Project Nordic Diner, Day 2

Although it is the third day of November, it is only my second day of posting the novel I am writing for NaNoWriMo. Hopefully, I can keep up the pace!

Back to Prologue

 

Chapter 1

Elsa brushed a strand of limp black hair back into her braid and gave the Formica table a final swipe with the dish rag. The diner was empty. Despite advertising “hot food, 24-hour service”, the cook had gone home at 2:00 a.m. after the bar crowd had left and by 2:30 the diner was as empty as the street outside – although not as hot. August was always miserable this close to the river, but a month of unusually frequent downpours had left the humidity somewhere around a thousand percent. Even in the hours before dawn, the temperature hadn’t dropped below ninety in weeks.

She tried to ignore the way her thin cotton shirt stuck to the sweat between her shoulder blades while she moved behind the counter and began to refill salt and pepper shakers. It was her favorite shift to work, especially in the heat. No customers, no coworkers, just her in the diner. Her friend Scott said the silence bothered him, but wasn’t all that quiet, not to Elsa’s ears. The refrigerated display case, full of slices of pie and glass bowls of gelatin salad, hummed with a steady pulse. A low-pitched growl vibrated in the ceiling – the air conditioner valiantly struggling against the heat. Elsa could think in that quiet, or just give in to the mind-numbing repetition of her tasks.

The rhythmic twist-pour-twist-slide of glass shakers and salt was interrupted by the tinkle of the bell over the door. Elsa looked up in surprise to see a man in a stained long-sleeved thermal shirt and what might have once been khaki slacks enter the diner. He wore scuffed steel toe work boots; his belt looped through a utility knife and a canteen. His dark blond beard had been trimmed close to his face, perhaps with a pair of garden shears, and his hair hung in uneven, greasy locks to his shoulders.

“Kurt?” Elsa asked, unsure if this was the same homeless man who had come in several times during the winter. He rarely had more than enough money for a cup of coffee, but refills were free. There were never any other customers when he came in so Elsa always let him stay as long as he wanted.

Light brown eyes, the color of warm honey, crinkled at the corners as he nodded. He didn’t smile, but hooked his thumb towards the door, “Is it alright if I leave my stuff next to the bike rack?”

A quick glance confirmed that a grocery cart, one rear wheel replaced with a too-large rubber wagon tire, was parked to the right of the front door. A dirty tarp was loosely lashed over the top as protection against rain and greedy eyes.

“Not a problem,” Elsa said, gesturing at the empty tables, “take any seat in the house.” Kurt loped unevenly to the end of the counter, near the hallway leading back to the restrooms, and took a seat with his back to the wall and one eye on his cart. “Do you want coffee tonight, or something cold?” She screwed together the last salt shaker and wiped off the counter.

“Water, please, as much ice as will fit in the glass.” A handful of change, along with several tufts of lint and a piece of string slid across the counter.

“Water’s free,” she said, ignoring the pile of change and turning to pack a plastic glass with tiny ice pellets. Privately, she thought he might not need so much ice if he would wear a short-sleeved shirt. But then again, most homeless people had concerns that overrode dressing weather-appropriate. When she set the glass down in front of him, Kurt was laboriously counting out the change.

“Dollar oh-two, is that enough for pie?”

Elsa studied him, they both knew how much the pie was. The price hadn’t changed in the five years she had worked at The Boxcar, and it wasn’t $1.02. His unlined face didn’t look hopeful, or sad. It didn’t beg or prepare to talk her into a half-slice or a free meal. Elsa hadn’t spoken with him much in the few times he had been in, but now she wondered how old he was and why he lived like he did.

“You’re lucky, I have to throw out the day-old slices at the end of my shift. At least this way we make some money on them. I’ll give you two slices for a dollar. We’ve got apple, cherry – I don’t recommend it, the cherries were a little too tart, key lime, and two kinds of pot pie, chicken and beef.  What’ll you have?”

“Beef and apple please.” Kurt counted out a dollar and swept the rest off the counter.

“You want those heated up?”

“The beef, not the apple.” She felt his eyes follow her as she disappeared into the kitchen and scooped a generous helping of the pot pie onto a plate. While it heated, she wrapped up the remainder and put it back into the walk-in refrigerator. As an afterthought, she snagged a gallon of vanilla ice cream on her way out, leaving it on the counter to soften. When she slid the plate and a napkin-wrapped fork in front of him, Kurt’s face relaxed. The steam smelled like seasoned beef; chunks of soft yellow potatoes and bright green peas spilled out from under a flaky crust. He took his first bite, groaning when the thick gravy hit his taste buds. He crunched on a slice of carrot and closed his eyes.  Elsa waited until he had swallowed.

“Need anything else?”

“This is the best pie I have ever eaten,” he responded seriously.

Elsa grinned, “Thank you, I hadn’t tried my hand at meat pies before, but I thought it turned out okay.”

“You made this?” his eyes widened slightly in surprise and he took another liberal bite.

“I make all the pies, the morning shift just bakes them. It saves the diner a ton of money – they were buying all their baked stuff before, and it costs a fortune.” Elsa carried a tub full of shakers around the counter, setting them out on tables while she talked. “I already made the custard pies for tomorrow, but I’ll do a few fruit pies before I leave at six.” The diner was quiet again, except for the hum of the pie cabinet, the growl of the AC and the scrape of fork on plate. By the time she was finished preparing the diner for the morning shift, Kurt had polished off his dinner. “I’ll grab that apple for you before I get started in back.” She whisked away his plate and returned with apple pie, smelling of cinnamon and other spices, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

“I don’t usually stay in the city during the summer – it’s too hot,” Kurt commented, ignoring the pie to tackle the rapidly melting ice cream. “But I might change my mind if the food is always this good.” Elsa looked up from the work table in the kitchen where she was rolling out crust. Through the order window she could see the entire diner, and Kurt at the counter. If she was honest with herself, she worked the night shift because she didn’t really care for people. They talked too much, too loudly, usually about nothing interesting or important. They complained about problems that weren’t really problems: my golf game was terrible, these pants make me look fat, the sage we painted the living room is really too green. The homeless man seemed to be a rare exception.

“Where do you usually go?”

“The mountains,” he said, not looking up from his pie. A forkful of apples and pastry paused in mid-air, then he shook his head without saying anything else. That was the end of the conversation while Elsa made pies – first peach, then blueberry – and Kurt finished his dessert and drank his water.

“Thanks for the-” he started, and then the doorbell tinkled again. Surprised, they looked up in unison to watch a man and a woman step into the diner. They were both tall and neatly dressed. The man was blonde and muscular, his white button-down rolled up to his elbows and tucked into dark slacks. His shoes were polished to a glossy shine and his hair was gelled back into a stylish wave. The woman wore a white skirt, mid-thigh, and a sleeveless blouse made of some silky material that emphasized her breasts and the toned muscles of her arms. In contrast to the man’s light tan, her skin was dark, a rich chocolate color that somehow looked cool and refreshing in the heat. Her hair was cut close to her scalp, tiny white ringlets cupped her head and managed to be beautiful and startling at the same time. They were both smiling, revealing straight pearly teeth, like an ad for toothpaste. Kurt clamped his mouth shut and remained on his stool.

“Can I help you?” Elsa asked, emerging from the kitchen with a frown. Judging from their clothes, they were lost. The Boxcar was not in a wealthy, or even particularly middle-class, part of town.

“Where may we sit?” the woman asked, still smiling. Elsa’s frown deepened. She had another pie to finish. The early breakfast crowd would start trickling in around five and the weekend cook was notoriously late, so she would need to start the food and…well, maybe they just wanted pie and coffee. She would charge them full price.

“Anywhere you like, I’ll be with you in a moment.” She watched them claim a table in the center of the diner, alternating between surveying the walls and watching the door. Elsa grabbed a pad and pencil from under the counter and tucked her hair behind her ear. As she passed by, Kurt grabbed her elbow. His hand was surprisingly clean and felt cool on her skin.

“I’ll just sit here for a bit, if that’s okay,” he said in a low voice that wouldn’t reach the couple. She nodded and he withdrew his hand, allowing her to move on. She could feel his eyes on her back as she approached the table. The couple looked up expectantly as she approached.

“What can I get for you?” She poised her pencil, but when no answer was forthcoming she pointed to the menus on the table. “If you need more time to decide, that’s fine, but the grill isn’t hot so-” she glanced up and her words caught in her throat. Smiles, with lots of teeth and shiny whiteness, greeted her. It was wrong. Elsa couldn’t describe the feeling that overcame her any other way. She didn’t think they had ever stopped smiling. The woman was focused on the window, but the man was staring at her. His pink lips were stretched wide, in a friendly, non-threatening way. But his eyes were hard and cold, the gray color so pale it almost disappeared against the whites. No wrinkles formed at the corners of those eyes and his forehead was smooth. Elsa felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. “It, ah, isn’t hot, so the grill items are, ah, off the menu.”

“I take it you don’t get many customers at this time of night?” the woman asked, still watching the street. Her voice was smoky, reminding Elsa of a black and white film star.

“No, ma’am,” she said, without thinking, and then, hastily, “just our regulars.” The man’s eyes flicked to Kurt, slouching at the counter, then back to her face. She was thankful Kurt had stayed, it made her uneasy standing next to the couple – she wouldn’t have wanted to be alone with them. Which seemed ridiculous, but logic couldn’t debate the certainty that she was safer with the questionable, one-name homeless man than the well-dressed couple.

“Oh, we had hoped to meet someone here. Someone who comes here often. Have you worked here long? Perhaps you would know him.”

“I’ve worked this shift for three years, so if he’s a night owl I probably know him.” Elsa shifted, taking the opportunity to put more space between herself and the smiling man. Too late, she realized that put her closer to the woman. A slender, dark arm shot out and grabbed her wrist over her plastic glove, stained with blueberry juice. Elsa had to fight the urge to pry her fingers off.

“Then you must know who I mean, a good looking man. Quite tall and fit – like my friend,” she gestured with her free hand to the blonde man. Elsa was struck by how long her nails were. They looked false, but they were not painted. They curved out a half inch from her fingertips. Rather like claws, she thought distantly. She tore her gaze up, only to be caught by the woman’s eyes. Unlike the man, she was smiling there too, but her humor was cruel. A horrible thing was about to happen, Elsa was sure, and the woman was looking forward to it. “Do try to remember.” Her fingers tightened on Elsa’s wrist.

“I, ah, don’t know that anyone like that has been in here in a long while.” She felt herself perspiring, a bead of sweat trickled out from her hairline and down along the edge of her jaw. Her stomach was jumpy.

“I know he comes here,” the woman said, and her voice fell to a whisper. “His trail is faint, but I can smell it.” If possible her smile grew wider. “Let me help you remember.” She half-rose out of her chair and reached her free hand towards Elsa’s other arm before she could pull away. Elsa’s instincts were screaming at her to run, but her eyes remained locked on the woman. Time slowed down, and seconds stretched into hours as dark chocolaty eyes bored into her. Elsa felt as though she was being pulled out of herself, her head hurt and her eyes burned. She tried to jerk back, but her body would not obey. She thought of the pie she had just made, and the wagon wheel on the shopping cart outside. Her nose was flooded with the smell of hot exhaust from the bus she had taken to work, her mouth was filled with the baking soda flavor of the cheap toothpaste she used when she woke up.

Fear blossomed, pressing against the inside of her chest with an icy weight. The cold spread; tendrils of wintry panic wrapping around her. Hot liquid trickled down her cheeks. She couldn’t hear anything anymore – only a loud, heavy tick-TICK-tick from the man’s expensive watch. From the corner of her eye she could see him rising, muscles shifting and bunching under his shirt. “Where is he,” the woman whispered through her smile, her hands sliding up Elsa’s arms past the purple-stained gloves. When their skin touched, the moment exploded.

Trying to make up for the lag, time compacted and a million actions happened in an instant. The woman stopped smiling, her eyes opened wide and she screamed in surprise and pain. Elsa tugged furiously at her arms, but couldn’t break free. She tore her gaze away to look down. Long, curved nails dug into her pale skin – dark blood welled around them and dripped onto the floor. The man surged toward Elsa, his smile gone too. His mouth stretched wide and too many teeth were bared in anger. Before he could reach her Kurt hit him in a flying tackle. A growling, twisted knot of clothing and fists crashed into a booth near the window.

Cold fear seeped along her limbs, blocking out the pain in her arms. The woman in white screamed in rage. She stretched her neck towards Elsa, sharp teeth bared. Elsa wanted nothing more than to get away, for the woman to let go. Something broke inside of her, and she let out a scream of her own as cold rushed down her arms and out of her wounds, leaving an agonizing trail in its wake. The woman stood in the center of the diner, her hands hanging limply at her sides, fury in every line of her face. Strips of dry, dead flesh clung to Elsa’s arms. Blood and necrotic skin flaked from the woman’s fingers, cracking and breaking like ice when they hit the floor.

“You,” she whispered furiously. The front window broke with a loud crash as Kurt slammed the man against the frame. The stranger grappled, snarling and struggling to wrap his hands around Kurt’s neck. Elsa’s eyes shot back to the woman as she grabbed a diner chair and slammed it against the floor, breaking it. She gripped a twisted piece of metal in her ruined fist. The diner echoed with a ripping sound and the crack of breaking glass. The woman tipped her head back, opening her mouth wide to scream but there was no sound.

Elsa stared in shock at Kurt, the woman crumpled at his feet. Five jagged inches of plate glass protruded from her back.

“We should leave,” he said. Elsa didn’t respond. His shirt was torn at the collar, and his beard was matted with blood that ran from his nose. She glanced at the window, where the blond man hung over the frame, his lower half outside, Kurt’s pie fork embedded in his neck. “Now,” he said, taking her hand and leading her out of the bright fluorescent lights of The Boxcar diner and into the sweltering darkness of the summer night. Elsa stumbled after him, unable to shake the image of the woman, the dark skin of her arms contrasting sharply against her white skirt, frozen flesh falling off her hands and onto the clean linoleum.

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