I stare at the young man with the kind blue eyes seated in front of me. He happily chomps down on a cheeseburger, ketchup dripping from the back of the bun and onto the table. His gaze occasionally flits up to meet mine before his cheeks redden and he glances down again.
“Er…what’s your name?” he finally breathes, breaking the silence. It wasn’t an uncomfortable one. The quiet was nice, actually, especially after the chants of thousands of fans still echoing in my ear from the concert I’d abandoned. It feels like years ago. Perhaps it is.
“Frankie,” I say. It was the first thing to come to mind. I don’t know what inspired it. But I…I like the name. Frankie. I can be a Frankie.
His mouth curves upward in a smile after he swallows the last fry. “I like that name. It’s a good one.”
I return the smile. “I think so, too. And yours?”
“Ron. Short and sweet. I like it.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before. It’s a pretty small town and I––I think I’d remember somebody like you.” He peeks through his eyelashes.
“I just…moved here.” My stomach flutters at the words coming from my mouth. They’re not exactly lies. But they’re not exactly truths, either. But every word is my own. And every word tastes delicious.
I think about the last concert I'd been ushered to on the concert tour. “Denver.”
“Ah, a big city. What’s it like, coming here? What d’ya think?”
“I love it,” I gush, smiling.
He leans back, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Really? Not a lot of people say that coming to a small town.”
I shake my head. “I never liked cities. Or lots of people. This is more my…my jam. I'd love to just live the rest of my life in a quaint little town like this.”
His mouth curves upward, and his eyes soften. My heart thumps. “That’s...exactly what I think, too. I love this town. It’s small, but it’s home. And I’m…” his voice drops to a quiet volume, and he leans forward, clasping his hands on the table. “And I’m glad you moved here. You seem like a…nice person.” He winces slightly. “That sounded less than cool. You seem like a wonderful person. I’ve never been asked to share a meal with a customer before.” He grins, laughing. “And I gotta say––I don’t mind it.”
“Well, I’ve never asked to share a meal with an employee before. So this is a first for me, too. And I’m glad I did. You also seem…very nice.” I wink at him. He laughs, his shoulders relaxing.
“Who are you?” he murmurs, shaking his head in bewilderment.
“I honestly have no idea.” He laughs, but I sit in my words, comfortable in the discomforting truth they offer.
His eyes slide past me, and his brow furrows. He looks back at me. “Sorry––would you excuse me for a second? My manager is waving me over; I think he needs somethin’. Gimme a second, okay? Don’t leave. Please.”
“Of course, I won’t.” I nod, smiling. He smiles back, but it’s different this time. It blazes across his face like the sun, full of light and warmth that reaches his twinkling eyes. As he walks past me, pleasant and excited chills run up and down my spine, causing the hair to stand up on my arms.
I like Ron. I like Ron a lot.
As I wait, I think back to the concert. I left everything there. Luckily, my phone and wallet are still stashed in my back pocket…but I have nothing else. No friends. No family.
A lump forms in my stomach. Heavy and firm.
It’s okay. I can do this. I can make it.
I jump as Ron appears and sits down across from me again. I smile, expecting to see that blazing grin again. But, to my surprise, his cheeks look flushed. His eyes are wide and wild. I can see droplets of sweat shining on his forehead.
“You…okay?” I ask, hesitating.
He laughs. It’s forced. “Yeah, of course. My boss just wants me to work a double shift tomorrow, which isn’t what I agreed on. Always thinks he can use me, that man.” He gives another short laugh.
The lump in my stomach grows smaller. It’s not gone completely. “Oh. Right. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You wanna get out of here?” His eyes flick to the exit and back again. “I mean, we don’t have to go anywhere special. We could just––just take a walk, or something. Or grab a drink. If you want.” He tries for a nervous smile, his face flushing even deeper.
“Hm. Yes.” I don’t even have to think about it.
To my surprise, his face seems to fall. Almost in…disappointment. Shame. I blink. It’s gone. He’s smiling again, albeit anxiously.
“Okay. Follow me––my car’s around back.”
I slide out of the seat and follow him to the exit of the restaurant. He leads me through a dark green door to a dark alleyway behind, and I step into cool air smelling of burnt grease and stale hamburgers.
“Huh. Not the most pleasant––”
Suddenly, a hand clamps over my mouth and I’m slammed into the wall of the restaurant.
I try to scream, but the sound is muffled. I bite down, but I can’t get a grip on the skin. I squirm and fling my arms in any direction, desperate to make contact, but his body stops me, weighing me down against the wall, until I can’t move at all.
“Don’t move. Stop. Please, stop.” His voice is tense and distraught.
Eventually, I do stop. Not because I want to. But because I can’t move a muscle. Every inch of him holds me forcefully against the wall.
Rage. I feel rage. I should have known––I can’t trust anybody. Not in this life. Bitter tears fill my eyes.
“Listen to me. Stop. Don’t scream. Don’t make a sound.”
My heart thuds against my chest. What is he going to do to me? I try to think back to every self defense move I know. Which is limited to pretty much nothing. Can I ram my knee where it’ll hurt him most? His legs are locked in front of mine awkwardly; I still can’t move.
“They offered me money for you. Twenty thousand dollars to hand you over.”
It must be.
My heart drops into my stomach.
Back to that life. Or death, I should say. I'm going to be trapped there. Forever.
Suddenly, I feel something sharp and cold press against my hands. I glance down. I can’t see much in the darkness, but I can see silver glinting up at me. Silver…what…
He gave me car keys.
I look up into his dark, frantic eyes in utter confusion.
“Take the keys, go to my car, and run. Okay? You have to run. I’m going to let go of you now. Please don’t scream, or they’ll find you. They’re around front. You don’t have much time. Here––”
He releases his hand, and suddenly, all the pressure falls off of me. I gasp, catching my breath, staring at the keys in my hand.
“You––you––you didn’t take the money?” I pant.
He snorts angrily. “Of course not. I would never––I can’t––you’re my––” he shakes his head sharply in frustration. “You don’t have time. Please, you have to trust me. Take this.”
Something else is shoved into my other hand. A plastic bag. I look up in question.
“A uniform. From this joint. There’s a hat and mask and everything inside. It should disguise you enough.” He looks nervously behind him. “They only gave me ten minutes. Which means you need to run now. My car’s right there––I always park behind here. They’ll think you’re me as soon as you change. Okay? I’m sorry, Frankie––or whoever you are––just go. You have to go.” His voice turns into desperate pleading, and his eyes are feverish.
I look at him, the keys, the plastic bag, the car, and back to him again.
He opens his mouth to undoubtedly urge me to leave. Before he can, I lean forward and shove my lips against his. It’s not pretty. It’s rough and messy and desperate. He throws his arms around my waist and holds me tightly against him. And for just seconds, I am warm and safe.
I step backward. So does he. We’re both panting heavily.
“Go,” he whispers, reaching out and softly tracing my cheek with a single finger. “Go.”
And I do.
*This story is a sequel to my previous submission, "Simplicity."