The Hilltop Diner
August 15 - Mount Ares, NC
Boring, I thought, this is just amazingly boring. If only the rest of my life were this boring, I think I might be happy again. Assuming, of course, this heat wave finally breaks. Sitting in a small diner on a mountaintop, I mused over the present. After all, I never thought I would be back here again.
But after living in New York City, in Manhattan, for fifteen years, the quiet solitude of Mount Ares seemed almost like heaven. Here I sat in anonymity, wearing an old green tank top and blue jeans, definitely off the rack, staring out the window at the greenery, and forgetting the past year. Except if I’m thinking about forgetting, does that mean I’m remembering? I smirked at my own silliness. After feeling like a spotlight shone on my every move for the past nine months, it felt nice to just-
A scream shattered my concentration. Jerking out of my seat, I almost tripped on the chair legs, spilling my sweet tea. At the other end of the diner, a young, dark-haired waitress shrieked while a familiar but crazy looking man shouted, “I said I wanted light ice!”
People jumped up, grabbing the shouting man, while my waitress ran back behind the counter. “Hey, you!” My waitress shouted while pointing at me. “Call 911. Lester stabbed Missy!”
That’s Lester Smith?!? I flipped open my cell phone, dialing with shaky fingers.
“911, please state your emergency.”
“One of the waitresses at the Hilltop Diner just got stabbed.”
“Stabbed?!? Was it Missy or Karen?”
“Missy. Please send an ambulance and the police.”
“Don’t worry, hon, I already sent a message to the police and the ambulance service. Thank goodness for computers! It would take a lot longer for me to call it in.”
“I need to note your name. For the record, hon.” The operator didn’t even try to hide the curiosity in her voice; I realized that she might recognize my voice.
“Donna Carroll. Listen”
“Donna Carroll? Say, aren’t you Donna Brown? It’s me, Bev Putnam. I heard you came back to town after that nasty divorce. You know, you are kind of a celebrity around here. Most of us would give a small body part to be on the cover of the Enquirer.”
I groaned. “Yes, I was Donna Brown. I changed my name back to Carroll after the divorce, though. Look, if you don’t need anything else, I want to help them keep Lester away from the waitress.”
“Lester stabbed Missy? But he’s sweet on her, why would he stab her?”
I hung up the cell phone, not wanting to hear more gossip. Beverly Putnam was the nosiest woman I ever met, including the witches who used to be my friends.
No, not my friends. Vultures who kept me around to laugh at my accent, who circled for blood the second trouble arrived. I wanted to think of all the women in Manhattan as my friends, at least friendly acquaintances, but I’d lied to myself enough these past fifteen years. I decided to stop that during the divorce.
Taking a deep breath, I slipped my cell phone into my jeans and walked across the diner. Two strong men who looked like county road workers held Lester by his arms, as the man continued to scream, “Light ice!”
The expression on Lester’s face, his eyes wide open, spittle flying out of his mouth, unnerved me. Dang, how can anyone care that much about ice in a drink? I cast about, trying to focus on anything but Lester and that’s when I saw it. I saw what caused the commotion.
A glass of Coke, ice cubes floating in the top of the glass, sat on a table, sweat beading on the sides and sliding down the glass to collect on the table. On the bench next to the glass sat Missy, a steak knife pinning her left hand to the table about four inches away from the glass, blood slowly creeping across the table towards the Coke.
A man pushed past me with a bag of ice. He gave it to the other waitress, I guess her name’s Karen, who placed the ice on Missy’s hand around the knife. “Hold on, Missy,” the man sounded local. “Bud and the others will be here soon.”
Bud? My heart skipped a beat at the name though I doubted that Missy heard anything. Mascara streamed down her face as she chanted, “I’m sorry, Lester. I’m sorry. I’msorryI’msorryI’msorry”
I wrapped my arms around my waist, watching the condensation from the Coke spread across the table when silence crashed down. Looking up, I saw Lester had just stopped - stopped screaming, stopped struggling against the men, almost stopped breathing. His expression flickered a few times before guilt painted his features slack. “Missy,” a soft whisper as Lester almost fell to the floor.
Ye, gods! He’s crying? But… but Lester Smith never cries. I remembered the time when Lester had cut off one of his fingers in woodworking class. He walked to the front office grumbling about needing to get it reattached, but cry? Never. Yet here he was now, tears mixing with snot as he hiccuped out, “Missy, Missy, I...I’m sorry, Missy, please forgive me, Missy...”
I watched as the men gently put Lester in a chair as blue and red lights flashed in through the windows. I tore my gaze away from Lester to see two police cars arrived simultaneously as an ambulance pulled in. At least Beverly’s good at more than cheerleading and stealing boyfriends.
My heart stopped as two men exited the cars - Sheriff Bud Blackheart and Deputy Calvin Jones. My first true love and the class clown - two men I’ve known since kindergarten, yet I feel like I’ve never met either one before. I think Bud actually grew another inch or two since I left, making him 6’ 3”? He went to help the ambulance drivers unload the stretcher and stop some rubberneckers from blocking the exit. Calvin lost the smirk and his baby fat. Now Calvin looked serious as he walked into the dinner. I wonder if he married Linda?
“Everyone, if you are not directly touching either Missy or Lester, please go to the other side of the diner. We need space here.” Calvin’s voice broke through. Walking back to my table, I set my chair upright before looking down at the mess. With a small inward groan, I grabbed my dishes and deposited them in the washing bin. Then I went behind the counter, grabbed a towel, and wiped up the remains of my sweet tea.
“Hey, I can do that,” Karen called out as she walked over to me, wiping her hands on her apron.
“No problem,” I smiled weakly. “I used to work here, back when I went to high school, so I know the routine.”
“Really?” That seemed to get her attention. “I don’t remember you. My name’s Karen, Karen Bold.” The waitress held out her right hand. I hesitated a moment, then shook the woman’s hand. Please don’t ask what my last name is.
“Hello, I’m Donna,” I answered, using 15 years worth of practice to smile almost sincerely. “I just got back in town and decided to have lunch here. Does this happen often?”
“You mean someone getting stabbed?” Karen laughed a bit frantically. “Nope, and to be honest I’m surprised it happened at all. I mean, Lester really likes Missy. Or at least I thought he did. I even thought they might get married.”
“Married?” I couldn’t help it - my eyebrows went up at the statement. “But he stabbed her.”
Karen nodded, absently. “I know. It just don’t make sense.”
Another woman, dressed in a floral print sundress, walked over and cut in. “Lester’s not the only one acting like a crazy man.” She leaned closer to us. “Just last spring, Milo Jones ran over his own dog, then carried the poor animal into town bawling his eyes out. When the vet told Milo the dog was dead, Milo stabbed himself. It took four deputies and some special shot to get Milo calmed down enough to get him to a hospital.”
“Now, stop telling stories, Gretchen,” Calvin pulled out a small notebook as he walked over.
Gretchen folded her arms over her chest, her lower lip sticking out. “I am not telling stories, Calvin. I am telling the truth, and you know it.”
Calvin sighed, “You’re telling the truth as you know it, Gretchen Heresay. That doesn’t make it the truth. Either way, there is still no call for you to talk about Milo right now.”
“Actually,” I interrupted.
“Her - she”, Gretchen’s eyes narrowed at the deputy. “My last name is pronounced like the chocolate bar.”
Good one, Deputy Jones, I tried not to smirk too much.
“Yes, ma’am,” Calvin nodded at Gretchen before narrowing his eyes at me. “I apologize, I don’t recognize you, madam.”
“No, I apologize. I should have told you I was back in town. It’s me, Donna Carro-”
“That’s Donna Brown!” Gretchen the Gossip interrupted before I could finish, smiling in a way that showed all of her teeth. “Well, I recognized you. Why, I cut out every article that anyone wrote about you, Donna. I have them at the house in a special scrapbook.”
I kept myself from rolling my eyes by willpower alone. “I prefer to be called Donna Carroll. I changed my name back after the divorce.”
Calvin smiled at me then, his own trust-me smile that he used to use on unsuspecting parents and teachers. “Well now, Ms. Carroll, I’m glad you’re back, though I wish for different circumstances. Linda told me all about your divorce, and I apologize for the way your ex-husband treated you.”
I shrugged and put up my best blank face. “You don’t owe me an apology, Deputy.”
“No, I don’t, “ Calvin agreed. “But as a man, I feel that your ex casts a bad shadow over all men.”
I grinned at the sentiment. “Don’t worry, Deputy, I realize that most men aren’t like Jack.”
Calvin pulled a small notebook from his front pocket. “Now, Ms. Carroll, can you tell me what happened here?”
“I don’t really know. I was having lunch at my table, looking out the window at the lovely flowers outside when I heard a scream. I jumped up, knocking over my chair and sweet tea. Karen told me to call 911. So I did.”
“When I hung up, I walked over and saw two men holding Lester while he screamed ‘light ice’. I saw Missy with her hand, and,...” I focused on breathing and not making a fool of myself in front of Gretchen the Gossip, Karen, and two of my oldest childhood friends.
“You don’t have to tell me about Missy.” Calvin must have seen my queasiness. “Tell me about Lester.”
“That’s the strange thing.” I took a deep breath. “Lester stood there screaming and straining to get back to the table, when he suddenly stopped and turned back into Lester.”
“Excuse me?” Calvin lifted an eyebrow, a trick I watched him practice for most of fifth grade.
“Yes. It’s like he was a crazed version of Lester, his face red and kind of stretched out. Then, poof! Lester the Normal returns. Only Lester started to cry. That’s not quite right. He didn’t cry, he bawled. I mean, I’ve never seen him even shed a tear before, but there he was, tears pouring down his face, hiccuping Missy’s name and asking for forgiveness.”
Calvin wrote for a minute before looking up at me. “Ms. Carroll? What do you think happened?”
“Well, Deputy, I think that Lester ordered a drink and Missy brought it out with the regular amount of ice. I think Lester wanted light ice or no ice, and he flipped out when he saw the ice.”
At that moment, Karen spoke up, “That makes sense. Lester usually asks for light ice or no ice with his drink. Most of the time, we remember even if he forgets to ask. But today has been busy, much busier than normal. I guess that Missy just forgot.”
“So, Lester stabs her in her hand?” Gretchen asked. “That’s hardly a sane response.”
Calvin cleared his throat. “I need a statement from everyone who heard or saw anything. How about you going first, Gretchen? After all, you seem to be in a story telling mood.”
“She can’t help you,” Karen cut off Gretchen’s response. “She was in the restroom the whole time.”
“Was not!” Gretchen screeched. “I saw Lester walk in!”
“The deputy doesn’t need people to tell him Lester walked in,” Karen continued. “We all know that Lester walked in. How else do you think he got here?”
I gave Calvin a small grin; he returned the grin with one of his own. Then I turned turned to look outside. I saw Bud put Lester into the back of his police car. I wonder what happened. I mean, does it really make a difference, how much ice there is in a drink?
I stared so hard at Lester, I didn’t notice Bud staring at me until he walked up and knocked on the window. I jumped a bit, remembered how to breathe, and smiled a bit. Bud smiled back at me, and motioned for me to come outside.
“It looks like the sheriff wants to talk to you, Ms. Carroll.” Calvin tipped his hat at me. “It was nice seeing you again, Ms. Carroll.”
I smiled at Calvin, “Same here, Deputy Jones.”
I wonder what Bud wants. After all, it had been years since I left, years since we last kissed. I took a quick look in the mirror by the front door. My hair still looked okay; I wore almost no makeup or jewelry. My, how the mighty have fallen. Well, Bud used to say I’m beautiful with no makeup. But I stopped that particular thought before I got... No, I’m just stopping those thoughts. Now.
I walked through the door, flinching as the heat hit me, then I held open the door for the paramedics as they wheeled Missy out. She was unconscious now; her hand invisible inside a swath of bandages. Static punctuated the paramedics’ conversation, but I gathered that the hospital was preparing for emergency surgery. I hoped that Missy would be fine afterward.
Closing the door (and missing the air conditioning), I desperately hoped the heat wasn’t making me smell or sweat like a stuck pig as I walked over to Bud’s car. “Howdy, Sheriff,” I drawled in my best mountain accent.
Bud laughed out loud at my greeting. “Howdy yourself, Donna. What brings you here?”
“To the diner? I wanted to eat a cooked lunch but not heat up my entire place.”
“No,” Bud leaned forward, pushing an errant bit of hair behind my ear. “What brings you back to Mount Ares?”
The question sobered me up. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard all the grisly details of my divorce from your wife or girlfriend.”
Bud shook his head. “Well, I did hear that you got a divorce, but I don’t know any of the details. I don’t have a wife or a girlfriend and I don’t listen to the local entertainment gossip around here since I find myself in it too much to enjoy it.”
“You’re lucky,” I shivered despite the heat. “I came back here to get away from my ex-husband, the divorce, and the whole humiliating experience. I never guessed that I would be the topic of entertainment here.”
Bud laughed out loud. “Sorry to disappoint you, Donna, but people around here consider you a local celebrity, and have ever since you moved to Manhattan and got married.”
I grimaced at Bud’s comment. “And to think that at one time I wanted to be a celebrity.”
“You don’t need to explain what happened, Donna,” Bud leaned against his car. “Unless you want to?”
I stared at Bud for a few seconds. “Thank you, Bud. I’ll think about that.”
“Well, now that I know why you’re here in town,” Bud continued, pulling out his own notebook, ”we can get down to business.”
“So, did you get the daily special or the meatloaf?”
I laughed at his question. “The meatloaf, with mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans.”
Bud returned my smile. “Was it good?”
“Delicious.” I licked my lips, hoping I looked like I was flirting instead of some demented frog girl.
“Now that we’ve established your lunch, I need you to come to the office to make a statement.” Bud’s smile went away.
“Well, I already answered all of Calvin’s questions. But if you want me to come downtown...”
“I definitely want you to come downtown. I need a fresh perspective on something, if you think you can stop yourself from gossiping about it.”
“Well,.” I paused for effect. “I think I can keep quiet.”
“Good. Then I’ll see you at three o’clock”
“Sheriff?” Calvin called out from the diner’s door. “I got the stories from everyone here. Anything else I should do?”
“Photos?” Bud called out.
“Right here.” The deputy held up a sealed plastic bag, the bloody knife an incongruent red against the brown of the deputy’s shirt.
“That’s all then, Deputy. Let’s roll.” Bud tipped his hat to me, “Good afternoon, Ms. Carroll.”
“Good afternoon, Sheriff.” A silly smile crept over my face as I watched Bud get in his car and drive away. When I looked back at the diner, I saw Gretchen at the window, pointing at me and prattling at some other women. Curse you, Jack Brown! I left my purse in there!
But before I could panic, Karen walked out with my purse and cell phone. “I hope you don’t mind, but I figure that you didn’t want to run into that pit of vipers.”
I almost cried. “Karen, you are officially my savior. How much do I owe you for lunch?” I am so giving her a huge tip.
“Don’t worry about it, hon,” Karen smiled at me. “We ain’t charging anyone for lunch after that disaster. Just get going before Miss Thang comes out here to harass you more.”