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The end of Nicole’s cigarette hit the pavement outside the Diner, and she crushed it beneath a we sneaker. She could hear the faint sound of ’50s rock and roll coming from inside. What is that? Is that The Drifters?
This night had been going on for years. She blew into her cupped hands, steam mingling with the smoke still in her lungs. It was a long shift. But it could be worse, there were plenty worse jobs than this.
The Penguins. It’s the Penguins.
The bell on the glass door announced her as she made her way back inside. The interior was as you’d expect from a retro diner. Wurlitzer Juke Box in the corner. Red faux leather booths sticky with the sweat of a thousand bare-legged teens. Neon signs declaring “Coca-Cola Sold here” and “Route 66,” creating an almost inaudible buzz that (if you sat in there too long) made you want to scratch your brains out.
Nicole raised a hand in greeting to Pete behind the counter. He adjusted his soda jerk hat and leaned over, resting his elbows on the counter.
“You know the phrase ‘When hell freezes over’? Well, it’s getting there.”
Pete laughed and passed her a coffee. She took it gladly. “You know me so well.”
He deftly brushed off the compliment, “Meh, I know everyone.” He nodded towards the end booth. “You’ve got one waiting for you.”
“Already? It’s not even…” Nicole checked her watch, but it wasn’t working. It was just for show.
The woman in the booth looked to be in her early 40s. She was clutching her bag as though someone might be thinking of stealing it. She had a twinset and pearls kind of look that didn’t seem out of place here. Nicole slid on to the bench opposite.
“Hey, how are you doing?”
The woman continued to look around, squinting at the décor.
“It’s Helen, isn’t it? Helen Sabine?”
At the sound of her name, the woman looked at Nicole directly. She toyed with the tassels on her bag. She nodded.
“Do you remem….”
“No. Yes. I was in the car. Did I drive here? I don’t remember driving here.”
Of course you don’t. “Do you remember the bus, Helen?”
“Yes! There was a bus and….” Helen stopped fiddling and raised her chubby fingers to her mouth. Nicole put her hand out towards her and placed her palm on the table. Sticky. Always so sticky. “Hey, it’s okay.”
She waited. It’s better if they work it out themselves, there are fewer questions that way.
“Would you like something to drink?”
Helen barely moved, just inclined her head slightly. Nicole asked Pete for a Root Beer float and Helen sipped on it silently. Nicole was used to waiting. She sipped her (slightly underwhelming) coffee and scratched away at some ancient chewing gum with her fingernail. Half the gum was gone before Helen spoke.
“I’m dead aren’t I.” It wasn’t a question. Nicole tilted her head to one side and smiled apologetically. Helen went back to studying her surroundings. “Is the afterlife a 1950s diner?”
Nicole ground her teeth. “Sometimes.” She tried to put it out of her mind. She had a job to do. Time to switch to Sales mode.
“Now you have to decide what you want to do next, Helen.”
“Well you’ve got a choice. You can walk out of that door, out into the desert and go off to… wherever you go off to…”
Head tilt to the other side, more apologetic smiling. “Not my area, I’m afraid.”
Nicole didn’t know why the head tilt always worked. Perhaps it was something to do with the way a puppy looks at you when it’s crapped on the carpet. And this was one huge crap on a cosmic sized carpet.
“What’s the other choice?”
Nicole let the smile drop from her face and locked eyes with Helen. “Justice.”
“You can choose to select someone who has wronged you and dole out the punishment that you think they never received in life.”
Boom. Pitch dealt swiftly and efficiently. Nicole slapped the table with her palm and leaned back against the sparkly pleather. The effect was to exit the client’s ‘personal bubble’ and give them time to think.
And everybody does think about it. Even those who choose the door and then walk into the desert think about it for a good amount of time. Nicole heard on the grapevine that Mother Teresa had sunk four Cherry Milkshakes before deciding on the door.
It turns out Helen didn’t have to think for too long. She was wearing that face that you can only manage once you’ve spent much of your life scowling at children having fun on buses. The face that looks like a person’s eyebrows have made a clandestine arrangement with their lips to meet each other at the nose.
“Got someone in mind, huh?”
Helen seemed to be crocheting the words with her tongue before she opened her mouth.
“I mean, theoretically speaking, there might be someone I would consider…”
Of course there is.
“But he’s not…. Well he’s not dead yet.”
Nicole fanned the words away with hand.
“Time doesn’t really work like that here.”
Helen began to tell the sorry story of her relationship with Jason Emmerich. Nicole didn’t need to listen; she knew how it went. Passion. Cheating. Heartbreak that never quite heals because you can’t stop picking at the scab and eating it. You Belong to Me had clicked on to the jukebox, but that was Pete’s sense of humour.
The same song had been playing a long time before when Nicole had been sitting on the other side of the table. Except that hadn’t been a diner, it had been an old English tearoom with scones and sticky strawberry jam and those finger sandwiches with the crust cut off. Nicole’s ‘Jason Emmerich’ was called Nick. Pete was called Peter back then and he had been dressed like an Edwardian butler.
Nicole realised that Helen had stopped talking.
“So what’s it going to be? You can let it go and walk out of the door, or you can get some payback.”
The woman’s sleeve was soggy from wiping her face. Nicole called down to the counter, “Hey, Pete. Any chance you could bring in Jason Emmerich?” Pete had barely nodded when the diner door jangled.
“No! I don’t want to look at him! Please don’t make me have to see him.” Helen buried her face in her sleeve once again.
Down by the counter, Nicole could see Pete offering Jason a stool and taking his drink order. The man looked confused but happy to be out of the rain.
Let’s get this done.
“Okay Helen, you don’t have to see him right now. All I need you to do is tell me exactly what you want to happen to him.”
Helen’s expression began to change. The client always enjoyed this bit. This was the part where people got to reclaim their power. The part where they get to play God. In Nicole’s experience, their version of God was rarely merciful. Nicole listened carefully to Helen, jotting notes on a napkin and, on a couple of occasions, drawing diagrams. She had long since given up on being surprised by humanity’s lust for cruelty, but a few of Helen’s suggestions made Nicole’s eyebrows twitch.
When she was done scribbling, Nicole walked up to the counter and impaled the napkin on the bill spike. “Order up!” She pouted a consolatory lip to Jason, who was still sat at the counter, sipping a caramel macchiato.
Pete read the order and sucked the air though his teeth. “Ouch.”
Eons ago in that tearoom, Nicole had doled out punishment too. Less physically violent than what Helen had chosen but psychologically damaging nonetheless. In the long run, much more damaging to Nicole than it ever would be to Nick.
Nicole had returned to the table but not taken a seat. “Okay, would you mind skooching on over to the other side of the booth for me?” Helen clutched her handbag and awkwardly switched over to the opposite side of the table. Nicole couldn’t help but think of aT-Rex holding a teddy-bear. She slid in next to Helen, simultaneously invading her personal space and trying unsuccessfully to hold in a smirk. The desired effect was to make Helen very uncomfortable. She didn’t often indulge in the schadenfreude of these situations, but Nicole didn’t like the way that Helen had poked at the ice-cream in her drink. As though she was unsure if it was organic and was trying to pick around it. And, if she was honest, Helen reminded her a little too much of her newly dead self. And who doesn’t want to punish themselves, deep down?
She could smell Jason before she heard him. The stench of decay and blood and all manner of imagined horrors buzzed around him. It hummed. When he accidentally touched Helen’s arm trying to drag his legless torso in to the booth, she screamed.
When Nick had returned to the tea-room, he hadn’t been missing any limbs but his enlarged pupils and the way his hands trembled as he pulled out the chair to sit down had brought up bile in Nicole’s throat. Half human carcasses were doddle after seeing that.
Jason squelched his way across the bench seat and propped himself up so that he was directly opposite Helen.
“Hello Helen.” He spat. Blood flecked the plastic table.
Helen’s cake hole could have taken a whole Croque en Bouche. “How…but you’ve only just left…”
Nicole lifted her shoulders “I told you, time doesn’t work that way here.”
Jason was offered the same deal, of course. Walk (or in his case, crawl) off into the desert or dole out his own godly punishment. Jason’s request was simple, she didn’t even have to write it down.
“Pete! Order up,” she said wearily, walking up to the counter. “Same again.”
Nicole knew how this would go. Helen would come back as a bloody mess and the whole thing would start again and go round and round in an horrific pirouette like an endless Waltzer car full of vomiting teens. They would spit retribution at each other until there was nothing left but pulped flesh and hate.
Pete handed her another uninspiring coffee. “I wish they wouldn’t get so violent. It puts me off my fries.” he said. Nicole found herself wondering, not for the first time, if that was how demons were made.
Nick hadn’t asked for violence against Nicole. Nick’s request had been particularly cruel. He’d had a long time to think of it. Nicole’s punishment had made sure of that.
“Give the lazy bitch a job,” he had said. “In a fifties diner. She fucking hates those places. Make it a really long shift.”
Nicole didn’t know how long she’d been there or how long left she had to go. Time didn’t work that way here. What she did know is that one day she’ll be sat in that tearoom again. She’ll be saying, “I’m sorry.” and “I forgive you.” And when she is given the choice, she will walk out the door and off into the darkness of the desert.
The bell on the door jangled. Nicole picked up her order pad.