Traveler, tired and weary

Submitted by Brandi Kochan to Contest #2 in response to: Write a story about someone who's haunted by their past.... view prompt

The diner shines like a beacon, dressed up in neon, and grease smudged windows, and it calls to Ruth like a siren. I have coffee, it sings, and polyester seats for your weary ass to rest upon. And like a fool, Ruth answers.


She leans against the door until it gives with a chime, and somewhere in the depths of the kitchen, someone calls, ‘Hey, there.’ unenthusiastically. Ruth notes the ‘Seat yourself’ sign standing by the door, leaves a trail on the checkered black and white floors as she walks to the corner booth, and slides inside. 


The diner is mostly empty. It’s 2 a.m., so it’s no surprise that her only company is the young man sitting in the booth nearest to the kitchen. His hoodie is pulled up over his head, his face hidden in the shadow of it. It hangs open, revealing a grey vest and bright yellow tie, but beyond his strange apparel, he doesn’t garner her continued attention. 


The waitress steps out from the kitchen, and places a laminated menu on the table. She turns to leave. Ruth calls out, a little too loudly, ‘Coffee, please.’ 


The waitress doesn’t turn around, but offers a thumbs up as she slips back behind the swinging doors. 


It’s been a long time since Ruth’s been in a place like this. For the most part, she’s stayed on the move, spending her time in train cars, and buses, and never stopping until she’s out of money, and even then, she never stays long. There’s something familiar about the dirty floors, and flickering fluorescent lights. It makes her want to settle in and relax for a while.


The waitress brings out her coffee, and a handful of creams. She produces a notebook and a golf pencil and stares at her like she can find her order if she just stares hard, and dispassionately enough. 


‘How long til you kick me out, if all I have is coffee?’


‘Til seven.’ The waitress straightens up, and drops her notebook into her apron. ‘Shift changes then. And you refill your own cup. Pot’s right behind the counter.’ 


Ruth nods, and takes a sip of her coffee. It tastes metallic and sharp, like a knife sliding down her throat, but she doesn’t mind. It’s warm, and she’s wet. 


Her mother never let her drink coffee until she was eighteen. Called it a grown-up drink and hid it away with the brandy and whiskey, and of course, Ruth drank it whenever she could. It didn’t taste good, most of the time, but the particular bitterness of it made her feel more alive than anything else her sixteen year old self had tried. That was, of course, before the dates by the park, and the beer smuggled in hoodie pockets, and the scent of broken grass and sweat smeared on soft skin. But at the time, coffee had been her drug, and the way it’s made her feel- free and exuberant- has never gone away.


The man with the bright yellow tie is standing. There’s a plate of bacon and eggs in his hand, and he’s moving, with intent, towards her. Ruth hunches over the table, keeps her eyes pointedly out the window in an effort to keep him from joining her, but alas, he ignores her obvious displeasure at his company and slides into the seat across from her. His plate clanks against the table as he sets it down. 


‘Bit late for coffee.’ He breaks off a piece of bacon, and places it gingerly on a forkful of scrambled eggs, and eats it like it’s something to be savored. 


‘Bit late for company.’


He acts like he hadn’t heard her. His face is still mostly covered in shadow, and Ruth can’t make the pieces she does see fit into a single picture. She sees white teeth, and a sharp nose, and a stretch of dark neck illuminated in sickly blue light, and her mind, no matter how hard she tries to make it cooperate, cannot see anything but Serena grinning at her from under that hood. 


He stretches, cuts another delicate bite from the mass of eggs on his plate, and bites. His teeth drags on the knife with an almost inaudible screech. ‘Yes, Happiness hath left me soon behind./

Alas. We all pursue its steps. and when/ We've sunk to rest within its arms entwined,/ Like the Phoenician virgin, wake, and find/ Ourselves alone again.’


Ruth doesn’t respond. She takes a sip, which turns into a long drink, that becomes gulping, like there’s a hole in her stomach that desperately needs to be filled. When she sets it down again, it’s empty. 


‘Victor Hugo,’ He says, eyes flashing as he sets his silverware down. 


‘I don’t care.’


He chuckles. Ruth glares. ‘It’s written all over your face. Regrets, and sadness, and anger. It’s all there.’


Ruth stands up, considers briefly if she should leave or refill her coffee, but outside, it’s still raining, and she has nowhere to go until sunrise. It’s her fault for staying here so long. Georgia is familiar. It’s home, and it’s easy to forget that you’re overstaying your welcome when you’re at home. She sighs, refills her coffee, and grabs more cream from the fridge behind the counter. The waitress and cook are talking animatedly near the grill, and neither looks up at her as she passes by the order window. 


When she takes her seat, the plate is a picasso art piece composed of yellow smears and brown crumbs. His hood is still up. 


‘Look,’ Ruth sets her mug down, hard. Coffee sloshes over her hand, but she barely registers the burn. ‘I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. Leave me alone, or I’ll yell.’


‘You won’t.’ He says, almost playfully. ‘You’re too nice to force me out into the rain. You’ve been out on your own for a while. You know how it feels.’


Overpasses, and truck stop bathrooms, and cheap motel rooms that she can barely afford. Yes, Ruth knows how it feels to find shelter, and to want to bury yourself in it until the sickness that rests inside of you starts leaking out, and you have to move again because the pattern on the curtains looks like Her favorite shirt, and the color of the cracked shower tiles is the exact shade of Her eyes staring at you as you whisper apologies and run back into the night. 


‘I won’t.’ Ruth agrees. ‘But I will ignore you.’


‘Go ahead,’ He pushes his plate to the side until it hits the napkin holder. ‘I am ‘Naomi’, and you are Ruth. The name of the woman that follows attributed to the woman who runs. And just what are you running from, Ruth?’


A body lying prone under the tree where you first discovered that there was an alternative to the housewife prison your mother, and her mother, and hers before that walked into with a smile. 


‘Who are you?’ She demands. 


He laughs boisterously. The waitress pokes her head through the window, disappears back inside because she isn’t paid enough to deal with this in the middle of the night. 


‘Does it matter? I know things. I know that there’s no where you can’t go where it won’t catch up with you.’


The words slide out like air from a tire. ‘You don’t know me.’


‘I know all about you, Ruth. I know what keeps you up at night. I know why you have no destination, no matter how far you go. I know you.’


His words sound like Her in the depths of a summer night when they were out long past curfew, and the park was quiet, oh so quiet they must’ve been alone, and when Ruth leans over to kiss Selene once more, she doesn’t look carefully enough, and doesn’t see the six teenage boys walking past on the street. 


‘You can’t avoid it,’ He says, and leans forward, closer, like he’s about to share some mystical secret with her. Ruth shoves the table towards him an inch, pushing him back against the booth seat. His hood falls back from his face, and before he can adjust it, she leans over the table and yanks it down.  


His face is familiar, and unfamiliar all at once. He is Selene’s smile, and Selene’s nose, and her dead eyes after what they did to her. Ruth chokes on something thick and heavy, and falls back into her seat so hard it jostles the one behind it. 


He watches her for a moment, eyes dull and dry, and then carefully pulls his hood back over his head. 


‘You can’t run forever. Not from me.’ 


Ruth’s still trying to breathe, to work oxygen through her strangled throat and to her lungs. She can’t get her lips to formulate a response. 


He, who wears the faces of the person she hurts for most, reaches across the table, and brushes his thumb across her knuckles like Selene used to do before-


The thought cuts itself off like a scratched record skipping a track. 


‘I did it.’ Her voice breaks, and her hand jerks, an aborted attempt at escape. ‘I ruined all of it.’


His voice shifts, and Selene is cooing at her, soft and gentle like that last night when they were walking home, and the street lights were all dark, and Ruth was feeling so warm, like the sky was alight just for her. ‘It is ruined, but it was not you.’


‘I did it, I stayed too long, I wasn’t careful, I kissed her-’


And the images come back to her, stupidly vivid and just as painful as the first time she saw them; Six boys, all from her high school, all of them familiar faces laughing as they push through the trees, surround them like gangly wolves circling their prey, still smiling, white fangs in the night as they reach from them, and Ruth isn’t stupid, she knows, she knows what’s going to happen, what that look in their eyes, and the buldges in their jeans means, and she runs, her heart aching because she can hear Selene calling her name, a sound that melts into a scream that follows her no matter how fast she runs-


‘I left her there.’ Ruth sobs, tears and snot dripping down her face, and onto her tongue as she finally, finally admits. ‘ I ran, and I left her there, and now everything is ruined.’


He stands, cloaked in shadow still, and cups her face in his hands. The fluorescent light behind him creates a halo around his head. ‘You ran, and everything is ruined, but you did not ruin it.’


‘She was raped! I left her there, I could have fought with her-’


‘You could have suffered with her.’ He says, his hands falling back to his sides as he maneuvers out of the booth. ‘And you are. Is that not enough?’


Ruth can’t find the words to reply. Any arguments she might have had have faded away since she’s last allowed herself to think on it. He smiles at her as he reaches the door, Selene’s smile before the world went to shit, and then he’s gone, his last words lingering in the air like the scent of bacon won’t leave the vinyl seats. 


‘Is that not enough?’ 



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