Monday, June 25, 2012
Author: Ashley Poston
The man in the black suit was staring at Mallory again.
It was unnerving---the tilt of his head, the sheen of his hair, not quite gray and not quite green, the color of his pallid skin that reminded her of faded cement. I just sort of wish he’d stop staring at me, she thought, concentrating on her bitten fingernails, her knees jumpy under the table. His eyes were the weirdest thing of them all, white halos around ink-black pits. He stirred his coffee with a white-gloved hand, slowly, clockwise, around and around.
She knew she should’ve just stayed in her train compartment.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
Startled, Mal snapped her head up. It was the waiter, an eyebrow raised in query. He set a cup of coffee as dark as the night sky down in front of her. “Sorry ma’am, we were all out of creamer. Half-and-half?”
“Oh, sure, that’s fine,” she replied. “I’m sorry to bother you again but do you have anything sweet? Naturally sweet, nothing with any preservatives? Anything?” And maybe a rape whistle, just in case?
A girl traveling alone---it’s not like she hadn’t thought about the possibility of never reaching her destination. She’d traveled her entire life. She knew what precautions to take, like never leave a drink anywhere and always keep her purse in front of her and zipped tight, but she wasn’t quite sure what to do about someone just staring at her.
She had half the mind to go back to her train compartment where her suitcase and pillow occupied her seat, but what if he followed her? What’d he do then?
The waiter gave a slow nod, “We have honey buns.”
“That would be glorious.”
“Glorious, good word.” He slid a grin across to her and departed back to the station. He couldn’t have been more than twenty. How did he end up waitering on a train, she wondered, and rested her head against the cool window.
The stranger was still staring; she could feel his eyes on her.
Her knees jostled up and down quickly. Was she really that interesting? Perhaps her hair was a shade too mauve to be auburn, and maybe her eyebrows matched it flawlessly, because it was as natural as the day she was born. Maybe it was the tilt of her mouth? Or maybe how her eyes looked a little too wide and too blue?
The waiter came back with her honey bun and a flourish of napkins. He must’ve been quite good at ignoring creeps in dining cart corners. He leaned against the edge of the booth and asked, “So, where’re you headin’?”
“New York,” she replied.
“You from there?”
“No.” The edges of her lips tilted up just enough to be considered an almost-smile. “No where, really.”
“Ah, a vagabond type of girl. I like those. No home, no worries, right? I like to consider myself one too, but I’m from Columbia---Columbia, South Carolina.”
“Nice place.” She tore the lid off of a creamer cup and poured it in.
He shrugged. “It’s home.”
She tore off another lid and dumped it, and another, until all six cups made her coffee an almost milky white. Home was just a word to Mal. She’d lived in plenty of them with Mom---trailers, duplexes, hotels, motels, condominiums, and cheap houses. They’d even lived out of a retired ice cream truck in California, and just thinking about that small, cramped space made her back sore. Home meant as much to her as Mom’s whereabouts meant to the fine authorities of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Which was to say, not at all.
In the corner, the creeper set down his spoon and took a long, quiet sip.
Mal asked, “I’m sorry, this is a rude question, but do you see that guy over there?”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, yeah, he took the last of the creamer. From Illinois, I think. Asked for the Sunday paper, which was really weird because it’s Friday.”
And he hasn’t creeped you out? But it’s not like she could actually ask him to kick the guy out for staring at her. If the waiter didn’t seem bothered… Maybe I’m just paranoid.
Three days ago, she’d returned to a deserted house. Mom’s clothes were gone. Her jewelry missing. She hadn’t left a note or directions or even pizza money. She hadn’t left… anything. Kidnapped people didn’t take their jewelry, shoes, and favorite photographs, do they? When she realized what had happened, she felt like an abandoned back of luggage in the rain.
“Although I can’t wait for Sunday’s Times. Supposed to be the review of Grant White’s play, Bones Apart. He’s a genius---am I talking too much? I’m sorry, it’s just really…” he leaned in closer and whispered through the side of his mouth, “…boring on the midnight train.”
She took another sip of coffee to hide her scowl. “He’s my godfather, actually.”
“No shit,” she confirmed.
Mal only knew three things about Grant White. One, he was an esteemed Broadway playwright. Two, he bought a penthouse apartment in Fifth Avenue across from Central Park when she was four, and Mom had taken her to spend a few weeks there. The apartment had been spacious, and so clean she could eat cookies off the hardwood floors. And three, he was less than excited when the phone call came that his goddaughter would be spending an unidentified amount of time there until her Mom could be found.
Which, they both knew, might be a while. If Mal couldn’t find her Mom, then it was scary to admit that her Mom couldn’t be found at all.
Don’t think about that. She’ll turn up, she scolded herself.
“… I mean, he’s freaking excellent. Some of the stuff he writes? Shakespeare himself would cream his jeans. Hey, you know what? I got a card---I’m an actor, you know?” He began to pat down his pants pockets. “Hold on a sec, I’ll be right back. I think I got some over by the register. Man, I knew ya were special.”
A grin so wide cracked his freckled face in half. She smiled with him, because it was the polite thing to do. Stretch lips over teeth, edges upwards, hold pose. Then he left, and her smile sprung shut like a trap.
If he knew what Grant White was really like, would he still ask for an autograph?
The man with the white eyes lifted his cup to his lips again. Mal tried to keep herself from staring, but she couldn’t. He was like a king cobra at the zoo, staring from behind six-inches of glass, completely harmless until given the chance.
The dining compartment jostled ever-so-slightly with the steady hiccup of the railroad. The wheels squeaked underfoot like a symphony of mechanical birds.
I wish Mom was here, she thought. She’d know what to do. She always did. Whenever Mal had nightmares, her Mom knew what to say, what teas to fix with just the right amount of honey and sugar and soothing words. Mal had never gone to the doctor, because Mom was a plethora of healing herbs and spices. When she had the sniffles, Mom would make her drink a nasty concoction, and when she was sad Mom would twine dandelions into her hair. And when the mood set in, whether it was with the change of the tides or the seasons of the moon, they’d pick up everything they owned and migrate, because it was good for the soul.
Mal was never sure if Mom was running, or searching for something. She’d learned not to ask questions when once, after they’d celebrated the summer solstice and blown out all of the candles on the deck, she’d asked, “Why’re we leaving the wine?”
“For the rest of us,” Mom had replied and kissed her auburn curls.
The pre-dawn light outlined the fir trees passing her window, intermingled with cold patches of clear night and crisp stars. Where are you?
Mal took a timid sip of her coffee, the warmth biting her cold lips. Loneliness always made everything a little bit colder, even under the air vent.
“You haven’t eaten your sweet.”
Mal froze, her fingers gripped around the coffee cup. Her jaw clenched, her knees stopped jostling.
The stranger in the immaculate black suit slid into the booth beside her. Her breath stilted, heart hammered. He smelled like lilacs and frosty mornings.
“S-Sir, I’d like it if you’d leave,” she tried to say, but he just leaned in closer, narrowing those snow-white eyes at her in scrutiny.
“You are apprehensive? Nervous. Your eyebrows furrow in that peculiar way when you are.”
She slapped her hand to her eyebrows, feeling their crinkles, as her eyes darted to the waiter. Fright filled her like a gasoline fire. What was his name? Did she ever get his name? Then it crawled up her throat to her lips, suddenly found. “Ethan Wachowski!”
But it didn’t help. He was folded over the counter, slumped in such an awkward position it looked painful, his arm twisted under him, his cheek pressed against the fake marble. A thin line of drool oozed from his mouth.
She hitched a sharp gulp of lilac and snowy morning air, ready to scream.
He held up an immaculate white-gloved finger as if to warn her. “I… wouldn’t.”
Her mouth clamped shut, out of her control.
He tilted his head thoughtfully. “You are not who I imagined you would become. With your… knack… for finding things, you should have at least been able to find yourself,” he said more to himself than to her. Her muscles twisted, tightened. She hoped that whatever he was going to do, it’d be painless at least. “But then again, you have always surprised me.”
She realized she had control of her mouth again only after she’d asked, “Do I know you?”
“Perhaps.” He slid out from the booth. At the counter, the waiter groaned and lifted himself off the counter, wiping the drool from his mouth. A glint of pre-dawn light caught the stranger’s hair, and it glittered like stardust. “Perhaps someday.”
Then he departed through the exit door, but the smell of crisp snowy mornings lingered well after he’d gone, and the waiter came back with his business card.
“Dude, I must’ve spaced or something. Sorry about that.”
She slid out from the booth silently, putting his card in her back pocket. “I think I’ll get going,” she said distantly, trying to keep the quiver out of her voice.
He gave her a confused look. “You haven’t touched your honey bu---”
“I think someone’s looking for you,” she interrupted, slinging her purse over her shoulder, and left.
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