The same dream kept coming for Eli, and it was terrible. The worst part about it was the faces of children who chased him through cobbled streets beneath dilapidated, stone-faced buildings of a foreign country. In the dream, he kept looking back over his shoulder as he ran. Their faces looked as if someone had taken a box cutter and carved at their lips, noses and eyelids. Tiny monstrous faces. Eyes wide and nostrils flared. Their cut-up lips revealed small, gnashing teeth.
They looked so much like his father’s drawings.
Eli couldn’t take another night of those faces. So he stood outside behind his trailer because he didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t want to go to sleep.
He stared at the dark forest for a while, but then he imagined those children hiding among the trees. So he looked up at the sky and stared a while longer at the stars. Time simply passed, but eventually even in the sky he could connect the dots and see those carved-up stares.
“Oh my God,” he said, covering his face with his hands. “Let it stop.”
Impulsively, he hurried to the shed. He needed to put his hands on something. The first thing he saw was a shovel, so he grabbed it. He walked a few hundred feet into the open stretch of land behind his trailer and stabbed the dull blade into the earth.
It felt good.
The blade went in. The ground was soft. So he pulled out a chunk of dirt and stabbed the earth again. The soil was moist and easy to dig. A few more of these, he thought, and he would be okay. He just needed to work it out. He just needed to release whatever demons plagued his mind. If any alcohol had been in the house he might have washed those demons away with booze, but he rarely drank and there were no liquor stores open this late for miles. Living out in the countryside of Oklahoma relaxed him, but even out here he couldn’t hide.
Don’t think of it. Keep digging. Keep working.
He dug and flung chunks of dirt across his body and over his shoulder. He thought that after a few shovelfuls, the labor would make him exhausted. Then it would be okay to sleep. Maybe if his body ached, he would pass out from exhaustion and there would be no dreams. He didn’t know how this worked, but that seemed right.
After an hour, he had only built up momentum. Now he was consumed in his digging. Sweat formed a paste with the dirt and glued to his skin from the neck down. It wasn’t until three in the morning that the pains finally caught up to him. In a few hours he had to start his morning shift at the diner. He finally paused, looked around and realized he had dug a hole as wide as a kiddy pool four feet into the ground.
“Good,” he said, although it wasn’t.
What would he do next; fill it back up?
“No,” he said, “Leave it.” He said this as though he needed to answer the question. Maybe I’ll fill it later. It will give me something to do.
He slept for two hours that morning and dreamed nothing.
The diner was a few miles from the Texas border. When he showed up for his shift, his muscles felt like knotted ropes of twine. He grabbed an apron, tied it around his waist and stood at the grill in the kitchen. Food orders came immediately. He didn’t realize how many muscles he used to simply grill breakfast orders until that moment. Pouring pancake mix with a ladle made his arm feel twisted against his will. Every step he took shot a flare of pain from his heels up.
He washed down a mix of pain pills he found in the first-aid kit and fueled his mind with coffee as the morning wore on. He regretted sleeping only two hours. In the midst of a breakfast rush, it became harder for him to focus on orders. Cynthia, one of the waitresses, had to send two plates back to him because the sausage was burnt on one and he forgot to include cheese in the omelet on the other.
“What in the hell’s wrong with you this morning, Eli?” she asked him. “This ain’t the time to be messin’ up orders. It is too damn busy right now, okay? I ain’t made tips since you came in, and haven’t stopped apologizing to customers since.”
After a week of this—mindless digging, no sleep, then coming to work half-dazed, feeling broken and sore—the diner’s manager still had no heart to fire him. He was a good kid. Didn’t talk much, but up until now had always been a good worker.
Instead she asked him, “Would it help to put you on night shift, honey? You’ll have to work the counter, too, and you won’t get no sleep until the morning risers come in, but it’s ‘tween that and lettin’ you go.”
“I’ll switch,” he said, and although his voice was a whisper, his eyes were desperate with relief. Anything to work through the night, he thought. Anything to avoid the faces.
Eli wasn’t good with people. He could never get a hang of the small talk the other waitresses mastered so effortlessly. Most of the truckers who came through told stories of drunken hitchhikers, cross dressers and visitor centers no one should ever visit after dark. Eli listened, nodded on and served their midnight breakfast orders.
“Y’ain’t gonna make no tips if all you do is bob that noggin’ of yours. Gotta converse with the fellas,” Rosie, the manager, whispered in Eli’s ear as he grilled some hash.
“Not worried about tips all the much. ‘Need just enough to get through.”
It was true. He didn’t need much. The land he lived on was paid for. So was the trailer. He had no girlfriend. No hobbies. No other desires. Wasn’t a boy with many complexities. Just lived by himself in a single-wide big enough to feel like he was sleeping inside a box. The land was his after his father passed on.
At one point he had wanted to go to Bible college and become a preacher just like his daddy. But those felt like boyish thoughts now. He was twenty-two, and somehow that made him feel very old.
“Alright then,” she said.
But then a man walked in with a strange aura about him. There was a tenderness to the man’s walk. A careful step, as if he didn’t want to disturb the air around him. He was an older gentleman with a glow to his face that provoked a feeling of friendliness in Eli. It was a strange, strange sensation.
“How are you doing young man?” he asked, but sounded as though he actually expected an answer.
“I’m quite fine, sir.”
The old man’s face held lines, but his eyes didn’t sag.
“I’ll take your finest roast. Straight black,” he said.
Eli rushed to fill him a cup, wondering if this oil-resembling crud would satisfy the man. He brought over the mug, felt the need to introduce himself, but instead found the man joking around with Rosie, asking about the kids, complimenting her new hairdo.
Eli waited a while to see if the opportunity came up to interject. What in the hell’s wrong with you, man? He’s just some guy old enough to be your daddy’s father. Just some customer with stories as any other.
The man might have been seventy, but he made gestures with his hands and spoke like he had the energy of a man half his age. He had a gentleman’s face, that of someone who might never utter an insult at anyone. He wore a small red rose was pinned to his vest, like a corsage.
“Will there be anything else, Sir?” Eli asked after refilling his third coffee.
“Sure is. Could I kindly have three straws?”
“Straws. Three of them, please.”
The man nodded.
“Just three straws, and I’ll be on my way.”
So he grabbed the straws and handed them to the man.
The man nodded, smiled and went on his way.
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Genre – Short Stories / Literary Fiction
Rating – PG13
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