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The Paths We Take #17: Die Soon Enough

Jun 5, 2018






When I left The Dollhouse, I decided to drop into Phil’s Diner. Phil wasn’t anything like I had imagined; I pictured the stereotypical grandpa wearing some type of sweater and khaki combo. Phil was in his early forties, and his “happy” belly was the result of years of consuming syrupy pancakes and cinnamon rolls. He was one of those tall frumpy guys, the kind of guy that was not athletic enough to play sports in high school, but big enough to be ignored instead of bullied.

Phil was standing by a table of trucker-types, red-eyed and sleep-deprived mesh cap wearing guys. One of the men was wearing a teal flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His keychain attached to his belt loop looked like a set of high school janitor keys, and he looked to be telling Phil some kind of story that made him laugh but scan the room for an exit strategy at the same time. I watched as Phil excused himself to rescue a blue-hair in a floral sweater in need of a fresh cup.

I sat down in an empty booth that still felt warm from the last patron. A young waitress, “Blaire” scribbled on her name-tag sticker, scurried over to take my order. “Coffee?” she asked after laying a menu in front of me. “You look like you could use a coffee,” she said before I could respond. Did I look that bad? I had only slept a couple of hours the night before, and my eyes were so irritated that it felt like I was scraping them with sandpaper when I rubbed them with my palms.

Blaire came back with a steaming cup of coffee; her black curls swatted her earrings as she walked. Both of her ears were pierced at least seven times with small multi-colored stud earrings punctuated with large gold hoops hanging from bottom lobes. I decided against eating and handed the menu back to her. “I’ll just keep checking on you,” she said as she started to bounce away.

“Do you know a Claire that works here?” I asked. She picked up the dirty plates and coffee mugs from the table in front of me and looked back.

“I just started yesterday. There might be someone who works here by that name,” she said. “I haven’t met everyone yet.”

I thanked her as she held a coffee pot in one hand and the dirty dishes in the other, balancing them she made her way back to the kitchen, humming a tune I never heard before. Phil was making his rounds, like a groom at a wedding thanking the guests for attending. He was chatting with the locals and introducing himself to passersby on their way to the Poconos.

By the time Phil made it to my table, I was on my third cup of coffee. “How’s the coffee tonight?” Phil asked.

“Just what I needed. Thank you,” I said. I could tell Phil was the kind of guy who wanted praise from his customers. I am sure he has put years of hard work into the place. “My cousin Claire works here. Is she here tonight?” I interrupted.

“She left town a few days ago,” Phil grumbled. “Left me in a bind. Hired Blaire to try and take some of Claire’s shifts. You didn’t know she left town?” Phil asked me as I imagined Claire driving an old Ford Bronco on some flat road out west, sunglasses on, windows down, reddish-orange rocks melting in the desert heat.

“No. She never mentioned it. Did she say where she was headed?”

“No clue. Her boyfriend called up here and told me,” Phil said as he waved at a guest who just walked in and sat down.

“Which boyfriend?” I inquired, faking a laugh as I finished asking.

“I know right,” Phil laughed. “The blonde cop guy, sergeant or something. He comes in here occasionally; personally, I think he’s a prick, but you know women, they love guys like that,” Phil said.

The image of Detective Sergeant Royce Marks popped into mind as Phil thanked me for coming in and meandered over to the next table, filling coffee, and chatting about the chance of snow. I remembered the blonde hair poking out from underneath the man’s hat at the park with Claire, and the fresh-faced blonde children scattering bread across the dirt for the ducks.

I asked Blaire for the check. The sudden realization that I had been played crept in. It had to be Detective Marks; it is the only explanation as to why the case wasn’t going anywhere. I wondered if I could trust Detective Townsend. Was he a part of this whole convoluted shit-storm?

I walked out of the Diner and could smell snow brewing in the air. That fresh smell, a smell that was so contradictory, so opposite of what I was feeling, had pushed itself into my lungs. I took long frozen breaths as I walked to my truck. The night was blanketed with low gray clouds that covered the tops of the hills.

I picked up my cell to call Detective Townsend but thought better of it. I needed something more, something that Townsend couldn’t just discard like last week’s leftovers. I needed a witness, one that was there at the scene, not some druggie who was passed out down the road. I knew Nancy had seen more than she had admitted to, but I didn’t know why she was holding back.

Nancy’s car was in the parking lot; she was there early as usual. The bright neon “OPEN” sign was spitting yellow and red beams into the dawn. I decided that it was the perfect time to catch her, no other vehicles were in the parking lot, and the traffic was almost nonexistent.

The same “ding” from the door the day Claire was taken sounded as I stepped inside. Nancy raised her head from the cash register and started to give her smiling “good morning,” but as soon as she recognized me, the smile turned into fiery stare. Here lips were pressed into a line and her eyes turned shark-like as she glared at me. The sweet old lady that I had known was gone.

“I know Nancy. I just need to know if you saw anything else that morning. The cops…” I started until I saw her go for the phone. I saw her reach for it, but then her hand disappeared under the register. I didn’t even see the gun when she brought her hand back up.

The sound of the revolver firing was piercing. The shot hit the sunglasses display to my right. I dove to the ground as bits of plastic frames, lenses, and metal sprayed the front lobby. The second shot bounced off the tile on the floor, sending the bullet rocketing into the glass door, shattering it into hundreds of crystal-like shards.

I tried to shield myself behind the display that held batteries, condoms, flashlights, Tylenol, and any other random things that a passerby would need, but the third shot never came. I peered around the display, but Nancy was no longer near the register. I waited for a few more seconds until I decided that I should leave.

The glass crunched underneath my feet, almost sending me sliding, as I rushed out. I struggled to unlock my truck door, fumbling with the key fob, blood pumping through my veins like racing subway trains through dark tunnels. After what felt like a minute, I threw the door open, jumped in, and sped away.

Nancy was my last chance. This whole thing must have sent her into a state of paranoia. She must have truly believed that I was going to hurt her. It wasn’t until I crossed the bridge that I remembered my own gun in my holster.

Why didn’t you shoot back? I asked myself as I started to pound the steering wheel with my fists.

I waited for the blue lights and sirens to appear in my rearview mirror, but they never came. Just the reverb of the tires on the road and the peaceful humming of the engine. I looked up at the mountains in the distance, the clouds had cleared just enough to see the dark silhouette of the great tree-covered hills.

I didn’t know where to go. I felt alone. Lost. The blood was running down my side, and I could feel it pooling in the bottom of my sweatshirt. I wondered what it was like to die. I guessed I would find out soon enough.


© Josiah A. Miller 2018. All Rights Reserved.