The diner was closed forever. The Closed sign hung on the door, redundant as a spoon in a cup of soup, but Marcie would never turn it over. Never take it down. It was her way of keeping the riffraff out, and these days, there was a hell of a lot of riffraff.
They could smell the syrup. Her supply was running out, but she sprayed ammonia around the doors and windows when she warmed it up. It wasn’t enough, but it could dull the smell. She had the shotgun for any unwelcome visitors and a dwindling stock of meat in the freezer for any welcome ones. The former never made it to the door, but she always checked the latter through the glass to see if they were going bad. One look at Alice, though, and she knew she deserved better than meat.
She fixed the girl some waffles, and the diner filled with the aroma of warm batter. They both inhaled in silence. A much more comforting smell than the sizzle of dead things, Marcie thought. The girl offered her name as a courtesy, and the two syllables wafted through the air and mixed with the scent in Marcie’s mind. The girl looked the right age, too, about 14. This felt right. Like before.
When Marcie slapped a couple waffles onto a plate, Alice’s eyes went wide like she’d only been eating rocks for weeks. For all Marcie knew, she had. She was gaunt, ribs showing through the rags she had on, hair a mess. A scratch on her left cheek, deep. Marcie didn’t ask where it came from, but as she traced the path on her own face, she thought it could have come from fingers. Or what used to be fingers.
“This is real nice,” Alice said, between hungry gulps, barely chewing. “What’s that blue stuff in it?”
“Blueberries,” said Marcie. Last ones she had, but that didn’t matter as long as she still had chocolate chips
“Huh. My mom never put blueberries in waffles.” A pause, the next words crawling out as if fighting against a memory. “Fruit in waffles, that’s so weird.” The pall passed, and as she returned to eating, her face was joyful, satiated. In the right light, at the right moments, she looked like Cynda. Just in those fleeting seconds, and then she didn’t, not because of the light but because Marcie chose not to see her. She would never see her again, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to see her in this outcast waif who just stumbled in out of the wastelands. Not this one, not the last one, not any one of the godda–
Marcie relaxed her grip on the syrup bottle. She’d almost broken the handle. Couldn’t have that.
From behind the counter, Marcie watched Alice devour her food as she’d done with her customers before the Meltdown. Her favorite customer was a big trucker named Maximilian who insisted on being called Maximilian, never Max. He wouldn’t respond to Max, and Marcie loved seeing the passers-through try to engage with him. They didn’t know the code to interacting with him. They didn’t have that connection, not like she did.
Maximilian was out there. Maybe he’d found Cynda. Maybe he would take care of her.
Alice gulped down half a glass of water. Milk would have been better, but it had gone sour as Marcie’s business some time ago. One by one, her staples went bad. That’s how the people went too. One by one.
“So they don’t come in here?” Alice said with trepidation.
“No,” said Marcie. “They don’t come in here.”
“The door holds. The sign says Closed.”
Alice chuckled, then let it linger, like she hadn’t laughed at anything in ages. “I don’t think they read signs, lady.”
Maybe the shape of the sign, the length of the word, was a signal burned into the back of their brains, like a red light. They‘d respond to it like fire: stay away.
Cynda never cared what the sign said. She’d push the door open and call, “Yo, Moms, how about some choco waffles?” She’d take her seat at the counter and ask what Max had done today. She never called him Maximilian when he wasn’t around. Everything was short with her; Marcie was surprised she actually pronounced the entire word “waffles.”
The day of the Meltdown, Cynda left the diner with the words “Coulda used more syrup.”
Alice picked at her plate with the fork, soaking the bits of waffle in syrup. Marcie’s eyes narrowed. Stupid, stupid of her to let her in. She’d given her too much syrup. She had to keep some back. Waffle mix, chocolate chips, syrup. The essentials.
So much syrup left on Alice’s plate. It was going to go to waste. But Marcie could salvage it. This girl had had enough. She’d gotten more than the last one. It had been six days since Khaalidah looked through the glass door, her pleading eyes like Cynda’s when Marcie wouldn’t take her to IHOP. Not as chatty as this one. This one, sitting in someone else’s seat. They were all sitting in someone else’s seat.
“Get out,” Marcie spat, grabbing the plate.
Alice had some waffle in her mouth, and she almost choked in surprise. She chewed quickly and swallowed before squeaking, “What?”
“Get the fuck out of my diner.” Marcie stared at her with dead eyes.
“Okay, okay, lady,” said Alice, pushing herself away from the counter, scrambling to keep her balance. “Thanks for the waffles.” She didn’t look back. She ran to the door.
The sign said “Open.”
Alice threw the door outward and fled back into the wastelands. As the door shut, a bell rang.
There were a few pieces of waffle still left on Alice’s plate, not dry. Marcie picked them up and began squeezing to extract the syrup.
The diner was closed forever.
© 2015 Sunil Patel