It was around ten after Life when he came in.
Nightshift was the best shift, to the three that worked at the diner at The End.
It let the dishwasher have a break when their feet started to hurt. It let the cook wear headphones while he worked. And it let the waitress write in her journal.
The customer was no one special. An average joe with a bit of scruff and a plain, if respectable outfit. He sat at a booth near the kitchen and ordered a cup of coffee, some pancakes, and a side of hashbrowns.
As the waitress poured some coffee, he asked her, “Where am I?”
She shrugged. “Where you’re supposed to be.”
“No,” he shook his head. “I really don’t know where I am!”
“I know,” she said calmly. “And like I said. You’re where you’re supposed to be.” She set a small pitcher of cream and sugar shaker down. “Food will be ready soon.”
“Wait!” He nearly grabbed her arm. “May I have a pen and napkin please?”
She brought him the requested items and went back to the kitchen.
“They’re always so jittery,” she commented to the cook.
He flipped a pancake and nodded. “He’ll calm down.”
“I know. Are they on a break?” The waitress glanced at the sink full of bubbles.
“They’re having a snack.”
The waitress nodded and wandered back out to check on the man at the booth. He was writing on the napkin, looking puzzled as he did so.
“Need more coffee?” She asked.
“I can’t remember,” he whispered.
“Can’t remember what?”
“It.” He shook his head. “It was important.”
The waitress went to grab the coffee pot. When she came back, the man had his wallet out, sorting what had been inside. Business cards, credit cards, debit cards, receipts, all of them scattered over the tabletop. She silently refilled the cup and went to the counter to grab the food that was sitting there.
“You know you’re supposed to ring the bell,” she reminded the cook impatiently.
He pointedly put his headphones back in.
The waitress rolled her eyes and dropped the food off.
His name was Martin Serling. He lived on 22 Oak Lane in Somerville, Ohio. He was an electrician. He had a family. His wife’s name was Helen, his oldest son’s name was Greg, and his younger son’s name was Thomas. His business card read “Serling Electric, For All Your Shocking Needs!”
Martin stared down at the picture in his hands. It was the four of them during Thomas’s most recent trip home from college. He could see traces of gray in Helen’s pitch black hair. His was already much more pronounced, the fine blonde having gone mostly grey by the time he was forty two. The class ring on Greg’s hand was half hidden by the collar of Thomas’s shirt.
He’s nine and his mom dies in a home invasion. He spends the next five years in therapy for the nightmares.
He’s eighteen and he meets Helen during a mutual friend’s graduation party.
He’s twenty seven and they’ve been married for three years when she tells him she’s pregnant with their first child.
He’s still twenty seven when she loses the baby.
He’s thirty four and chasing around after Greg in the yard when a child from across the street dies in a hit-and-run. Explaining death to a five year old is hard. Even harder still is attending the funeral.
He’s thirty seven when Thomas is born. Greg is overprotective in the best way of his baby brother. Always worrying after every little sneeze and hiccup. The night Thomas almost dies in his crib is the day Greg tells him “I’m gonna be a doctor when I grow up” and Martin has never been prouder.
He’s forty when his father dies.
He’s forty two when Greg comes home with a black eye after a fight at school after some bullies targeted his best friend. “They were calling him all sorts of terrible shit!”
“That’s what it was!”
He’s days away from fifty when Thomas comes out. Nervous and shaking during Christmas break.
“I already packed and Greg said-”
“What do you mean you packed?”
“Go unpack, you’re not going anywhere.”
“What? We’re not. He’s our son, we’re not kicking him out over something as small as this. It’s not like he murdered anyone!”
He’s fifty two when his best friend dies of cancer.
He’s fifty six when he wins an award for patenting a new wiring technique.
He’s sixty when Greg finishes medical school with honors.
He’s sixty two when he gets the diagnosis of mesothelioma.
He’s sixty seven when he beats it.
He’s seventy three when it returns.
He’s seventy four when-
Martin blinked and a tear fell on the photo.
“Yes.” The waitress said, gently patting his shoulder.
“Is this - is this all there is?” He cast a glance around the empty restaurant.
“It’s the night shift,” she shrugged.
“The night shift,” he repeated dubiously.
“This is where those without a faith come when their time ends,” she explained. “You get choices.”
“You were relatively a good person. You weren’t perfect but no human ever really is. You can go to an afterlife of solitary time in a house with a garden and books and music that are all just ok.” She handed him a pamphlet with the words MEDIOCRITY IN A HOUSE across the top in yellow. “Or you can try again. If you pick this,” she tapped the pamphlet, “ask me for the check.”
“What if I want to try again?” It did look appealing in a sort of calm way. An eternity of calm repose. Like doing yoga for eternity. But bad, faux Indian guru yoga, like Helen’s best friend’s daughter’s sort of yoga.
“Then go help the dishwasher in the back.”
He glanced up at her. The waitress was warmly lit in a strange way. Deep red-brown skin, oak brown eyes, and her hair tied in dozens of braids that were pulled back into a low ponytail. Over her shoulder, he could see the cook.
“What’s his afterlife?” He asked.
“Not an option for you,” she said. Martin decided that that was probably something he didn’t want to know, based on her tone.
How long do I have to decide?”
“Until the night shift ends.”
Greg glanced outside. He must have been there for hours but it was still the same inky black.
“Do you want anything more to eat?” The waitress asked. “More coffee?” She held up the pot.
Martin shook his head. She nodded and left him alone.
Martin read the pamphlet twice. The clock on the wall never changed. He drank another cup of coffee, and, remembering Helen’s lectures on his cholesterol, had a bowl of fruit. He couldn’t really say if they had any taste. If any of it had any taste.
With a final glance outside, he picked up his empty mug and bowl and headed into the kitchen. The cook barely glanced at him except to point at the sink full of bubbles, where the dishwasher of indeterminate gender, age, and ethnicity stood. Their head was bowed, hair tucked up under a baseball hat, arms plunged in the sink. A heavy duty apron was tied tightly to keep the water from soaking them.
They silently pointed at a second apron on a hook.
Martin set the two dishes down and put it on. The dishwasher shuffled slightly to make room. Martin rolled up his sleeves and began to wash dishes.
The clock on the wall changed.
The night shift was coming to an end.