Shane Collins jerked awake when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He pulled away and looked around as his brain tried to figure out what was going on.
“Hey, kid, you gotta get off the bus.”
“Huh?” He looked up at the driver who was standing over him with a deep scowl on his face.
“This is the end of the line, you gotta get off the bus.”
“Right, yeah, sorry.”
Shane ran a hand down his face and combed another through his hair then grabbed his small duffel bag and shuffled out of the seat. The bus driver, who woke him up, stepped aside and gestured him out then followed close behind as if to be sure he left.
Shane stepped onto the pavement and looked around. He wasn’t even sure what this town was but he knew it would be as good or as bad as all the others so he picked a direction and walked. He held his bag over his shoulder and pulled his coat closed then scanned the buildings to find a place to stay.
The sun was setting and it looked to Shane that this was the kind of town that didn’t operate after dark. A couple of corner shops were already closed, a salon, a bike repair, and some draperies were all closed. He checked the time and saw it was almost 7 o'clock and realised this was a town that didn't run after hours.
He turned the corner onto a long street that seemed to be lined with bars but none of them looked busy. Shane would have preferred if they were busy enough that he could hide in the crowd, but not so busy that he would have to squeeze his way in. Then he remembered it had been over five years since he was anywhere near a bar and kept walking.
He got to a large corner and saw a diner that was still open across the road. He checked for traffic and hurried over as if it would close before he got there.
“Peggy’s Diner,” he read from the decal on the window as he pulled the door open.
There was a soft tingling from a bell over the door and he was immediately transported back by the familiar sounds and smells of a small town diner. He had worked in one just like this throughout high school and knew that diners all around the country looked and smelled the same. Red vinyl booths lined the windows and a row of stools were along the counter. One section was reserved for wait staff where they could collect orders from a serving hatch into the kitchen and strangely one of the booths was only one-sided with a space where the other seat should be.
“Sit anywhere, hun,” a voice called out and Shane looked around to find it.
A tall older woman in a traditional mint green pinafore-style diner uniform with a pristine white apron was coming out of the kitchen. She had a pad in her hand and a pencil behind her ear and Shane reckoned there was one of them in every diner around the country too.
He looked around and picked an empty booth near the back wall with his eye on the door, then took the menu from the holder by the window. He scanned the price tag on every item and realised there was very little he could afford. His head was pounding, a sharp knock of pain right behind his eyes that was making it hard to concentrate.
“What can I get you, hun?”
Shane looked up at the waitress and tried to smile. “Um, maybe just some toast, and a glass of water.”
He closed his fist over the money in his palm and pulled his hand under the table. The waitress watched the movement and frowned.
“We have a special on today, potato and leek soup for a dollar, it comes with a side salad and a bread roll.”
“Um,” Shane felt a hot flush colour his cheeks and looked down at the menu. The soup listed was four dollars, he had already checked that price. “I don’t have…”
“It’s a dollar kid, you want the soup?”
He pulled the dollar from his fist and slid it across the table. The waitress looked at it with one arched brow then turned and walked away. Shane watched her move behind the counter. She put a slip of paper into the order wheel then prepared a large glass of iced water and brought it back to him.
“Food will be right out, hun, let me know if you need anything else.”
Need anything? He needed a place to stay. He needed a job. He needed some peace. He needed…a friend. He nodded his head and looked out the window. It had been a long time since anyone called him kid, and longer still since they were nice to him.
He felt a hot lump of emotion expand in his chest and closed his eyes to stop himself from reacting. The last five years had been pure hell. He thought when he walked through those iron gates that it was all over but two bus rides later he realised it was really just beginning. He looked out the window at the town he just arrived in. Across the road, he could see a garage forecourt with two people sitting in sun loungers drinking beers.
He wondered briefly if he would be able to find a job there but realised he had no idea how to work on cars and would likely be fired before the day was out. He remembered seeing a grocery store on the edge of town and decided to check out if they were hiring tomorrow. Then he would check the bars but he preferred not to be in a customer-facing role. He wanted to be in the background, checking stock, cleaning floors, something low-key.
His eyes looked at the other diner patrons as he tried to get a feel for this small town. There was an elderly couple in a booth by the door. Three teen boys eating burgers at the counter, and a guy reading a paper with a cup of coffee in another booth. The rest of the seats were empty.
“Here you go,” the waitress said. She put the soup bowl down then next to it another plate with a hefty salad then a small basket containing four small bread rolls and some packets of butter. “Anything else?”
“Wow, no this is...this looks amazing.”
“Holler if you want something else, sweetie,”
“Thanks, thanks, thanks so much,” he stuttered, unable to get the words out as he stared at the food in front of him.
The waitress waved her hand and walked around the room tending to the other tables. Shane looked down at the food on the table and felt his stomach rumble from hunger but he tried not to attack it all in the way he really wanted. One shaky hand picked up the spoon and the other grabbed a napkin from the dispenser. He only had one other t-shirt and a sweater in his bag, he couldn’t afford any soup drips.
As slow as he could he consumed the food and felt dizzy with satisfaction. The soup was the tastiest thing he had ever eaten. The flavour just burst on his tongue and it slid down his throat, a slow satisfying dinner, the likes of which he never expected to feel again. He alternated bites with the salad which was loaded with greens, shredded carrots, diced apples, chopped walnuts, and a crumble of some sort of cheese. He could have wept with joy as he dragged the bread through the soup and bit into it. He savoured every single bite and didn’t let a crumb go to waste. When he was done he pushed the plates aside and leaned back into the booth with a satisfied sigh.
Nothing ever felt as good as he felt right now. Nothing.
A tingling from the bell over the door drew his eye and he looked up to see a cop walk in with a wave at the waitress who greeted him with a smile. Shane felt himself slink deeper into the seat and his eyes followed the cop as he took a seat at the counter on the opposite side, near the till. That bliss he had been masking seconds before evaporated and left only dread in its wake.
He could hear the cop laughing from here, and he felt his spine stiffen. In his experience, the sound of a cop laughing was usually followed by the sound of his baton cracking off Shane’s thighs, or his back. It wasn’t a sound that filled him with joy, usually only pain.
He pulled his money out of his pocket and found what he needed, tossed a bill and a couple of quarters onto the table then slid out of the booth. He kept his head down as he dragged his duffel out of the seat and flung it over his shoulder. He glanced up to check if the cop was still there then hurried for the door.
“You all done, hun?” the waitress called out to him but Shane waved his hand without looking up then left the diner.
His heart was racing as he walked around the building. He kept looking over his shoulder to see if the cop was chasing him. At the back of the building, he moved between two dumpsters and pressed his back to the wall. He slid to the ground and pulled his knees up to his chest then hooked his arms around his knees and lowered his head into the crook of his elbow.
The sounds of cars passing by on the road and the clatter of pans in the diner behind him were loud and he screwed his eyes shut and covered his ears with his palms to block everything out.
Much like the game of hide and seek he played when he was a kid before his whole life turned to shit before he realised he was alone in the world, he closed his eyes and became invisible. Small targets, no movements, no sound. If he couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see him.
He had no idea how much time had passed. But when he lifted his head, the sun had set and everything was still. He couldn’t hear any traffic, or noise from the diner kitchen behind him. He stretched his legs out and rotated his feet to get some blood flow working again. His ass was tingling with pins and needles but he didn’t stand up. He had nowhere to go, nowhere to be. For the first time in five years, no one cared where he was.
He curled his body up and shoved his duffel under his head. He wasn’t the worst place he had slept lately but it would do. Tomorrow he had the task of finding a job. Then once he realised he could stay in this town, he had other tasks. One, in particular, he wasn’t looking forward to but knew he had to do it.
Shane screwed his eyes shut to block out the intrusive thoughts that threatened to pull him into the darkness and reached inside for that voice he used to hear so loud but now was a soft whisper.
He latched onto the words and replayed them over and over in his head until his exhaustion took over and he fell asleep.