As usual, Noah's late. I guess it's not that big of a deal, though, since the twenty-four hour diner is closed anyway right now, again. That place changes owners so many times, there's a good chance that Kelly – that's the name sitting on top of the diner right now, Kelly's Place is what it says – might have skipped town like so many others have before her, not able to pay the rent or something. Hopefully it opens soon though, it's kinda cold outside and there isn't much else to do on a Sunday morning in Grant, not much else aside from church that is.
I see a car pulling into the parking lot, not his car, maybe Kelly's? No, not her either, it's a large man with dark, greased back hair and shoulders forming a wide square with the rest of his body. He's got a key in his hand and with it he goes to unlock the diner door. I get out of my car and he gives me a look that's telling me to go away and never come back. What he actually says though, quick and gruff and none too polite, is: “Hold your horses ma'am, won't be open for half an hour.”
Alright, whatever, I slide down back into my car, I turn the heat up a bit, make myself comfortable, and just wait. I do my best not to think about the thing that's been keeping me up at night. Whatever it is, something living in my room, something making noise, watching me, I try not to let it all overwhelm me at that moment. Keep it together, Ella, I say to myself. Last thing I need is for someone I know from town to see me bawling inside my car.
Told Noah last night that it was important he come meet me, he laughed at me like he usually does when I try to be serious with him even though I did my best to do my dead serious voice – it helped to think of dead puppies and that plastic container filled with black and green somethings in the back of the fridge that makes me want to scream sometimes.
Here he comes now, driving that old station wagon his dad gave him over the summer, roaring then sputtering a little as it bounces over the uneven pavement. Over fifteen minutes late, I should be used to it by now, I guess. I said nine on the phone. I tell Noah he's an asshole for being late when he rolls down his window to say hi. Of course his face just breaks into a spontaneous grin, like some sort of uncontrollable rash.
“You look terrible Ella, you getting sick?” Noah asks me, with his mouth corner all pulled up.
“You don't listen, do you?” I tell him, he really doesn't. “I said, like, five times on the phone last night that I haven't been sleeping. Hardly got any last night either.” I would've said none but I'm pretty sure I slept between one thirty-one in the morning to one thirty-eight because those times in between are the only ones I don't remember watching last night on the red-lettered alarm clock in my room.
“Hey, we came here to eat right? I think it might be better if we do whatever you want to do with some breakfast in my stomach.”
I inform him of the bad news regarding the current status of the diner. He pouts all the way from his to car to mine as he opens the passenger side door to get in next to me. What a baby, I'd slap him if I didn't love him like a brother.
“Now look, I have to tell you something, something that I really haven't told anyone else.” He looks like he's going to laugh in my face, “That means you keep your mouth shut, got it?” He just nods, I swear if he laughs I'm going to hit him right on the nose and make it bleed.
“You're pregnant.” It's a statement, not even a fucking question, he just couldn't help himself. I hit him on the nose, more like just a love tap really.
“No, asshole. Lis-ten.” I pull the word, say it nice and slow, speaking both syllables real clear for him.
“There’s something strange living in my room, I think,” I say after a deep breath. Noah stops his smiling, he's listening now. “Like I think it might be living inside the walls, I hear it running around when I'm in bed.”
“Oh, so you just got a mouse.” He's unimpressed once again, his gaze turning bored and pointing to the still darkened windows of the diner.
“No, not a fucking mouse, you know how I know?” I don't wait for his smart-ass answer, “Because mice don't sound like squawking birds, mice don't spend their time watching people with little red eyes from cracks in the ceiling all damn night!” I nearly run out of breath but I get it all out.
“Sounds like you're having nightmares, Ella. Pastor Jeff told me my nightmares came from a place of guilt, what are you feeling guilty about?”
“Not a goddamn thing!”
“That don't sound like the voice of someone with a clean conscience...” Now he's paying attention to me, only he's not listening. I see what he's doing, using this as another chance to tell me how to improve my life. I won't let him get away with it.
“Look, I didn't say a single word about a nightmare, I wasn't asleep, I was wide awake, eyes open, fully conscious. Don't try and turn this around on me, Noah.” He makes me crazy sometimes, always thinking he knows best because he was born a few months sooner than I was.
For a second though, he looks hurt, another act probably, just him being overly dramatic. Noah's quiet for awhile, looking straight out ahead past the diner, past the thawing parking lot, out to the flat and empty, frozen field beyond. It's his thoughtful face, a rare sight, a chance perhaps for me to experience a string of words from him that won't simply be spit from his mouth like so much unchewed cheeseburger.
“So you think there's something living in your room? A creature?” With narrow eyes he asked me this, his best impersonation of sincere concern.
“That's what I said.”
“And you haven't told anyone else?”
“Well, no one except my mom.”
“She think you're crazy?”
“She threatened to call in Father Benjamin if I didn't shut up about it.” I think she took me a little too seriously, thought I was seeing demons. She said to me “Elzbieta, we have enough problems in this family without needing to call an exorcist to the house...”
Another pause, we watch as the diner lights slowly go from nothing to pale yellow. The big square man makes his way through the innards of the building to unlock the door, turning the little plastic sign hanging by a chain in the front window so that it reads OPEN. I see Noah's thoughts still swirling in his head. Quickly, he snaps his neck to the side, facing me, is it excitement in his expression?
“Did you get a good look at the creature? Could you tell me what it looked like?”
“Not really,” I remember lying awake at night, looking straight up to a dark ceiling, just listening to scratches behind the walls, hearing those strange noises, like raspy-throated cries, muffled by drywall. If there was anything to see on those nights, I was too afraid to move my head and investigate them, too afraid to even close my eyes. “I only saw eyes,” I told him, “just little red points of light in that crack in the plaster above my bed...”
Noah considers this heavily for another moment. Hearing it out loud though, I realize, does make me sound somewhat insane. Another car pulls up to the diner and an older women in white tennis shoes and what looks like a beige waitress outfit underneath her coat begins to make her way into the building. I think I know her, one of my mother's friends, maybe from the church, I remember her or someone like her in the kitchen, having coffee, and gossiping with my mother. There couldn't be more than twenty ladies that old in town, it had to be her. She throws me and Noah a look that turns dirty fast, that's how it looks from here anyway, I wonder if she recognizes me.
“Excuse you,” I say out loud to the woman outside the car who couldn't hear me, “mind your own business, thank you. Bitch.”
“I think I might know what's happening to you, Ella.”
“What does she think we're doing in here? Fucking? At ten in the morning on a Sunday? Right out in the open where God and everyone else can see us? I swear, people are stupid.”
“Pastor Jeff told me something real interesting one time, I think I know what's going on.”
“Oh good, please tell me Noah, please tell me what the all-knowing Pastor Jeff has to say about all this.”
Inside I could see the old waitress lady talking to the square man, her head turning once to look out through those windows and straight into my car, no doubt talking bad about me, talking about how much of a whore I am. I hope she slips on some grease and cracks her old head on that floor.
“Well, once, he told me,” starts Noah, being more particular about his words than he usually is, “that when you're feeling bad about something or maybe keeping stuff secret from everyone, sometimes you can actually create...things, things with your mind, with your feelings.”
“Things? What the hell are you talking about, Noah?”
“Things like demons or bad spirits, like that one movie with the house that was built over a cemetery or something, manifestation something he called it, like you can create monsters out of thin air if you keep bad thoughts inside of you for too long.” His eyes have wandered away from my face. He's looking at his feet now.
“Noah, what are you getting at? I don't have any secrets, not any big ones at least.”
“Well I'm sure you've heard the talk around town about you by now, know what everyone is saying.” His face is getting red now, eyes avoiding my own.
From inside the diner, the waitress pokes out her head from the front door and waves to us with a long, slow moving arm through the chilly air. She's beckoning us, her arm now making a motion like throwing a ball over her shoulder. We're officially invited to have some breakfast. Without saying anything else or making visual contact, we both open up the car's doors to the sound of rushing wind and make our way across the broken up blacktop to that lonely little building.
* * *
Whatever it is, it won't come out until I'm just about to sleep, when my eyes are closed and I'm drifting off. That's when I'll hear the sound of nails scratching against wood. Sometimes the dog will be sleeping in room too and she'll hear it, perk up her ears and start to whimper softly. It'll go on like that; scratch-scratch-scratch for a minute or two and then nothing and then it'll start up again. It goes on like that for a half an hour and then it stops. That's when I'll see the little points of red light, the little demonic eyes. They remind me of something I saw in a storybook my grandmother used to read to me when I was little with her thick Polish accent. In the book there was a little creature, a little scaly creature with a smile of pointy teeth and red eyes. It was an imp. This is what my grandmother told me when I asked.
I always liked that imp. I always thought it looked friendly and lonely as it peaked out from its tree hollow. I can't even remember what the story was about but I remember the little imp. I liked that little imp from the story but I hate this one. As I finally start to sleep, I can just barely make out the sound of something like soft laughing, like strange cawing laughter, as if a crow with a sore throat and a muzzle over its beak was doing it. It’s a jarring sound, it brings me all the way back awake until I’m just lying there, waiting to fall asleep again, waiting for the cycle to start over.
Eventually I'm thinking about what it's looking at, what it's laughing at.
* * *
Noah tries to change the subject once we sit down, tries to backpedal from what he said earlier. He starts talking about basketball, about how good he is and how good the team is this year. I just go along with it, nodding like I'm listening.
“Hey, how's your mom doing?” asks the waitress with a smile as she drops some laminated menus in front of us.
I answer her, looking for any signs of silent judgment within her cheerful expression. She'll probably be on the phone with my mom as soon as we leave, talking about how she saw me with yet another boy. That's the talk and I know it, I'm not stupid, I know everyone thinks that I spend a generous amount of my free time lying on my back.
“And you Mr. Noah, you gonna help take the team to State this year, ain't ya?” She turns over and fills up the coffee cups in front of us, “You know, I watch every game I can. Believe it or not kids, I used to be a cheerleader back at the old public school.” She remembers old times for a little longer, laughing with Noah about sports or whatever they were talking about. “You kids going out yet?” She asks after taking our orders while smiling, “Always thought ya'll made a cute couple.” We laugh and I grit my teeth. She's fishing for info. Something to take back to my mother.
We sit without talking for maybe another minute. Outside I can see people leaving the Lutheran Church just up the street. The diner will be filling up soon.
“So you really believe in that shit?” I ask Noah finally. “You really think I created this little creature with my thoughts?”
“Pastor Jeff made it seem pretty real,” he said, eying the kitchen as sounds of the square man making food start to fill the diner. “and I don't think you'd lie about something like that. I don't really think there is any other sort of reasonable explanation.”
“And so, do you believe all that stuff, you know, all that stuff people in town are saying about me? Do you think I got something to be guilty for?”
He looks at me straight on for a full second before he says a slow “no”. I want to scream at him. We've known each other since we were five years old and he thinks I'm a slut because I ride in cars with a couple of the older boys in town. I don't want to sit here and watch him gobble up his steak and eggs.
“Noah, how many afternoons in a week do I spend over at your house, how many do you spend at mine?” I am mad, I try to keep my voice down, try to keep from making a scene but I can feel eyes watching. I hate that feeling so much. I can't stop now though. I feel like screaming at him. He knows me better than anyone else, I tell him this, what the hell is his problem? Is he jealous or something? His face gets red when I suggest this. I know everyone is staring. Noah can't even answer me properly, just tries to tell me to calm down. “El-El” he calls me, that's what he called me when we were little, when we ran around the playground together. I don't believe him though, I see it in his face, he's no different than the folk from my mom's church.
I'm leaving, I get up and I walk out the door. I get in my car, wiping cold, wet water from my eyes. I turn on the car to warm it up for a bit. I must just be going crazy, that's the easiest explanation I think. In fact I know I'm going crazy because just as I'm about to pull out of the parking lot I hear the strangest noise, like something small and hoarse is laughing at me quietly from the backseat.