Marisse shakes her head. "Money," she says precisely, "that had blood shed on it in someone's getting of it."
"But I can't just get it and then bleed on it." He frowns when she shakes her head again. "What if I'd grabbed it before you got to it?"
"Long as you'd bled on it, that'd be fine. Fighting to get to keep it is still getting it."
He makes a thoughtful noise, touching his mouth again. "You gave it to me," he says slowly. "And it still worked. Could I buy the ten back from you and use it again?"
"If I was selling it."
He frowns but looks at the white thing eating and decides not to pick an argument. Marisse can see it a little better now, the shape of its face coming through. It looks like a young man, drowning-pale, but like a young man instead of something in a midnight closet trying to pretend to be one. It doesn't have a particularly pleasant expression, but she's not seeing the meanness of the boy's mouth anywhere on its features.
She does not forget that dead things are no less dead because they weren't killed out of meanness.
The coffee's done brewing, and she pours each of them a cup. The boy pokes at his, turning the handle in a slow counterclockwise drag, like the car pulling in to the parking lot. "Do I need—if I get us a room, do I need to pay for all of it with bloody money?"
"Wouldn't hurt if you did, but no. Could be just one of the bills. Long as some blood's part of paying; otherwise, it's not real to him, you see?"
He nods slowly. The white thing is shaking pepper over the last of the eggs.
"What if I got—like, a credit card? With blood on it?"
Marisse shrugs. "Maybe. It's not traded, but it lets you buy things. Blood rubs off plastic pretty quick, though."
His mouth narrows. "You said you knew how to feed him."
"I do know how to feed him," she says, calm. "Look at him. Doesn't mean I'll swear to how trying something different works out."
His shoulders fall a little, and he looks back at the white thing. Its face has grown clear enough to look mildly irritated, but it leans towards him a little, and the warm boy puts one hand lightly across the back of its shoulder. It's finished its food and is holding its own coffee cup, now, gingerly because of the heat, and Marisse can see the steam moving in its breath.
"Real to him. Does this mean we can get drunk?" the boy says, like he's looking for something to make a joke of.
"That will work, yes."
He smiles a little, thinly, and that mean streak is clearer in his mouth. "And if I'd made you open the cash register, and then I'd shot you while you were next to it..."
Marisse just looks at him, and reaches easily for the carafe. He's standing a little behind the white thing, but not too far. She has dealt with more frightening things than this tattered boy, working nights along the road.
"Rain," the white thing says, "she's done us a favour."
He looks down at it again and slides his arm a little further around its shoulders. "How you feeling?"
"Better." Its voice is soft and dry; it sounds not unlike the crumpling of the bills in the boy's pockets when he pulled them out. Marisse thinks it's quite young. If what it said about the favour is true, it probably doesn't understand itself quite yet either.
She thinks of the (purportedly rusted-shut) trunk of the car, waiting in the parking lot under the black of the sky.
"You okay with her knowing about us?" the boy says quietly, and he's still watching Marisse, but he's standing close enough behind the white thing with his arm far enough around it that Marisse would call it a hug. Not out loud, but still.
"What would I tell anyone about you?" she said. "Two men—" a stretch, that, but she guesses at least one of them would balk at being called boy— "on a road trip came in and paid for their food and left. Driving the car they came in, whose colour and license plate I did not see."
"One of them had a gun," the boy says.
Marisse sniffs dismissively. "With no bullets. A paperweight."
She could tell more, of course. There are police who drive this road at night, sometimes, and they understand the kind of things you can see in the dark. They know to keep their windows rolled up; if one drives home alone, they know to fill the front passenger seat with a folded jacket or a lunchbox so that they will never glance to the right and see that where there should be an empty seat there is something that has moved into the space and is now grinning at them.
She could say there is a boy driving down the road, and maybe he travels with a pale thing beside him that is not afraid of police, or maybe there is a corpse in dark clothes slowly shrivelling in the trunk of his car, or both. She could say that he has a mean streak and an anxious devotion and those two are a bad pairing for anyone he decides he needs to cross.
The boy is looking carefully at her, but he only knows that if she decided to say something she'd have a reason to be afraid, and she isn't afraid. She guesses he knows the trick of putting things out of his mind, but he doesn't recognize it when someone else uses it.
And then, of course, the white thing's gentle remonstration—she's done us a favour—weighs with him.
"Okay," he says softly and then looks down at it again. "Okay, babe. Let me know when you're done and we'll get out of here, alright?"
It nods and drinks its coffee, slowly enough to be tasting it, then straightens up and gets off the stool. "Thank you," it says politely, and Marisse nods and murmurs a you're welcome that includes them both, but she swallows back the come again that's near reflex after so many years.
The door wheezes and slams, and they are gone.
She sweeps the bullet and magazine out from under the cash register and puts them in her hip pocket. Those and the ten-dollar bill she keeps separate from the accounting of tips at the end of her shift.
She drops the bullets down a storm drain in the paling grey light of dawn.
The ten-dollar bill, she keeps against future concerns.
©2018 by Frances Rowat
FRANCES ROWAT lives in Ontario with her husband, their dog, and a not-quite-startling number of cats. She was born in Canada, and while growing up spent time in England, Algeria, and Switzerland. She spends most of her time behind a keyboard, where she frequently gets lost in details. She enjoys earrings, fountain pens, rain, and post-apocalyptic settings, and can be found online on Twitter @aphotic_ink or at http://aphoticink.wordpress.com/ .