Author: Ashley Poston
The man in the black suit was staring at her 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. And his eyes―white pinpricks. They had to be contacts. Thick ones, too. He stirred his coffee with a white-gloved hand, slowly, clockwise, around and around.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
Startled, Mal spun to face―the waiter. It was just the waiter. She slapped a hand over her hammering heart. “Please don’t do that.”
Hesitantly, he set a cup of fresh coffee down in front of her and a honey bun. At her request, the coffee was almost a nutmeg brown. “Sorry, ma’am. We were all out of creamer so I hope half-and-half is fine.”
“Absolutely. And I’m just, you know, antsy traveling alone… and stuff.” And your other customer doesn’t help things, she ached to add, pulling her auburn hair over onto her left shoulder. Maybe you can ask him for a few things of creamer because he’s monopolized like twenty of them. “You know how it is, a girl, alone, going to the big city. Good times.”
“I don’t know about the girl part, but I get the big city.” He tilted his head, and a curl came untucked from behind his ear. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. How did he end up working on a train, she wondered. “Long way from home?”
Home. It was just a word. She’d been in plenty of those 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 those few months made her back cramp up. Home meant about as much to her as her Mom’s whereabouts meant to the fine authorities of the Philadelphia Police Department.
“Yeah,” she lied, fighting the bitter in her voice, “a very long way from that.”
He nodded, as if he understood her completely. Which was funny in it's own right. He probably could relate to her as well as a sheep dog relates to a cat. “So where ya headin’?”
“My godfather’s in the city.”
“That’ll be fun! Ever been to the city before? I love the city.”
“Once, the last time I went to see him. You might know him… Grant White?”
His eyebrows shot up in disbelief. “Might know him? The Grant White―the playwright?”
“He writes something.”
“No shit! I was Harry in Bones Apart!”
Oh God, she thought, I just opened up a can of worms.
“…And Julius in Midnight Wedding in Dallas! And you know that one, The Clocktower? I friggin’ love that one. Oh man, you―hey, you know, you think you could get me his autograph?”
“Umm…” She only knew three things about her godfather. One, he was an esteemed playwright. Two, he bought a penthouse apartment across from Central Park when she was four, and Mom took 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 news came that his goddaughter would be spending an unidentified amount of time there until her estranged Mom could be found.
Which, they both knew, might be a while.
If Mom didn’t want to be found, the police wouldn’t find her. Three days ago, Mal had 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. When Mal realized what had happened, what it meant, she felt like an abandoned bag of luggage in the rain.
And now I get to spend quality time with His Impeccable Whiteness.
The train’s food car jostled ever-so-slightly with the steady hiccup of the railroad. The wheels squeaked underfoot like a symphony of mechanical birds. If only it could drown out the waiter’s voice.
“…I mean, ya don’t have to but it’d be amazing. I’d love to cold-read his scripts. Maybe be a stagehand? Does he need an assistant? Here, I’ve a card too…” he began to pat down his pants pockets. “Oh yeah! I’ll be right back. Left ‘em 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 upward, 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?
She curled her fingers around the steaming mug, and inhaled. The sweet smell of sugar untied her muscles and tamed her nerves. Sweet things did that to her. She didn’t know how, or why. Whenever she had nightmares, Mom would be there with a glass of milk and cookies as if she knew when she had them. Maybe she screamed aloud. Maybe her Mom could hear her thrashing.
Or maybe that was just the way her Mom was. Mal had learned to not ask questions when once, after they’d celebrated the summer solstice and blown out all of the candles in the yard, she’d asked, “Why’re we leaving the wine?”
“For the rest of us,” Mom had replied and kissed her auburn curls.
Whatever that meant gave her nightmares for the rest of the year. For the rest of us, as if she and her Mom were just a small part in something larger. Whatever that community was, it’d ostracized them. She still felt as alone as she did the moment she stepped into their abandoned house three days ago.
Mal shivered. Loneliness made everything a little colder, even under the air vent. Was it bad that she missed her Mom’s weirdness? Mom did a lot of crazy things, and because of the way she was, Mal had never gone to the doctor. When she had the sniffles she’d drink a nasty tea, and when she was sad, Mom would twine dandelions into her hair. Sometimes her Mom would lean against the kitchen sink and speak with the moon. She even missed that, although it frightened her, but not as much as the possibility that the moon might talk back.
For the rest of us, she mocked.
The pre-dawn light outlined the fir trees that passed her window, intermingled with cold patches of a clear night and crisp stars. But somewhere in the distance there were towns on the cusp of another ordinary day where ordinary families wavered on the brink of ordinary alarm clocks.
She pressed her head against the coolness of the window as someone slid into the booth opposite of her. The waiter? If he thinks he can smooze up to me to get my godfather―The booth across the compartment was empty. A cold chill trickled down her spine. Don’t look at him, she urged herself, definitely don’t look.
“You haven’t eaten your sweet,” the stranger observed.
She pressed her lips into a thin line, her eyes trained on the space between the trees and the sky. He slithered a hand over the table to move the pastry closer to her, insisting. She said lamely, “I’m not hungry.”
“Sweets sooth me, as well.”
Her skin scrawled. “Sir, can you please get awa―”
“I can tell.” He sounded amused. That rubbed her the wrong way. “You are apprehensive. Nervous. Your eyebrows furrow in that peculiar way when you are.”
Her knees began bouncing under the table; he was seriously freaking her out. His shoulder leaned inward, his arm stretched across the table, successfully barring her into the corner of the booth. Where’s the waiter?! She began to motion to him, but he stood slumped against the counter, a thin line of drool oozing from his mouth. Oh, great. Such a help he’d be.
“You’re not who I imagined you would become,” he said, more to himself than to her. She stiffened at the remark. She’d seen scenes like this on CSI, and she didn’t like where this was going. Two people alone in a dining cart, if one of them screamed and no one was around to hear it… would she make a sound? “But then again, you have always surprised me.”
“Do I know you?” she couldn’t help but ask.
“Perhaps.” He tilted his head, his index finger tapping the table in frustration, “...someday.”