Nordic Diner – Chapter 3

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It was hours later before she could think of anything except broken bits of frozen skin. The cold pressure of fear in her chest had dissipated and she found herself sitting on her couch, an afghan draped over her shoulders, despite the still heat in the apartment. For a moment she wondered if she was late for work, if she had just woken from a terrible dream and any minute her phone would begin ringing. The second shift waitress would be on the line, cursing her for not showing up. The tiny efficiency was filled with the soft, hazy light of early morning. She shrugged off the blanket to stand.

Lena let out a whimper when pain shot through her neck and shoulders. She felt as though she had run for miles, her legs were trembling, and her head ached as though someone was shoving red-hot needles through her eyes and into her brain. Kitchen towels had been wrapped around her forearms. She sank back onto the couch and closed her eyes, trying to will the pain away.

“Here, take these,” someone pressed pills into her open palm. “I have a glass of water for you too, it’ll help with the muscle cramps.” Lena let out a deep breath through her nose, trying to remain calm.

“I hope I am dreaming, I hope that a homeless guy didn’t break into my apartment and give me drugs,” she whispered. She opened her eyes, and her sense of injustice was gratified, again. Kurt stood, with his shaggy hair and filthy clothes, at the end of the couch. The blood had been washed out of his beard, but his shirt was still torn. His sleeves had been pushed up over his elbows, revealing the beginnings of unidentifiable tattoos. “How did you get in here?”

“I used the key in your backpack.” He handed her the water, his face unreadable under the dark blonde facial hair. After examining the pills to verify that, yes, they were just aspirin, she took a long drink. Suddenly she felt parched, she downed the whole glass in a few gulps and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Would you like more?” He didn’t wait for a response but took her empty cup and stepped three paces to the tiny galley kitchen to refill it. The old trunk she used as a coffee table creaked quietly when he sat on it, but held together under his bulky frame.  He watched her face while she drank her second glass, more slowly this time. Lena tried to concentrate on not thinking about what had happened to her. She failed.

“Oh, god.” She couldn’t hold back a whimper and her stomach roiled. The glass slipped from her fingers to thud on the thick rug. Images of the window shard, protruding grotesquely from the woman’s back, assaulted her. “You killed those people,” she whispered frantically. Distantly, she knew she was panicking, but it did not seem to slow down the freight train of thoughts rushing at her. “That woman was in my-” she swallowed hard, “-and you killed them!” She pressed her hands against her stomach, trying to still the queasiness.

“In your head?” Kurt asked in an even tone.

Lena ignored him. “I couldn’t tell them where to find the guy they were looking for. I didn’t even know who they were talking about!” She felt tears gathering in her eyes and a breathless feeling growing. She knew she was overreacting, she didn’t even make sense to herself, but she couldn’t seem to help it. Reason and logic were smothered by rising hysteria. “They were probably drug dealers, or assassins – christ, that guy looked like he killed people for a living – and now the diner is trashed, and you killed two people, and I’m going to be fired, and I never finished making the pies!” She ended in a near wail. Her breath was coming rapidly and she could see black spots in the edges of her vision, forming a dark halo around Kurt’s face. He pushed her head between her knees.

“Take a deep breath,” he said. She struggled to do that and ignore the burning in her neck and the pounding of her pulse. “And another.” His cool fingers began to rub circles on the back of her neck, easing the pain in her shoulders and head. “They were looking for me.” At his calm declaration she struggled against his hand briefly, but he held her in place. This is a bad movie, she thought frantically, this is a bad movie and I’m going to wake up any moment. “And while they didn’t recognized me, they would have probably tried to torture us both to find me.”

It crossed Lena’s mind that a lot of homeless people were veterans.  Kurt might have been having flashbacks, might have been dangerous. Might still be dangerous. She stared into his face, searching for a sign that he was unstable, ready to break her neck or pet her – Lenny style – before wandering off with his shopping cart.  There was no telltale sign of insanity.  Hazel eyes, a warm caramel brown with a thin ring of green around the pupil, stared back. Clear. Calm. Completely sane. “Why were they – are you really homeless?”

He chuckled briefly, and then let her up since her breathing had returned to normal. “They are looking for something they think I have – or at least, they think I know where it is.” He watched her for a few moments, rubbing his beard absently.

“And so you killed them? To protect this…whatever?” Lena leaned back against the knobby orange upholstery, convinced, if not of Kurt’s truthfulness, then at least sure that he didn’t intend to hurt her.

“I fought them for that reason, yes.” He leaned forward, placing his hands over hers. Lena was again struck by how clean and cool they were, almost cold. “But I did not kill them. I very much doubt they were still on the ground by the time we got here.”

“Not on the-” Lena pulled her hands away from his, her eyes wide with rapidly rising disbelief. “You stabbed that guy in the neck…with a fork, a fork!” She stood again, thankful that the pain in her head had subsided to a dull throb. “I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure all that blood on the floor was not good for his health.” Lena shivered, remembering how deep the metal tines had stuck in the man’s neck, how ragged the skin looked around the holes. She pressed her hand against her stomach, feeling sick again.

“And it would have killed anyone else, any normal person.” He sat placidly on the blanket-covered chest, watching her pace across the small room. His tattooed forearms rested on his knees, his expression inscrutable.

“But that guy wasn’t normal…is that what you’re saying?” Lena faced the window, watching a freight train a few blocks away. She wished she was there, on that train, going somewhere a hundred miles from her shabby apartment and the man who complimented her pie and paid with lint covered change and then stabbed diner customers with eating utensils. Diner customers with crazed, unsettling smiles that made her feel sick just remembering them.  “Do I want to know why?”

“Probably not, and to be honest, it may be safer for you if you don’t.” Kurt leaned forward, clasping his hands between knees earnestly. She couldn’t look at his face, but stared at his hands. They were calloused on his fingertips and palms, but his nails were neatly trimmed and clean. “I’m sorry that this happened in your diner, and I’m sorry you got hurt.” He pushed himself up and smoothed his sleeves down to his wrists, covering the dark whorls of ink and breaking her quiet study of him. “Trust me when I tell you that those two were long gone by the time the police arrived.”

“Police,” Lena snorted, “I doubt anyone called it in, and patrols are not exactly regular in this neighborhood.” She shivered again, sending another spasm of aches through her back.

“That’s probably for the best. If a single officer had tried to arrest those two, they would have torn him apart.” Kurt folded the afghan neatly over the back of the orange couch. “They would have needed to hole up somewhere to recuperate, but they’ll be looking for me again tonight. I’ll lead them away from you, but you should probably call in sick for a few days. And I wouldn’t recommend continued employment at the diner.”

“Recommend?” A bubble of inappropriate laughter rose in her throat. “I’ll be lucky if I only get fired! I could be held liable for the damages, not to mention all that blood on the floor.” A short cackle escaped, “Ha, recommend! I needed that job, I need both my jobs – unless you also recommend living on the streets – like you.” Suddenly the humor drained and the reality of the situation sank in. Her eyes flashed with blue anger. “They weren’t looking for me, it’s you they wanted. You led those crazy people to my diner and killed them in front of m-”

“I didn’t kill-”

“Shut up!” Lena yelled. She could no longer tell if her trembling was from the strange cold that had seeped into her bones or fury. Her life had been orderly. A small life – plain, simple, boring, and poor.  He was trying to make it bigger. Make her life larger with danger and information and other things she didn’t want to know or experience. She wasn’t nice to people, didn’t help people. Kept her head down and her eyes on her own goals. Then she had met Kurt. She had been nice – she lied about having to throw out the pie. He was going to ruin everything. The shaking might have been fury, or it might have been fear. Lena chose fury. She marched across the room and poked him in the chest, hard. “They followed you there, and now I’m hurt, and I can’t go back to work, and my boss may sue me, and I have to worry about two psychos following you to my apartment!” She poked him on every ‘and’.

“I didn’t-” he tried to placate her, but that fueled her sudden anger.

“I gave you free pie!” she all but screamed. Finally he closed his mouth, watching her cautiously.

“Two for a dollar, and I thought you were going to throw it out,” he said seriously.

“Shut up,” she said, more quietly. Breathing hard through her nose she stared him in the eye. Her arm fell back to her side. “I don’t know you, I don’t know those people and I don’t want to.” She closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. “If you had left sooner, they would have…hurt me…so thank you for that.” He nodded, slowly, when she opened her eyes again. He would have spoken, but she cut him off with an upraised hand. Her pulse thundered through her forearm, sending sharp stabs of pain into each wound. “I’m sorry you’re in trouble, and I hope things work out okay for you, but I don’t need your advice and I would appreciate it if I never saw you again.” Kurt nodded and retrieved a battered knapsack near the door.

“Please be careful,” he said, turning the deadbolt and opening the door.

“You should go,” she responded flatly. The door closed behind him softly and she listened to his retreating footsteps as she turned the locks. When she couldn’t hear him anymore she slid down the wall. Exhaustion swept over her and she curled up on the floor, wrapping her arms around her knees and crying herself to sleep.

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