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Chad pulled his red Mazda up to the diner,
The Old News Café, and grunted at it with disgust.
Where the hell was he, anyway? Route 38
or 88, he had thought the sign read some ways back, but neither one of
those were even on his map. He had no idea what town he was driving through;
in fact, at this point he couldn't be positive he was still in New Hampshire.
He felt like he had been driving for hours, and his entire body needed
a good stretch. This was Chad's first trip north to the Granite State,
and he vowed it would be his last. After getting himself lost, he had
spent the last half an hour attempting to retrace his steps, failed miserably,
and now he had to go inside this decrepit café and ask one of these
hillbillies for some directions.
Still fuming from the drive, he walked
across the parking lot, noting the ridiculous assortment of cars that
it held: a pair of beat-up Chevettes, one rusty green station wagon with
a sagging rear end and what looked to be the original tires, and a dark
blue Ford Pinto. He stopped to give the Pinto a second look. Hadn't those
things been outlawed a couple years ago, he thought, half-seriously. He
felt a little uncertain about leaving his red sports car out here among
such company as he imagined the types of characters that would inhabit
a place like this. They were sure going to love him. He doubted any of
them had ever even seen a guy in a tie before, let alone the $600 suit
he was wearing. Nevertheless, he walked up to the large wooden front door,
upon which a handwritten sign informed him the café was open until
two am, pulled it open and walked in.
The first thing he noticed, entering the
smoky, dimly lit diner, was how small the place actually was. It seemed
about half the size of what it looked from the outside. Not that it had
looked like anything spectacular from out there, but the difference was
noticeable just the same. And just as the parking lot had suggested, the
diner was nearly deserted. Sitting by himself on a stool to Chad's left,
a mousy-looking fellow with long, dark hair sat balancing a very large
cello between his thighs. The guy was fiddling with the tuners and looked
ready to start playing any minute nowaudience or no audience. Toward
the back of the diner an old couple sat opposite each other in a booth,
eating silently. The woman looked up at Chad as he walked in, stared at
him for several seconds, then quickly buried her face back in her plate.
A lone fellow wearing thick glasses, holding a cup of coffee in one hand
and a paperback novel in the other, occupied a third table by himself.
He read the book by holding it just inches from his giant spectacles,
slowly turning each page.
Well, that explains all the dents on at
least one of the cars outside, Chad chuckled. To his right was the counter,
run by a plump, middle-aged woman with long blonde hair pulled tightly
back into a bun.
"Hi," she greeted him, wiping
both hands on her apron as he approached the counter. "What can I
"Outta here," Chad said bluntly.
"I'm looking for Route 125." He leaned slightly over the counter
and took her in . . . took her all in. She was actually a bit more than
plumpthose were some good-sized hips she had hiding down there.
"I'm headed back to Massachusetts," he explained, feeling rather
foolish having to explain to this woman he was lost. He was glad nobody
was standing nearby to hear him.
"Route 125?" she repeated, not
noticing, or ignoring, Chad's sharpness. "I'm sorry, but I really
don't get out of the area all very often. I've heard of it, but I'm the
wrong one to ask if that's where you need to go." She paused for
a moment, presumably in thought, and then looked toward the back of the
dining room. "Ted will be out in just a minutes." She gestured
toward a closed door near what looked like the kitchen. "He'd be
able to help youif you don't mind waiting a few minutes, that is."
The last thing he wanted to do was wait
around this place, especially seeing as the guy with the cello looked
ready to fire the thing up any second now, but the apologetic look on
the woman's tired face held himshe looked almost guilty that she
wasn't able to help Chad personally, or that she was putting him out by
him having to wait five minutes for some good directions. He felt almost
bad for her, in some pathetic way.
Hell with it, he decided. I've been driving
forever, I'm exhausted, a short break would probably do me good. He wasn't
thrilled about it, but he would wait.
"I don't mind waiting at all,"
he lied, and a smile crossed her face. She wasn't attractive in the leastrather
plain looking with a face that was weather-beaten with age and Lord knew
what elsebut she seemed the most sincere person he had talked to
tonight . . . and maybe in quite some time. The word 'motherly' popped
into Chad's mind to describe her. Might even be a grandmother, now that
he thought about it.
"Maybe you could get me a coffee
while I wait?" he read the name off her shirt, "Sue?"
"Coffee. You got it." She walked
off to get him his drink, humming softly. Chad's grin disappeared the
moment she turned her back.
As Chad sat waiting for Sue to return
with his coffee, his eyes wandered over the diner. If this was the typical
crowd the Old News Café attracted on a Saturday night, he couldn't
for the life of him imagine how the owner stayed in business. The only
interesting thing about the place was that it was unlike anything he had
ever seen in Boston. That wasn't a good interesting, however; just a curious
As he watched, the guy with the cello lifted
the bow into position and readied his instrument to play. The Mouse looked
around the diner for any signs of interest, found none, and with four
quick taps of his foot began bowing away just the same.
Chad cringed and prepared for the worst.
The instrument was big, and, looking at the guy holding it, there was
just no telling what kind of hullabaloo it was liable to produce. After
his long, stressful night of drivinga good portion of it lostChad
wasn't sure his nerves could handle such a racket. He looked at the guy
holding the novel within kissing distance of his face, and wondered if
he was even aware of what was about to happen. The whole crazy scene made
Chad was still wearing his crooked grin
when the music started, and although it was a bit loud, that's exactly
what he would call it. Music. It was good. It was better than good. There
was no singing, just song: a continuous, delightful rhythm. He had no
idea a cello was even capable of such sounds. It reminded him of the music
from the movie Aladdin, the only kids' movie he had ever really
enjoyed. The Mouse played with his eyes closed, softly rolling his head
back and forth as he went, and Chad suddenly found himself relaxing in
the soft, steady sound that drifted within the café and through his
head. He never even noticed Sue setting his coffee down beside him.
"Here you are," she said softly,
tapping him on the shoulder.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks," he mumbled,
without bothering to reach for the drink.
"He's good, huh?" she asked,
continuing to stand behind him.
"Surprisingly." Chad replied.
The guy hardly looked like he could play a radio. "How long has he
been playing here?"
"Peter's been coming here for years,"
she said, over the melody. "Every Saturday night. Melanie too."
Chad looked back over and realized there
was second person with the musician now, a woman. Or was it a kid? He
couldn't tell for sure. She was kid's sizeif she stood next to Chad
she would maybe reach up to his belly button, no moreslim, yet she
had curves like a woman. And as he watched her dance in perfect rhythm
to the music, her back toward Chad, he realized she danced unlike any
kid he'd ever seen before. In a word, sexy.
She moved in a slow, seductive waynot
erotic, but softly, as much with her arms as with her body. She wore a
long purple dress, which dragged along the floor as she swayed, and had
the blackest hair he had ever seen on anybody. And she was so smallshe
fascinated him as much as the music did. She never took her eyes off the
musician. He played, she danced, and the two of them kept Chad rivetedit
was like watching a snake charmer seducing his snake out of its basket.
He forgot about his coffee beside him, or the reason he was here to begin
with, getting directions back to Route 125 so he could be on his way home
again. He wanted to do nothing but watch the tiny woman, Melanie, dance.
She looked over at Chad, then hurriedly turned away as if he had just
caught her staring or something. Chad was positive there had been just
a hint of a smile on her face.
He smiled back without realizing it, playing
along with the music in his head, anticipating each rhythm, each note,
from the instrument, each swaying movement by the dancer, and it took
him a moment to realize he was being spoken to once again. He tried to
ignore it, but the voice came back louder.
"I said, she's fascinating, isn't
Reluctantly, he peeled his eyes from the
tiny dancerfor the moment, anywayand turned his attention
toward Sue, who somehow was now standing on the other side of him. His
coffee sat on the counter, untouched.
"Amazing," he said, picking up
his drink. "How old is she?"
Sue started to say something, then stopped.
"Older than she looks," she said simply.
"I figured." Chad put his coffee
to his mouth, took a healthy gulp, then nearly spit the mouthful right
onto his lap in disgust. A small amount actually did dribble from the
corner of his mouth and onto his shirt. It was cold. Completely cold.
Dumbfounded, he stared at Sue. He could
not wait to hear her explanation as to why the coffee she had brought
him was anything less than piping hot.
"Sorry about that," she apologized,
handing him a napkin. "I probably should have gotten you a fresh
cup." Chad wiped his shirt as Sue waved to the old couple who were
now getting up to leave, both of whom were looking at Chad curiously.
The man eventually turned away, but the woman continued to stare. Chad
blew her a kiss, and finally she turned away in disgust.
"'Night, guys!" Sue called across
the café, oblivious to the exchange that had just taken place. The
old man looked back at Sue and smiled, his wife just looked back. "See
you next week?" she asked.
"As always." the man shot back
over the music. The couple promptly disappeared out the front door.
Letting his eyes linger on the door a moment
longer, Chad's gaze wandered down to his watch, and he nearly fell right
off his stool. Ten forty-five? His mind reeled. How in the hell? He had
pulled up to this place at ten on the button; of that he was certain.
He remembered thinking that at this rate he would be lucky to reach Boston
by midnight. Forty-five minutes he had been in here. How long had the
Mouse been playing? Chad listened, but it sounded like the same song the
guy had started with. He looked at old Eagle Eyes with the book, who had
since put down his novel and was watching the musician as well. Otherwise,
the place was deserted.
Had he really been watching them for three
quarters of an hour? It seemed impossible, yet apparently he had. Had
they been looking at him? Laughing? He looked down at his cold cup of
coffee, then up at Sue suspiciously, but the simple smile on her face
made him think that she had never laughed at anybody in her life. And
old Eagle Eyes just didn't look smart enough to laugh at anybody.
Chad relaxed a little, but he still did
need to be going. He would be pushing it to be home by one in the morning,
now. Reaching inside his wallet, he pulled out a couple of ones and laid
them on the counter. He looked at his cold, untouched coffee, and almost
took one of the bills back. Then he remembered his car outside and how
nervous he had been about leaving it alone for just a few minutes. He
also remembered he still needed some directions.
"Here," Sue said, as if he had
spoken that last thought out loud. "Take this. This should get you
home from here." She produced a slip of paper from her apron, upon
which was written a series of directions promising to bring him directly
to highway 125. Apparently, he was much closer to it than he had originally
"I guess I didn't do all that bad,"
Chad said. He studied the piece of paper for a moment before stuffing
it into his pocket. "Might even have found it myself, if I'd kept
"Of course you would have," she
said. "You were doing just fine." The music picked up a notch
in the background, and Sue stole the briefest of looks over Chad's right
"By the way," he paused. "What
town am I in?"
"Sugar Hill," she said. "Population
just over five hundred." For some reason she seemed quite proud of
Well, Sue," he said. "If I'm
ever by this way again, you can be sure I'll be stopping back here."
He didn't mean by a far cry, of coursehe had promised himself earlier
that he would never set foot in New Hampshire again, and he meant itbut
she didn't need to know any of that. "I think my trip home won't
be half bad, now." he lied to her again.
Sue beamed at that. "You drive safe,"
she told him. Chad gave her a wide grin, as if to say he always drove
As he turned around to leave, he paused
for just one more look at Melanie. He wondered if she ever got tired.
She's been coming here for years, Sue had said to him. Just how old did
that make her? Sixteen? Twenty-five? Older? He wanted to talk to her,
but he didn't want to interrupt the two of them. He wondered if she and
the Mouse were related. Or married?
Sue held motionless as Chad paused to
watch Melanie one last time. She waited several moments, not daring to
move, and then ever so slowly leaned over to him until she was within
inches of his ear. Chad didn't even glance her wayfor all he seemed
to know, Sue was no longer even there.
"Chad?" she said softly.
He ignored her, or didn't hear her at all.
All his attention was focused on the dancer, who was now staring directly
back at him. Their eyes were locked, unblinking.
"Chad." Sue said, louder. "Chad!"
No response. Not even a flinch.
"Well, what do you think?" a
deep voice suddenly said from behind Sue. An older and extremely well-dressed
mana man who had not been there a minute earlierwas now standing
next to Sue.
"He's perfect," Sue said. "An
out-of-towner who won't be missed." Chad sat completely hypnotized,
not hearing any of the conversation that was taking place within feet
"Good." the man said somberly.
They stood silently next to each other
for a moment. Peter continued to play his cello, Melanie continued to
dance, and Chad continued to watch them both stupidly. Sue leaned across
the counter, reached into Chad's jacket pocket and grabbed his car keys.
Chad never moved.
"Hey, Eagle Eyes!" she cackled
to the nearsighted man with the giant glasses, teasing him with the name
they had all heard Chad refer to him as. "Over here!" She tossed
him the keys, which not so surprisingly bopped him on the forehead and
fell to the floor. "Get rid of the car!"
Eagle Eyes awkwardly bent over to pick
up the keys.
"I don't know what you're smiling
about," he shot back. "He thought you looked like a grandmother
with a big fat ass! It was all I could do not to laugh right out loud
at that one!" He hee-hawed loudly, then jumped up and darted out
the front door as if Sue was going to come pounding after him.
Sue didn't chase after him, though; she
instead walked over to the front door and closed it behind him. She locked
the dead bolt and flipped the sign over so it now read closed for the
night. That done she walked back to the counter. The music had stopped,
and Peter was quietly packing his cello back into its case. Melanie was
once again nowhere to be foundalmost as if she had never been there
at all. Their work was done.
Satisfied, Sue left Ted alone with the
hypnotized Chad in the dining area, walked into the back room where they
stored their belongings, clicked on the overhead light, and began removing
her apron. What a night! And it had almost all been for nothing. For one
awful moment she had feared they were going to have to let him go, which
would have been tough; they were starving as it was, especially poor Melanie.
But things had worked out just fine in the endas they usually didand
now it was almost over.
The dining room remained silent. She folded
her apron and set it onto the chair, removed her shoes, and slipped on
a pair of sneakers. She was in the process of fiddling with her ponytail,
trying to undo the knotted rubber band that always seemed to tangle up
on her, when the screaming started. Chad's agonizing shrieksfirst
of terror, then of painhowled throughout the diner. Sue jumpedshe
always didbut quickly regained her composure and continued about
She would wait here in the back until it
was over, which should be shortly. The screaming never lasted long.
Chad, for all his flash and talk proved
himself to be no different than any of the others, just as Sue suspected.
Within moments he was silent. His pathetic cries for help ended as abruptly
as they had begun, and the dining room was quiet once again. Sue waited
just another moment to be sure, heard nothing, then, certain it was over,
she headed back out into the dining room to claim her share of the food,
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