a short story by Alexis Morgan
This month's installment is going to be a bit different from my usual short story or serialized novella. Writers all have people living inside their heads, and those folks are as real to us as the ones who inhabit the world around us. I don't know where they come from or why they choose to appear inside my head instead of someone else's. I do know that some take root and demand their own stories be told. I've said in the past that Jarvis, Hunter, and Barak all did that. No matter how many times I tried telling them that they were only secondary characters, they wouldn't listen. Oh, no, they had to have their very own books.
But almost as often, characters will start moving around in the back of my mind, sometimes for days on end, but without ever coming into sharp focus. It's as if they haven't quite decided whether or not I'm the right storyteller for them. I only get a glimpse of an opening scene, which can be quite dramatic, but that's all I see. I have no idea where the tale would go from that point or what ultimately happens to the characters. Despite my best efforts, the story fails to flourish and bloom.
Eventually, the characters fade away never to approach me again. I like to think they've found some other writer, someone whose voice and imagination will give life to their story.
Anyway, this story fragment is one of those. Who knows? Maybe eventually I'll find out what happens to Lydia and her mysterious guest. All I know for sure is that they've been keeping me company for the past two weeks, but they're playing their cards close to the chest. This is as much as I know, and it's likely to be all they'll ever tell me. So if it drives you crazy not to know how a story turns out, you may want to skip this month's offering.
Trouble was coming.
Lydia started to touch the burning ache near her left wrist but caught herself in time. Most people thought the heart-shaped mark on her arm was a small tattoo, but in fact it was a birthmark. Her late grandmother, whose own mark was almost identical to Lydia's, had taught her to trust the burn.
It always—ALWAYS—meant trouble was coming.
That information might have been more helpful if it would have also told her what kind of problem was headed her way or at least how bad it was going to be. The darn thing hurt the same no matter what. It could be something as simple as she forgot to put the trash out on the curb, or it could mean the truck bringing the fresh produce for her restaurant wouldn't arrive until well into the dinner hour thanks to a flat tire. Inconvenient, but nothing a quick run to the local grocery store wouldn't fix.
She had a feeling that she wasn't going to get off that easy this time. Once again, she realized she was rubbing her wrist. As soon as she realized what she was doing, she jerked her hand back down to her side.
"Too late, boss lady. No use in trying to hide that your wrist is hurting something fierce. You've been rubbing on it all day long when you think no one would notice."
Lydia turned to face her companion. "It's just dry skin. I ran out of my moisturizer two days ago and haven't gotten to the store to buy more."
Caleb snorted. "Lie to yourself if you want to, but you're not fooling me."
If it had been anyone else lecturing her, Lydia would have put a stop to it immediately. But Caleb had been with her since the day she'd taken over the restaurant. He wasn't just an employee and the best chef she'd ever worked with; he was her friend.
When she didn't say anything more, he stepped closer. "I've already locked up in back, and everyone else is gone. Do you want me to hang out until you're ready to leave."
She considered his offer, but there was no reason to keep him there any longer. He had a wife waiting for him at home, and she would worry if he was late getting back. Besides, if the trouble was what she suspected it might be, it was better that Caleb not get sucked into the middle of it.
"No, everything is fine. I've got a couple of little things I want to finish up, and then I'll be going home myself. It won't be long before I'm in bed for the night. I promise."
And she meant that. After all, she lived above the restaurant. All she had to do was go out the front door, walk around the side of the building, and head up a flight of stairs. Her commute was five minutes tops.
Caleb patted her on the shoulder and then put on his jacket. "All right, then. I'll see you tomorrow. I filled out the order for next week's menu. I thought I'd do some of those shrimp tacos again. They sold well."
He gave her a narrow-eyed look. "Somehow I think even if I told you I was fixing sauerkraut flavored French toast, you'd say the same thing. Your mind is definitely somewhere else tonight."
She didn't bother to deny it. "Come on, get out of here. Besides, we both know that if anyone could pull off something special with sauerkraut and French toast, it would be you."
His deep laughter rang out in the empty room. "Now you're just flattering me."
Lydia gave him a gentle shove toward the door. "Maybe I am, but that doesn't make it any less true."
When he was gone, she locked the deadbolt, which took a key no matter which side of the door she was on, inside or out. Afterward, she started to lay the key ring down on the counter by her purse, but the flash of gold mixed in with her keys caught her attention. She held the ring up to the light to study the four coins clustered together. They were identical, right down to the hole drilled through the middle, which allowed them to be strung on a chain or, in this case, on her key ring.
They'd been given to her nearly ten years ago, her memory of that moment as vivid now as it had been when the events of that night had actually played out. She'd been the hostess-slash-assistant manager here at the restaurant for five years even though she'd only been twenty-four at the time. Before that, she'd been a dishwasher and then a waitress, working as many hours as she could just to keep a roof over her head while she tried to finish school. She'd made it through high school and two years of community college, a feat she was still proud of.
Joseph Bondi had owned the restaurant back then. He was an odd little man, but a fair boss to those who worked hard and did their job. In all the years she'd known him, she'd never once seen him outside of the restaurant, at least not in the daylight. And in the years she'd worked at the restaurant, he hadn't changed at all or at least it seemed that way. There was no way to know for sure, because he always made a determined effort to avoid having his picture taken.
When she caught him studying real estate ads, she thought maybe he was finally going to buy himself a nicer place to live than the small apartment he had in the basement of the restaurant, which didn't even have a window. Evidently, the building had been a speakeasy back in the day, and the hidden room downstairs had been the hidey hole for the staff if the cops decided to raid the place. He always swore he enjoyed living in a place with such history.
Then she'd noticed the paper wasn't local. In fact, it was from a city on the opposite side of the country. It almost killed her to think the only constants in her life-Joseph and this restaurant-might disappear.
When he realized that she'd seen and understood what was going on, he'd asked her to stay after work to discuss the situation. When everyone else was gone, he'd pulled five gold coins strung on a leather cord out of his pocket. After untying the knot, he'd removed the coins and spread them out on the counter.
"Lydia, I bought this restaurant over forty years ago with these coins. I'm going to sell it to you for the same price."
She could still remember her stunned confusion at that moment. Joseph looked to be about fifty years old, although she'd never asked his actual age. Regardless, he couldn't have been old enough to buy a restaurant four decades ago. And how was she supposed to buy the place with coins he already owned?
That was when he smiled at her. His dark eyes briefly flickered with flashes of red, and his canine teeth had doubled-no, quadrupled in size.
"I know none of this is making sense to you, Lydia, but I'm sure you're starting to put the pieces together. Regardless, it will be simpler if I just lay it all out for you. All right?"
She'd managed to nod.
"I'm not human, at least not any more. I'm sure you've noticed that I don't age even if you haven't said as much. The problem is that too many other people are starting to notice that, so it's time for me to go. My predecessor here at the restaurant had the same problem. When he needed to leave, he said he would sign the restaurant over to me. I was young like you and had no money to buy the place."
"That's when he showed me these." He paused to touch the coins. "The price of the restaurant was five favors for five coins. We would make it look as if I was making payments on the restaurant, but the money actually goes into a numbered account that only I could access. Each coin represented a favor owed to him. If someone showed up with one of the coins, I had to do as they asked no matter what. Once the fifth coin was redeemed, the restaurant became mine, free and clear. He also asked if I wanted to live as he did, as a phantom of the night. I was foolish and said yes."
Joseph's next smile was tinged with regret. "Looking back, that was a mistake, one I wouldn't make today. I've outlived all my childhood friends and family, and I would not wish that pain on anyone else. While I will not offer you that part of the deal, I do offer you the coins."
He touched each piece of gold in turn. "Five coins, five favors, and the restaurant is yours. Don't answer now, but I will need your decision soon."
She'd mulled the offer over for a week. In the end, the decision hadn't been all that hard. She'd loved the restaurant then, and she loved it now. So here she was, ten years later, with four of the coins back in her possession.
For the first one, she'd had to drive to another city to mail a package that had no return address. It had simply appeared in her office one night with a letter containing the coin and a list of instructions lying on top.
For another, she'd hosted a fiftieth wedding anniversary party for an old friend of Joseph's. The third coin had meant taking on an apprentice to work with Caleb for a year, and the fourth had meant giving someone an ironclad alibi. She might have refused that one if she hadn't known where the person really was that night. Although he hadn't been where he should've been, she didn't think he should have to go to jail for life to protect his lover's reputation.
Her birthmark flared hot again, throbbing in time to her racing pulse. Oh, yes, trouble was on its way, and her instincts said that the final payment on the restaurant was coming due any second now.
Even as the thought crossed her mind, a man slowly strolled past the bank of windows at the front of the restaurant. The lights were still on out front, but they didn't little reveal much about him other than he was tall and carried a fair amount of muscle on his frame. A black hoodie covered not just his hair, but part of his face as well. From where she stood, he didn't look much different than dozens of other men who passed by her restaurant all the time. There was something about him, though, that sent a shiver of fear…no, anticipation dancing up her spine.
For a brief second, she hoped- prayed-he'd keep right on walking. He didn't. With his back to the building, he looked up and down the street several times. Apparently satisfied he was under no immediate threat, he walked back to face her front door. His surprisingly pale eyes stared straight into hers as he slowly lifted his hand and pressed it against the door.
Her future shifted on its axis as she stared at the gold coin trapped between his palm and the glass. As she started forward to unlock the door, she realized her arm had quit hurting.
Trouble wasn't coming. It was already there.