Alex jolted awake when a loud truck engine screeched down the highway. His eyes opened and his fists clenched. He stared at the dirty ceiling of his backseat before sitting up slowly, his back cracking.
Since he’d been asleep, the hint of sun disappearing into the west horizon had vanished completely. The only way anyone could see the road was the watery streetlights. The front seat in front of Alex was illuminated with orange light. He looked over and out of the windshield.
He could see the bottom half of a neon sign. It said “Abram’s Diner” in loopy writing. The paint behind it was chipped and unenthused. The whole restaurant looked like it hadn’t been fixed up in sixty years.
Alex had been in a rush to get to Embridge in a day, but his six hours of sleep had failed in the late afternoon. He’d only planned on sleeping for a couple hours, not until (he checked his phone) eleven at night. He’d definitely missed the window of time.
He climbed out of the car.
Since it was so late, he might as well eat something, find a hotel room, and come up with a new plan.
He held the sticky door for an exiting white woman with large eye bags. He scanned the menu as he walked in, the smell of salt and cooking oil rolling over him.
No one was in line.
Alex gave his order to a bored-looking twenty-something and sat at the counter. As he waited, he swept the diner with his eyes. A trio of college students sat silently at a table in the corner. A middle-aged Asian woman sat by herself at a two-person table by the windows, staring out at the road blankly. No one besides Alex was at the counter. It isolated him towards the only two employees he could see. He shifted uncomfortably on his stool.
The door opened. Alex didn’t see it directly, but he felt the chilled autumn wind on his cheek. He listened as the man ordered a chicken sandwich and a strawberry milkshake. He refused to look up when the man walked up to him.
The stranger sat at the stool right by Alex.
Alex looked up and down the counter at the six other open stools that he could’ve picked, biting his tongue.
“Evening,” the man mumbled. As soon as he was settled, he started picking his nails.
“Evening,” Alex replied begrudgingly. He looked at the stranger for the first time.
He was wearing a camouflage hat and jacket, along with army-style black pants. His face was round. He was unshaven, but not with a beard, just uneven and scratchy whiskers. When he stopped picking his nails, Alex could see that they were short and stained a gross pink color.
“How are you?” the man asked in a Kentucky accent.
“Fine,” Alex answered lightly. “You?”
“I’m good. Where’re you headed?”
“Soho,” Alex lied. “About twenty miles north. You?”
“Embridge,” he said.
Alex’s stomach twisted.
“Thought I could make it in a day,” he continued, “but I guess I was wrong. I’ll have to find a room somewhere and finish tomorrow.”
The same teenager Alex gave his order to pushed his order to him across the counter. Alex’s hands shook as he unwrapped the burger.
“What’re you going to Embridge for?” Alex asked.
“Business,” was the vague answer.
“What do you do?” was Alex’s follow-up.
“I’m in real estate.”
Alex eyed him up and down. He couldn’t imagine him selling houses.
“What about you?”
Alex was unprepared for the question, and stumbled, saying, “I’m- um- a painter.”
“Like… Monet?” the man was smiling, like it was a joke.
“No, houses,” Alex laughed. “Bit more straightforward.”
The man’s food was pushed to him as well, and they fell into silence as they both ate. Alex was stuck in his gut, wondering about the unlikely coincidence of their twin destinations. It took until he was two-thirds through his burger before he remembered he was acquainted with the stranger now.
“I didn’t get your name,” Alex said.
“Jacob,” he replied through a mouthful of chicken sandwich.
Alex decided to test the waters. “Have we ever met before?” he asked.
Any trace of emotion dropped from Jacob’s face. He went still. “I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure?” Alex asked. “You look familiar.”
“Probably a coincidence.”
“Hm,” Alex murmured disbelievingly.
He got another look at Jacob’s nails.
“Hydrogen peroxide should help with that,” Alex said, pointing to them. He reached for his coke to take a sip.
“With what?” Jacob asked.
“The blood on your nails.”
Jacob went quiet and turned to his food.
Alex slid his phone out and turned the camera on. He propped his phone up on his coke cup and feigned scrolling. The angle was such that Jacob was visible, but that he couldn’t see the screen. Alex subtly zoomed in on his hands, and then on his face. He ended the recording and went to his text messages. He sent the video to Alyssa, his younger sister’s best friend. He accompanied it with one word:
He left the phone there and kept eating until she texted back.
“yes” she replied.
Alex crumpled his trash together and picked up his leftover food. He tucked his phone in his pocket, threw everything else away, and walked out.
“Bye,” Jacob said.
“Bye,” Alex replied out of politeness.
He walked out to his car and started the engine. He left it running and walked to the trunk. He got a lever out and walked to Jacob’s car, a sleek black SUV. He took a picture of the license plate and sent to Alyssa with no caption.
She replied quicker this time, saying “yeah”.
He stuck the lever inside the seam between trunk and bumper and pushed it down.
The lock snapped, and the door swung open. A body was there, clumsily wrapped in a tarp. It was unidentifiable because the face was smashed in. It seemed to be defrosting.
Alex checked over his shoulder at the diner, where he could see Jacob still eating inside with his back to the window. Alex climbed over the back seat and closed the trunk quietly behind him. He crouched behind the back of the driver’s seat.