At the Normal Café part 3 – Abnormal Psychology
Bev looked again at the man sitting alone at the counter, and was intrigued. In a diner full of regulars, any stranger stood out, but this guy was something else entirely. With his long dirty coat, scruffy beard and unwashed aroma, everything about him said, “Stay away.” And the thing he was currently doing with the mosquito under the water glass was just odd. He caught her looking and stared back, all challenge and malice. Instead, Bev gestured with the coffee pot. When he waved her off, she started around the diner again. It was her second circuit in ten minutes, but what the hell?
There were just five other patrons in the place, all lost in their own particular worlds. In her experience, people who sat alone in a diner after midnight either had problems or they worked nights. The night-shifters only stayed long enough to eat. They were the morning crowd by moonlight. These folks in here tonight were squarely in the former category.
Bev loved it.
Just last week, the large white envelope had arrived, approving her thesis proposal. Bev had read it over with her feet up and Wheel of Fortune playing in the background. In turn for her upcoming six month real life study of “The Service Effect”, she would be granted her Masters Correspondence Diploma in Psychology.
Since beginning her studies, her entire world view changed; and the diner became more than just the reason behind her fallen arches and aching back. Now she had her very own psychological “sample group” and by the time she received her first diploma, she’d had her stroke of genius. She would use the diner as the basis for her Master’s Thesis.
Bev put down on paper what she’d known for years – people will take anything if it’s offered for free. Every time the good patrons accepted another cup of deliberately burnt coffee, they proved her right.
Brewing lousy java was as devious as she got, however. Most of the people who came into the diner were friends. She walked over to Big Dwayne and topped up his cup.
“Thanks Bev,” said Dwayne. He’d been drinking; the smell was all over him. Something in his eyes though, said there was a very good reason behind it, and she decided not to press. There were times, she knew, that you had to tie one on to get a little peace. At the rate he was apparently going though, he’d end up on the little cot in the back of the diner before long. For Big Dwayne, who was like a little brother, she didn’t mind, but felt entitled to comment a little, “Just take it slow, okay hon? And don’t think you’re going to drive tonight.” She smiled at him then. It was a smile that said, “I understand, but don’t push it.”
She moved on and topped up Dawnie Campbell, who was staring off into space, shoulders slumped forward and picking at her plate of fries. She’d always been a sad girl, but the last time she’d been in, Bev had picked out at least three telltale signs of serious depression. Tonight was no better, and Bev resolved to sit down with the girl and try to help once a few more people left. She even looked forward to it: her first patient!
Even good-time Lenny, usually dependable for a dirty joke or two, was having an “off” night. He was the most “regular” of her regulars, and the only person she knew who wanted waffles at midnight (who wasn’t drunk.) He kept looking nervously out the window, and had barely touched his food in the hour he’d been here.
She wondered if the stranger had anything to do with it. He’d been quiet enough so far, speaking only long enough to order his meal. Now though, he was just sitting there, staring at the dumb old mosquito in its dirty glass cage. Before she could puzzle it out further, Lenny knocked his plate off the table. It smashed so loudly in the relative silence of the place that Bev had to stifle a small scream. She picked up the broom and dustpan by the door to the kitchen and headed over. He was on the ground, hastily sweeping up shards and throwing the bigger pieces on the table.
“You alright Lenny?”
“Shit. Sorry Bev. I don’t know what I was doing. I went for my cup and I guess …” He stood up, and started gathering up the pieces again, intending to drop them into her dustpan.
“Don’t worry about it Len. It happens. Here, let me do it. At least now I got something to do, right?” She favoured him with her warmest smile. He returned it, but just barely. A second later, that worried look returned to his eyes, and he flicked his gaze back to the window.
“You’re sure you’re alright Lenny?” said Bev, “You seem a little, I dunno, spooked?”
“I’m alright Bev. I’m fine. Don’t worry about it. Okay?” He was still polite as ever, but now there was a thread of annoyance in his tone. She took the china-laden dustpan back behind the counter, threw the whole mess away then leaned back against the counter and glanced at the TV.
An infomercial was playing, advertising workout equipment that seemed to promise instant weight loss to everyone who had their credit card ready and ordered now. At this time of night, it was infomercials or Monster Trucks, and Bev hated Monster Trucks. That they had been a particular favourite of Arnold “May-he-rot- in-hell” Shemply did not escape her enlightened mind. So, infomercials ruled the airwaves here.
At the next, “Operators are standing by”, she became aware of someone snapping their fingers. Of course it was one of the kids in the back booth. They steadfastly refused to be bothered all the while they’d been groping each other between bites of toast, but now that they wanted to pay up … chop chop Waitress. She looked over and saw the boy obnoxiously waving cash in a “come hither” motion. Dwayne was making his way unsteadily to the can, and gave the kid a disapproving glare.
With a sigh, Bev picked up the coffee and started out from behind the counter. Might as well kill two birds with one stone, she thought.
As if waiting for her back to be turned, the stranger bolted upright from his stool and pulled a gun. Before she could even register the movement in her peripheral vision, a thundering crash filled the air, and Big Dwayne fell down with a thud.
Bev dropped the coffee. The pot shattered with a sound almost as loud as the gunshot that had preceded it. Steaming coffee peppered with glass shards splashed across her pants. She screamed, and then, before the stranger could turn around, she dropped to the ground. She barely registered the cuts to her hands as she tried to keep out of sight. The smell of the burnt, muddy coffee filled her nose, and she had to exhale hard, and then draw her breath in tiny little sips to keep from puking. This made her lightheaded, so she crawled along the bottom of the counter, away from the spill. Needle pricks of glass poked through her jeans, stinging her knees.
The guy was nuts. She’d seen it in his eyes and done nothing. Now Big Dwayne was shot, probably dead. As her hearing started to return, she could make out screaming. The young man was yelling at everyone to shut up. No one had said anything at all, as far as Bev could tell. Her panicked brain came right to the diagnosis – schizophrenia.
He should be on medication. Probably stopped taking it when he felt better, Bev thought, and now he’s going to kill us all. The gun crashed again. The picture window exploded and jagged shards flew everywhere. She could just make out Lenny trying to crawl under his table. He was unharmed, so far. From her position on the floor, she could make out a shape moving beyond the middle row of booths. Dwayne. He was still alive. Thank heavens for that.
Bev took a deep breath. If she kept her calm, maybe she could talk the stranger down. It was an exceedingly dangerous thing to do, and she was the furthest thing from being a licensed therapist, but she was also the best chance of survival for the people in here tonight. If she didn’t do something, there wouldn’t be anyone for the police to save, if and when they showed up. The gun went off again. No screams came. No more hits since Dwayne. That was good. She steeled herself and began to rise.
Slowly. Everything must be slow. No matter how much she felt like bolting. This person in front of her needed help. Right now though, he was more like an animal than a human and sudden movement would make him bite. How to begin though? She remembered some, but nowhere near enough of her texts. There was something about using a calming tone, and talking about something unrelated, to draw their attention. Something to break the focus of the mania.
Bev had an idea, “Sir?” she said calmly, “I forgot to give you your change. I’m terribly sorry. “
He turned then, and was staring at her without seeing. His eyes were wild and flicking back and forth. “What?!” He directed this at the cash register.
“Your change, sir. I’m sorry. I just forgot all about it.” Bev kept going, using placating words, sorry, I forgot. Me. My fault. Not you.
“My … change?” She had his interest. Now, she had to keep going, keep calming, keep playing the part.
She reached slowly towards the cash register.
“Oh. I see. Money. Money for me. Money to leave. Not good that I’m here. Not good for the loser to be here.” He was trembling, growing more agitated. She started to panic.
“No! No! You’re good, don’t worry. We all like you. We want you here. Let’s talk. Won’t you talk to me? Please?” Bev’s voice was rising in tone despite her best efforts. She could see the smoking barrel of the gun; the hole to nowhere pointed straight at her.
Beyond the stranger, she could see Dawnie of all people getting to her feet. Oh lord. She was going to try something stupid. She had her french-fry plate in hand, and looked to be making a move to brain the guy.
In her need to save Dawnie, Bev condemned herself.
“Dawnie – NO!” Bev screamed. The shock broke the stranger’s calm, and his arm jerked twice. The first bullet tore through Bev’s ear, shattering the mirror behind the counter, and deafening her. She didn’t hear the report as the second bullet hit her high in the chest. Bev sank to her tattered knees, trying and failing to hold onto the Formica counter as she fell. Her sight grew dim.
Bev departed the world staring at the grey rubber wastebasket under the cash register wishing she’d mopped the floor; the grit on the tiles was irritating her cheek. Then she was gone.
A scrabbling sound of glass against tile by the window made the stranger turn. The nervous guy was making a break for freedom.
That wouldn’t do at all.
Copyright 2010 Chris Allinotte
Chris Allinotte is a Toronto based writer. His work has been published on the web at such great sites as MicroHorror, Flashes in the Dark, the Oddville Press, and more. For more details about Chris' writing, check out his blog at: