Dishes clang and grills sizzle at Ladybird Diner.
Thursday mornings are pretty slow, but the diner has enough of a cult following within the city limits of Lawrence that the slow influx of their regular customers keep the business profitable, even on the weekdays.
Waitresses scramble from table to table, smiling, taking tabs, serving slices of pie to already full patrons.
Victor Garcia sits at the bar, a plain white countertop with mismatched salt and pepper shakers along with half-empty syrup pitchers. Log Cabin, most likely, but still good none the less. He grew up on Aunt Jemima, his father claimed it was the syrup to end all syrups. His father also said The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was the show to end all shows; Dave Chappelle was the comedian to end all comedians. You get the point.
He works on his short play, ‘Skelton’s in the Attic,’ a drama about two children finding a corpse in their grandmother’s house who strangely appears to be their grandfather. Cheesy, but he likes the idea.
Clicking and clacking away as he types, life operates ordinarily. No one pays attention to the aspiring author. He is simply just another patron, trying to eat some great food in a hipster diner on Main Street.
Victor finishes the scene he is working on and thinks about ordering a slice of blueberry pie a la mode. Lactose intolerance tells him no. His tongue tells him yes.
When he finally establishes that he will indeed order the pie, with the ice cream, and maybe even with a cocktail, he notices an elderly man limping across the diner, stretching his arms out towards the young man.
Victor stands from his seat, more out of habit than anything else and asks, “do you need any help, sir?”
The man glares at him, snot-nosed, a thin film of what appears to be webbing stretches across his eyes. Torn apparel from head to toe stinks of thrown out pizza boxes and Newport cigarettes.
“No, no,” the man rasps and sticks his fist over his mouth to cough. “I am not the one that needs help.” It takes the man ten seconds to relay that.
Victor smiles sits back down and turns his attention back to his work.
The old man continues his walk, his arms still up, a walking zombie, or mummy, or vampire, Victor can’t decide. He watches the man, his fingers delicately set on the keyboard, hovering over ‘f’ and ‘j’ like they taught him in elementary school.
A bartender knocks on the counter and asks, “how was the burger, Vic?”
Victor smiles and replies, “awesome, thank you.”
He feels a warm presence surround him like he just walked out onto the beach after being encased in ice for a millennium. Sweat immediately pours from his pores. His hair drenches in a viscous, salty liquid. His shoulders slump, his hands drop on the laptop keys.
A large, over empowering hand latches onto his neck. Time slows, cars stop, coffee freezes while cascading into lukewarm mugs. It is only Victor and the presence behind him.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the old man hums, his lips no more than an inch from Victor’s ear.
Victor wrinkles his nose. Loss? He hasn’t lost anyone since his Great-aunt Beatrice died two years ago. The funeral was sad, but he didn’t cry or anything. He barely knew her. Loss, no, Victor never really experienced loss before.
Before he can ask the man to explain, the elder lets go of his neck, no longer clutching it as a mother cat clutches a kitten’s, and stumbles away, his hands reaching for the door ten feet before he needs to. Time resumes. Birds sing and the radio drones on about the current state of affairs in the Trump administration. The waitress rolls her eyes and taps in the order to some other guest.
Shaking his head, Victor licks his lips. He turns to see if the man made it to the door. And of course, in any peculiar occurrence such as this, the old man was gone, his musky aroma hints in Victor’s nostrils. He sways back and forth, a drop in his stomach makes him queasy. Tiny particles of dust and pollen float on by, he transfixes on them, watches as they drift to the unknown. Loss. Loss. What’s loss? Will he ever feel loss? Before this moment, he felt as if he never would. Now? Now, he has no idea.
“Are you thinking of getting any pie today?” the waitress brings him out of his trance. She’s a small woman, dark-rimmed glasses and a nose piercing that hooks around the septum. She smiles and cocks her head, the classic customer service posture.
“No, not today, thanks though Meg,” Victor closes his laptop and reaches for his wallet. He thinks about asking Meg if she recognized the man that just left, but he knows that if he does, Meg won’t even know what man he’s talking about. No one will.
“No problem,” she leaves and then returns with his check.
Victor packs his things, places a twenty on the bill, and leaves the diner.
The streets of Lawrence are empty. Bright lights and antique signs guide the way back to his car. He listens to the radio, unsure why, but afraid to look at his phone, even to turn on Spotify.
He’s home within five minutes. He doesn’t remember driving home. He doesn’t remember the red lights, or the stop signs, or even waving on pedestrians to cross while they had the chance.
Those minutes lost forever.
Inside his apartment, he finally decides to check his iPhone. He keeps it on silent when he’s working.
One new message from his sister.
He wants to answer it, but everything in his body tells him not to, everything in his soul tells him what the call is about.
‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
He understands completely now, even without answering the phone.
James Harris is an English teacher who has taught at numerous colleges in both Maryland and Kansas. He currently resides in Lawrence where he and his fiancé fend off two demon cats named Todd and Ladybird. He is an aspiring author who hopes to break the mold of what horror means and is to the mainstream.