You know what’s going on. Ermilia. Writing. Fiction. PICTURES.
“What are we doing here anyway?” Girl wasn’t even looking at him. Her chin was to her chest and she picked at strands of hair dangling in front of her face. It gave her a lost almost dazed looked, like any moment she might drift asleep.
Lewis cleared his throat.
“This is one of my favorite places in the city.”
“The food sucks.”
“Does it? Honestly I mostly just come for coffee.” People had a habit of telling him what they thought of the little diner whenever he mentioned it, so much that he had stopped discussing his lunch plans with anyone at work anymore. The smell of burnt coffee and cigarettes hung in the air, a thin cloud obscured the interior ever so slightly.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s not the food that stands out here it’s the people.”
Girl took hold of the bright green cup on the table beside her; the visual assault of the coffee receptacle’s hue made it hard to focus on anything but the cup and before long Lewis found himself lost in it, like a little ceramic lava lamp.
“Still doesn’t tell me why we’re here.”
Lewis blinked and focused on the table, wide eyed, shaking the green after image from his vision. He rubbed his eyes and resumed sipping at his own coffee. He was second guessing himself. The incident at the library was bad enough. He probably shouldn’t have gone so far. And he definitely shouldn’t have started talking to her about the old days. What was so different here?
“You said you wanted to know why.”
“Yeah, I did. I have to say that right now though I feel like I’m on a really lame date, which is weird given my present company.”
“Lame?” Lewis recoiled at the insinuation. “I’ll have you know I’ve wooed countless thousands in my time.”
“Through boredom maybe.” Girl threw her hand over her mouth and giggled. She really didn’t seem to care.
“I’m sorry.” She said, standing to adjust her dress before sitting again. “Why are we here?”
Lewis scanned the crowd across the diner. There wasn’t much variety to the people who showed up here from week to week. There would be college students, far too broke to afford anything better than the corner diner, Penelope’s, right around the corner from campus. The youthful crowd would flock here before or after classes to smoke and drink bizarre varieties of coffee and eat pie, the flavors of which no one had ever heard of, in the name of fitting in.
It only took a moment to find her. Penelope, a young woman somewhere in her thirties bounced around behind the counter, serving those lucky enough to claim a barstool. She was thin and pale, but vibrant. She could put a smile on your face just being around her. She possessed an infectious cheer that radiated throughout the restaurant.
“That woman died eighty years ago.” Lewis nodded at Penelope between sips of coffee.
“The owner?” Girl craned her neck toward the counter, “I don’t know, she looks pretty alive to me.”
“Yeah. That’s what she wants you to think. The two of you are a lot alike. You both have things that you want to hide and no matter how hard you try to do so, it doesn’t help. As good as you think you might be at hiding the truth, something will always stand out. It’s like you’re hardwired to be bad liars, subconsciously sabotaging yourself in hopes of someone picking up on it.”
Girl set her mug down. She chewed her lip, eyes fixed on the little green monstrosity that held her coffee. She pulled her legs up into the chair and started picking nervously at her hair again.
“Remember how I told you, people like you made me retire?”
Girl nodded her head.
“Penelope Orourke was one of the first.”
Girl relaxed her legs and leaned across the table. “What happened to her?”
Memories were something Lewis was good at, he’d hoarded centuries of them after all. His brain was like an automatic filing cabinet. Things went in, filed in neat order that made for quick retrieval when needed; a catalog of pain that stretched back through eons.
“She was a lovely woman, in spirit I mean. One of the most genuine people you could have ever met. When tragedy first struck Penelope it was by way of her youngest child, a three year old named Peter. He died in a house fire. You could say the O’Rourke family learned a valuable lesson in chimney safety that day.”
“Oh my God.” Girl gasped. Lewis sucked air in through his teeth making an audible hiss. “Oh right, sorry.”
Lewis nodded and said, “The second time was three weeks later when Penelope’s oldest, a six year old named Alexander, accidently shot himself.”
Girl threw her hands up. “Where the hell were the parents?”
Lewis sipped at his coffee. “Well, Penelope was out picking up a rather pricey birthday dinner for her husband, Michael. He on the other hand, after graciously offering to watch young Alexander, was locked away in the master bedroom with his mistress. He had left his pistol on a table in the study where he had been cleaning just prior to the harlot’s arrival.”
Girl slumped in the chair and found Penelope flying around the counter, balancing an assortment of loudly-colored mugs. She scurried around and out into the tables and booths that occupied the rest of the diner not occupied by the bar counter, stopping only long enough to deliver a few mugs before quickly moving on. She was efficient. And after what Lewis had said, a little unsettling.
The two sat for a while without speaking. Lewis began to lose himself in the drone of youthful excitement that hung in the air like the ever-present nicotine cloud that helped define the diner he so loved.
“Wait a minute.” Girl was leaning back, coffee mug sitting in her lap. “That is a sad story, but it doesn’t explain anything.”
“Oh right, it doesn’t does it. Well, she came home earlier than expected, right after Alexander had ended his own adventure in this crazy world and she found not only a dead son but a very naked and very confused woman in the bedroom.” He cleared his throat before adding, “With her equally naked and equally confused husband I should add. So she hung herself a day later.”
Lewis stood and produced his wallet from his jacket pocket. He leafed through it for a few bills, he was a big fan of paying for things with Benjamin Franklin pictures. It was comforting knowing that everyday human beings knew just how much of a scoundrel that man had been, he could tell since they usually gasped when they saw his face. Lying bastard.
“There’s still got to be more. Yeah life sucked but that still doesn’t make me understand what you’re getting at.”
Lewis sat again and threw a couple Benjamin papers on the table.
“She showed up on my doorstep. Why? Can you tell me what this girl’s crime was? Can you explain why she should be tortured any further?”
“So what was I supposed to do? I finally started to think about people, looking past the surface sin, and trying to figure out what justified my new work. I had found myself, once again being used as an instrument – one of punishment, and at long last I saw that I hated it.”
“So what did you do?” asked Girl.
“I let her go. She was the first. I helped her navigate her way back here, gave her a fresh start. Well, semi-fresh, she’s still dead after all. Doesn’t have any men in her life, mostly because she would only be able to hide her lack of pulse and body temperature for so long outside the confines of a hot kitchen, but she’s happy. And now I get free lunch.”
Girl got up and slid her jacket on. Lewis joined her and threw more money at the table. As they walked out of the diner, Lewis paused, looking back just long enough to see if Penelope had noticed he was there. She had of course. She always noticed.
“We aren’t that different either.” He thought. After all, what had Lewis wanted all those years ago, to be something more, to do great things? Just like Penelope, owning her own place, serving others. No, not so different at all. Still, there was something else, something nagging at him – maybe it was doubt. He could almost taste the salt again, the sudden icy embrace of the ocean.
Thoughts of despair leapt into the foreground. Here, the undead sinner embraced people flocking to her name, she will fail – she will rise up only to be met with the inevitable fall.
“Am I supposed to be your doorman now? That wasn’t part of the original deal.” Girl was leaning against the diner door, hair blowing in the wind, wearing the friendliest scowl he’d seen in a long time. Lewis glanced back to Penelope who still stood, silent, watching him, a warm smile on her face.
“I can’t believe I didn’t include that in the fine print.” He said stepping into mid November’s chill. “It’s been a while since I made anyone deal.”