A seemingly deserted diner in a small town isn't exactly what it appears to be.
The staff who worked the place didn't look to be in much better shape then the decor. An aged cook stood in the kitchen, visible through an open wall which let patrons watch their food be prepared. Most chose not to take advantage of this perk, as the cook looked better suited to lying in a grave then cooking steak and eggs. His face was long and lean, cheekbones cutting angles that weren't entirely attractive. Eyes of washed out blue were sunk into hollows and great grey-brown bags hung underneath. The skin that stretched over his sad bones seemed yellow under the harsh lights of the diner, and to be truthful, it may not have been just the lights. Even his lips, dry and sandpaper-like, weren't pink but instead a shade of yellow-grey that didn't seem healthy. His hair was a nondescript brown and it peeked out from under his cap like lank ropes of thread and though it couldn't be seen because of his head wear, the top of his head was completely bald. The fringes were all that was left. He was dressed in a faded pair of corduroys and a tee-shirt that may have been white, once upon a time. Now it was yellowed, just like the man. A stained apron covered his ensemble because heaven forbid he should splatter grease on it. The apron, too, looked as though it had seen better days and was coming apart at the seams.The entirety of the cook looked as though he'd seem better days.
It was noon and the small diner was nearly empty. One man sat in a booth and sipped coffee from a chipped mug. He was staring out the window, watching people pass by but not really seeing them. A few of them glanced over, their eyes raking back over him, and he just smiled emptily at them. They would shiver and move up, hastening their steps until they were out of site. Then they'd slow again, wondering where the feeling of the creeping horrors came from. None of them actually dared to go back and have a second look, one flesh-crawling feeling was good enough, thank you.
This man, whose name was Tomas Parrish but hardly anyone knew that, was a regular at the diner. He always sat in the same booth and ordered the same black coffee. He never requested the same chipped mug, but more often then not, he got it. Of course, it could have been that most of the mugs in the diner were chipped in one way or another so really, NOT getting a chipped mug would have been more incredible then always getting a chipped mug. The man never ordered food, the thought of eating anything that the cook prepared made his stomach turn. He was sure that the food would stink of rot. The meat would be green and fat white maggots would hide in the potatoes. No, he would stick to coffee, thank you very much. In fact, he took another long drink of the coffee as the lone waitress who worked in the diner began to approach his table. She did this everyday, always at the same time. The man didn't need to glance at the round clock on the wall to know that it was thirteen after twelve. The muffled steps of the waitresses rubber-souled shoes told him that it was.
The waitress, like the cook, had seen better days. But she wasn't as haggard as he was. The cook looked as though he was a step away from the grave, while the waitress had at least a few miles to go. She was short, but slim and her red and white checkered uniform fit her poorly. It was tailored for someone taller and fuller-busted. The woman looked as though she was swimming in gingham. Her face was lined deeply around her eyes and mouth, her forehead also had its fair share of wrinkles. But, in contrast to the state of her face, she didn't look ancient. Her brown eyes were still clear and unmuddied and she moved with the easy steps of a young woman, not bothered by the complaints of the aging. The waitress was a bit of a mystery to the man who sat at the booth. He couldn't quite put his finger on what bothered (... or intrigued) him about her, but there was something.
"Can I get you anything else?" the waitress had stopped at his booth and was looking down at him. He could have mouthed the words along with her. They were the same words that came at the same time everyday.
"No," he replied, barely glancing up, "thank you. The coffee is just fine." His long fingers curled around the lukewarm mug as he waited for her to walk away. She would stare at him for a few seconds (1 ... 2 ... 3 ...) and then walk away, her rubber shoes slapping against the worn flooring.
Tomas lifted his eyes from the reflective black pool of coffee to watch her for a moment. The woman had grabbed a dishtowel and began wiping down the counter, though it seemed she was just doing it to do something and not because the counter needed it. There was very little to do to fill the hours that passed in this place where customers hardly ever entered.
The small bell over the door suddenly twinkled to life, which caused all three people in the diner to look up and towards the entrance. The man drinking the coffee looked particularly interested as a heavyset man who looked to be in his early forties stepped over the threshold and looked around, like he was confused. His thick brows knit together and one hand came up to rake through his blonde hair. Like some kind of macabre soundtrack, the distant sounds of sirens could be heard in the background as the heavyset man continued to stand there as if he wasn't quite sure where he was. The waitress offered the newcomer a smile as she leaned forward on the counter.
"Hey Hon, can I get you anything?" Her eyes traveled up and down for a moment, noting his suit and the briefcase he clutched in one plump fist.
"Where am I?" Despite his large frame, the voice that emanated from the man was thin and a little high-pitched. He didn't seem terribly perturbed, so that may have been his actual speaking voice.
The waitress smiled, not unkindly, but didn't move around from behind the counter. "Looks to me like you're here, aren't you?"
"I don't remember how I got here, though," the man's tone was still even, almost pleasant. He seemed as though he was trying to remember something, remember how he ended up at this diner, and it was just escaping him. It was like he had gotten lost and ended up and a completely unexpected destination. The man from the booth glanced over and watched him briefly before speaking.
"Buddy, I'll buy you a cup of coffee," he said as he unfolded himself from his seat and walked towards Mr. Briefcase. Mr. Briefcase glanced over and nodded, still seeming almost scarily amicable. He nodded at the offer of a cup of coffee.
"C'mon. Come sit down. We'll talk." The man from the booth took Mr. Briefcase by the elbow and lead him over to the booth by the window. His eyes found the waitress and he signaled for more coffee,
"You're dead." Tomas said bluntly after they both got settled and had a couple of mugs of steaming coffee held in clenched hands.
"Yeah, I know," the heavyset man retorted and took a long sip of java, a look crossed his face as though he wasn't exactly sure if he liked the coffee or not.
"How do you feel about that?" he asked and leaned back a little bit, one arm resting on the back of the tattered bench. His eyes, dark and hooded, played over Mr. Briefcase for a long moment before taking a sip of his rapidly cooling coffee.
"I don't know," Mr. Briefcase looked up sharply, annoyance etched onto his features. "What are you? A therapist? Asking me how I feel about being dead..." He trailed off into irritated grumbling and shook his head.
"What's your name?"
"Greg Normandy. What's yours?"
"Doesn't matter." Absently, Tomas' fingers found the salt shaker and tapped it a few times against the table. "So, what did you do for a living Greg?"
"I'm a bank teller -- I was a bank teller," Greg corrected himself with a shake of his head. For all the trauma of actually dying, Greg seemed remarkably calm. The man who sat at the booth had seem some hysterical non-lifers enter through those doors, crying and screaming and begging to know what happened. But this Greg ... he was taking it all in stride, it was all under control.
The man listened without saying much as Greg made his profession known and he took another drink of his cooled coffee. "Did you like it?:"
"Yes." Pause. "No." Pause. "It was alright, I guess." Pause. "Better then cleaning up after zoo animals." Greg smiled a little wryly and shifted around in his seat. "Hey, do they serve any food here? I'm starved ... I could go with something to eat."
"Wouldn't recommend it, Greg," The man's lips curled into a nearly imperceptible grimace. "Did you get a look at the cook?"
"Tall guy?" Greg questioned back, "looked like a zombie?"
"Yeah, that be him," Tomas confirmed.
Greg nodded and glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder towards the kitchen window. "Point taken, my man. Point taken." He paused and listened to the waitress wiping off her counter, the soft shush of the damp cloth against the Formica surface. "So, um, what now?"
"Good question," Tomas blinked slowly. "You have a couple of options here, Greg. First option is you walk right back out that door and become an earth-bound soul. Really, it's as easy as that. If you have any reason to stick around, family or a girlfriend, boyfriend ... whatever then that's your best bet. Keep in mind though, you're going to be pretty limited in what you can do as an EBS, you'll have to pretty much stick around the spot that you died and your obligated to put in so many performances a year, just so people don't forget about you."
"Can I communicate with the living?" Greg leaned forward slightly, looking intrigued by the possibility of being a ghost. "I mean, can I tell my family that I'm still around, even if it is in a limited capacity?"
"Yes, sort of. It's a little complicated, but you can only communicate with them if they make an effort to use some kind of inter-dimensional communication device, you know, like a Ouija board or a psychic or something. If they do, then you can tap into that line and talk to them. But you're not allowed to initiate communication with them."
Greg looked slightly disappointed and tapped his fingers against the table. "Why? Why do I have to wait for them to talk to me?"
"I don't know," Tomas shrugged. "It's just the rules. It's how it works."
"Don't question the system, huh?" Greg looked irritated and a little amused at that, even in the afterlife, there was protocol to follow.
"Something like that," Tomas huffed and then thought for a moment. "Your second option is you can take the back exit. That's different ... when you take the back exit, then you're going towards the light, or whatever you believe. Most people just tend to go for the white light shtick. Whatever floats their boats, I guess. This is more of a leap of faith the taking the front door." Tomas brushed a few strands of dark hair from his eyes as he stared at Greg. "Do you believe in Heaven and Hell, Greg?" He asked. "Do you believe in God and the Devil?"
A shrug rocked Greg's shoulders. "I don't know ... I guess I do. There has to be something else then just life and death, right? I mean, obviously there is ... I'm dead, but I'm sitting here talking to you in a sleazy diner. I didn't know the afterlife would include places like this, man, I gotta be honest."
"It's not my business, Greg, but how did you die?"
A deep blush began to creep up Greg's face, colouring his pale cheeks a shade of pink and he was suddenly fidgeting as though he couldn't find anything to do with his fingers.
"How'd you die, Greg?" Tomas pressed, leaning forward a little and staring at the big man.
"If it's not your business, why're you so eager to know how I died?" Greg shot back, his blue eyes narrowed.
"You don't want to go out the back door, do you Greg?" Leaning back in his seat, Tomas continued watching the man. It was probably suicide. Greg had probably killed himself and if he went out the backdoor, then it would mean damnation, depending on what Greg believed.
"It's not that I don't want to go out the back door," Greg stammered and looked around as if he could find the answer to his predicament on the wall of the diner. "It's just, I think I should stick around for a while and, you know, make peace with those I'm leaving behind. Then I'll come back here ... whatever ... go towards the light--"
Tomas sat up and interrupted Greg's speech with a slap of his hand against the table. "Whoa there," he said and shook his head. "I'm sorry ... but it doesn't work like that. You choose and you choose now. You can go out the front door, or you can go out the back door. What do you wanna do, Greg?"
"I don't know," Greg whined and chewed on his bottom lip. "So, if I go out the front door, I can't come back in here again? I can't choose one for now and then the other later?"
"That's right," Tomas nodded. "Like I said, you choose and you choose now. What'll it be? Back or front?"
Greg edged himself out of the booth and stood up from the table. He glanced at a swinging door in the back wall, which he assumed lead to the 'Back Door', and then his gaze was trapped by the front door. The street was visible through the glass and the heavyset man could see the people walking along, all caught up in their own worlds, not aware of what was just a few feet from them. He put his pinky to his mouth and absently chewed on his nail, still weighing in his mind, the pros and cons of each. Greg knew that if he went to the light, wen through the backdoor it wouldn't bode well for him. He had done something which was going to be punished and he didn't know-- scratch that -- he DID know that he wasn't strong enough to handle that punishment. It seemed that back through the front door was the best place for him. It was unlikely that anyone who knew him would try to get in contact with his dear, departed soul but it would be better then what was waiting for him in Hell.
"I'm going out the front," Greg announced with a ring of conviction to his voice once his mind had been made up. "I'll hand around, I don't care..."
Tomas unfolded himself from the booth and stepped a little closer to Greg. "Then out the door you go, my friend," he said, "I just hope you don't regret it."
"Never will," Greg shook his head. "Better then the alternative." With that, he gave Tomas a brief smile and placed one hand on the door, exerting a little pressure to push it open. "Do I owe you anything for the coffee?" He glanced back over his meaty shoulder and arched an inquisitive eyebrow.
"Don't worry about it, man," Tomas shrugged. He watched Greg nod and then push the door open, stepping back out onto the street. The heavyset man stood there, completely unnoticed by the people that moved along the sidewalk. While they didn't see him, quite a few seemed to avoid the spot where he was standing, a fraction of those even seemed to glance at it with puzzled expression as though they had thought they'd seen someone. Greg, in the meantime, just stood there and seemed fascinated by the fact that no one excepting Tomas could see him. He made faces and waved his hands in front of the eyes of various pedestrians and then laughed a little when it didn't garner one whit of attention. At least from anyone on that side of the street.