Another year, and November rolls around again. Lo, and behold, I still haven’t finished last year’s novel project. I do, however, still have a few devoted readers who ask for updates. In thanks, I brought this one out and polished it up. At my current rate of publishing four posts per year, this story might be finished before I am old enough to retire. On the bright side, I’ll have plenty of time then to write the sequel.
When Elsa woke, it was early afternoon and her alarm clock was buzzing in increasingly loud bursts that kept an off tempo to the headache simmering at the back of her skull. She stood on wobbly legs and grimaced as a thousand little aches and pains – only some from sleeping on the floor – made themselves known. She sank onto the edge of her full-sized bed and shut off the alarm, debating briefly the merit of calling in sick before giving in to the inevitable. “Somebody’s got to pay the bills,” she said to herself. She gently peeled the towels from her forearms, sticky clumps of scabs came away with the cloth. Kurt had obviously cleaned her arms before he wrapped them, but now new blood and thin yellow pus oozed sluggishly from the wounds. She undressed carefully and brushed her teeth while the shower warmed up.
Glancing into the mirror, she let out a gasp. Her reflection stared back at her. Limp black hair had escaped her thick braid and hung around her face, emphasizing her wan complexion. Dark circles, a blue that nearly matched her eyes, radiated out almost to her cheeks. Her lips were chapped and cracked, and tear tracks streaked her face. She leaned closer, the salty residue was tinged with blood. “Holy hell,” she breathed, staring until steam fogged up the glass. It was enough to make her wish she had more than a cracked, nearly empty powder compact and clumpy mascara in her medicine cabinet. However, she doubted that any amount of makeup would be enough to make her look like she hadn’t been hit by a truck.
After a short shower, she carefully taped cotton balls coated with antibiotic ointment to her arms and covered them with layers of ace bandages. She made a mental note to use the first aid kit at work and dressed in loose khaki pants, a white polo and tennis shoes. She gave up trying to braid her hair, her arms had started to burn, and left it hanging halfway down her back. She picked up her backpack and locked up before walking down three flights of stairs and out to the bus stop. Elsa nearly fell asleep on the bench, barely keeping her head from falling onto the shoulder of the woman next to her.
By the time she got to the library where she worked from three to ten, the throb in her head had grown into a three piece band, with a lot of percussion. She clocked in and re-shelved books for nearly two hours without thinking about the diner or the toothpaste twins. Reaching up to put The Wonders of Yellowstone next to The National Parks: America’s Best Idea she overheard another clerk talking a few rows over.
“A brunette helped you last time? Well, you probably mean Elsa, she knows everything about everything in the library,” the clerk said, and Elsa froze – the heavy book poised above her head. “But if we can’t find her, I’m sure I can help you.” There was a low rumble, a man’s voice talking too quietly for her to make out, and then the clerk laughed. “Oh, I’m so not a bookworm, you’re right! My mom said if I wanted to join the sorority, I had to pay for it myself.” The rumble sounded again, closer this time. They were moving her way. Elsa took a quiet, deep breath. She knew she was overreacting; she helped people at the library all the time. She even had a few regulars, retired people and struggling students, who asked for her. This was probably nothing; Kurt had scared her into seeing the boogeyman around every corner.
“You know, I get off at seven, if you’d like to talk more.” Elsa let out a little sigh she hadn’t known she was holding. Lana the Greek had a discriminating eye, she wouldn’t hit on some whack job with fork marks on his neck. She tuned them out and tried to concentrate on the Dewey decimal system. Yellowstone went back on the shelf, but the strain of holding the heavy book for so long must have broken open a scab, because blood was seeping through the bandages. A girlish laugh erupted in the next row, startling her. “Good-looking and funny! You probably have girls lined up – I love a guy with a great smile, it’s something…”
Pulse pounding in her ears, Elsa stepped slowly off the ladder. She couldn’t focus, couldn’t listen to what they were saying over the sound of her own blood. She crouched behind her book cart, watching between the shelves as two people moved down the row. It’s nothing, you’re overreacting, she told herself; but panic was rising in her chest again. The pain in her head and arms faded to the background, the irrational urge to run, run as fast and as far as she could taking hold of her. They were almost two thirds of the way down now, and would be turning up her aisle in minutes. Elsa had to physically hold onto the cart to keep herself from sprinting away. Her knuckles turned white and her breathing sped up to keep pace with the fear that was flooding her.
“Elsa!” She nearly fell over, she spun around so quickly. One shoe caught her other leg and she landed on all fours, hair streaming around her face. Scott was standing next to the ladder, a concerned look on his face. They had been friends for years, since he had first come into the branch library needed help with a term paper. “Hey, are you okay? I didn’t mean to startle you.” He bent over to help her to her feet and sucked in his breath when he saw her bandages. “Oh,” he put his left hand in hers and slid his right under her elbow. “You weren’t at the study carousels today when I came in. I thought you had forgotten you were going to help me over your break with that German exam I have coming up.” He turned her towards him, away from Lana and her friend. “It’s a good thing I came to find you. You’re practically dead on your feet.” He frowned, his eyes running over her tired face and loose hair.
“It’s not a big deal,” she struggled to sound nonchalant, but it came out as a whisper. She could feel her muscles shaking with the effort not to turn and look behind her. Lana and whomever was looking for Elsa had to have been two-thirds of the way down the aisle by now. In another minute they would reach the end and turn up her row.
“You look like shit,” he pointed out bluntly. “And you’re bleeding!” He walked her to the toward the elevator that led up out of the stacks to the main floor. “You need to take off early. I can drive you home, and we can stop by urgent care on the way.” The elevator doors shut behind them, and Elsa sighed in relief as she leaned against the wall.
“Thanks for the concern, Scott, but I’m sure I’ll be fine. Besides, we’re short a clerk already, and someone else called in sick.” Away from the stranger, Elsa felt a little foolish. It might not have been the guy from the diner. Of course it wasn’t, she told herself. That guy was dead in an alley somewhere or drugged up in a hospital – people who were thrown through plate glass windows did not stroll around libraries less than 24 hours later. Not without drawing a lot of attention. Her panic subsided, and it was replaced with exhaustion. The pain in her head and arms returned with a vengeance.
“Take the rest of the day off, you’re gonna scare away the story hour kids.” His face softened and he put one hand on her shoulder. “I know you need the money Elsa, but if you exhaust yourself you’ll be out for more than just half a shift.” Elsa pushed aside surprise and twinge of shame at knowing Scott was aware of her financial situation and instead reflected on the whispers of fear still coursing through her, and the pain knocking on her brain.
“Maybe you’re right,” she conceded. “But I’ll take the bus home, no need for you to drive me.” Scott hrumphed, and tried to convince her, but eventually conceded. He helped her gather her backpack and clock out, and managed to get her shuffled to the bus stop in just over five minutes. She listened in silence, trying to quash her remaining fear, to his admonitions to take better care of herself, and demands that she call in sick to the diner, while they waited. She was more than ready to wave good-bye and close her eyes once she got on the bus and it pulled into traffic.
She had almost fallen asleep when the driver announced the stop right before hers. The bus pulled up to a well-maintained shelter across the street from a pharmacy. Elsa stumbled out the door, regretting not raiding the first-aid kit at the library when she had arrived at work. Her purchases nearly cleaned her out of cash, but she knew it was a hell of a lot cheaper than a visit to a clinic. And the young, disinterested, crayon-red haired cashier didn’t even raise an eyebrow at her appearance.
She didn’t want to wait for the next bus, opting instead to walk the quarter mile to her building. The sun was hot, the air sticky, and sweat was dripping down under her waistband by the time she reached her neighborhood. She was too tired to notice the new layer of graffiti in the alley or bother acknowledging the silent stares of the young Latino men holding up the lamppost on the corner. If she had been in a better mood, she would have found them funny. They usually whistled and called ‘sup, chica’ to every woman between the ages of twelve and fifty that walked down the street – even her despite her baggy, nondescript clothes and complete disinterest in attracting males. It had always made her uncomfortable. Apparently it only took an assault and lack of sleep to turn them off.
Her feet dragged up the third flight of stars and she barely managed a nod to her neighbor as he came into the hallway. A baby’s wail followed him, not entirely muted by the closing of the door. He grimaced by way of apology and she returned it with a smile that must have looked about as genuine as it felt. He glanced at her arms and opened his mouth but she slipped into the apartment and closed the door before he could say anything. Scott had been enough, she didn’t need a second person who was concerned for her wellbeing. With a sigh, she leaned against the door, trying to tune out the muffled sound of the colicky baby coming through the wall. “Just let me get through this week,” she quietly begged the universe. “No more flatware in necks or broken chairs or homeless men in my apartment. Just work and sleep and hot showers.” Elsa stumbled over to the bed and pulled her plain red comforter over her before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The insistent buzz of her alarm clock sent fresh spikes of pain from the base of her skull straight to her eyelids. She dragged herself into her diner uniform, which was just her khakis with a red t-shirt and useless little kerchief headband that barely met the requirements of the health code. Elsa managed to snag a bottle of water and eat most of a breakfast bar on the way down the stairs. Inky blackness filled the night; the stars obscured by low, heavy clouds. Rolling brown-outs due to the heat had resulted in few streetlights and little sky glow. Or maybe, she reflected, the lack of working streetlights was a result of the Latino men on the corner. They had been joined by several cars and had a stereo turned up while they talked. She passed by two teenage girls on her way up the street; they stared with interest at the muscles and tattoos on display.
The ache in her head was replaced with increasing anxiety over the state of the diner as she drew closer. Even if she was arrested, she wanted to help pay for the damages. It would make it that much harder to meet her monthly bill payments, but she could scrimp a little more. She might as well unplug her tiny refrigerator and save the electricity – there wasn’t any food in it anyhow. And if she started getting up a half hour earlier she could save her bus fare and walk to the library. By the time she rounded the last block, she had decided that she would empty her savings account, all two hundred sixty-three dollars, to pay what she could on the windows.
Her feet slowed to a near standstill as the diner came into view and she could feel her mouth fall open, but wasn’t able to do anything about it. The front window had been repaired. A waitress stood behind the counter, cutting pies, while a new bus boy collected dirty dishes and wiped down tables. Five of the booths were full, most of the tables occupied and several customers sat at the counter. Two couples walked in as she drew closer. Their loud laughter and unsteady feet alerted her to their recent evening at the bars a few blocks into a nicer neighborhood. It was as if the incident with Kurt and the toothpaste twins had never happened.
Elsa ducked down the alley and came in through the employee entrance. She was torn between wanting to know what had happened to get everything cleaned up so quickly and dreading facing the consequences. She barely got her backpack shoved into her cubby, her apron was still bunched in her hand when the cook, Tom, poked his head around the corner.
“Elsa!” a string of profanities followed, “what happened last night? And why is your phone disconnected? Get in here and talk to me, I’ve got burgers on the grill.”
“Elsa’s here?” a voice called from the front. Elsa stepped into the kitchen, struggling to tie her apron on without opening any stitches. The second-shift waitress stuck her head in through the order window. “Oh, my gosh, you have to tell me what happened! Are you okay! Did someone break in? What happened to the window? Did you, like, have to hide from some serial killer or something!” Her eyes were opened so wide, Elsa was afraid one of them might pop out and land on the grill.
“Leave her alone, Miss Nosey! She’s talking to me,” Tom bit off. “You can give her the inquisition after you take care of those customers.” He pointed with his spatula.
“It’s like you aren’t even human,” the waitress said with narrowed eyes before flouncing off to take orders.
“The manager called me in at seven this morning,” Tom said in an undertone. “When the morning waitress told him you weren’t here when she showed up at six he almost had an apoplexy. She called the police, and then him. He called the night cook, who said you sent him home at three. The police were here taking blood samples and photos. Then that idiot they hired to cook for the morning shift showed up at seven-thirty, drunk, and it turns out he has a warrant out for domestic assault. That kept the cops too busy to ask who was minding the store when the break-in happened.” Tom slapped cheese on a burger and looked at her seriously. “So who was minding the store?”
“Nobody,” Elsa responded, managing not to blink or shift too much. She felt like her eyes were going to tear up in an effort to hold Tom’s gaze. “I dropped a coffee pot and got broken glass all over myself around three-thirty,” she showed off her bandages. “I locked up and walked home to take care of my arms.” Inspired, she raised her eyebrows, “Didn’t anybody see the note taped to the window?”
“The window got broken last night,” Tom crossed his arms over his chest. The spatula stuck out like a gavel, waiting to bang against the grill and declare her sentence for lying. “Apparently someone broke in, got into a fight, had pie and vanilla ice cream, left blueberries out to ooze juice all over my clean kitchen, cut apart a chair with hydraulic metal shears, and left. Not necessarily in that order.”
“No kidding?” Elsa tried to inject as much shock into her voice as possible.
“Pfft, you’re a crappy liar. When the cops question you, try not to look so unbelievably innocent.” He turned back to the grill, “And your phone?”
“Disconnected two months ago, turns out they want you to pay for it. Can you imagine?” She finally wrapped the ends of her apron around and tied it in the front, grabbing a fresh notepad and pencil before heading to the front.
Tom snorted in agreement, or maybe just understanding, “Capitalism, am I right?”
Elsa refilled coffee cups and soda glasses in relative normalcy for the next twenty minutes. She was in the middle of taking an order when Scott walked in, he nodded to her and took a seat at the counter with his laptop bag. Elsa was on her way to give him a soda when other waitress cornered her behind the counter. She was outraged that Elsa had missed the commotion.
“But you could have seen a real crime take place! There was a fight, and who knows what would have happened. If you had been here, they might have taken you hostage! There could have been a standoff with the cops!” The waitress looked excited at the prospect. Scott caught Elsa’s eye behind the other woman’s back and raised his brows, mouthing, hostage. Tom snorted in the kitchen behind her.
“Instead I had to go and slice my arms to ribbons. What was I thinking?” The dry tone was completely lost on the buxom brunette.
“I know right? I bet you would have been on the news.” She said ‘news’ with reverent, breathy emphasis – placing it in the same category as front row tickets to the Rolling Stones, a spiritual experience in Tibet, and multiple orgasms. She tossed her apron into a laundry basket in the locker room and went to change in the restroom. When she emerged, a ruffled blue skirt that barely touched the tops of her thighs was paired with a draped, backless top with sinless printed in gold letters across it.
“Hot date?” Elsa asked, interested in a train wreck kind of way. The outfit screamed available with a tenacity that bordered on desperation. She dropped off a new order for Tom. The waitress crouched in front of the chrome coffee maker and applied an additional layer of smoky eye shadow. Scott nearly spit soda on his fries. His eyes opened wide and white against the dark of his skin. Clearly he was not used to waitresses showing quite that much leg…and bottom.
“This is what it take to get the really good guys, Elsa. You should try it sometime, or, at least,” she paused, looking over Elsa’s standard braid and baggy pants with a frown of distaste, “try something. If you aren’t careful, the only guy you’ll get is someone like that bum over there.” She jerked her head towards Scott and stage whispered, “I don’t think he even has a job.” Elsa repressed a grin. Scott was the opposite of a bum. His family had money – serious, hospital wing named after them kind of money – but he was low key about it. The other waitress would have been fawning over him if she knew. Anyway,” her voice returned to normal, “if you had been here the manager wouldn’t have had to come in to talk to the police. Now he is super cranky about having contact information about everyone, he even said he wanted to install a time clock to keep track of when we come and go! It is so unfair!”
“Completely unreasonable,” Elsa agreed, tossing an ice cube down the Scott’s neck to get his attention. He jumped off his stool to shake out his shirt, but it took a few moments for the glazed look to leave his face. Apparently it was not a turn off to be discarded as dating material because of his status as an unemployed student. “Soon he’ll be doing background checks on employees.”
“Holy crap, you think so?” she breathed. Elsa shared a look with Tom, but managed to keep a straight face.
“Da, comrade,” Tom gave a stiff-armed salute.
“I don’t even speak Spanish,” she said with disdain, turning on one clear plastic wedge sandal and heading for the door. Tom took in her entire outfit as she moved into the room.
“Try not to walk by the church in that outfit!” The waitress gave him the finger on her way out. The drunk double-daters snickered loudly and a group of blue collar men whistled as the bell tinkled over the closed door.
The next few hours passed uneventfully. Tom served burgers and fries to the bar crowd. The busboy did dishes and mopped the floor before going home at two. Scott, without any barely dressed girls to ogle, moved to a booth near the back hallway and pulled out a laptop, clicking away while he sipped at a soda. Customers drifted in and out, and by three Elsa was dead on her feet. Her arms ached and although her headache had subsided, her eyes felt dry and gritty.
“Go on home, Tom. I’ll be fine until the morning shift comes in. You’ll need the sleep if you’re going to pull another double tomorrow.” She collected the salt and pepper shakers and sat down at the counter to refill them, trying to shake off the prickling sensation that someone was watching her. After all, the chances of another grinning sadist dropping by, the second night in a row, were slim. She tried to ignore Kurt’s voice echoing in her head, advising her to find a new job.
“Nah, you should be the one to go home. You look terrible,” he said, scraping down the grill and wiping his hands on his grease stained apron.
“Wow, you really know how to turn on the charm. Seriously, go home. I wasn’t even here for the action yesterday. I doubt I’ll have to do anything more strenuous than wrap napkins and pour refills.”
“Humph,” Tom grunted, but untied his apron. “The usual night cook is coming in at five to fill in on the morning shift.” He tossed the grimy apron in the laundry basket. “If you really think you’ll be okay?” He laid one beefy hand on her shoulder, his round belly taking up most of the space behind the counter.
“I think we’ve met our quota of crazy already, Tom,” she replied. He shrugged, but his eyes remained worried.
“I’ll pray to St. Michael to watch over you,” he said.
“Then I’m sure I’ll be fine.” She smiled reassuringly until he was out the back door, then slumped against the counter – barely moving to refill the pepper shakers with one hand. She shuffled around the diner, replacing full shakers and wiping tables, for once the quiet, steady hum of the diner at night not soothing her. She was grateful for the occasional click-clack of Scott’s laptop and the gentle swipt of turning pages. When she was finally left with nothing to do but make the pies for the next day, she leaned against the work table…and promptly fell on the floor when her weak and injured arms gave out.
“Elsa? Are you okay?” Scott was leaning over the Formica to see through the kitchen doorway. Elsa sat on her butt on the floor, letting the cool of the concrete seep into her skin. She hoped it would wake her up.
“Nothing hurt but my pride, thanks,” she called, but remained seated. A large, bony dark hand appeared in front of her. Elsa shrunk back in surprise. Her heart skipped a beat and she chided herself for being so easily frightened. It was just Scott. They had been friends for years. He came to the diner to study a couple of nights a week. He was just trying to help her. It was normal. Everything was normal.
“You look like you’re about to pass out, sweetheart. I don’t think your boss would mind if you took a little break.” She looked into his worried brown eyes and let out a little sigh of relief. Scott would not hurt her. He didn’t want anything from her. Well, except German declensions; he was barely passing German. She took his hand lightly and allowed him to lead her back to the counter. She balked however, at letting him get them something to drink.
“No, no,” she waved him off, “union rules.” She fixed herself a glass of ice water, briefly wondering what Kurt was drinking to beat the heat, and poured Scott another soda.
“There’s a waitress union?” He asked, motioning for her to join him at his booth.
“Not that I know of, but one can never be too sure.” She sipped her water and nodded towards his open books. “How is the studying coming?”
“Finals, ugh,” he said. “I don’t know what made me think taking German as a summer course was a good idea, but I regret it. I hate German. I hate bratwurst. And beer. And leiderhosen. I hate gravy on meat and verbs that have gender. I hate yodelers and sound national economic policies.”
“But Germany always had such nice things to say about you,” Elsa laughed. She turned his laptop around and corrected a few mistakes. “You know, this would have been easier if you hadn’t put it off so long. Aren’t summer courses always harder?”
“Yeah, but I kept thinking if I ignored it, my mother would agree that a foreign language is a dumb requirement for an engineer. I already know enough Spanish to order beer and find the bathroom, but no, she thinks German is essential. Barf.”
“Why German?” she asked absently, still correcting errors.
“Oh, you know,” he waved her off and took the laptop back. His voice became high-pitched and a little nasal, “One day you’ll be running the company, and the Germans contract blah, blah, blah.” He scanned her changes while she sipped her water. “That makes so much more sense,” his voice normal again, h smiled and typed a few more lines before saving the file. “I don’t know what I would do if I hadn’t found you in the library freshman year.”
“Probably your own homework,” Elsa responded dryly. Scott laughed in agreement and she shrugged, only wincing a little at the ache in her muscles. “Besides, what else was I going to do with German? I’ll never travel. What a waste. I should have taken something else in high school.” She scratched gently at her arm, trying not to open any scabs. She felt him watching her and tried not to squirm under the pitiful encouragement she knew was coming. It was the worst part about their friendship.
“You could always study it in college. I know somebody at the financial aid-”
“Nope,” she said more with forced cheerfulness, the same way she always did when he broached the subject. “You’re right. German is dumb, and I have work to do. So, tell me about your raid.”
“It was pretty epic,” he began, his eyes brightening with excitement as he turned to his favorite topic: computer games. For a short while she was able to forget about the last horrible 24-hours. Even her money problems seemed a little further away. Gradually she became aware that Scott, although engaged in the conversation, continually scanned the room. His eyes followed a pattern, going over each window and past the door and then flicking up to the security mirror to check the kitchen and rear hallway.
“If you have someplace you need to be, don’t let me hold you up,” she said, sliding out of the booth. His distraction hurt more than she thought it would, but she wasn’t going to beg him to hang out if he had better places to be. Unlike her, Scott had lots of friends. He had other people, people who owned computers and went to college, to talk to. She, on the other hand, had a growing sense of uneasiness that had nothing to do with Scott. The now-familiar prickling on the back of her neck urged her to the safety of the kitchen. She felt stupid, leaving him in his booth and hiding behind the swinging saloon doors, but she couldn’t help feeling paranoid.
“No place to be,” Scott said with a small smile, “But I didn’t mean to keep you so long; you probably have work to do. Do you mind if I hang out a while longer? I still have a few pages to go.”
“No problem, stay as long as you like.” Elsa backed behind the counter, forgetting about bruised feelings and concentrating on the increased tempo of her heart. She had one hand on the door frame when an uncomfortable cold settled in her chest. At the same time, a car backfired. Elsa stared out the front window, looking for the junkier that was no doubt making its way down the street and trying to ignore the way the hair on the back of her neck prickled.
“Elsa,” Another backfired sounded, and a hairline crack appeared in the newly replaced front window. “Get down!” Scott yelled, swept his laptop and books into a backpack and crouched next to the booth. His eyes were focused on the front door. Elsa backed into the kitchen, unsure where she should direct her attention. Logic told her there was no danger, but that would be the same logic that saw nothing wrong with giving Kurt discount pie. The sound came again, the front window cracked in a spider web pattern around a small hole. A container of oil burst in the kitchen behind her. “Elsa!” Scott called again, and dove behind the counter, pulling her legs out from under her.