By J. E. Trayer
“I just don’t know how to handle this,” said Marie.
“Have you any ideas at all on what to do? I mean…if anything?” asked Helen, as she opened the diner menu. There was a bit of lacy cobweb stuck to the edge of the cover, and she brushed it off with a flick of her fingers. “There are risks in getting involved. She could hate you for the rest of your life, which at your age would be a heck of a long time.” She patted Marie’s arm to make her point – as if to say I hear you and I feel for you.
“So what’ya have honey?” asked the waitress as she paused at Marie’s spot at the counter, pad and pen in hand poised to take her order. The pen she held had a shimmering purple Day of the Dead skull glued onto one end. Her dark eyes, accentuated with smokey makeup, flicked from Marie to Helen and then back to Marie. “Reuben’s on special today. Like what you did with your hair. Upbeat.” The waitress wiggled the pen like a puppet and touched her own hair. Marie laughed and ran her fingers through the dyed purple streak in her hair absently.
“Thanks! Just had it done this afternoon. I’ll have the Reuben and a root beer,” Marie said.
“You ready to order, sweetie?” the waitress asked Helen as she twirled the skull pen in her fingers, her dark eyes completely focused on Helen.
“I’m thinking,” said Helen. She sighed. She disliked pushy waitresses; but, then this was Marie’s favorite haunt, and it had been Helen’s suggestion to meet there because she knew it would be convenient for her friend. “Decisions. Decisions,” she said. “Do I want the salad? Or…the salad? Or the damned salad? Blasted diet. I’ll take the dinner salad special – no dressing. Water with lemon.”
The waitress grinned, a mischievous pixie sparkle, “I have just the dish for you, and I promise – limited calories, and it will taste super amazing!.” She pointed the skull end of her pen toward Helen to emphasize her offer. Helen noticed that gold glitter sparkled off its edges.
“Right,” said Helen, her mouth puckering. “ If you can bring me a salad that actually tastes good without a calorie nightmare? I will…”
“Uh-Uh! Make no promises, or I just may hold you to them,” said the waitress, jamming her skull-headed pen in her teased hair like a decoration. To Helen’s surprise, there was a matching pen already in there. Two skulls seemed to wink and grin at her from the waitress’ head as she paused briefly to take another customer’s request at the end of the counter before hurrying into the kitchen.
“Strange girl. Her name tag says, Lydia” said Helen. “I don’t remember seeing her here before. Is she new?”
“She… glows. Sort of. Has a unique edge to her,” replied Marie, staring at the closed kitchen door. “I like her; but, there’s something about her that…I don’t know…is just different. Of course, everyone is different these days! She’s been here about two months. The owner seems to really like her, and she gets along well with the customers that I’ve seen. Why the curiosity?”
Helen cocked her head. “I don’t know. Really. I mean, who gives a damned about a waitress, anyway?”
“So…what are you going to do about this Tyler person and your sister?”
Marie shook her head. “I just don’t know. I’ve tried to tell my sister the awful stuff I’ve found out that he’s done; but, she’s just not listening. She either cuts me off, or says loudly how happy she is, or makes excuses for him. I am so frustrated. If it was legal, I think I could just shoot him dead and not worry a bit about it.”
“That’s pretty drastic,” said Helen.
“She’s my sister,” said Marie, “and if he means her any harm? I will take him down.”
Helen’s skin prickled at the cold force of Marie’s voice.
“Love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t,” came the lilting comment from the other side of the diner counter.
Both women looked up, startled. Lydia stood there smiling – their drinks in hand. “Sometimes the pheromones are talking so loud that common sense just doesn’t listen,” offered the waitress as she set down their drinks and straws. “Sorry part is? That’s how so many people get hurt – both women and men! The world needs more kindness! More honesty if you ask me!”
“Amen to that!” said Marie.
Helen just sat there, staring at Lydia and her sparkling pink nails, her bubblegum pink glossy lipstick, the over accentuated dark eyes, and her shimmering purple skull pens stuck in her hair. Slim, almost athletic, the waitress looked damned good in the vintage 50’s-style server get-up the owner made her wear. The snow white apron (how did she manage to keep it that clean?) was quite flattering for her, and the crisp, lacy handkerchief in her left breast pocket added a touch of perfection.
“Your food will be up in just a minute,” the waitress was saying. She sashayed down the aisle between nearby tables, turned, winked at Helen, and then put all her attention on another customer.
Helen opened her mouth and snapped it shut. Something was…off. She hadn’t lived to be sixty in New York City and risen to her position on Wall Street without learning a strange thing or two. Okay. Three. Or more. And something here…smelled…wrong. Not a garbage whiff. Something else. Something odd.
Maybe – in a rabid sort of way.
Helen shook her head. It was late. She was being silly. The conversation with Marie was sliding into the overly dramatic. Long day. Little food. Major stress. Helen waited until the waitress hustled away, then turned to Marie. “What have you actually found out about Tyler that makes you so worried?”
Marie sipped her root beer. “I always had this hinkey feeling around him, you know? Then , a few weeks ago, he started talking about moving in with my sister.”
“Not yet, thank goodness. There’s some catch on her rental agreement — and my sister? She is a follow-the-rules gal. She won’t let him move in until everything is straightened out with the super. I also found out Tyler had her co-sign a loan for $10,000 so he could sue his ex-wife. That’s when my protective sister routine went into overdrive.”
“Why did he sue the ex-wife?” asked Helen.
“He told the court officials that he just wanted to scare the woman. He thought this was a good way to do it.”
“By spending your sister’s money? Did he win?”
“How did you find out that bit of info?”
“I talked to the ex-wife.”
“Yes!” said Marie emphatically. “I just got up the nerve to find the woman after listening to Tyler spew a litany of hatred about her the last time I was over at my sister’s place. He was…I don’t know how to explain it,” said Marie, shaking her hands rapidly in front of her while trying to search for the right words. “He was saying really awful things out of one side of his mouth about his ex-wife and being overly attentive to my sister at the same time, and then sounding condescending to boot. He kept repeating the same sentences, which I thought was really…well…strang e. Like he was stuck in a time warp in his own brain. I sat back and really looked at what was in front of me – what I was hearing – what I was feeling – what I was seeing. He called my sister his fiancée at least ten times in conversation that night – it just sounded so off. She doesn’t have a ring. No date set. As far as I know, there isn’t anything firm…yet. And then he looked at me dead in the eyes, and I swear to you Helen, I saw evil full frontal! Those blue eyes were like ice shards of pure hatred. Alarm bells just started banging in my head,” said Marie, as she hit the side of her head lightly with the palm of her hand. “I played stupid because I think that if he gets a whiff that I know that he’s some sort of con artist or possibly worse – he’ll shove me out of her life before I can stop him. Then, when I heard from my sister that he borrowed that money?”
Helen leaned forward. “Let me guess. You used those computer skills you are so famous for and decided to do some sleuthing.”
“And w hat did the ex-wife tell you when you found her?”
“That what I’m feeling is legitimate. Tyler Drummings is a real piece of work, that’s for sure,” replied Marie. “He’s one of those people who lies his way out of all the trouble he gets into. He has the excuses to absolve himself for anything down to an art. He dances on edge – often never getting caught, and when he does, he always manages to con his way out of the problem by feigning ignorance, claiming to be a victim himself, or creating some sort of diversion. From what I’ve been able to piece together, he’s managed to dodge the police, the military, his superiors, and day-to-day stuff like apartment supervisors, clerks, court officials, you name it. This is all according to his ex-wife, an old co-worker I tracked down in the city, a guy that ran an ambulance company where he worked out in Oregon, and what I’ve been able to dig up using the internet. He has no family on the east coast – everyone related to him is in Oregon or Washington state.”
“Is he good looking?” asked Helen.
“Hardly,” replied Marie, snorting. “He has a major double chin going on and beady eyes. Creepy if you ask me,” she drained the last of her root beer.
Helen bowed her head, avoiding Marie’s gaze. “What do you think his real interest is in your sister? I mean, she’s an attractive girl; but…well, she has no money, and she has a few health issues. She does have a master’s degree, though, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, in Greek mythology.”
“She makes a decent enough living at the museum, although she has student loans to pay off. Her credit is golden. His credit is shit. He has no real schooling – she’s close to completing her doctorate and is well-liked in her field.”
“So your sister is a trophy with status and income potential.”
Marie paused rubbing her arms as if to ward off a chill. “You make my sister sound like a horse up for auction,” she growled, leaning forward and stabbing the ice chips in her empty glass with the straw.
Helen rounded her eyes and shrugged her shoulders. “We are friends because we don’t pull any punches with each other. I was just trying to be…honest. In my experience, trying to break two people up who are traveling full speed on the train track to passion-hell is like telling a lion it can’t eat the bloody steak dangling in front of its nose. All that’ll be left are blood drops on the pavement.”
Marie sat back, sighed, and crossed her arms in front of her. “She is…lonely, I think. Our parents are in another state. You remember that I’m sure, from when we worked together on the website I built for your company.”
Helen remembered. “Idaho, isn’t it?”
Marie nodded. “I’m pretty busy with my job and my boyfriend,” continued Marie. “My sister’s health issues, you are right, have made her unattractive to some. She and I don’t see each other that much. Less and less now that Tyler Drummings is in the picture. He eats up as much of her time as he can. She might see him as some sort of life-line. I don’t know.”
“Are you aware that 4% of our population is sociopathic and approximately 2% are psychopaths?” remarked the waitress as she set down their food. “Course, you can’t take stock in any statistics these days. The real numbers are probably a whole lot worse!” she said, rolling her eyes and shoving a beautifully plated Reuben in front of Marie and placing an exquisite fruit and green salad by Helen’s left hand. “Especially if you take into account the almost nutballs! The ones next door? “ she waved her hand around in the air, and Helen noticed a set of three unusual bracelets on her wrist, but she couldn’t quite see the designs. “Then you are talking about 25% of the city, let alone the world! Just think about it! One in twenty-five people do not have a conscience. They don’t suffer like you and I do. Explains a lot if you ask me! We ladies need to remember how to deal with that kind of threat!”
Both women stared at the waitress. Helen thought of the many unkind and cruel people she’d met over the years and wondered mildly if the waitress was a college student working the restaurant trade until she obtained her degree. Well, good luck with that. Degree in tow it was highly possible she’d still be a waitress these days! Only in this city, thought Helen as she picked up her fork. The salad did look truly yummy. Helen’s mouth watered.
“He’s a predator, isn’t he? This town is full of them,” said the waitress as she leaned on her elbow and pushed the women’s plates toward them. “Us ladies have to learn to stick together!” she said in a conspiratol tone. The skull pen was back in her hand, bobbing in front of their noses as she moved it to and fro to the cadence of her voice. “So, you girls have a real winner on your hands?” The skull pen seemed to be paying more attention to Helen than to Marie, which Helen found most disconcerting. She itched to dig into her food, but she didn’t want to be rude. She gripped her fork, hoping the waitress would walk away soon.
Helen shot Marie a warning glance; but, Marie ignored her. “Yeah. There’s this guy who is dating my sister? And I found out he killed four people six years ago.”
“What?” said Helen, dropping the fork she’d just picked up, her salad totally forgotten.
Marie nodded. “Car accident. Killed two men and two women – all in different cars – he caused a terrible pileup on Interstate 91 in Connecticut – right outside of North Haven. Broad daylight. Tyler claims he can’t remember a thing. Got off free as a bird. No jail time. Nothing. Has no remorse, either. Ex-wife claims he’s the type of person that would do something like that on purpose, just to get attention. And that’s just the beginning of it. I found DUI’s in three different states, theft of property, an unresolved lawsuit, dropped lawsuits, bad debt and defaulted loans, and it seems he is running a second girlfriend along with my sister.”
“What a scumbag!” said the waitress, her dark eyes wide and liquid. “He’s just littering unhappiness all over the place!”
“I know! Right?” responded Marie.
“Does your sister realize there’s another woman?” asked Helen.
“He tells my sister that he and this gal are just friends. He’s claiming the woman is no threat. They’ve even all gone camping together. However, this other woman? Helped him steal personal information from government files to use against his ex-wife. Not only that? The woman just had a baby.”
“Who? The ex-wife?”
“No! The other woman. And there’s no man in the picture. What female friend helps a guy steal information from the government that in no way benefits herself without there being hanky-panky I ask you? Dirty, I tell ya,” said Marie. “And my sister?”
“Clueless!” exclaimed the waitress, slapping her palm on the counter for emphasis. “Isn’t that just the way!” She threw her delicate hands up in the air like a Halleluiah jack-in-a-box. “You gotta destroy the fear to ruin the man and his plans!”
Both women, not understanding, just stared at the waitress. Helen couldn’t help but notice those charm bracelets on the girl’s left arm again. This time she could see them clearly– three – all of them made of silver, shining jet black spider beads, and bone skulls with twinkling diamond eyes – and Helen knew real diamonds when she saw them. Yes indeedy! In fact, the eyes of the spiders? Sapphires. Helen was sure of it. The waitress caught Helen’s pointed stare at her bracelets, smiled and wiggled her eyebrows as if sharing a private joke.
Helen swallowed hard. The waitress turned on her heel and waltzed off, humming a disconcerting tune.
What on earth did she mean, “Destroy the fear to ruin the man and his plans?”
Something was absolutely not right.
The food was excellent. Marie plowed into her Reuben with gusto, and Helen made trilling sounds over the amazing salad –Tyler Drummings and his manipulative behavior momentarily forgotten. As they ate the women talked of other things – their careers, the politics of the day (agreeing that all legislators were thieves and crooks of the worst sort), planned vacations, and a goal or two for good measure. Helen chatted about some of the renovations she was planning for her apartment and Marie enthused over a weaving class she’d just joined and how Helen would most certainly love it if she tried it. In fact, it was the waitress, Lydia, that hooked Marie up with the instructor. Something about them being friends from way back. A wall-hanging with natural fibers would look amazing with Helen’s planned changes for her living room, particularly if rendered by her own hand, didn’t she think?
The waitress, now busy with several customers at the counter, moved easily among them awarding a positive comment here, a kind word there, and excellent service all around. Her small feet moved swiftly over the slippery tile floor. Her steps sure. Her smile…
When it was time to pay the bill, Helen took the check from the waitress who was in such a hurry to take care of another customer she didn’t even bother to meet Helen’s eyes. Standing in line at the cash register, Helen and Marie exchanged plans to meet again. Absently, Helen turned over the green paper bill. On the back was a note scribbled in purple ink: “Pay the bill. Ask to keep this check. If you destroy the fear, you ruin the man and his plans. 30 days is the key. Remember what you have forgotten. If you speak of this, all will be lost.– Lydia.”
Under the waitress’ name was a drawing of a spider dangling from a string shaped like an eight. Helen looked up to try to find the server and say something to her; but, she was nowhere to be seen. Marie asked her what was wrong, and if the bill had been calculated incorrectly, offering to give Helen more money for her share. Helen waved Marie off with a shaky smile, saying, “Oh no! Nothing like that. I have a bit of a headache is all. How about you go grab us a cab, and I’ll finish up here,” knowing that hailing transportation in this part of town would keep Marie busy for the next several minutes. It was on the tip of her tongue to say something to Marie about the cryptic note– after all, the problem involved the woman’s sister; but, she just couldn’t bring herself to say anything at all.
Not one peep.
And even if she tried to open her mouth? She knew nothing would come out. It was as if the wellspring of speech within her brain had totally curdled.
Helen paid the bill, requested to keep the original check, rammed the paper in the back pocket of her wallet, and left a hefty gratuity. As the two were climbing into a cab, Helen told Marie that she would love to attend that weaving class. Would it be possible for Marie to convince her sister to go, too?
Every morning for the next 30 days at precisely 5:30 A.M. Helen sat at her breakfast bar in her apartment, sipped her coffee, and held that green bill from the diner. She didn’t know why she sat there with it – she just did. She was angry at the waitress for such nonsense. She felt like a sucker who’d fallen for a chain letter; yet, she was driven that there certainly was something mystical, something odd, something murky about the woman. Ergo. Through this belief? No matter how silly it was? Marie’s sister could be saved. Helen wasn’t going to gamble.
Her conscience wouldn’t let her.
“What have I forgotten?” she muttered.
And…what if the waitress was right? Helen had learned for herself that when you destroy any fear?
“What must I remember?” she mussed.
Victory is yours.
Helen fingered the bill so often that the purple writing quickly began to wear off.
Every morning she asked that Marie’s sister’s fear be banished.
Every morning she asked for protection for Marie’s sister.
Every morning, as she rinsed out her empty coffee cup in the sink, she said, “I don’t know how this is going to work? But, we all will experience the best. I just know it, and I am immensely grateful for our healing.” And then she would remark to herself that she was certainly bat shit crazy.
Every morning she sighed, put the bill in a safe place, took a shower at 6:00 A.M. and hurried off to work, forgetting about Marie, her sister, and the strange waitress as her days filled with the activities of business, friends, and family. Helen had no idea why she did this morning routine or who she was even asking for help– God not being a part of her normal, corporate life, unless you included the CEO of the company she worked for, of course.
One Saturday afternoon Helen secretly returned to the diner looking for the waitress that left her the note, but she learned the girl, Lydia, had quit. No one had seen her since, and the owner was truly despondent over the woman’s choice to leave. He said there wasn’t another like her in the whole world.
Helen believed that.
Marie, her sister, and Helen adored the weaving class and produced amazing works of art in just a few weeks. Helen, on a lark, joked about weaving their wishes and dreams into the tapestries. Marie won a huge contract that promised to jettison her business to the top of its ranks. Helen met a most interesting man who made pottery for a living. Marie’s sister was offered an amazing job in Greece, triple the pay, a grant for a special study, and all living expenses covered for three years. She took it.
Helen and Marie said goodbye to Marie’s sister in front of the airport terminal with much hugging and a few tears. When Helen asked about Tyler, the sister shrugged and said she hadn’t seen him for weeks – that he seemed to disappear right about the time the women had started weaving their tapestries. She thought he may have gone back to the West Coast. She was put out about the money that he owed her; but, she certainly wasn’t going to wait around for him to cough it up. She’d obtained an attorney to fuss with the matter on her behalf.
“You mean he didn’t say anything about leaving?” asked Helen.
“It was really strange,” said Marie’s sister. “He started losing a lot of weight in just a few days. Complained of headaches. Said he felt like the world was pressing in on him.”
“Yeah,” snorted Marie. “The Karma from all the bad stuff he did to people. Just because he has no conscience doesn’t mean he won’t pay for all the pain he’s caused.”
Her sister shrugged. Over the last month, Helen had come to understand Marie’s concern for her sister. She was a bubbly girl that didn’t seem to have a common sense tether when it came to analyzing people or their possible unsavory motives. Helen could tell the girl never accepted the truth about Tyler, and probably never would. To her, he was a shadow that simply moved on. She had dodged a major life bullet and refused to see it for what it was. Helen shook her head, smiled sadly and hugged the girl, then turned to look out over the plaza. Some people never smartin’ up, she thought, which is why we have to stick together.
A flock of crows rose in unison, lifting toward the blue sky.
A flash of bright color across the terminal court caught her attention.
Helen blinked. Tried to focus. The reflection of a young woman in a vibrant purple sweater in the glass of a coffee shoppe wavered.
A slip of a thing.
With two skull pens in her hair.
And a truly wicked smile.
Of course, when Helen looked again?
She was gone.
Helen turned back to Marie’s sister. “What did you say your grant is for?”
The girl smiled happily. “I’ll be studying textile art and ancient Greek religious influence. The museum has one particular line of exploration they want me to look into.”
“Which one is that?” asked Helen.
“I’m just so excited!” the young woman warbled, doing a bit of a hippity-hop and swinging her purse. “Aracne!”
Helen stood motionless, staring past Marie’s sister and looking once again at the coffee shoppe window. A young woman in a purple sweater behind the glass waved at her.
A woman with two skull pens in her hair.
And a truly wicked smile.