Living After Noon

J. Michael Neal
©2012 Melancholy Donkey Press

Wanda Springs loved working the weekday afternoon shifts at Al’s. The other waitresses preferred lunches and dinners, or better yet the fall Sundays when a crowd came in to watch the Lions on the single TV tucked amidst the whiskeys on the shelf. The little restaurant had begun to bleed customers to the chains with their flat screens and trivia games but the money was still good enough to pay the rent.

Mid-afternoon was Wanda’s favorite time. All of the empty tables gave her a chance to get to know individual customers. She would ignore Ron banging a spoon against one of his pans and gently chastising her that she needed to stay busy cleaning. Nothing ever came of it. . Instead she spent many an afternoon sitting at a table, chatting with someone over their beer. She could only help so many, so she had to know who really needed her.

That Tuesday started out differently. “You all right?” Tracy, the perky blonde waitress, asked halfway through the lunch rush.

“Just a headache,” Wanda said, making sure to smile.

“I can cover the afternoon for you, if you want.”

“No, that’s okay. I’ll be fine. You go on.” Another smile, despite the tightness she could feel behind her eyes. It wasn’t herself that Wanda was worried about: she was concerned for whoever had been in the path of the surge of negative energy she’d felt around earlier. Somewhere nearby someone had used magic to take advantage of someone else. That was all she could sense. Since that burst of darkness, she’d been bending probability in order to get the victim to stop by the diner.

The crowd had started to thin when a young man in a flashy suit came in. The odor of magic clung to him, though Wanda was the only one who could detect it. He sat down in a booth in her section next to a window overlooking the parking lot.

“Can I get you something to drink?”

“Michelob Light.” He grinned at her and the ooze of smug satisfaction rolled over her. “I’m celebrating.”

Wanda set a menu in front of him. “Sure thing.”

After she took his order Wanda did her best to stay away from the young man. She resorted to rolling silverware.

The stranger was on his third beer by the time another customer walked in. Wanda sat the newcomer four booths away, where he sagged down onto the leather-upholstered bench.. “Can I get you something to drink?”

He didn’t look up at her. “Bourbon on the rocks.”

“Sure, honey. I’ll be right back to take your order.”

The only sound as she set the glass in front of him was the clinking of ice. His menu remained unopened.

“What can I get you to eat?”

He emptied the short glass in one swallow and handed it back. “Just another of these,” he murmured.

“I recommend getting it neat if you’re going to down it like that.”

“Sure. Whatever.”

When she returned, Wanda slid onto the seat across from him. She pushed the glass across the faux wood. This time there was no ice to make a sound, just the simple scrape as it slid. “Here you go.” She took note of the gold wedding band on his finger.

He regarded the drink for a moment before looking up at her. “Thanks.” His voice was flat.

Wanda rested her chin on her hands. “What happened to you, honey?” She smiled at him and was rewarded by the tiniest hint of relief in his eyes..

“I got laid off. No notice. Nothing. My boss said he had to shut down my unit.”

“I’m sorry. What’s your name?”

“Scott. Scott Oliver.”

“Had you worked there a long time, Scott?”

“Sixteen years. I started there right after I got married.”

“It must be hard.” She took one of his hands in her own and guided it to the glass. He gripped it hard, but as yet made no effort to lift it.

“Tell me about your family.”

He hesitated for a moment, and when he opened his mouth the words poured out in a rush. . “My wife works the night shift as a nurse. We see each other twice a day, for a few hours after I get home before she goes to the hospital. And then again while I’m getting ready for my job and she’s going to bed. The weekends are all we have together, when we don’t have something else that needs doing. She’s so beautiful. I miss her.”

“Do you have children?” She saw his fingers tighten on the glass for an instant and then start to loosen.

He nodded, and shakily raised the bourbon to his lips. He took a swallow of whiskey. When he set it down the remainder almost sloshed over the lip. “A boy and a girl.”

There was a long pause as Scott sought for words. “Katie is fifteen. She plays soccer. She’s very good.” Worry crept back into his voice. “It’s so expensive. Team fees. Camp every summer. But she loves it. She deserves it. She works so hard at it. I’m afraid that . . .”

“What about your son?”

“William is quiet.” He shook his head. “That’s an understatement. He’s autistic. It’s almost impossible to get him to talk. A lot of times he doesn’t even acknowledge that someone’s in the room with him. He does better with me than with Jill. He loves airplanes. Everything about them. Old ones. New ones. He likes watching them fly; he’s in heaven when we’re at an airport. He likes looking at pictures of them. A couple of years ago I managed to find him a book of schematic drawings of jet engines. He devoured it. He spends hours studying it and a couple of others I got him. When he wants to talk he can explain exactly how those engines work and what each part does down to each bolt and screw. But he almost never wants to talk. Some days he doesn’t say anything at all. So a part of me knows it will never happen, but I imagine him becoming a mechanic for some airline. He would be good at it I think, if everyone would just leave him alone.”

“Your family sounds wonderful. I would like to meet them someday.”

Scott slumped. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Jill’s salary won’t be enough.” He quickly swallowed the rest of the bourbon.

“Something will turn up, I’m sure. You’re a good man and good things will happen.” As she said it she reached out with her thoughts and squeezed the infinite possibilities of the future, ruthlessly eliminating all those that would deny her promise. The effort left her internally exhausted but deeply satisfied. She made no effort at concealment and she heard the crash of a glass from the direction of her other customer. She could almost feel a sense of panic from him but did not look over.

Scott grabbed his jacket and stood up. “I need to go home. I need to tell Jill what happened.” His shoulders straightened and for the first time he smiled. “She’ll be worried.” He headed for the door.

“Don’t forget to come back and tell me how things worked out,” she called as he walked out the door into the sunshine.

With a sigh and a smile she turned back to her remaining patron. She took pleasure in his sudden discomfort. “Can I get you something?”

“Just the check, please,” he said in a strangled voice.

“Oh, no, honey. We’re going to talk for a few minutes first.” She wiped up the puddle of spilled Michelob on the table. “Would you like another beer?”

“I guess,” he whispered.

She poured a bottle into a fresh, cold glass. When she got back to the table, he made no attempt to dissuade her joining him. He grabbed the beer and took two quick swallows.

“You listened to all of that,” she said with a hint of fatigue. She longed for the days when such a simple exercise of her abilities didn’t leave her so weary.

“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

“Yes you did. That’s natural. We’re all nosy from time to time. What I wonder is why you enjoyed it, at least until I revealed myself.”

“I didn’t . . .”

“Do not lie to me, Benjamin Kindle. I already dislike you.”

“How do . . .”

“Oops. Did I use your true name?” Wanda summoned a portion of her old aura and let him glimpse just a bit of the intense heat of who she had once been. “I’ll just call you Matt from now on. That’s what you go by, isn’t it?” She watched him go pale.

“Who are you?”

For a brief instant she brought forth her true majesty.

“Go . . . goddess?”

The exhilaration couldn’t last. “Without worshippers I’m not much more than a spirit with delusions of grandeur but I was a righteous bitch back in my heyday. So consider yourself lucky.” The instant slipped away from her and the flames began to collapse.

The way she rolled the last word around brought realization to his face. “Fortuna?”

“I prefer Tyche, really. Our Greek names sound better.”

“What are you going to do to me?”

“Why do you think I’m going to do anything to you? You weren’t the one I was trying to attract. I wanted him. You responding to my call was entirely unexpected.”

He took a gulp of beer. “Why did you want him?”

“To do what I have always done: bring good luck to those who deserve it. His daughter will be offered a scholarship at an exclusive private school that will nurture her abilities. His wife will get a promotion and earn enough money so that he can stay at home and focus on his son. The boy will develop just enough verbal skills to be able to hold the job that he wants. All things that could have happened but probably wouldn’t.”

“And what has he done to deserve that?” He drank some more beer and added defensively, “Life isn’t fair.”

“It should be. He deserves it for things I doubt you could understand if I tried to explain them. If I were you, I’d be thinking more about what you deserve. You do remember my other function, right?”

“You inflict bad luck on those who deserve it.”

“That’s right, young man. As I said, you’re lucky. This morning you used sorcery to convince Mr. Oliver’s boss to settle a frivolous lawsuit. This afternoon, that man had to lay off six of his employees because of that payout. Despite that, I am not going to curse you with permanent impotence and cause the FBI to open an investigation of you for extortion. But I could.”

Wanda saw him stifle a choke and he pushed his glass away. “I don’t do that anymore. Much. I pick my battles now, and I’m going to be busy helping those you hurt. You should thank me.”

He nodded. “Thank you, Goddess.”

“You’re welcome.” Wanda smiled wickedly. “But understand, I know who you are. I can find you any time I want. If I ever catch you doing this again, you’re going to wish that I had cursed you. Understood?”

“Yes, Goddess.”

“Good.” She pulled a slip out of her apron. “Here is your check. I’ve added Mr. Oliver’s bourbons to the total.” She slid fully back into her persona. “I expect a big tip. And I won’t take a check. Cash only.”

He quickly pulled out his wallet and laid out twice what he owed.

“Thank you, Matt. Now get out.”

As he fled, Wanda Springs returned to rolling silverware.