There were two customers in the diner, old man Earlobes again, eating his usual plate of hash browns drenched in ketchup. A woman in her forties, her greying hair cut into a short fade, was drinking tea and eating toast in the booth in the far corner. In books they’d describe people as “severe” and that word kept coming to mind when I glanced at her. Her mouth was a thin line. Her face was creased from all the times she frowned. I wondered about her, but not enough to go talk to her beyond “Hey what can I get for ya?”
Matt and Delaney were making eyes at each other as she sat on the counter, drinking a milkshake. He leaned over it, talking and laughing. Roy was in the kitchen, singing “Sweet Home Alabama” with the small, tinny speaker they had hanging back there.
I was doing a word search. Delaney once asked why I didn’t play games on my phone, and I told her that scrolling on my phone made me vaguely homicidal, and she gave me a puzzled look and went away.
I think we’re best friends by default. Like, we’re together based on lack of options. The two girls at the Calypso Gas and Chew have to be friends, right? Share lipstick and scrunchies, discuss boys and hold each other when we cry?
My boredom threatened to spiral into something sinister as I sat there, circling nautical themed words like “giant squid” and “lighthouse” in my stupid word search, when a car squeeled yo a stop in front of the diner. It was an old car. Boxy, from the 80s. A man got out, wearing a white leather jacket and a motorcycle helmet with a visor. It gleamed in the bright outside lights of the Calypso.
“That’s a Buick Grand National,” Matt said, looking up from Delaney.
“No one cares,” I said, but Delaney reached up and squeezed his bicep.
“You know your cars,” she said.
I circled something that looked vaguely like “slaughter” in my word search and tossed the pen down. The door jingled and the helmet guy sat at one of the booths, drumming his fingers on the table. Agitated. Hyper. Fidgety.
I put on Waitress mode and approached him. “Hi there, how are ya, what can I get for you–?”
The words were muffled, guttural and thick behind the helmet. I felt my mind try to track the syllables and piece together something like meaning, but I felt repulsed, confused. It was like listening to someone vomit. I recoiled, regained my composure, and tried again. “Sorry, didn’t quite get that!”
The man placed both hands on the sides of the helmet and lifted it off his head. Black, stringy hair spilled out over his shoulders, and I saw that he was young, with a long, bent nose and a thick, square jaw. The ghost of serious acne sprinkled his cheeks still. I wondered how old he was. Early twenties? Why did I care?
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Coffee, and uh, tomato soup, please.”
“No problem!” I flashed him my brightest smile and scribbled down his order.
Delaney caught me as I handed the slip over to Roy, who screamed “SOUP” at Matt.
“He’s cute,” she said.
“You gonna ask for his number?”
I glanced at her. For my entire life, I’d felt like I was the only one in manual mode. I had to consciously choose to take part in things. To engage in social routine. It led to me doing things ironically, for the joke, for the fuck of it. I knew if I chose to do this, to play along with Delaney, our friendship would grow.
Did I want that?
Did I want to become better? Did I want friendships and relationships and all those little human tendrils to ground me to whatever this life was?
I nodded. “Sure, I’ll ask.”
She squealed and hugged me. I’d made her happy, sharing this moment. Sometimes she regarded me like I was a dangerous reptile, never quite relaxing around me. Maybe she felt the coldness, the quiet contempt I held for, well, everything.
“SOUP!” screamed Matt, and the helmet guy’s order was done. I took the steaming foam cup over to him, along with the coffee pot. I poured it for him, conscious that Delaney was watching, that I was entertainment for tonight.
“I like your jacket,” I said.
He glanced down. “Thank you.”
“Um, your car is really neat.”
This was going very well. I glanced back at Delaney, who mouthed: “Keep going!”
I sat down across from him. “What’s your name?”
He took a slow spoonful of soup, and said: “Marcus.”
“Well, I’m Samantha.”
“Nice to meet you–ah! Shoth-vioth! Rasht! Rash-ach-vo!”
He slipped into that other language, each syllable choked out in harsh, broken syllables. Each one hit me, making me wince, like it was a high frequency noise. I didn’t know why it bothered me so much. The words twinged the part of my brain that recoiled at videos of octopuses and shuddered at the idea of an unexplored ocean. It was like a cold fish was being pressed against my face, writhing and alive.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Dutch,” I said. I don’t know why I said it, the words simply fell out of my mouth.
“Please,” Marcus said. “I can’t stop speaking like that. There’s too many–,” he tapped the side of his skull. “Too many words!”
I was angry. Which felt good, because emotions were hard to come by in the Calypso. Nights stretched into each other, a vanilla blur of hash browns and eggs, drunk customers hitting on me, Matt and Delaney circling each other like wild animals. I was frustrated; I’d never wanted one of the other customers and now I wanted this one. Why couldn’t the universe give me that? “Look,” I said, “ give me your number. Write a fake number down on the napkin, at least. So my friend–,” I jerked my head at Delaney, who was pretending not to watch us, “knows I tried.”
“Verroth-shah! Damn it, if I do it, will you go away?”
“Yes. Your Dutch makes my brain itch.”
He shook his head, and started tapping his jacket. “I don’t have a pen–,”
A pen soared through the air and clattered on the table in front of us. I glanced at Delaney, who was smiling.
Marcus sighed and scribbled on a napkin, then flung it at me. I stood up and waved it at Delaney as I made my way back to her.
Marcus gulped down his soup and coffee, and in a moment, he was gone. The Grand National roared to life, and sped off into the night.
I unfolded the napkin and glanced at it. There were no numbers, just symbols. Arcane, harshly drawn symbols, like someone had run their hands along a keyboard and vomited out nonsense. Definitely not a phone number.
“Did he draw in Russian?” Delaney asked.
The severe woman looked our way. “I can read Russian.”
“I don’t think it’s Russian, maybe Arabic?” I replied. I took the napkin to her. “If you can tell me what that says, your meal is free.”
She glanced down at her tea and toast. “All four dollars? Thank you.” She took a pair of glasses out of her purse and put them on. They made her eyes huge, making it look like a large insect was peering over the not-phone number some douchebag had given me. “I’ve done a lot of transcription and translation work. You’ll never believe some of the stuff people need deciphered.” She loomed over the helmet-guy’s note, running a finger along it, mouthing something.
“Weird,” she said.
“Well, it’s like he clustered a bunch of languages and ways of writing. I see Cyrllic, Sanskrit, something that might be hieroglyphics? This is really odd.”
“When he spoke, he kept slipping into a different language,” I replied.
“What did it sound like?”
I shrugged. “Like he was drowning. A lot of “acht-vo” type stuff.”
“Hmmm. Let me try.” She stared down at the paper, reading the brief two lines over and over. Her expression, which had been one of bemused curiosity, the sort that is bred of boredom and melancholy, sank deeper into her face, turning into something that I recognized as horror. She was staring at the napkin like it was a polaroid of a gruesome crime scene.
“It keeps changing,” she breathed, talking to no one. She squeezed her eyes shut, so hard that she bit down on her lip, drawing a tiny, bright line of blood. She opened them and her entire face froze. “It changed again.”
“What do you mean?” I had retreated back to the counter, edging away from the woman as if she were a growling dog.
“Nnng!” the woman replied, earnest and sincere. She frowned, and placed a hand to her throat. “Nng ehyeeog aimgr’luhh?”
She gazed at me with wild, frightened eyes and I gazed back. Silence settled on the Calypso diner, no sounds except the gentle wuv-wuv of the dishwasher.
“What is this?” she whispered. “It’s in my head. The words, the syllables. They’re in my head,” she moaned, dragging her nails down her cheeks.
I said nothing. I had no words of comfort or soothing murmurs. Deep in the kitchen, I heard Roy jokingly mutter: “ehyeeog!” I felt a bit like running, but a twisting conflict was wriggling in my brain, sliding along the foundations of my mind.
Maybe I sort of, kind of, just a little bit…wanted to hear more.
The woman rose from her table and unsteadily made her way to the restroom. The door slammed closed and I heard retching from behind it.
Then more silence.
I waited a minute; I waited five. When I checked the clock and ten minutes had passed, I knocked on the bathroom door. No response.
“She okay?” Delaney asked.
“Sick, I think,” I replied. I knocked again, sharply. Nothing. I pushed the door open and felt a horrid, shocking thrill at what I saw.
The woman was dead. Her eyes had been gouged out; they were deep, cavernous, bloody holes on her face now. Her hands were covered in blood and tendrils; she’d done it with her nails.She was slumped against the toilet, one of her fingers dangled into the toilet bowl water. On the beige stalls, in blood, she’d written “yogagl c’ ephailllln’gha”, followed by the same symbols Marcus had written.
She’d translated them.
At her feet was the napkin Marcus had scribbled on. Underneath his jagged script, she’d written:
The police and EMTs moved with ruthless, cold efficiency. The body was carted away. A grim police officer took statements from each of us. Matthew showed them the security footage. They took the napkin, the notebook. Someone took many photos of the bathroom. A crew of men in white plastic jumpsuits and masks rolled a large power washer in and erased every trace of blood from the bathroom. I from a booth as the water being pushed into the drain started out a deep maroon, blood mixed with dirt, and got lighter and lighter, until it was pinkish, soapy water. It looked innocuous, like Kool-Aid.
Then the cleaners packed up and left. We shook our heads, frowning slightly at each other. The door jingled merrily and a customer ordered fried eggs. Matthew and Roy started talking about movies. Delaney scrolled on her phone. I picked up my pen and looked down at my word search.
I struggled to read it. It felt like it kept moving, switching letters around. I picked out the word “Orangutan” and circled it with relief. I crossed it off my list of words and looked back at what I’d circled.
It read: Othalozep.