Lena landed on the concrete kitchen floor – hard. Her breath knocked out of her, she listened to a dull puft-tink-puft and then what she assumed was the front window shattered – again. Scott’s face loomed over hers, his hands sliding over her body efficiently. Air filled her lungs again in a painful inhale. “Get-” she started loudly, but his hand covered her mouth and at the shake of his head she stopped.
He let go, indicating that she should listen while he shouldered his backpack. A car door slammed shut outside the diner, followed by another. Scott prodded and pushed her until she rolled onto her hands and knees and crawled across the kitchen. They had just cleared the doorway into the locker room when the bell at the front tinkled.
Scott was grabbing her backpack and pushing it over her shoulders while she listened, “Check the back, I’ll secure the front.” The voice was smooth and clipped, full of self-assurance and authority. There was no response, but footsteps crunched across the broken glass, growing louder as they rounded the counter. Scott pulled her up roughly and pushed her out the back door. She had the presence of mind to snag a mop which she jammed through the handle once they were in the alley. He grabbed her hand and led her away, taking a sharp left down a narrow passageway that erupted between two buildings on the other side of the block. Lena followed with a sense of unreality, not really paying attention to where he was taking them. They had just slipped into the doorway of an apartment building when police sirens sounded, moving closer. A black SUV pulled smoothly around the corner, from the direction of the diner. Scott pushed her against the wall, burying his face in her neck and turning her head away from the street.
She struggled, pushing against his chest and he whispered fiercely, “Wait until they pass.” He smelled like sweat and his voice was shaking. The SUV drove by quietly, and Lena felt her scabs breaking as she shoved Scott away.
“What the hell is wrong with everyone!” She exploded. “Does the diner have a target painted on it and how did you-” Her eyes widened and she stepped back, smacking her head sharply against the brick of the building. It hurt, not just the back of her head but somewhere in her chest too. Scott had had hung around the long after he usually left, and he kept looking around the diner, watching. And when the car backfired – Lena sucked in air. He had known. Right away, before she had realized it, he had known that it wasn’t a car. That it was a bullet. Scott hadn’t been at the diner just for homework help. “You were waiting for something to happen,” she whispered.
“Not exactly,” he hedged. Lena wasn’t sure what she was feeling, but her face must have looked awful. Scott’s eyebrows rose and his hands waved in a defensive motion. “I was just worried about you, that’s all!”
The pain in her chest tightened and Lena felt her heart stop for a moment. Scott was her friend. If she was honest with herself, he was her only friend. He had money, and family. He had four names – Darius Washington Rosen Scott, the fourth. People with four names didn’t need friends like her. Scott had a future ahead of him, but it could have all ended just because he was hanging out with her. Because Scott was the kind of person that thought his friend might be in a dangerous situation, so he tried to help them out. He could have gotten hurt, because of her. Because of her, and her stupid impulse to feed Kurt, her only friend could have been killed. She couldn’t be responsible for that.
“Never mind, thanks for the warning.” She pushed off and began walking quickly away from him. She was halfway down the block before she realized that the SUV had gone the same way. Lena pivoted and nearly ran into Scott. Stupidly, she blurted, “Don’t worry about the soda, it’s on the house.”
Hoping the heat behind her eyes wouldn’t turn into tears, she slipped around him, but he continued to follow her, just a few steps behind. Soon she was running down the street, her backpack slapping against her shoulder blades, the thin soles of her tennis shoes pounding against the pavement. After ten blocks at a dead sprint she collapsed against an adult entertainment store and puked. Gentle fingers held back her hair while dry heaves wracked her body. She hadn’t eaten anything for hours, but her stomach didn’t take any chances. Shivers wracked her body from a cold that radiated from her bones despite the heat in the air and the sweat on her skin. Her stomach clenched over and over and her mind was caught in a loop: fear of the toothpaste twins, worry over what had happened to Kurt, anger at Kurt who had said he would keep them away from her, fear and guilt that Scott had been in danger.
When she was done, she stood up on shaky legs, panting from the effort of running and being sick. Scott leaned away, but kept a hand on her arm; he wasn’t even breathing hard. For a crazy moment, Lena wondered if she should get some sort of exercise routine. Staying alive had become a much more aerobic activity than usual for her in the last 24 hours.
“Why did you stay tonight?” The question leaped out of her mouth before she could think about it. She took a deep breath, she could feel moisture gathering in her eyes, could see the regret building on Scott’s face. “Why were you really hanging out at the diner tonight?”
He held her gaze and spoke quietly, carefully, with measured words as if testing her reaction with each sentence. “I heard about the break in the night before last, and I wondered what was up. A kid I went to high school with volunteers in police records. The more I found out, the more worried I got.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the street. “There were some photos of the crime scene leaked online – a lot of blood on the floor. People don’t walk away after that much blood loss. And waitresses don’t usually beat up robbers and then walk home.” He glanced up. “I should have just asked you about it, but I didn’t want you to be in trouble. The paper didn’t say anyone had been in the diner when the break-in happened, but I knew you should have been at work. And then, at the library today, I saw your arms…” His voice faded away.
“So,” she paused, trying to get the voice in her head that was screaming at her to make him go away – far away from her and Kurt and people with pointy teeth and big guns – to be silent. He wanted to help, and she knew from experience she couldn’t make him do anything. “I was minding my own business, and then the crazies came out of the woodwork. So you strap on your shining armor and protect the damsel, is that it?”
Scott laughed. “You smell like bacon cheeseburgers and vomit. I only get out the armor for girls I want to sleep with, no offense.” He dug around in his pocket and held out a pack of gum.
“Ew,” she deadpanned and he laughed again. Her mouth tasted like sour vomit and her stomach muscles ached from heaving, so she took the gum and chewed thoughtfully. Scott was her friend and that meant more than just her ignoring how rich he was and him accepting her love of Bruce Campbell movies. Scott was fun to talk to, he never asked her uncomfortable questions about family, dating, or told her not to work so much. He didn’t get worried or upset if she was too busy to talk to him, and he thought it was cool that she could speak German and Russian – two of the least popular foreign languages since the end of the Cold War. And apparently he was willing to put himself in jeopardy to protect that friendship. Her chest still felt anxiously tight, but in a good way too. It had been a long time since anyone had worried about her. She did not feel he needed to know that. “Don’t even think about showing me your sword, Darius.”
“Please,” he grimaced, “I asked you not to call me that. It’s my great-grandfather’s name, and by all accounts he was a jerk.”
“So,” she gestured for him to start walking again, “you came to the diner tonight to, make sure I wasn’t burgulared, which is sort of nice, and-”
“Sort of?” he interrupted. “I think that is the definition of nice. You owe me now.”
“And now you just have to explain to your mother what you were doing in a dive like the Boxcar at three a.m.” She stopped by a public phone booth and began digging through the apron she still wore. She swore softly, unable to find any loose change. A cell phone appeared in front of her.
“What makes you think I would tell her anything? She would go ballistic.” Lena shook her head at Scott and tried to concentrate on dialing. Scott’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Who are you calling for a ride?”
The other end of the line picked up. “Yes, I’d like to report an attempted robbery.” Scott’s eyes widened and he made slashing motions across his throat, even attempted to take back the phone. She slapped his hand away. “The Boxcar diner, 224 East Pullman…yes, that’s right, last night as well. No, I’m not…there were gunshots, but I think they’ve left.” She was quiet for a few moments while Scott slouched against a wall, resigned. “I didn’t see any faces, and I doubt they saw mine…no, no one was hurt…Okay, I’m at-” she looked around and rattled off the address of the nearest building. “Can I call the manager now? I should let him know so he can call the insurance company…Okay, thanks.” She hung up and dialed again. The conversation was mostly one-sided and loud, before she handed the phone back. He stared at her with a mixture of disgust and pride as she slid down the wall to sit on the sidewalk.
“They’ll take you in to give a statement.”
“No kidding? And I thought the police just ate donuts and wrote traffic tickets. Imagine, they actually do investigate crimes.” She closed her eyes, suddenly drained of adrenaline. He was quiet for a few blessed moments before he sat down beside her.
“You know you’ll look suspicious. Same employee there for two consecutive break-ins. Poor . Lots of bills. They might think you were the inside man.”
Lena snorted, “This is not an episode of Law and Order.”
“What are you going to tell them happened?”
“The truth,” she replied without opening her eyes. “I was working late and someone shot out the front window. I ran out the back before they could see me. I didn’t get a good look at them.”
“What about me?”
Friends looked out for each other. “You left before it happened, I just hadn’t gotten around to busing your booth.” They remained where they were until Scott prodded her gently, a cruiser was approaching.
“Nah, you’re lucky your last customer is so fast on his feet, or you might have been there for the robbery.” He helped her up so that the cruiser would notice them. “Shit. I guess I will have to tell my mom. You really do owe me for this.”
Lena wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she focused on his agreement to face the police with her. “Robbery?” she asked, one brow raised.
“Why else would anyone want to shoot up a diner?” He avoided her gaze and waved to the officer pulling up to the curb.
“Huh,” she muttered, “maybe they got a bad burger.”