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Authors: Alyson Santos

Night Shifts Black

BOOK: Night Shifts Black
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NIGHT SHIFTS BLACK

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A
Novel by

Alyson
Santos

This novel is a work of fiction and intended
for mature readers. Events and persons depicted are of a fictional nature and
use language, make choices, and face situations inappropriate for younger
readers.

 

Names, characters,
places and events are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
to actual events, locations, organizations, or people, living or dead, is
entirely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Night Shifts Black

Copyright
©
2016 Alyson Santos

All Rights Reserved

www.alysonsantos.com

 

Cover design by Era
Media Co.

www.eramediaco.com

 

Cover model: Gabe
Gennace

Just a simple picture. Innocuous to
anyone else, but horrifying to those who recognize that ugly, battered, vacant
diner chair.

Day
One
.

 
 

I’d be lying if I said I don’t notice him
enter the restaurant. We all do. It’s impossible not to.

He isn’t drop-dead
gorgeous or anything. In fact, I can’t describe a single trait I haven’t seen
before. He’s not particularly tall, nor is he memorably short. His hair is messy
in an intentional kind of way that makes you think he cares a little, but not
too much. At the very least, he used to care and old habits die hard. He’s
dressed similarly, casual, but uncomfortably so, like this is his one pair of
jeans in a closet full of suits. Although really, his jeans are too expensive
to count as jeans anyway. He hasn’t shaved in a couple days but it suits him and
makes you pretty sure it’s an intentional look. No, it isn’t any of that.

It’s the way his eyes
scan the café. The chairs, the walls, the ceiling. The way what should be a very
confident young man cowers in the entrance, the cold air blowing in behind him,
interrupting our breakfasts with his personal drama. Stan Hemford even mutters
something about moving in or moving out, but I don’t worry about Stan. I can only
stare at our intruder’s clenched fists and the way they mirror his set jaw.
He’s here, but he doesn’t want to be.

And then, his eyes
seem to find what he’s looking for.

Me.

I almost choke on my
tea as he begins his approach, and my brain launches a frantic index of the
last few years, trying to piece together why I’d have any role in this person’s
life. Maybe he kind of looks familiar, but I don’t think I know him. He isn’t
the type you’d forget so I believe myself. In a brief moment of absurdity I
even consider the possibility that this is a real live hit. But he doesn’t look
like a hit man, at least not what a girl who’s spent most of her life in a rural
Pennsylvania town imagines a hit man to look like. He looks more like the guy
who would hire the hit man. Actually, he looks like the actor who would play
the guy who hires the hit man. A hit man? That’s my working theory? I swallow.

“I’m sorry to bother
you,” he begins with an obvious accent, which is actually the first thing about
the scene that doesn’t surprise me. Nothing about him fits here, at this place,
in this moment. It’s all so foreign that, for a split second, I feel like I don’t
fit either.

“Can I help you with
something? You look lost.”

His eyes change again,
filling with a heavy sadness. Fear, maybe. No, terror. I don’t move. Everyone is
watching us.

He shakes his head.
“I’m not lost. I was just hoping I could have your chair for a bit.”

“My chair?”

“There are many others
available.”

“True.”

There’s one right
across from me. I really don’t have a good reason not to move, nor can I
imagine denying the simple request with him looking at me like that.

“Sure, no problem.”

I push my saucer
across the table and stand with great ceremony. He stares at me in shock, maybe
a hint of amusement, as I skirt around him and drop to the other side of the
table.

“This ok?” I ask, and
when his lips twist into a slight smile, something beautiful happens to his
face. But it’s gone so quickly I actually feel sad.

“You’re very literal.”

“You’re the one who
interrupted my breakfast.”

He nods but doesn’t apologize,
and I suspect he suddenly forgets about me. He’s far away now. I watch his face
as he studies the chair, his eyes tracing each detail. The chipped paint, the
frayed fabric of the seat. He reaches out and touches it, tentatively at first,
and his fingers caress the back, gliding over the bumps and cracks. I fight my
instinct to say something, to interrupt the awkward encounter between this
stranger and a piece of cheap diner furniture. The defensive humor slips to my
tongue, but catches on my lips. Again, it’s his eyes. There’s something there.
Something deep. Something shattered. I’m not even sure he’s here to sit.

After a long pause, he
bites his lip and backs away.

“Thank you,” he
mumbles before breaking for the door and disappearing with the same impact with
which he arrived. The audience is glued again, and I hear Stan mumble something
about punks and hippies.

I stare after the
stranger as well, maybe even with a little regret that I hadn’t been more memorable.
While it’s clear I’m not part of his life, I’m suddenly afraid this odd event
will make him part of mine.

My server approaches
with an apologetic smile.

“Sorry. I should have
warned you.”

“Warned me?” I ask,
still watching the door as if he’ll return and explain the mystery so it doesn’t
explode into something that will haunt me after I leave.

“Yeah. It started on
Monday. You haven’t been here since. Third day in a row. Same time. Same
table.”

“What do you mean? What
started?”

“What you just saw.”

“He comes in and
stares at this chair?”

She shrugs.
“Basically. Just stands here and looks at it. He touched it today. That was
new, I guess. What are we gonna do, though, right? It’s not like he’s breaking
any laws. Just acting weird is all. Can’t arrest a guy for being weird. Well,
unless he’s naked, too. You think I’m kidding, but that happens. At least this
one is just weird.”

Weird? That word seems
dissonant to me. Part of me can’t help but wonder about the weird naked guy,
but just a small part. The rest is still invested in our current, clothed
weirdo. No, not a weirdo.
 
The name
just doesn’t work. I would need a lot of words to describe what I’d just
witnessed in those brief seconds, but “weird” isn’t one I’d choose.

“He seemed so sad.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.
We get all kinds in here. None of my business as long as he doesn’t disturb the
guests. Sorry if he bothered you.”

“He didn’t.”

“You want a refill?”

I nod and
instinctively study the vacant chair across from me.

 

Day
Two.

 
 

I never eat breakfast at Jemma’s two days in a
row, but I knew the second I left yesterday that I’d be back. I’m not a nosy
person by nature, but I am an observant one. And I certainly can’t ignore
things the way a lot of people can. I sense I’m exposing myself to a world I
might regret, but judging by the amount of time I’ve spent reviewing every
detail of that strange encounter, I’m pretty sure I’m already stuck in it.

So I go back. Request
the same table. Settle into the chair across from the important one this time.
I’m grateful I have a different server, Darryn with a “y,” so he doesn’t
recognize what I’m doing because I’m embarrassed for some reason. I don’t want
anyone to know why I’m here. No one except the stranger, anyway. I need to know
why he’s sad. Why he’s afraid. Why he’s ok being weird when he’s clearly not. I
need to understand the chair.

I was very intentional
in my decision to leave his chair open when I sat on the other side. I wonder
if he’ll notice. I order my tea and pretend to study the menu, but really, I’m
watching the door, waiting. It’s the wrong angle to view the door from this
side, however, so I’m forced to scan the rest of the restaurant with each peek.
I notice a few other familiar faces around the room and can’t help but wonder
if they’re waiting, too. Stan is here, still too close to the entryway so he’ll
be cold when the stranger enters and hesitates in the opening.

He’s a little later
today. Just a couple minutes, but enough for me to think that he’s not some kind
of obsessive sociopath who times his fixation on a rigid schedule. This chair routine
is part of his day, but it’s not the only part of his day. I take some comfort
in that, although I’m not sure why. This has nothing to do with me.

Like yesterday, the hostess
doesn’t even ask him if he’d like to be seated. She knows why he’s here and
watches with a vigilance that’s ready to call for help if necessary. Her hand
seems poised to reach for the phone as he does his search.

And that’s when it
occurs to me that he’s not searching. He knows where to go. He knows what he
will find when he gets there. He’s not looking. He’s bracing.

He starts toward my
table again and then stops abruptly. I can’t tell whether he’s annoyed, upset,
or pleasantly surprised to discover my obvious intrusion into his life. He’s
dressed similarly to yesterday, but different enough that I realize this casual
style may be new to him, but it’s now permanent. As I study him with the same
intensity he studies me, I also notice he’s younger than I first thought. He’s
been aged, but not by time. If I had to guess, I’d say mid to late twenties.
I’m terrible at guessing, though, so I decide not to.

“You’re back,” he says
quietly.

I still can’t
interpret his reaction.

“So are you.”

I motion toward the
chair. “This might be my table, but you can have the chair.”

“Thank you.”

Oddly enough, he
doesn’t even look at it today. In fact, he sits at the neighboring table as
though he’s completely abandoned his mission. I’m disappointed, and again,
startled by my strange reaction. I suck in my breath and grip my teacup.

“Mind if I join you?”
I ask, before it actually occurs to me that’s weirder than anything he’s ever
done. I kick myself.

He glances at me, but
doesn’t seem nearly as surprised by my question as I am. Then I realize it’s only
because he’s distracted. He doesn’t care about my question.

“Sure,” he mutters. I
suspect it’s more out of politeness than a desire to allow me access to his
life, and I quickly regret my impulsive request. He doesn’t really want me here,
that much is obvious, but neither can I back out now in any reasonable way. At
this point, I’m committed to picking up my saucer and sliding across the narrow
aisle to his table.

“I’m Callie, by the
way.”

“Luke.”

“You’re not from
around here, are you?” I cringe.

Nice work, Callie
.

There’s that brief
smile again, and my embarrassing cliché is momentarily forgiven.

“No, I’m not. Are you
the law in these here parts?” he teases back, and now I’m officially hooked.

“Sorry. I know. That
was probably the worst thing I could have said.”

“I can think of
worse.”

“Do you come here
often?”

This time the slight
smile becomes a full-on grin.

“As often as you,
apparently,” he responds.

“You must think I’m
stalking you.”

“Are you?”

“A little.” Before I
can control it, my gaze shoots to the chair, and his smile fades.

I wish I could take it
back. I wish I’d been strong enough to stop it, but we both know that’s why
we’re here. We both know we’re connected for no other reason.

Neither of us says a
word. I have no way of knowing if his mind is in the same tailspin as mine, but
I sense it probably is. I’m sure his head goes to places most of us could never
understand.

The server approaches
and seems surprised to find us together.

“Can I get you
something?” he asks Luke. I don’t miss his quick glance in my direction, but he
doesn’t let it linger long enough to force me to respond.

“Toast, please,” Luke answers.

“White, wheat, or
rye?”

“Rye.”

“You got it. What
about you? Still fine with just tea?”

I glance at Luke. I am,
but a cup of tea isn’t long enough. “Actually, I’ll take an order of pancakes.
Small stack.”

“Hash browns or fruit
cup?”

“Fruit.”

“Bacon?”

“No thanks.”

“Sure thing.”

He shuffles off to
fulfill our orders, and I’m suddenly nervous at the thought of being alone again
with Luke. I’m nervous because he’s enigmatic, and beautiful, and sad, and debatably
weird. Although clearly not as weird as I am I’ve learned.

“No bacon?” he asks.

I’m relieved he’s
forgiven me for my earlier chair blunder.

“I wanted you to think
I’m healthy.”

“You care what I
think?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I’m
not sure yet. Just covering my bases in case it turns out that I do.”

I’m rewarded with
another smile. “Fair enough. I don’t want to know how I rate with my rye
toast.”

I shrug. “I’m reserving
judgment until I see what you put on it.”

This time he actually
laughs, and now I’m sure he was someone else once. He would have occupied this
whole restaurant wing with his fancy suits and perfect hair, surrounded by a
crowd of admiring acquaintances. This is a man who wasn’t alone until recently.
His magnetic laugh wouldn’t have allowed him to be alone. He must not laugh
anymore.

“That’s a lot of
pressure for a condiment,” he observes.

“There has to be a
marketing campaign in there somewhere.”

“Maybe, but what about
you? Pancakes come with many possibilities as well.”

“True. You’ll just
have to wait and see.”

He nods, and I fight
with my brain to keep the conversation flowing. I know if it stops, he will get
lost in himself again and retreat to that place I can’t go. I don’t know why
it’s so important to me that I prevent that from happening, but when I see his
eyes move to the right, a small ember of panic begins to ignite. I’m losing.

“Do you live in the
city?” I ask, drawing him back to earth.

He seems to have to
shake something before he can respond. “No. Well, not really.”

“Just visiting?”

“Kind of. What about
you?”

“Yes, I do, but I’ve
only been here a few months.”

He nods. He’s being
polite again. Polite does nothing to help me.

I need to bring him
back to the café, this table. “You know, Stan’s been watching you like a hawk.”

“Stan?”

I motion to the table
by the door with my eyes.

“Ah, yes. He’s the one
who needs a jacket.”

“I think he’s amazed
you actually stayed this time.”

“He’s not the only
one.”

Surprised, I go to
meet his gaze but he’s not looking at me. That wasn’t a flirtatious comment.
He’s not even referring to me. I might be partially responsible for his shocking
delay for toast, but I’m just an excuse. Maybe even a roadblock. I’m still not
entirely certain he wants to be here right now. The way he fidgets with his
fork and absently bounces his knee, it’s like he’s already left the café and
his body doesn’t understand why it can’t catch up.

“Look, I’m sorry. I’m
afraid I’m being rude. I don’t mean to be. I’m just…”

He doesn’t finish. He
can’t. Not because he’s going to cry or anything, he’s just not good at this sort
of thing anymore. Conversation.

I understand and smile
to let him off the hook. He seems relieved, and I watch as his grip relaxes on
the fork for the first time.

“We don’t have to
talk. I’m kind of tired anyway. Late night,” I explain.

He nods and rubs his
eyes as if commiserating. I can tell he knows late nights, too.

“Thanks. It’s not
personal.”

“Oh? I didn’t think it
was until now.”

He smiles, but his
eyes aren’t in it this time. I’ve definitely lost him and know he’s counting
the seconds until he can finish his toast and escape. He’s regretting this,
staying, participating in life again. I feel like I’ve been whacked in the
stomach but I don’t blame him. He doesn’t owe me anything. This is my fault,
not his. I have mercy on him.

I look at my phone and
force a curse. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize what time it was. I actually
have to be at work in ten minutes,” I lie. “Don’t hate me, but I have to run.”

Our eyes do meet this
time, and for the briefest moment, I think he knows what I’m doing. I don’t
know how or why I think that, but he almost seems grateful for my sacrifice.

“Sure, no problem.”

“Here.” I slap some bills
on the table and force the most genuine smile I can. “Breakfast is on me.”

He shakes his head,
but it’s instinctive. “That’s not necessary. It’s the least I can do for making
you move…twice,” he adds.

“Really. I wouldn’t
feel right forcing you to pay for food I didn’t even eat. But it was nice to
meet you...Luke.” The dramatic pause before his name sounds awkward, but it doesn’t
seem right to leave him, maybe forever, without making our goodbye personal.

He appears to notice
my embellished farewell. He almost seems disturbed by the sound of his name,
like he’s not used to hearing it anymore.

“Thanks. You too.
Callie.”

I grin at his pronunciation.
It’s not quite right with an “a” that sounds more like an “o,” but I like it
better the way he says it. Now, I don’t want to leave. I’m not sure I can, but
I have to. I don’t belong here, in his world.

I get the sense no one
does.

BOOK: Night Shifts Black
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