It was a few minutes ‘til closing time, and Luke reached inside his apron pockets, searching for the small bottle of tequila he had brought along. He was never obsessed with alcohol the way other men were, never fell to its effects. Luke was a strictly conservative man, and now he cautiously took a sip of the liquor. It burned his throat and left him coughing, and he tucked it back into his pocket.
A faint ringing was heard, signaling that someone had walked into the restaurant, if one could call it a restaurant. The shabby, narrow aisle that had magically morphed into a run-down snack counter was rather pathetic in any person’s eyes, so Luke could not wonder who, at such late a time, would be arriving here.
The man that walked inside looked like some sort of beggar. His hair was uneven and shaggy, with a grimy fedora perched on the nest, and he wore a heavy overcoat which made him lumpy and bulky in some places. He smelled strongly of garbage, the scent that carried around the backways of alleys, as though he had been rolling around in a dump. His face was covered by the shadow of the fedora.
He now slid up to the counter and took a seat. Glancing at the clock stuck on the wall, and noticing how close it was to ten, he drummed his fingers among the countertop. Luke hurriedly rushed forward.
“A ham sandwich would do, good sir, with some Coke?” His voice was gravelly and hoarse, yet perfectly understandable.
“Fine by me.”
While Luke shoved slices of bread into the heater, the stranger looked around the place, taking in every dilapidated detail, from the peeling yellow paint to the chipped floorboards. “One helluva place you run here.”
“I don’t run it, actually. I’m just the front-up man. Boss gone home, I’m cleaning up here to close it for the night.”
“And I’d seemed to have interrupted your cleaning.”
The stranger chuckled, and now leaned forward. “You look like a pretty good man to know. Wha's your name?”
“Luke. Luke Morris. How ‘bout you?”
“Oh, I’m not so sure of my name anymore,” the stranger said, matter-of-factly. “But for those who wish to know, they call me Ethan. Now,” he said, smiling slightly, “you don’t seem like a mere waiter. You’re polite and well-educated, seems like you shoulda been a respected lawyer or doctor or somewhat. How’d you end up here?”
Something bubbled inside Luke, a gnawing sense of rage and misery. He clenched his teeth and poured iced Coke into a plastic cup. “I don’t feel like talkin’ about it.” He shoved the Coke toward Ethan, spilling a bit of it.
Ethan swallowed some Coke down. “ 'Tis alright, Luke. You tell your story and I’ll tell you mine.” He peeked at the clock. “Got a few minutes to chat up.”
“It’s a long story,” Luke said, pouring himself a small amount of tequila. “I’m not sure you want to hear it.”
“No worries there, mister. I go around hearing stories all the time.”
“Well, it kinda started when I left college. I just graduated from Stanford, you know. Didn’t want to stay at California. So I trotted down to Texas here, and made myself home near Waco and Dallas, I dunno.” He looked nervously at Ethan, who smiled at him encouragingly.
“I met this girl, I first saw her at a library. I was shooting for a doctor, wanted to learn medical shit and all that. I sorta bumped into her when we were reaching for stuff ‘bout cardiac dissection. We grew real friendly over each other, started dating. Her name was Melissa, she was a smart lassie, and really pretty too. Proposed after two years of dating. We married at a church, everyone was crying and taking photos, I was all dressed up in my best tux and she in this lovely white dress.”
Swallowing another mouthful of Coke, Ethan asked, “You ever made it out with each other?”
“Funny thing, I actually don’t know. I don’t recall doin’ it, but we must’ve had, because several years later we had a girl.”
“And she was the treasure of your life.”
Luke nodded. “Our greatest treasure. She made life worth living. The way she waved her little fists at us, the way she cried and burped and laughed, I could’ve died of happiness. I named her Jessica, but everyone calls her Jessie. She was unbelievably adorable. Every time I picked her up I wanted to hold her forever.”
“You ever became a doctor?”
“Yeah, I worked for some years at a Methodist hospital. I didn’t make much, but we had a nice house and we lived in a good district. Life should have been that way, but Melissa got caught in a car crash when Jessie was five. She didn’t die, but she got caught in a coma. I don’t know if she still is or not, they don’t allow me to contact her.” Luke paused, wiping away a teardrop.
“From that on I was pretty much a single dad. I took care of Jessie. Drove her to school, cooked her meals, punished her when she was misbehaving, taught her everything I knew. I tried to be a loving father to her. I don’t know if I succeeded or not. I hope she loved me back.”
Ethan stared curiously at Luke.
“She always carried around this toy wherever she went, even when she became eleven. It’s this filthy ragdoll thing that has buttons for eyes. I don’t know what she called it. She dragged it around all day, putting it in her backpack, stuffed in her pocket. She loved that thing, probably because Melissa made it. It was like their last link together. I tried throwing it away, but I somehow couldn’t. It was Melissa’s.”
“Our life would have been okay like that. But it’s always going against me. It’s always ruining me when I’m best, it haunts me everywhere. You see…” Luke drew in a deep, shuddering breath. He quickly made the sandwich and pushed the plate toward Ethan.
“We were just alone at the house. I guess this drunken smoker came lolling around, and he threw a cigarette at the house. It just blazed up, faster than you could speak. Before I knew what I was doing, I was out the door, on the lawn. I yelled for Jessie to run. She ran back to get her stupid toy. And she didn’t come back out again.”
“I reckon I could have went in there and saved her. I just couldn’t take one step. I put my life before hers and I paid the price for it. In an hour she was just bones.”
“Goddammit, I was a selfish bitch. Neighbors called the cops, they thought I set the house on fire, like hell I would. Kept in a cell for around a week, my face planted on every major newspaper. Then the smoker who caused all this mess, who caused me to lose my precious, he stepped forward and confessed, that bastard. Told everything. They let me out afterwards, and the other guy was probably sentenced for life, as I would care. Melissa was gone, Jessie was gone, what more could I lose?”
“A lot more, apparently. Methodist staff fired me, saying that despite my innocence I could be ‘unstable.’ Went all around the state, trying to find a job. No one wanted to hire me, with a criminal spot in my record. I tried to convince them; tried telling them the truth, but no one gave a damn. Moved all around ‘til I settled here, right where I’m sitting now.”
Luke sighed. “After around twenty years, the pain’s feeling numb. It’s like a bad dream now, like it was never part of my life. When Jessie died, her soul died inside me. She’s not here anymore and she’ll never be. I’ll bet that if I died I wouldn’t get to see her. I don’t deserve to see her. Maybe if I went into that burning house I might’ve saved her, and I wouldn’t be behind a counter, serving Coke and ham sandwiches near ten o’clock. Right now, she would’ve been married, she would’ve graduated. I would be a real happy father sitting by a cozy fireplace. She’s dead because I was selfish, just wanting to rescue my own skin. No God is ever going to forgive me. I can’t even look at myself. I’m a coward who takes up a spot on this world. A piece of garbage.”
“It’s like a starless night for me. I search the sky for them, but I can’t find a single star. They won’t forgive me. They don’t love me anymore.”
He took a swig of tequila, relishing in the fiery liquid, and plonked the empty bottle down, glaring at Ethan. “There, told you my story. Tell me yours.”
Ethan bent forward, his elbows resting on the table. “I have so many stories, Luke. They began from the beginning of civilization to the end. What I can say is that when someone’s sad, I cheered them up. Whether it works, I never stay to find out. It’s their choice to either end their life or pursue their desires and live it to the fullest. I’m just a helping guide, they take the roads. I just suggest and recommend their choices. It’s entirely up to them; it’s their life they’re controlling.”
“Minds are troubled. People suicide all the time and I’m not always there to stop them. What I’m saying is you can either be tormented by the past or move on to the future. Accept that your family is dead. Their souls are not. They will always be with you, one way or another. You might not see them in this life, or the next one, but I guarantee you, Luke, if you embrace their passing, you’ll see them one day. There's always a star in the sky."
Ethan looked at the clock. “Well, it’s late now, and I wish you a good life. I owe you… five dollars, according to the menu.” He took a crumpled Abraham Lincoln out of his pocket and pressed it in Luke’s hand, along with something else, something soft and warm. “Good night to you, Luke.” He swiftly walked out the door.
For a long time Luke simply stood there, gazing out the dusty windows. Finally he looked down at his hand. Tucking the five-dollar bill into his apron pocket, he saw he was holding the very doll Jessie had once loved and had sacrificed herself for. The doll was whole, no parts burned or singed, but it smelled a bit of smoke, as though it had been salvaged from the ruins of the house. Luke held it in his hand and felt a warm feeling inside him, something he had not felt in a very long time.
Written by RisingFusion