Bethany walked over to where Adriel was sitting, his slender fingers wrapped around a mug, staring out the window at the early-morning sunlight.
He reminded her of a commercial for coffee she had seen once, in which a father was looking out the window, watching his daughter grow up before his eyes. At first, she was a child playing with a puppy, then a little girl getting on the school bus, then a young woman arriving home in her boyfriend’s car, and then off to college… then that annoying jingle, It’s all just the memories, make memories with Mon Maison Coffee…
Bethany wished she could be that girl, go back to be herself when she was first off to college, and warn herself not to be such a fucking idiot. How had things gone so wrong so fast? Why hadn’t anyone told her how easy it was to fall through the cracks?
Adriel was looking at her, so she slid into the seat across from him. Before she could get a word out, he handed her a menu.
“Order whatever you want,” he said. “Don’t worry about money. It isn’t even a real thing.”
“Oh, really?” she said, taking the menu. “You want to tell that to my landlord? Maybe she’ll let me move back in if she knows there’s no such thing as money.” She hadn’t slept in more than twenty-four hours, and even then, she had only snatched a few moments of sleep in a public toilet, yet now she felt more awake and alert than she had felt at the police station. Must be the anticipation of real food, she thought. The menu had pictures of some of the more popular dishes, and everything looked delicious. She looked over the top of the menu at Adriel. He was staring out the window again. Off in his own little world, she thought, and turned her attention back to the menu. Pancakes. No, an omelet. A western omelet with everything in it. She had once been a vegetarian, but now it was survival, and she wanted to eat everything.
“I would recommend the western omelet with a side of blueberry pancakes,” Adriel said, still staring out the window. “They’re quite good here.”
“Have you eaten here before?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “But I overheard some other customers talking earlier.”
“Can you get a side of pancakes?” she asked. “The omelets already come with a side of home fries.”
“Sure,” he said, “If you ask for it, you can get the lot.” He smiled out the window. “Shoot the moon, Bethany.”
“Okay,” she said. She was too hungry to feign politeness. The server appeared at her side, holding a cell phone. Servers didn’t use those little notepads anymore, Bethany noticed. Everything was on a smart phone or a tablet now.
“You ready to order, miss?” the server asked, her finger poised over the cell phone’s screen.
“Um, yeah,” Bethany shot another glance at Adriel to see if he was really okay with her ordering two things from the menu. He was sipping from his mug, eyes still gazing at the early morning sky. “Can I get a western omelet with home fries, and also an order of blueberry pancakes?”
“Sure thing,” said the server, tapping the screen in her hand. “Anything to drink?”
“Large orange juice,” said Bethany. “And a cup of coffee.”
The server’s finger danced across the screen as she turned to walk away. “Alrighty,” she said without looking up. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”
“Thanks for this,” she said after the server had gone. Adriel now pulled his eyes away from the window to look at her. He didn’t look tired at all, only, perhaps, a little sad.
“No worries,” he said. “You’ve earned it. You’ve had a rough time of late.”
“Yeah,” she said, keeping her eyes on him. “Of late. And you… what’s your deal, anyway?”
He smiled. “My deal? I don’t have a deal. I, like you, just have a situation.”
“Alrighty, then,” she said, pronouncing it ah-ighty-den, trying to imitate the server’s local Yinzer accent. “What’s your situation?” She rested her elbows on the table, folding her fingers in front of her. Adriel watched her hands, chuckled a little and shook his head.
“It’s complicated. I’d like to tell you about it, but I think you need time to adjust.”
“Adjust?” she raised her eyebrows. “How so?”
“Like I said, you’ve had a rough time of late. You need to eat, and sleep, and clear your head. You need a chance to get your bearings again.”
She let her hands fall to the table, and now she tilted her head at him, same inquisitive gesture.
“You need to find your feet again before you can brace yourself for the next wave.” He raised his hands, then lowered them at her, wiggling his fingers, and making the soft whooshing sound of an ocean wave, then he also let his hands fall to the table.
She studied his face, she found only kindness. Perhaps she was just too tired to see anything else. She just nodded. He was right. She did need to find her feet, to regroup, as she herself had said hours ago.
The server leaned in and set a large glass of orange juice in front of her, followed by a cup of coffee on a saucer. Then she dropped a straw unceremoniously between the two.
“Cream and sugar are on the table. Can I get you anything else?”
“No, we’re good,” the pair said simultaneously. Bethany smiled.
“Jinx,” she said. “You owe me a Coke.”
He raised an eyebrow, and she smiled. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s something I heard on a TV show.” She popped the straw through its wrapper, stabbed the glass with it, and drew in orange juice like a starving mosquito on a fresh vein.
He nodded, smiling, like he knew what she meant. Then he said, “So, Bethany Kendrick, tell me about yourself.”
She stopped inhaling orange juice and sat back, the smile dropping from her face, but not in an angry way, or even in surprise. Somehow, she had expected that. But she still had to ask.
“Okay, how the hell do you know my full name?”
“I mean no offense,” he said. “You’re just easy to read. You’re tired, and you keep a lot at the forefront of your mind. You are worried about a lot.”
“So you can read minds?” she asked, not incredulously.
“Not really,” he said. “I can read faces, expressions… subconscious, miniscule muscle twitches.” As if to illustrate what he was saying, he let a small muscle beneath his left eye twitch, followed by the right-side corner of his mouth. Almost imperceptible, in fact it would have been if she had not been looking directly at his face and already had the idea of muscle twitches suggested to her. The subtlety of the movements, although barely noticeable, gave her a feeling of trust. She could almost hear his voice in her head: That’s all it is.
“And you can guess someone’s name by their facial twitches?”
“No, it’s more than that. With you, it’s almost as if you are reaching out. You want a friend. You need someone to help you. In that frame of mind, when you make eye contact, you almost broadcast a salutation, and what comes with a salutation?”
Her face now told him that she had meant to say that, but the first word that had occurred to her had been ‘greeting.’
“I know, you’re tired,” he said. “You are right, but your speech centers haven’t caught up with your thinking. Until you get some sleep, they will continue to disappoint you.”
She sighed, and her shoulders slumped noticeably. “And miles to go before I sleep,” she said.
Adriel’s expression became one of fondness. “Ah, Robert Frost.”
“Is that who said that?” Bethany asked. “I always have that line in my head, but I couldn’t remember where I had heard it.” She took another sip of her orange juice, then addressed the elephant in the room. “So, as for my desperate need of sleep, if I do go to your place, if there are any hidden… expectations, or—”
He shook his head. “Not at all,” he said. “You have my word. I won’t harm you. I won’t touch you. I will leave you alone. In fact, if you like, I will show you where it is, and then leave you there to sleep. You can lock the door and I will go elsewhere until you have regained your full mental capacities.”
She stared at him. She thought this should feel awkward, but it didn’t. After a brief silence in which she felt he was reading her face again, she just said, “You’re so weird. Besides,” she continued, “I wouldn’t want to put you out of your apartment or whatever. I could just crash on your couch for a few hours, but I will keep my knife handy, if that’s okay.”
He smiled. “Fine by me, if you feel it would be of any help.”
“Oh, someone’s feeling cocky,” she said. “You beat up two rapists, you figure you’d have no trouble kicking my ass.” She surprised herself with how easy it was to say the ‘r’ word. It had just come out of her mouth, like it hadn’t even crossed her mind. Now she felt a little uneasy, as if it had a presence, hanging over the table. She tried to break its spell and shoo it away by rattling her coffee mug on its saucer and taking a sip. It was still too hot. She reached for the cream.
“You’ll be okay, Bethany,” Adriel said, and it really did make her feel like she would be. Her hand was steady as she poured the cream.
“So I just… broadcasted my full name to you?” she said, setting the cream back in its place beside the packets of sugar and artificial sweetener. She wanted to back out of the conversational cul-de-sac they had just turned down.
“In a way,” he said. “It also helps that I have seen you before, and heard your name used.”
“Wait, you’ve been following me?” she said. She wanted to sound angry, but she didn’t.
“No,” he said, and it felt for a moment like he was throwing up a shield, like she had raised her hand to him, and he had raised his arm to block the blow. “I… see, this is where it gets awkward.”
“Why?” she said. “Just tell me the truth.”
“I am afraid you are not ready for the truth. Not all of it. Not yet.”
“Why not?” and before he could answer, she answered her own question, “Because I’m so tired, I know. Just… give me the Reader’s Digest version.”
“Alright,” he said, leaning back in his seat. “First off, I am human, just as you are.”
When she heard him say this, she thought she should find it odd, but she didn’t. Hadn’t she kind of been wondering, somewhere in the back of her mind, this whole time? How did he know her name? And what was with his eyes? Why did they appear black at times? And why was he so… weird?
She just nodded. “Good to know. So why do you seem so strange to me?”
“Well,” he said, “Largely because you are tired, and you are reading signals inaccurately.”
“You mean you are trying to project yourself as a regular person, but my tired brain is misreading those projections?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Very good!” he said. “You are getting something. But no. You see, because your mind is so tired, it would be easy for me to manipulate your perceptions of me, make you see me as I want you to see me – as a regular person. However, I want you to see me for what I really am, but that is confusing you. Your receptors are not firing rapidly enough, transmissions are getting garbled. If I tried to explain everything to you, I might not be able to convey the sense of safety. When people are exhausted, stressed, they panic easily.”
“I’m not going to panic,” she said. “I just want to know what you are.”
“I’m human,” he said again, “But I’m from a different tribe, if you will. A tribe with a different customary history.”
Before she could ask about the tribe comment, she jumped, startled by a blue-green shape moving beside her.
“Here ya go, hon,” said the server, setting down a plate with the most delicious-smelling omelet laid out on it, surrounded by even more deliciously smelling home fries. This was followed by the pancakes, and the smell of those… Bethany thought she might faint.
“I hope you brought your appetite!” the server joked.
“Oh, no worries there!” Bethany replied, and began unwrapping the silverware from their napkin cocoon. She couldn’t take her eyes off the delicacies that had been laid before her. She felt a huge wave of gratitude and forgot about the tribe thing.
“Can I get you anyth–”
“Nope, we’re good!” Bethany cut her off and began tearing into the omelet. As her right hand operated the fork, her left hand grabbed a syrup packet. Her mouth stuffed with the best omelet God could ever create, she set down her fork and tore open the syrup, dumping the contents onto the pancakes, letting it ooze over the little lump of butter melting on top. She shook out the last drops, tossed the empty packet aside, grabbed the fork, and set to the short stack.