Tea and Sympathy
Alyson Carroll awoke that morning feeling energized. For the first time in years she had slept completely through the night. Not only had her mind been undisturbed by the commonplace terrors that other nights tormented slumber, but it had been a dreamless sleep. She left for work that morning cheerful; a skip in her step; a hum on her lips.
It was a drastic mood shift noticeable to the other waitresses as she dropped off her things in the office and their reactions ranged from confused to even uncomfortable.
“Maybe she had her coffee before work?” One waitress shrugged to the other two.
“Maybe her mother finally kicked the bucket,” the second said.
“Good morning, Alyson!” The third waitress pitched her voice up in volume to alert her coworkers as Alys re-entered the room.
“Great morning, MaryAnn.” Alys tied her apron around her waist.
Susie’s was not a fancy diner, but it was clean and well lit which was more than most establishments in Appleweed could boast. The light from the windows cast a warm, inviting glow that seeped through the fog that rolled in every morning from the harbor. It was the sort of place that guaranteed two things: warm food and strong coffee.
Susanne Bosk, the diner’s proprietor and namesake, was neither warm nor inviting. She was a woman of business. A stout character with tight curls and deep-set brown eyes whom only a select few ever dared to call “Susie,” she ran a tight ship—never opened late and never closed early. Her thin lips stretched across her face and secured a toothpick at the corner of her mouth. That morning, the slightest hint of a good mood lingered somewhere in her expression. Its exact source was unidentifiable; could have been a twinkle in her eye or maybe her lips held just a vague twitch of an upturn, but it was there. Alys’ mood was contagious today.
Alys swayed back and forth to the muffled tones of the jukebox in the far corner as she went about her morning prep. She set the tables one by one as the tantalizing scent of bacon and coffee filled the entire restaurant. For once she gave a genuine smile as customers filed in and she took their orders. She couldn’t help it; that morning was nothing but promises of a fantastic day.
That morning lied.
If Alys hadn’t been preoccupied with refills to notice the Sheriff enter, she might have realized that he was an hour early for his usual 7 o’clock breakfast. But Sheriff Moss had the kind of voice that caught your ear, which no doubt was helpful on the job, but also tended to invoke unintentional eavesdropping.
“Mornin’ Susie,” Moss slid into one of the chairs at the bar with an ease only achieved with years of repetition.
“Sheriff.” Susanne leaned on the counter. “Awful early to be seeing you. Still want your usual?”
“Coffee.” He stared hard at the counter. “Just coffee. Black. Don’t got the stomach for anything else this morning.”
A mug clinked onto the counter and Susanne filled with coffee in a manner that seemed more akin to a bartender pouring a stiff drink. “Something happened.” It wasn’t a question, but she still expected answers.
Alys had keen sense of hearing; knowing what was worth listening to was a key survival tool growing up. In a town where nothing ever happened, an event that left the Sherriff visibly shaken was definitely something to give pause.
Moss lowered his voice and leaned in but nothing in the world could have stopped Alys from hearing his words as she rounded back behind the counter for another pot of coffee. “You know the Lewis’ boy?”
Alys’s heart stopped.
“That queer kid?” Susanne quirked an eyebrow. “Sure, he’s in a couple a times a week. Doesn’t order much, but he’s all right enough. What’s he done?”
“Swallowed one of his daddy’s guns last night; blew a hole clear through the back of his head. Wasn’t pretty.”
Both Susanne and the Sheriff startled out of what they assumed had been a private conversation and saw the broken coffee pot before they noticed the waitress who had dropped it.
“Alyson!” Susanne turned the most exasperated glare in her direction. “What are you doing?”
Alys jumped, looked at Susanne and the Sheriff, then down at the splatter of glass and coffee at her feet. “S-sorry.”
Susanne tossed her a towel. “Go on. We aren’t lacquering the floor with it.” She turned back around to the Sheriff.
The conversation continued, but Alys didn’t hear it. Everything seemed far away and garbled, like she’d stuck her head under water. Her fingers and knuckles whitened around the towel and she sank to a crouch. The world swayed and she gripped the cupboard handle for balance. She felt motion sick. She looked at the murky puddle and the reflection of her own honey-brown eyes stared back at her. What was she supposed to be doing?
Her vision blurred and she watched the coffee separate into squares against the white tile forming a checkerboard pattern. The shards of glass grew and twisted upwards, forming pawns, knights and bishops. She took in the chessboard that now lay before her, knowing she hadn’t the slightest of idea what to do with it.
She looked up at the boy sitting on the steps beside her.
Charlie Lewis had the sort of face girls in school would have swooned over if they weren’t too busy repeating the same homophobic garbage their parents whispered to each other. His bone structure was strong, his build was athletic and he had a tousled mess of loose blonde curls that he was always brushing from his eyes. His mouth twitched at a smile. “Move.”
Alys fidgeted, her fingers hovering over each individual piece.
“Try to think a few moves ahead.”
“This game is stupid,” Alys said.
“You just don’t want to lose again.”
“You’re right, I don’t!”
Charlie raised his eyebrows and cocked his head to the side and looked at her, then the board.
Alys let an exasperated sigh and moved a knight before recoiling, covering her face as if she expected it to explode.
He chuffed a laugh and moved his queen forward as well, taking one of her pawns.
Alys stared, her eyes peeking through her fingers. She moved her hands from her face as something dawned on her. She felt her excitement mounting, a wide grin spreading over over her face as she moved her own queen forward to take out his. “CHECKMATE!” the word was shouted at the top of her lungs, her hands thrown upwards in triumph.
“What?” Charlie jerked forward from his relaxed slump, eyeing the board. He looked over every piece, and his face skewed in disbelief. “Nu-uh. Where?”
“Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-HA!” Alys waved the black queen’s piece under his nose in a very “neener, neener, neener” type fashion.
“Alys,” Charlie pinched the bridge of his nose, but it wasn’t clear if he was frustrated or just trying to suppress laughter. “That’s not checkmate.”
“Uh-huh,” but her voice already lost its confidence and she pulled the piece to her like it was delicate and needed protection. “I have your most powerful piece… it’s totally a checkmate.”
“Most powerful, maybe, but not the most significant. You can still win without a queen. Like this.” He moved a black pawn and removed the white king. “Checkmate.”
Alys’ mouth opened, closed, opened again and then scrunched into a scowl.
“In the end, there are really only kings and pawns.” He tapped her nose with the king piece still in his hand. “Some just move fancier than others.”
She tightened her grip on the queen still in her palm. “I hate chess.”
“Give it time.”
“I hate you.”
Charlie laughed. “Alyson, your hand.”
Alys’ face obscured. “What?” She looked down but she was no longer holding a chess piece at all; her hand was curled around a shard of glass now dripping blood.
“Here, let me see it,” Mary Ann took her hand in her own, removing the glass piece with a rag held between her fingers.
“You’re in shock.”
Alys looked around her, disoriented. The world, the diner, what should have been familiar sights, everything seemed alien now.
“Mom,” the mousy girl called to Susanne, indicating the office where anything that couldn’t afford to get food on it was kept. “Can you get the binder with the emergency contact info? I think we’ll want to call her mother.” She bit her lower lip, pressing the rag into Alys’ hand after disposing of the glass.
Alys felt a lump in her throat. Her emergency contact? Years ago when she’d first applied to the job, she'd put down the only person she could think of who would care if something happened to her—Charlie. “You can’t…” She didn’t get further than that. She'd meant to say, you can’t call him. You can’t call him because he’s dead, but the words stuck and her voice felt tight.
“What?” Mary Ann helped her stand and lean back against the counter for balance as Susanne returned from the office with the notebook containing employee contact information.
Alys cleared her throat. “You can’t call him…”
“Alyson, you need someone to take you to the emergency room—this may need stitches. You can’t drive there by your—“
“Mary,” Susanne spoke up from the notebook in her hands.
Alys could tell by the look on Susanne’s face that she had just discovered her emergency contact was that same “queer kid” who blew a hole through the back of his head earlier that morning.
For the first time since she’d known her, Susanne Bosk looked shaken, pale even. She glanced from the book to her daughter and then to Alys. “Mary Ann is going to drive you to the emergency room, honey.”
Susanne didn’t even keep honey in the diner, let alone call anyone by it. The look she gave her was sympathetic and Alys resented every glance she caught of it.
“I’ll help you get her things.” Susanne ushered Mary Ann into the office.
Alys knew it was a thinly veiled excuse for Susanne to explain the situation to her daughter, but at least it meant she wouldn’t have to. This theory was only confirmed when Mary Ann remerged with both of their belongings and a far more solemn attitude.
Unnerving quiet was their all too exposed procession out of the diner, a quiet that burst into a quake of whispers as the door closed behind them.
Alys’ car was a run-down 1976 Volkswagen Rabbit that she had managed to scrounge up enough tip money to purchase two years ago. It was battered, a little decrepit and may have been white once in its life but was now a perpetual dirty grey. It was unattractive, loud as hell and the radio station flipped every time you used the turn signal, but it moved and that was really all that mattered.
The two climbed in and Mary Ann struggled to start the engine.
"Cock it back then forward." Alys rubbed her face with her clean hand, shifting in her seat. She wasn’t used to sitting on the passenger’s side.
“Is there any glass still in your hand?”
"No, I just grabbed a big piece." Alys removed the bloody handkerchief she’d been given to examine her wound. It wasn’t even bleeding anymore. Now that it wasn’t covered in blood, it looked a great deal more harmless. It was almost disappointing. “I really don’t need to go to the emergency room."
“Okay.” Mary Ann paused between shifting gears from reverse to drive. “I'll just... take you home then. I think I remember the address. Venice Avenue, right?”
An awkward silence filled the car.
Mary Ann glanced over at her. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
Alys didn’t answer.
“You didn’t have to come to work today, mother would have under——”
“I didn’t know.” There was something humiliating about that admission.
“Oh.” It seemed as if another silence would fall upon them but Mary Ann began again. “Is there someone else you can call?”
Alys looked sidelong at her. Call for what?
Mary Ann’s eyes fixated on the road ahead of them and she shrunk in her seat. “It’s just, I read in my psychology class that after traumatic events, it’s best not to be alone so——”
“No, there’s no one I can call.”
“At least you have your mother——”
“Stop the car,” Alys said.
“The car. Stop the car,” Alys slammed her palm down repeatedly on the arm rest, hostility rising in her tone. “STOP THE CAR!”
Mary Ann slammed on the breaks, bringing them to a screeching halt.
Alys barely let the car stop before her door was open and she was sprinting across a lawn and down the street—Charlie’s street. Somewhere in the back of her mind she heard Mary Ann call her name, but she ignored her. Her feet connected with the concrete, unable to slow or stop. She flew up the steps, her hand balled into a fist and banged on the door. “Open, god, please open.”
The door did open but it wasn’t Charlie, and by sheer grace of some higher power it wasn’t his father either.
“Alyson?” Karen Lewis’ eyes were wider than usual and her whole form shook from grief as if the only thing holding her up was the door she held onto.
Charlie’s mother was a small, timid woman, so Alys had no difficulty pushing past her.
Alys climbed the stairs in twos, racing to get to the room before anyone could stop her. Thinking maybe, just maybe, it was all a lie. She flung open Charlie’s bedroom door and stumbled inside.
Charlie spun around in his chair, his classic but crooked smile spread across his face, warm and familiar. “Hey, you.”
The heavy scent of bleach overpowered her senses and she sneezed, her head snapping downwards. When she looked up, the room was different: bare. The bed clothes were gone, some of the wall paper was gone but worst of all—Charlie was gone.
Alys’ shoulders slumped and her heart sank. “No… ”
“How did you find out?” Karen hovered in the doorway as if scared to step over the threshold.
“Small town. Word travels fast.”
Even though she wasn’t facing the woman, she could see her brow knit. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have had to hear like that.”
“Charlie shouldn’t have had to die like that.” Alys’ eyes scanned the room. Without him, Charlie’s room looked dark, almost dingy. Like all of the air had been sucked out. “Why did he… ” Alys shook her head before turning to face Karen. “Did he say anything?”
“He left something for you,” Karen reached into her cardigan pocket and produced a folded piece of paper. She ran her fingers over it with the kind of reluctance that suggested it may have been the only thing Charlie had left before she offered it to Alys.
A million things could have been written in that note and she knew none of them were going to make that moment any better. And yet what frightened her even more about that letter, was the million things Charlie possibly didn’t write. She opened it—it wasn’t a full sheet of paper, a scrap at best, only folded twice. He’d signed it with the same almost flamboyant flourish he always did, but the note itself was simple:
Tell Alys I’m sorry.