Desperate Remedies

Submitted into Contest #248 in response to: Write a story titled 'Desperate Remedies'.... view prompt


Contemporary Fiction

A deluge of summer rain and hail pelted the skylight. Twenty-one cleared the last table and headed back to the kitchen. It was almost five o’clock, but the sky had grown increasingly dark. The strong winds were making travel difficult and it was unlikely that anyone in their right mind would be cruising the old highway looking for a place to eat. Most of the truckers and motorists on the Interstate would have pulled off at an exit somewhere closer to Amarillo. John Bradford, the owner of the roadside diner, suspecting there would be few if any customers, had gone for the night.

As soon as Twenty-one finished cleaning up the kitchen, he planned to clock out early and go home. He deposited a stack of dishes into a stainless steel sink brimming with hot sudsy water, then went back into the dining room and stepped behind the bar—observing his appearance in the large mirror hanging above shelves of half-empty liquor bottles.

He loosened the red bandana around his neck and rolled the sleeves of his white dress shirt up above his elbows. He couldn’t help noticing the reflection of a woman perched on a stool at the end of the bar. She brushed the long blonde hair from her face, revealing her crystal blue eyes. She had started a couple of weeks ago, working the swing shift. He was rarely there at night, but that pink uniform against her pale white skin reminded him of the evening primrose that grew wild on the reservation.

“Twenty-one,” she said. “Is that really your name?”

He turned and answered. “My name is actually Jacob—Jacob Black Elk to be exact—but around here everyone pretty much calls me by my nickname.

“How’d you get that moniker?”

“Well, Emily,” he began hesitantly. “I earned it as a teenager because I didn’t talk much.”

“You don’t say,” she said, pursing her mouth in a self-satisfied smirk.

He blinked and continued, “Someone followed me around, counting the words I spoke, and that’s how I got the name.”

Emily looked over her shoulder, peering into the dimly lit parking lot—squinting to see through the endless sheets of rain. “They say, a nickname is the hardest stone you can throw at a man.”

His gaze followed hers to where a set of headlights flashed across a sign directing motorists to the diner. The car seemed to race along the old road, gaining speed for a few seconds before the driver hit the brakes and turned into the driveway. As the vehicle approached, he could see it was a black sedan. It rolled at a snail’s pace across the gravel and came to a stop in front of the restaurant, engine and lights turned off. Twenty-one could make out the silhouettes of two men sitting in the front seat.

“What do you think they’re doing out there?” he asked.

“Calling their stock brokers,” Emily replied, her brow furrowed. “How the hell should I know?”

The cook grimaced and continued watching. After some time, there was a banging of car doors and the sound of footsteps followed by a raspy voice giving orders. “Andale, puto,” one man said. “We will have to stay here until the storm has passed.”

There was a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning that stretched across the sky as they hurried to the front door. One of the men pulled on the door handle. The door opened, then closed. Twenty-one took a step forward, and stopped. “Ugh,” he moaned, rolling his eyes.

The cook knew that he and Emily would not be able to leave, even if they wanted to, until these unexpected guests had gone. He also knew there were dishes and utensils in the sink to be washed, and the remaining food had to be put away. So for a moment, he resisted the urge to greet the travelers.

The door opened again and a gust of wind caught the metal-framed glass panel and it flew open with a creak. Another crack of thunder sounded and lightning flashed, illuminating the dining room as the two men stepped inside. “Come on in,” Twenty-one said, stepping back so they could enter. “Sit anywhere you like.”

They were soaked from head to toe and dressed alike, but one of the men was heavier than the other. Sporting floral print shirts with designer jeans and black leather shoes, the two men sat down at one of the square tables with four chairs in the middle of the room. Their eyes followed Twenty-one as he approached with a pitcher of ice water.

“What brings you out on a night like this?” he asked.

The two men opened their menus. “We saw your sign in the window,” one of the men said without looking up. “Isn’t that right, Alejandro?”

The man called Alejandro slapped his menu on the table. “Yes, Mateo, that’s right,” he said, somewhat annoyed.

Twenty-one detected an air of impatience about the man, so he pulled a pen and notepad from his apron and began writing. “What can I get you to drink?”

Before Alejandro could answer, Mateo piped in, saying, “We need to find the woman who stole—”

“Shhh!” said Alejandro, waving a finger. “Can we just order?”

“Sure, jefe,” Mateo said as he perused his menu. “Maybe this isn’t the best time to talk about it.”

“You talk too much, Mateo.” Allejandro said, turning his attention Twenty-one. “I’ll have the prime rib, medium rare. What do you think, cabron?”

Twenty-one extended his arm, pointing to the menu option with his pen. “That’s a dinner for two with salad, baked potato, and dinner rolls,” he explained. “But it will take me about thirty minutes to get it ready.”

Alejandro frowned. He unbuttoned his wet shirt, the parted edges revealing his white wife-beater undershirt and a gun holstered at his hip. “We’d like to eat now,” he said, rocking back in his chair to look at the cook. “You should have it ready. Why isn’t it ready?”

Twenty-one stood beside the table, pen poised over his pad. He appeared calm, as if he was pondering the question. He needed time to think, but this was shaping up to be one of those “Oh shit” moments. He didn't know whether to confront the situation or to leave Emily in the hands of these men and slip out the back door.

One thing he knew, and that was, that Emily would make a great distraction. “On account of the storm.” Twenty-one finally answered. “We’re getting ready to close, but I’ll tell you what—have a drink on the house. Emily can get you started while I prepare your meals.”

Alejandro sighed and stared at the clock on the wall. His hand rested on his thigh, inches from the gun in his waistband. “It’s after five.”

The only reason Twenty-one could figure that Alejandro wasn’t drawing his weapon was because his heavyset partner had one aimed at him. He glanced at his watch, and then at the clock. “Oh, it’s a few minutes fast.”

Alejandro shifted nervously in his chair and as each minute ticked by, the clearer it became that he wanted dinner—and was growing increasingly impatient with waiting. “To hell with the clock,” he barked. “Now tell me again, what have you got to eat?”

Twenty-one stared at the man for a moment then glanced down at the weapon, choosing his words with restraint. “I can give you a sandwich, or a burger and fries,” he said. “I can do most of the breakfast items, too. You can have eggs, any way you want them, with ham, bacon, or sausage.”

Alejandro sat quietly, but when there was no further response he tossed his menu on the table with huff of disappointment. “Give me the fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy.”

“That’s a dinner, too. It’ll take some time to prepare.”

“Everything we want is a dinner.”

“I can give you eggs, any way you want them, with ham, bacon, or—”

“I’ll have a burger and fries,” said Alejandro.

“I’ll have what he’s having. The burger and fries,” Mateo said.

Twenty-one felt a twinge of resentment. His lips tightened as he scribbled the dinner order on his notepad and read it back to them, “Two burgers and fries, coming right up.”

Just then, catching the cook off guard, a familiar voice whispered to him in his head. “These men do not honor the Earth,” it breathed. “They do a great many evil things.”

Twenty-one could scarcely believe his senses. Though startled, he did not move, but stood silent, listening to the voice which had led him to the spirit world many years earlier. “Your name is Heháka Sápa,” the spirit said. “In Lakota that means Black Elk. You carry the name given to the father of your grandfather.”

Twenty-one bowed his head and said, “Yes, Great Spirit. Thank you for the gifts of this day.”

“What did you say, cabron? asked Alejandro. “Are you a comedian?”

“As funny as the next guy, I guess.”

“Well, you’re not,” said the other man. “Is he, jefe?”

“He’s a pain the ass.”

From her stool at the bar, Emily said, “Don’t mind him. He hears voices sometimes.”

Alejandro turned to the waitress. “What’s your name, miss?”

She leaned forward and crossed on leg over the other, running a finger down her shin. “What do you want it to be?”

“Another funny one,” Alejandro said. “Ain’t she funny, Mateo?”

“Yes, jefe,” Mateo answered dutifully. "This town is full of jokers."

Twenty-one wasn't sure if the situation would escalate further, but the voice had spoken to him, telling him to beware. Without saying another word, he slipped the pen and notepad back into his apron and hurried off, pushing through the swinging doors into the kitchen.

Standing upright and alert, Twenty-one watched Emily through the pass through. He called out the order to her as she sat twirling a strand of blonde hair around her finger. “Two burgers and fries coming right up, and just for the record—” He clipped the ticket on the order wheel and gave it a spin, gazing into her eyes with a look of deep sincerity. “The Great Spirit speaks to me,” he said. “His words guide me through the chaos. If you don’t believe me, ask John.” And with that, he dropped a basket fries into the fryer and placed the burger patties on the grill, recalling the occasion on which the voice had first spoken to him.

Almost twenty years had passed since Twenty-one met John Bradford at that convenience store in El Paso. He’d been unloading an order of groceries at the time and had watched John amble into the bodega, recognizing him as the winner of the saddle bronc event at the rodeo the night before. Sporting a black Stetson and well-worn boots, John was followed by another man, who was yelling and looked as though he was about to attack him. Moments later, several employees ran out of the store, screaming for help. They told Twenty-one that an armed man had entered the store and was threatening a cowboy with a gun.

It was at that moment the spirit had whispered to him. “It is better to have less thunder in the mouth and more lightning in the hand,” the voice had said.

Twenty-one grabbed his firearm and ran into the store. A gun battle ensued and he fired at the attacker, putting three rounds in his chest. In the crossfire, John had taken a bullet in the shoulder. He survived and eventually recovered, but the wound had ended his rodeo career.

Twenty-one lifted the basket of golden french-fried potatoes from the bubbling deep fryer and thought, Desperate situations call for desperate remedies. And then he reached down to a cabinet near the range and pulled out a large stock pot. He removed the lid to reveal a semiautomatic pistol nestled in a holster. He seated a full magazine in the .45 and racked the slide to chamber a round before concealing the weapon in his jeans.

Picking up a spatula, he returned to the task at hand. After turning the patties, he set the buns cut side down on the grill to toast them lightly. In less than five minutes, he set two plates on the shelf of the pass through, adding slices of fresh tomato, onion, and crisp lettuce.

“Saturday night special. Order up.”

May 03, 2024 16:42

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