Main Menu (edit)
The sun in Texas is hot, strong, powerful, implacable. Bound together with the heat, it becomes a presence, a power that not only dare not be ignored, but that simply cannot be. As the pair stepped off the Grayhound Bus onto concrete of the Midway Truckers Paradise (and Occasional Bus Stop), the sun reached down, bashed them on the head, and demanded obeisance or flight.
They fled, in a somewhat dignified fashion, under the shelter in front of the gift shop, where t-shirts the colors of the rainbow (and a few colors besides that) guaranteed that you, too, could prove to your friends that you'd been at the Midway Truckers Paradise (or that relatives had been and had only obtained for you a lousy, or at least garish, t-shirt).
"Christ," the old man swore. "Never should've brought this damned state into the union. Who the hell can live in sun like that?"
"Mad dogs?" the younger woman teased. "Englishmen?"
"Not many Englishmen around here," the old man grumbled. He was wearing a long blue windbreaker, which set off his white polo shirt and white pants, too. His lips were downturned in disapproval, with a whispy white goatee below them. Atop a head that was still thick with white, wavy hair, he had a bright red truckers cap. "AMERICA - LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT." "More like spic country."
"Sam, shut up," the woman told him, firmly but not harshly, but more like it was an argument she'd had many times before. By her sharp features, she might have been an older daughter of his, or a very younger sister. She was in a long, shapeless blue-green dress -- a mu-mu, some might call it -- and wore a spiky straw hat upon her brow, protecting her some from the sun, straw strands sticking out like a nimbus. She'd been reading something on the bus, and held it in a hand against her side. Besides that, neither of them seemed to have any luggage. "I, for one, welcome anyone who can make a living here. Land of opportunity, y'know?"
"Well, a few here as are looking for more opportunity than I think we want to give 'em. Y'know?"
She nodded. "Which is why we're here."
"Which is why we're here."
By the time the sun was sinking into the featureless west, and the temps were dipping down to only a midly unbearable eighty or so, the pair had managed to wander about the entire truck stop complex. They'd looked at the tchochkes and trinkets in the gift shop, and watched the tatooist at work (the old man nodded approvingly at the elaborate eagle being forever imprinted upon a young man's arm). They'd bought some nibbles and sodas at the store and chatted with the man behind the glass there (the woman thought he was far too much like her companion, though he had some shockingly open ideas about immigration, sex, and political reform). They'd had a small chocolate milkshake at the restaurant that looked suspiciously like a Denny's, only emptier, and listened to a shouted one-way phone conversation in Japanese emanating from the back office there. They'd wandered through the arcade (Sam played a mean game of Missile Command, and Libby excelled at Gravitar, and if they noticed that the games there were decades old and screen-weary, neither mentioned it). They'd poked around in the locker rooms, and the shoe shine niche, and a magazine stand, and a couple of places most folks either never noticed or never remembered.
They'd even braved the sun, offered up their respect to it, and talked it into allowing them to walk the length and breadth of the pavement outside, past trucks and cars and gas pumps and light standards both functional and non-.
They'd met the people, the vehicles, the pleaces of pleasure and the places of pain, of life and death, of sin and -- well, whatever the opposite of that was, which was difficult to determine at the Midway.
The bus had, of course, long since departed. They'd catch the next one when it came through, whenver that was. Assuming they left. They were still uncertain about that part.
At last, as the sun was sinking, they stepped into the diner.
Libby had wanted to go there to begin with. "You learn more from people eating than from anything else in the world." Sam had agreed, but that was why he wanted to go last. "Learn the lay of the land, first." She'd bowed to his strategic acumen.
They looked around. The place was ... busy. The tables were mostly full. Lots of chatter and clinking of metal on ceramic and laughter and smoke. Through it all, various people wandered, taking orders and bringing food.
"There," the woman pointed. They quickly slipped into the small booth under the stained print of a red barn and haystack, mere seconds before a pair of truckers would have taken it, earning a pair of glares, one good-natured.
"Busy place," Sam commented.
"Welcome to the Midway my name is Leilani can I take your --" The young (barely a teen-ager) frizzy-blond-haired girl stopped abruptly, and just looked at them.
"Hi, youngster," Sam said.
"House specials?" she asked, polite but with a weary overtone.
"Depends what that is, girl," Sam replied.
She looked startled. "But -- all you folks are getting house specials."
"All us folk?" Libby asked.
"You gods. And the like."
Sam threw a glance at Libby. "What makes you say something like that, child?"
The blonde rolled her eyes. "Puh-lease. Like we don't get enough of you in here? Though -- more than usual, these days, at any one time."
"Why do you think that is?" Libby asked her.
She paused, threw a glance around, then stage whispered, "Things are changing." She glanced back at the kithen. "I've got an order up," she told them. "I'll be back with some water and get your order then."
After she was gone, Libby raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah," Sam said. "Well, nothing we didn't already know."
"Since they're here, without telling us or Paul or anyone else --"
"Like anyone tells Paul anything anymore. He's as dumb as an --" Sam grumped.
"Regardless, we have to assume their intent is hostile."
"No shit. You sound like me. Question is, is there anything we can do about it?"
They looked around, and, after delivering a quartet of plates (all deftly held in her arms) to a corner booth, the girl returned. "Are you ready to order?"
Sam looked at Libby. "Tell us about the house special."
When she had, Libby quickly shook her head. "I'll have --" She glanced up at the menu on the wall. "The spaghetti. A side of French Fries. A Greek salad."
Sam snorted. "Hamburger." He glanced at his companion. "Fries. Coke. And I hear you folks make a mean apple pie here."
The girl hesitated, as though not quite sure how to answer that implied question. "It's ... very good. Some folks prefer the cherry."
Sam chuckled. "I know who'd prefer the cherry," he said. "Maybe we ought to have brought --"
"Apple will be fine," Libby said quickly.
"Dutch apple?" he asked her, pointedly.
Libby smiled. "Regular old apple will be just fine."
"Okay, that'll be --"
"Just a second, girl," Sam said. "Set a spell. Got a couple of questions."
"We're awfully busy right now," the waitress said.
"We can make it worth your while." Libbie reached into a pocket, pulled out a set of old, large silver coins, and stacked them on the table, a good dozen high.
The girl glanced around, then slid in next to Libby quickly. "Okay, but it's gotta be fast." She reached for the coins, but Libby grabbed her wrist. "After the questions," the woman said.
"Okay, first off, you said your name was ... Leilani?" Sam cocked a white eyebrow, bushy over his deepset eyes.
Leilani shrugged. "My dad liked the sound of it. He and Mom met in Hawaii while he was in the service. He decided they would have a girl named Leilani."
"What if it had been a boy?" Libby said.
"Mom would never tell me."
"Where's your folks now?" Sam continued on. "They work here?"
"Dad died back in '02. Mom was working here, but she headed up to St Louis a few months back to try and find some steady work. She and Mr. Woczak have an agreement, so's I can stay here and work for my room and board."
"So tell us about the gods, Leilani."
She looked at Sam, then back at Libby, then at the stack of coins. She shrugged. "They just been coming through a lot. All sorts. Coyote come through lately, though he's pretty much a regular around here. Mostly Greek, I think, though I'm not sure about some of them. I only studied the Greek ones in school last year. And the Romans but they're pretty much the same."
Sam said something that sounded a lot like "Foreigners," and Libby coughed. "Coyote?"
"Well -- next best thing."
She gave him a look.
"There might have been some Mexican ones, too. I think I heard some names with a bunch of X's and Q's. But they're laying pretty low." Leilani frowned, then brightened. Plus ghosts," she added, helpfully. "And the dragon was back for a visit."
"Been meaning to do something about him."
"I thought he worked for you," Libby told him.
"He's a dragon. Don't work for nobody."
"Just as well you rein him in. I never much cared for all that secrecy. Made me feel distinctly insecure."
Sam shrugged. "Anything else you can tell us, little girl?"
Leilani looked at the two of them. They had a friendliness about them -- kindly-spoken, and an easy banter amongst themselves. But there was also a hardness there, a constant threat underlying the charm, as if they'd be merciless if crossed.
Leilani knew she had promised her mom and Mr. Woczak that she'd behave, that she wouldn't run off again, that she'd be a good employee and wait for Mom to send for her. But things were getting kind of ridiculous here. "Um ... you aren't going to kill me, are you?"
"What?" Sam asked, drawing back, eyebrows raised. Libby frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, kill me. Or eat me. Or chop me up and throw me into a stew. Or ..." She paused. Blushed slightly under her tan. "Or other icky stuff. I mean, when you're done asking questions, or if you don't like my answers, or if you're afraid I'll talk to someone else."
"Who the hell do you think we are, girl?"
She looked between the two of them. "I -- don't know."
"Good," Libby commented. "Safer for you. Now scoot. You're free."
Leilani gave her a funny look, considered saying something, then grabbed the coins, slipped out of the booth, and raced back to the kitchen.
"Brave. She'll make quite a heroine," Libby commented.
Sam snorted. He pulled out a cigarette, and Libby reached up with a Zippo in her right hand to light it. "Suppose we might've killed her," he said, taking a deep drag. "If we had to. Leave a bad taste in my mouth, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do."
Libby shook her head. "No. You brought me along instead some of the others, which means I get a say in such things. And I say no killing. At least, not of innocents. That's a firm limit I have on myself."
"That's why I love you, girl. Keep me under control."
"Or the opposite, maybe."
"Semantics. Fancy words."
"Words mean things."
They ate their food in silence -- silence on their parts, at least. About them, the diner was raucous, as still more people arrived, until there was quite the line at the door. (It was this particular evening that Mister Takahara finally threw in the towel, as he had only four parties seated at Suzy's all night.) The atmosphere was chaotic, as the staff tried desperately to keep up, and more people kept getting pulled in from the other shops to help. The tatooist. The gift shop lady. Even the guy from the store.
The spaghetti, Libby was forced to admit, was probably from a can, bland and overprocessed, closer to bologna than Bolognese, though the Greek salad was decent enough. Midwest cooking, of which Texas was as vulnerable as anyplace else, ran toward Chef Boyardee, though the Tex-Mex could be decently spicy. The fries were hot and enjoyable, as was Sam's burger.
As for the pie ... filling, sweet, too big for the plate, all-American.
"So," said Sam, wiping his face carefully with a napkin. He took special care with the thin whisp of a goatee. "What next? Frontal assault?"
Libby shook her head. "We don't have the strength, especially since we still don't know exaclty what they're trying to do."
"Power grab of some sort. Territory, worship, some sorta ju-ju. We have the home field advantage. I say we strike first."
Libby snorted. "Well, unless they pull Coyote in. Or even some of the Southern Deities. They might be able to stake a claim to the home court.
Sam looked unhappy. "So then? We just skulk around some more? Or do we call in the troops? Andy'd be here in a flash. Davy, too. Especially him, and here."
"If we have to. I'm maybe a bit less eager to tackle this as a direct conflict," she said.
"Yeah, you'll just stand there and let others come in and help."
"And you'll sit there and point and give ordera and guilt people into supporting you. Happy?"
Sam grumped. "So, what, then?" She didn't answer, and he snorted. "Libby, I appreciate it if you'd --"
"Stop." She held up a hand, head cocked.
Sam glanced around, looking for an attack. "What?"
"Listen. Look. Feel."
He did, and as he did, he did begin to sense something, maybe the something Libby was trying to point out. He looked about him. The diner continued to be as busy as before. But ... there was ...
He had it. The place, the whole place, was humming like an organism. Before, things had been chaotic, almost desperate to keep up with the rush. Now ... orders in, orders up, orders out. The staff -- and some of them might be regulars in the place, others, like Leilani, were fill-ins or part-times -- had hit their stride, turning it all into some sort of careful, intricate, yet unconscious dance, as elaborate and deceptively simple as a Busby Berkeley routine. People came in, were seated, were solicited for orders, were fed, were checked out, and it all ... just ... worked ...
"Huh. Who'da thought it?"
"E pluribus unum. You should know that one, Sam."
"But some of these folks -- they're not the good guys."
Libby sighed. "It's not always about good guys and bad guys, Sam."
"But here they are, all working together, by choice, even temporarily, and making this place work."
"Some of 'em are working for --"
"But right now, right this moment, they're working for, and with, each other. I can't question that, you know that. And that means that whatever decision they make here, however they choose, we need to let it be their choice. Not ours."
"And not those other folks. You're not saying we just turn around and leave."
"No. We need to be here to help counter-balance, to make sure that folks here have a choice. If they do, if they make that choice, then we have to back them on it, even if we don't like it." She looked at him in earnest, and locked copper-green eyes with his blue ones. "You know that's the case, Sam. You know it's about that choice."
"Yeah," he said, finally, dropping his gaze. "Yeah, but that don't mean I have to like it."
She laughed, lightly and freely. "That's what makes this country great, Sam. It just goes with the territory"
by Dave Hill