by Daniel Davis
When they pulled up to the diner, they saw heads turn to stare at them through the plate glass window. This wasn’t a motorcycle joint. Upton didn’t think there was one in the whole town, if you could call this pinprick of civilization a town. He could see from one end clear out the other and several miles beyond. Just a stamp of humanity, a brand upon the prairie to show that man had been here and had taken over.
Dylan was the first to dismount, because he’d been born last and had spent the subsequent years trying to make up for it. He took off his helmet, shaking his hair for the locals, though he would have done it even if no one had been watching. He gave Upton an impatient look even though their motors were still hissing.
Upton sighed and got off his bike. Hung his helmet from the handlebars. His hair was short, only slightly longer than the buzz cut their father had demanded for so long. He and Dylan so different in so many ways, but you couldn’t call it a generational gap, because only six years separated them. Upton often thought he took more after their mother while Dylan, for better or worse, had fallen off their father’s branch of the tree.
The diner was a throwback to the Fifties, old but not that old, maybe late Eighties. Silver paint flecking off in spots, neon sign in the window buzzing. The Bluebird Diner, which seemed to be what all these kitschy places were named. Made Upton faintly sick to his stomach, like the world was trying to drag him back to a time he didn’t belong in, anchoring him with a past that had never been his.
Dylan opened the door. Old country music, fiddle and steel and twang, greeted them from the corner jukebox. They stood in the doorway a moment, acclimating to the air-conditioning. The stares were not open—that polite Midwestern disregard Upton had become grateful for over the past few days—but he knew they struck quite a picture: Upton, tall, broad-shouldered, clean-cut and groomed; Dylan, short and wiry, with his first incomplete beard and hair almost down to his shoulders. Charles Manson and the Aryan ideal. It meant they would stand out. It meant they would be remembered in detail.
The door swung shut behind them. Dylan sauntered past the tables and sat at the counter. Upton would have preferred a corner booth, but he eased himself onto a stool beside his brother. Wished there’d been a mirror along the opposite wall so he could keep an eye on things, but there was just an opening into the kitchen, with smoke and steam drifting out along with the sizzle of a flattop.
A waitress around Dylan’s age came over and set menus in front of them. Pretty brunette, a spray of freckles across her nose, hair pulled up in a bun. Stains on her apron and a nametag that read “Penelope.”
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” she said, eyes lingering a little longer on Dylan. “Can I getcha?”
Dylan wiped sweat from his forehead. “Don’t suppose you serve beer?” he asked, even though he still had a couple years to go before she—who probably wasn’t of age herself—could serve it to him.
She smiled a complicit smile and shook her head. “Dry county. How about a lemonade? Home brew. It’s got a kick to it.”
Dylan grinned. “Well, a kick‘s what I need, for sure.”
She glanced at Upton who nodded and said, “Please.”
As she was getting the drinks, Upton did a small survey of the diner. Ten customers scattered around, only one other at the counter, far end closest to the door. A family of three over near the jukebox, a young couple and a toddler too young for school. Upton had to close his eyes to figure out the day of the week, and it took even more work to reach the month and date. Live too long without a set schedule, and you vanish through a hole in the world.
He peered into the kitchen but only saw one individual moving around, a stoop-shouldered middle-aged man in a hairnet who looked Greek in some vague way. Upton would bet dimes to dollars that apron had “Kiss the Cook” or “May the Forks Be with You“ written on it. There appeared to be no other staff.
The waitress brought their drinks. “You need a few minutes to decide?”
Dylan drummed his fingers on the counter. “What do you recommend?”
She glanced over her shoulder at the clock. “You want breakfast or dinner?”
“I am open to all possibilities.”
She chewed her pen for a second. “How about the chicken fried steak?”
“Is that breakfast or dinner?”
“It’s whichever you want it to be, I reckon.”
Dylan snapped his fingers. “Hard to argue with that logic. You got a deal.”
Upton ordered a cheeseburger, well-dressed. The waitress gave their orders to the man in the kitchen, then went to check on the other customers.
Dylan eyed her openly. “I sure choose some good spots to stop at, brother. Maybe it’s an instinct. A gift.”
Upton said nothing. Sipped his decidedly sour lemonade and studied the fossils of Americana strewn about the walls like some antique hunter’s trophy collection. How did people find this shit welcoming? Made him itch, feel like someone was standing just over his shoulder waiting for their moment to pounce.
“Aw hell,” Dylan said. “You get upset too easily.”
“And you don’t think things through. We’ve talked about this.”
“I was hungry, so sue me. Your idea to skip breakfast.”
“And why was that?”
Dylan looked away and shrugged. “Okay. Well, fuck. But this ain’t any different than any place further on.”
“You don’t think we would have stuck out a little less in Peoria?”
“Don’t know, never been. And besides, I’m hungry now. I’ll probably be hungry again when we get there, if you’re so keen to stop.”
Upton rubbed his eyes. Jesus. Just six years older, true, but sometimes he felt like it was decades. He wondered if this was how their father had felt at times, then immediately stopped that train of thought dead in its tracks. He was nothing like that old bastard.
He sighed. “Just keep your pants zipped, will you?”
Dylan grinned. “That was, like, a month ago, and I swear she wasn’t wearing a ring.” He made the sign of the cross, a chilling hold-over from their father that he didn’t seem to know he did, and said, “My eyes may wander, but my heart will stay pure with virtue.”
The waitress came back to check on them, or at least Dylan. Upon watched the way she looked at his brother, a small pang of jealousy offset by a tremendous sense of unease. Her eyes a little too eager to please. Maybe seen too many old movies, and not enough of the new ones where the situation she thought she’d found herself in ended poorly.
“I bet you get this all the time,” Dylan was saying, “but you look like a ‘Penelope.'”
She actually blushed. Jesus wept and Upton cringed.
“All the time,” she said. “I don’t know how my parents could tell so early.”
“Speaking of names, this town’s got a pretty weird one, don’t you think?”
She giggled. “It’s named after a creek that runs north of here.”
Dylan looked from her to Upton and back again. “No offense, Penelope, but that doesn’t explain a whole heck of a lot.”
Where Dylan picked up his charm, Upton had no idea. Theirs had not been a charming upbringing.
The waitress was called away. The tension did not ease with her absence. If anything, it seemed to grow heavier in anticipation of her return. They should not have stopped here. Upton should have put his foot down. He’d been going easy on his brother for far too long, trying to compensate for all those years under their father’s fist. But maybe he’d been too lenient. If his brother did something stupid again, they would both pay the price.
Dylan tapped his shoulder. “Hey, how much you think’s in there?”
Upton followed his gaze to the cash register, an old-fashioned job, either in keeping with the décor or the owner’s frugality. Easy to break into, you just pretty much had to ask politely and it opened itself.
“Not enough to be worth it,” he said. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Okay, okay, sorry.” Dylan leaned away. “What’s got into you, Up? You’re cranky even by your standards.”
“I’m busy trying to keep your hands out of the cookie jar. You’re a man now, you should be able to do it your own damn self.”
“Naw, I’m a growing boy still. Got to satisfy my urges.”
“Not right now you don’t. Right now, you’re gonna eat, and then we’re gonna ride until we hit Peoria and lay low for a couple days. Or is that too complicated a plan for you to follow?”
Dylan sat back on his stool, scowling. “Ah, come on. You know I’m just playing.”
“Yeah, and I’m telling you to quit. We don’t have time for it right now. Maybe in Peoria you can hit up a strip club or something, but for right now playtime is over.”
Dylan groaned. “Oh, great. Peoria‘s known for its strippers, I’m sure.”
“You’ll live,” Upton said. “It’s better than the alternative.”
Dylan cracked his knuckles, fidgeting. “I just need to do something. It’s like I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m in a cage.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I do.”
The cook—wouldn’t presume to call anyone a “chef” in a place like this—rattled plates onto the partition. Upton recognized their order and straightened.
“Let’s just eat and go,” he said. “Things will get better in a few days, I promise.”
Penelope brought the food over. “Good old grease bomb for you,” she said, putting the burger in front of Upton. “And our world-famous chicken fried steak for you.”
The morose look had already vanished from Dylan’s face. “World famous, huh?”
“Well, it should be.”
He took a bite of the gravy-smothered steak, steam wafting off the surface. “Not bad at all. Solid recommendation.”
“Thank you.” She leaned back from the counter, started to turn to leave. Upton saw a decision being made on her face, a notion that perhaps her better judgment told her to abstain from taking hold. He willed her to resist, to go see to the other customers, but she came to her own conclusions and turned back and said, “Where you boys from?”
Upton had taken her split second of hesitation to form his answer. “Out west,” he said.
“Yeah,” Dylan added. “We’re from Hollywood.”
She laughed. “No you’re not.”
“What, too ugly?”
“Everyone says their either from Hollywood or going to Hollywood. If everyone who said it meant it, there’d be nobody anywhere else.”
“She’s got us there,” Dylan said.
“We’re going east,” Upton said, his voice perhaps a little too clipped.
She gave him a smile, not quite worried but partially put-off. “I was just trying to place your accent, is all,” she told him. “I’m usually pretty good with them.”
“He offends easily,” Dylan said. “Not your fault.”
“No offense taken,” Upton said to her. “We’re just going east. Traveling.”
He didn’t know if the explanation satisfied her—it sure as hell didn’t satisfy him—but she recovered the rest of her equilibrium and made a few more seconds of small talk with Dylan before getting called off again. Upton ignored Dylan’s stare and ate his burger, the meat moist and tasteless, the fries soggy. The mess stuck in his throat and he had to finish the rest of his lemonade to push it down.
He’d just cleaned his plate—noting that Dylan was only a quarter of the way through his—when he saw movement from the corner of his eye. A man, maybe thirty, in a short-sleeve flannel shirt, torn blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a bright red Make America Great Again cap. The man was eying them intently as he approached, Dylan in particular, and Upton felt the food he’d just consumed settle in his stomach all at once. His spine tingled and his mouth went dry.
The man stopped just behind Dylan, who finished chewing and took a drink before turning around.
The man looked both of them over. “Those your bikes out front?”
“Hope so,” Dylan said. “We rode in on them.”
“They’re ours,” Upton interjected. “We block you in or something?”
“You two from around here?”
“They’re from out west,” the waitress said, sidling up to the other side of the counter. “Heading east. Just passing through like people do, Brad. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Didn’t say there was, Penelope. I asked them a question.”
“And she answered,” Upton said. He watched the tautness in his brother’s shoulders. He watched it very closely.
“So your answer’s no different?” the man asked.
“Only one answer,” Dylan said.
“Have we caused a problem of some sort?” Upton asked.
The man shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe a couple of outsiders ride into our quiet little town on their bikes causing a commotion, and people get a little worried. Maybe someone with a police scanner picks up word of a robbery in Aberdeen a few days back, and these two gentlemen sort of like fit the description of the men who did it, who rode away on motorcycles kind of like the ones you two came in on.”
Upton held the man’s gaze. Took his measure in an instant and didn’t like it. Former military. Still kept in shape. Probably a security guard or bouncer; if he’d been a cop, he would have mentioned it by now. A man who wasn’t a stranger to fighting and maybe went out of his way to do it every now and then, when he could convince himself it served the greater good. Most definitely a man who held true to the Second Amendment, and was an ardent supporter of conceal and carry rights, which this state allowed.
“Maybe,” Upton said carefully. “Or maybe not. Right?”
The man glanced at Dylan, as though having expected the challenge to come from him. He turned back to Upton, unsure, and in that moment Upton knew he had him.
“Maybe,” the man said. “Maybe you’re just passing through.”
“Maybe we don’t know what the fuck an ‘Aberdeen’ is,” Dylan said. “Maybe we’re just trying to enjoy a goddamn meal.”
Upton was keenly aware the rest of the diner had grown quiet. So much for inconspicuous.
“Yeah, well,” the man said. He glanced up at the waitress. “You should know better, Penelope, what with your daddy and all.”
She made a small sound, a whimper or a sniffle. Dylan bristled.
“Think we’re done here,” Upton said. “You’re done with your meal and we’re about done with ours, and once we are we’ll get on our bikes and ride out of here and never come back.”
“You do that.” The man nodded assertively, as though the ball had been put back in his court. He gave Dylan another glance, then turned and left the diner.
The waitress went into the kitchen. Dylan stared at his plate. The other customers pretended to ignore them.
“Eat,” Upton said. “Just eat, and we’ll go.”
Dylan stood. “I gotta use the restroom.”
“I just gotta use the restroom. You wanna hold it for me, Up?”
Upton watched him. Made sure he went through the men’s room door. Made sure he could hear it slap shut. Kept an eye on it while he pushed his plate away.
He calculated how long it would take to reach Peoria. Several hours. And what happened when they got there? Was it big enough to hide them for a couple days? They couldn’t carry on to Chicago, that would take too long. They had to stop, collect themselves, think. He needed to think. Of what to do with Dylan. Of whether or not he could manage to control him. They were so damn different. Upton had a stopper he could use when he needed to, a cork that kept the rage churning down in his belly like a bad case of indigestion. He’d gotten that from their mother, who‘d endured years of her husband’s wrath. Dylan took after the old man; he had no barrier. He needed to be taught how to control it. He needed to be shown how to live a normal life, or as close to normal as they would ever get now.
He closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. His meal cold and heavy in his gut. The waitress came out from the kitchen and approached him almost apologetically. He wanted nothing less than to talk to her or anyone, but he had to do some sort of damage control here.
“I’m sorry about Brad,” she said. “He’s just suspicious is all.”
Upton nodded. “Seemed that way to me.”
She swallowed, nervous. “His bark is worse than his bite, really. He winds up in the drunk tank every now and then. He gets protective of women and stuff. Lot of men like that around here.”
“Lot of men like that everywhere,” Upton said.
She set a fresh glass of lemonade in front of him and he drank gratefully. Helped wash down some of the bile that had gathered in the back of his throat. He glanced towards the restroom, then said, “What’s that he meant about your father?”
She didn’t meet his gaze. Scrubbed the spotless counter with a rag. “He’d dead,” she told him. He had to strain to hear her voice.
“Sorry to hear that. Mine too.”
“Is that why your brother’s so edgy?”
Upton started. He looked at her quizzically, and she gave a faint smile. “You look alike. Not on the surface, I mean, but like in the structure of your jaw, in the way you two came in here, like you’re almost the same person. And you’re too young to be his father, so I figured…”
“Huh.” He hid his confusion with a drink. “Guess I never saw it before.”
“He died in a holdup,” she said. “My daddy. Had a liquor store in the next county over and a couple of drunk rednecks broke in one night and shot him with a twelve-gauge. Stole fifty-seven dollars and eighty-nine cents out of the register, a case of beer and two bottles of Jack Daniels.”
He was silent. Stared at the condensation on his glass. Ran his thumb through it, feeling the moisture slick like oil.
When he realized she’d said her piece, he looked up. She still wouldn’t look at him but he knew he had to say something; some conversations you couldn’t just drop out of by wishing it.
“They catch them?” he asked.
She nodded. “Two days later. Security footage caught the whole thing. One’s in Leavenworth, the other’s down in Danville. I keep track of ‘em, where they go, the government keeps moving them around like it don’t know what to do with them.” She put the rag down, picked up his empty plate and took it back to the partition. When she returned she said, “They laughed when they did it. They just…laughed.”
He wanted to tell her that some people acted like that, that you couldn’t expect everyone to behave as a human being in every situation, that sometimes primal urges from mankind’s violent past rose to the surface, where it became kill or be killed, winner take all, where the mind narrowed to the shape and sharpness of a knife blade, whose sole purpose was tearing apart the threads holding the rest of humanity’s sanity intact.
But instead he looked away from her, to the clock hanging behind the counter. He stared at it for a few seconds, frowning. Then he said, “Do your bathrooms have windows?”
She gave him a startled look and started to nod. He pulled a wad of bills from his wallet that he was sure would cover their meal and a few other meals as well, threw it on the counter and raced to the bathroom. Opened the door and stared at the empty room and the open window and swore under his breath. He ran outside, assaulted by the heat, mindless of who saw him doing what. Too late for that. Too fucking late.
He found them around back of the building and it was almost over. Probably had been before it’d even gotten started. You step into a wolf’s cage thinking you had some advantage, size or intelligence or evolution or whatever made you feel superior, but the beast turns out bigger and fiercer than you’d thought and you’ve already locked the door behind you.
The man’s face was as red and as soft as his hat. Dylan knelt on his knees straddling him, the punches only coming every few seconds now, his arms tired. Shirt streaked with blood and spit and mucus. Scarlet fists that captured the sunlight and shone murderously. His face was blank, almost calm, as though he wasn‘t even aware of what he was doing.
“Dylan,” Upton said.
Another blow. Upton tried to see if the man was still breathing but it was too bad an angle to tell. He hoped so.
This time the blow stopped, right arm cocked back.
“We gotta go, brother.”
Dylan lowered his arm and turned to look at him. “He shouldn’t have said anything.”
“I know.” Upton held out his hand; Dylan took it, fists slimy. Upton clenched him tight and pulled him to his feet.
“He shouldn’t have made her cry like that.”
“No, he shouldn’t have. You okay?”
“We gotta go,” Upton told him. “We gotta ride. Can you ride?”
Dylan sniffled, wiped his nose on the back of his arm.
“Yeah. I can ride.”
They got on their motorcycles and roared off. Part of Upton’s mind calculated when and where it would be safe to pull off and clean his brother up. Preferably by a stream but if he had to talk to a hotel clerk so be it. Just one more town to run from, to leave to the dust and memories. So many towns that faded out that way, there and gone, reality crumbling to pieces in their wake. As though the past existed only to them. As though they had never been.