This story is something that's been banging around in my brain for a while...I thought that while I was on a roll (a week before exams, no less!) I'd post it up here and see where it went from there. So...here it is. Feedback is appreciated and always welcomed in any form.
There was something in my house, I was pretty sure - I could hear its deep, guttural breathing from behind the sofa.
"Hullo?" I called softly. "Whoever you are, you better get outta here! My mum's upstairs right now calling the police and you're going to get arrested..."
"Your mum isn't calling the police." came a voice from behind the sofa. It was like a growl, a snarl, and the tone frightened me before the words did. "You're all alone in this house, and you are completely at my mercy."
The sudden realization that I was about to die hit me hard, and I stumbled backwards, my fingers scrabbling against the side table for the letter opener I knew was lying there. The voice snarled, "Don't even try it. You'll be dead before you can lay a hand on me."
Something was scratching at the screen door in the back, and too late I realized that I had left it unlocked - large, powerful claws ripped through the thin mesh and batted the door aside easily.
I opened my mouth to scream as a large, salivating wolf leapt at me and knocked me painfully onto the floor, sending my vision into a series of stars and buzzing pinwheels...
I woke up to my alarm clock buzzing, stars and pinwheels replaced with the drab beige of my bedroom ceiling. Groaning, I switched the alarm off and lay back down in bed, staring up at the ceiling. I had just had an awful dream - my skin was slick with sweat and I was breathing heavily - but even as my eyes got adjusted to the light, I had already forgotten about it. I sat up in bed and ran a hand through my short hair.
"All right, Pen, here we go." I muttered to myself, and swung my feet over the edge of the bed.
There was a full-length mirror hanging on my closet door, and I took a moment to examine my face - I had gone to bed without removing my make-up again and there were dark brown streaks down the side of my face.
My name is Penelope Rowley. I just graduated from high school a few months ago, but I'm so short that people usually mistake me for a freshman. I'm only a few inches over five feet, I have round green eyes and dark brown hair in a pixie cut. Somewhere between when I go to sleep and when I wake up, my hair finds a way to make itself stick up at unflattering angles. I tried to fix it, gave up, and then left my room, descending the creaking staircase. I live in my parent's house, a large, silent, and otherwise empty Victorian-styled structure on the outskirts of Gallima, Nevada. My father left when I was little, and my mum was in a car accident a year back. The university fund she started for me had been fatally depleted in order to move her to a care home, so instead of going to university, I took a year off to work and repair my damaged tuition fund.
I'm thrilling, I know.
It was six thirty. I set the table for two and then faced my fridge with a heavy sigh.
"I need to go shopping." I said to no one in particular.
After a quick search about the kitchen, I discovered that the cereal had gone stale, the yogurt box was nothing but a box and I only had one orange left – I decided to use my last three eggs and a jar of Cheese Whiz to make an omelet.
While I ate, I studied the empty place across from me. "I'm going to tell you after work anyways." I said around a mouthful of egg to the vacant chair. "But I'm thinking of renting out some of the guest rooms...you know, to bring in some extra cash."
As expected, there was no response. I left my dishes lying around the kitchen and went up to get changed.
It took me twenty minutes to change into dark-washed jeans, a blue camisole and Converse - which is pretty good, considering my record. I tried to use gel in my hair but had to comb the lot of it out again, which took up the minutes I had not wasted getting dressed.
I shook my car keys out of the sweatshirt I had draped over the sofa and then stared down the offending breakfast mess.
"I'll do it after work." I told myself, though I knew full well that by the time I got home I'd be too tired to do anything pertaining to cleaning.
The air was already hot and dry by the time I locked up the house and my car was the sort of uncomfortable hot that felt like it was pressing down on me. My bare arms stuck to the upholstery with a 'thwuck'-ing sound.
I threw the car into reverse and used the lawn for a three-point turn.
Gallima, Nevada was a small town at the southern end of the state, a couple hour's drive from Death Valley. The scenery consisted of hot, flat desert and scrubby little plants that hung onto the ground with their roots for dear life. It didn't take long to drive through Gallima and soon I was on the Interstate heading North.
The restaurant I worked at, a retro-style diner called The Flying Pig, was located twenty minutes from Gallima's boundaries. Despite being so far away from the town, it attracted enough customers for it to be an all right place to work. Since it was Friday, I was working the "death shift" - seven thirty to seven thirty.
The Flying Pig came into view, a small square building with a picture of a cartoon pig with wings spray-painted on the side (that was not the idea of the management, actually - some idiot kids decided it would be funny to put on the building. No one's gotten around to painting over it). I pulled into the parking lot and got out of the car, checking my watch. Five minutes late. I could only hope that my friend Charlotte was late too, or she'd give me heck.
Unfortunately, as I breezed in the door, there Charlotte was taking a couple of elderly men's orders. She managed to grin cheekily at me. I've known Charlotte for about a year - we met at work, actually, because she's a couple of years older than me. She's pretty tall (something she never lets me forget), with a shock of thick, shoulder-length black hair she keeps tied up in a ponytail, and hazel eyes. "You're late!" she sung as I walked past her. "It's a first!"
"Cut me some slack, Charlie!" I laughed, opening the door to the back of the diner.
There were two chefs - a rounded balding man named Arthur "Art" Powell and a stick-thin pothead named Ian Gray, who both looked startled when I burst into the back.
"Hey Penny! Good morning!" Art bellowed. I glared good-naturedly at him. "I hate that nickname, you know." I grumbled. Art laughed. "I know. That's why I keep using it."
I tied my apron on, slipped a notepad and pen into the front pocket, and then stepped back out into the diner, taking a moment to say hello to the other waiter, Jacob, and to look around the restaurant.
Though the design of the restaurant is so cliché, I love it. It's pretty small by restaurant standards - it has black and white floor tiles, four booths against the front window covered in red vinyl and dark brown tables and chairs in the rest of the restaurant. There's a sort of "soda counter" at the back of the restaurant near the door to the counter with tall chrome stools with red vinyl seats (the only thing that would "cliché" the place to death would be a jukebox, which I have been nagging the management to save up for. I have not been successful).
"Hullo!" I chirped, approaching one of the small, two person tables that neither Jacob nor Charlotte had attended to.
Charlotte caught up with me a little while later, lounging in the back waiting for meals to be ready. There was a pane-less window beside the kitchen door that we could see out of, and since neither of our customers were falling over themselves for assistance, we were free to chat.
"Are you excited for tomorrow?" Charlotte asked. I grinned.
Saturday night, Charlotte and I were going to the only night club Gallima had, the lamely named but cooler-than-it-sounds Wolfsbane, which boasted a live DJ most days of the week (when he didn't have homework, which was a pretty impromptu schedule) and half off coolers on the weekend, which is when Charlotte went. I wasn't twenty-one, but Charlotte brought me with her sometimes, thanks to the power of her younger brother Derrick, who had put himself through college selling fake IDs from the basement of their parents' house. I get strange stares driving a car without a parent present, much less passing for twenty one in a club, so I didn't make a habit of going out with Charlotte, but this week had been hectic and I needed a break.
"Definitely." I said. "Although I think I should drive this time. You are a pretty angry drunk."
Charlotte waved me away. "Can you blame me? There you were lecturing me on driving while intoxicated and all I wanted to do was get home so I could down a bottle of Aspirin and sleep for sixteen hours."
"Charlie, don't talk about stuff like that in public places." I reprimanded her as Ian walked by, laughing.
"Hey Penny, I think one of yours needs something." Jacob jerked his thumb up to the front of the restaurant as he went by. Jacob was around the same age as Charlotte, with spiky blue hair and brown eyes. I know. Blue hair. I got used to it.
As usual, I snapped, "Don't call me Penny, Jake, or your hair won't be the only thing that's blue."
I hate the nickname Penny. It sounds like it should belong to a 50s swinger. When I tell Jacob and Art that, though, they suggest getting a spangled brassiere. Needless to say, I am not amused with either of them.
Charlotte and a few of my other friends call me Neppie, which is just as ridiculous but they said it was either that or Penny.
I stuck with Neppie.
So this is how it goes in The Flying Pig - early morning until right before lunch is the drag time. There are usually no customers, and when there are, they don't come in crowds. Mostly the only thing to do is drag your feet and clean. The lunch rush is better, because it keeps you busy and on your feet, so you don't have time to watch the clock. It settles down around two, and then picks up just after five.
The morning passed slowly and uneventfully until the before-lunch lull, around ten-thirty, in which case the silence was interrupted by the roar of a group of motorcycles turning into the parking lot. I nearly spilled coffee over the people I was pouring it for - motorcycles weren't an unusual occurrence on the highway, but the sound of their engines never fail to rattle me.
The diner door swung open with the clanging of a bell and three boys walked in - two tall, fair-headed boys, identical twins, and a shorter, burly sort of boy with black hair in a short buzz cut. They were all dressed in standard tough guy clothing - jeans, leather jackets - just enough to make them look intimidating but not ridiculous. All three, especially the shorter boy, had a sort of wild look about them, but I couldn't place what it was. Besides, I had no reason to fear them - just because they rode motorcycles did not necessarily make them people to be treated with suspicion. Still, I finished pouring the coffee and left Charlotte to handle them – I walked back to the counter in the back, reaching over it to arrange silverware and paper place-mats on a tray in order to dress a table.
Someone slapped me sharply on the ass, and I jumped with a screech. Turning, I saw the stocky, black-haired boy (despite being shorter than his comrades, he still managed to tower over me, I noted with bitterness). He was grinning widely, and flanked by the two twins.
"Hey, can we get some service, or what?" he asked teasingly. I straightened up, putting a hand behind me to rub my bum. I looked over at Charlotte, who had been closest to the door when the three had come in. She had decided at that exact moment to clean a gigantic pile of menus with sanitizer. Jacob had coincidentally found someone who needed his help on the other side of the room. Clearly, I wasn't the only one who found something off about them.
"Sorry!" I said quickly. "I guess I zoned out."
"No problem, sweetie." the boy grinned. The twins still hadn't said anything, just studied me with great intent. Though I willed myself not to feel intimidated, I shifted uncomfortably under their scrutiny.
"Right! D'you want a booth or a table?" I asked them.
"Whaddya think, boys? Booth or table?" the boy asked the twins.
The one on his left shrugged his shoulders. "Booth, I guess." his blonde hair fell in pieces into dark brown eyes and he had a light dusting of freckles across his face.
I brought my tray of cutlery and mats over to a booth and the three boys seated themselves as I prepared their table. "Can I get you drinks?" I asked, flipping up the cover of my notepad.
"Coke, please." the shorter boy had not stopped staring at me since they had come in. I nodded.
The twin with the freckles, sitting across from the short boy, ordered a Sprite, and his brother ordered chocolate milk - the shorter boy sniggered and was promptly elbowed.
I flipped my notepad closed. "Sweet! I'll be back with your orders!" I told them. The stocky boy grabbed a hold of my apron as I started to turn. "So what's your name, short stuff?" he asked. I crinkled my nose in distaste. "'Short stuff'?" I repeated. Sure, it wasn't Penny, but high up on the list of my pet peeves was people poking fun at my height.
Or lack thereof.
"Can I remind you that I'm only two inches below the average height of a female?" I told him a bit more snottily then I should have. "You yourself are probably below average height too!"
The boy's smile remained stubbornly fixed on his face. "Should I just call you short stuff, then?" he pressed, undeterred.
"Maybe you'd better, Thumbelina!" I shot back, and then gathered my stuff and went into the back.
Charlotte followed me, amusement fading at the look on my face. "Not that I'm against jerks getting the what-for," she said, "But usually, being rude to customers is a bad idea. I understand you're touchy about your height – " here I shot her a glare (which she ignored), " - but you shouldn't risk a customer complaining. Just roll with it, yeah?"
I nodded, reaching into the fridge for the Sprite. The jab at my height hadn't bothered me as much as the boy's eyes - I realized this now that I was safely away from him. He had been smiling up at me the entire time, his voice completely jovial, but his eyes had been so dark, savage...almost predator-like. For some reason I felt like giving him my name would have invited him to play games with me, which was something I did not want to do. My hands started trembling, but I pulled myself together. "Honestly!" I muttered, ignoring the stares from Art and Ian. "What's wrong with you today?"
When I approached their table again with their drinks, the boy was scowling at one of the twins, who was saying, "You scared her off, Marcus! You shouldn't have been - "
"Lay off." the other twin warned, and they all looked up as I arrived.
"One Coke, one Sprite, and one chocolate milk." I recited, attempting to hand out the drinks without meeting Marcus' eyes, though I could feel him staring at me throughout. I was only half-paying attention, which is why I did not answer immediately when the twin beside Marcus said coolly, "You mixed us up."
I shook myself. "Pardon?"
He motioned to the Sprite I had put in front of him. "Casper was the one who ordered the Sprite." he said in a condescending tone.
I was still a little bit distracted, which was why I answered without thinking, "You must've switched places. You ordered the Sprite, but you were sitting where your brother is..."
The twins stared balefully at me. "Are you sure you're not mistaken?" the one on the left said quietly. I felt my face heat up. "If you're just going to play stupid games with me, I'll ask another server to take your orders." I snapped.
Marcus caught my wrist in a painfully tight grip - I gasped and he loosened his hold immediately. "Cool down, short stuff!" he chirped. "They're just playing with you - they do that with everyone. They switched places while you were gone. This one's Poe - " he motioned to the boy on the left, " – and he's the one who ordered the milk. I dunno how you told them apart, though, even I - "
"We're ready to order." Casper interrupted in a sulky tone.
"Great." I dead-panned, and clicked my pen.
Both Casper and Poe ordered roast beef sandwiches, and Marcus ordered a hamburger with fries. I was so glad to be away from them, grinding my teeth as I recalled Casper's condescending tone.
"You mixed us up." I mimicked in a nasal tone as I shoved the order slip at a startled Art. "Who do they think they are? Only brainless little kids pull switcheroos for fun..."
My anger fading, I leaned against the kitchen counter, puzzled. How did I tell them apart? I wasn't much of an observer, and true: I had noticed that Casper had freckles, but so did Poe -
It was their eyes, I decided. Poe's were larger, kinder - Casper's were always narrowed and he was the harsher one of the twins.
The intimacy of which I was referring to these boys weirded me out – the feeling was quickly replaced by irritation as I heard Marcus call, "HEY, SHORT STUFF!" loudly across the restaurant.
I approached their table.
"Hey short stuff, d'you get a break?" Marcus wanted to know. I nodded guardedly.
Marcus insistently tugged me down into the space next to him - Casper slid over easily. "So, take your break now, with us!" he crowed.
"It'll be fun." Poe added.
"Oi!" Marcus shouted at Charlotte, who jumped several feet in the air. "Take over for your buddy, would you cutie?"
I struggled to my feet, pushing his hands away insistently. "I don't think so." I said stiffly. "Thanks for the offer."
As I walked towards the back, Charlotte gripped my arm tight. "Geez, they're so scary!" she hissed. "Do you know them? All they do is stare at you, what's their deal?"
"I don't know!" I whined. Charlotte's face slowly broke into a wide smile - I recognized the look with dread. "Three motorcycle bad boys are checking you out!" she exclaimed, as if this was something to get excited about. "You get all the luck, Penny!"
"Don't." I said sharply, and she apologized. "If you want to be creeped out by a trio of weirdos, Charlie, then be my guest, I - "
"Your order's up, Pen!" Art yelled. I sighed. "Here I go." I muttered. I arranged the three plates on one large tray, and had to get Charlotte's help to hoist it into the air.
I thought I was doing a pretty good job balancing the tray, what with the fact that I hadn't fallen on my ass (yet), but Poe leapt fluidly out of his seat to take the sandwiches off the tray - I handed Marcus' hamburger to him, sighing in relief. "Thanks!" I told Poe, who grinned easily and ruffled my hair. I batted his hand away, scowling (even his hands dwarfed mine), which caused Casper and Marcus to laugh at me. Embarrassed, I held the empty tray flattened against my body - it was so unusually large I had to grip it with both hands.
"Wow." said Casper in disbelief. "Look at her, she's so tiny!"
"It's because you're so tall!" I shot back defensively.
"Even a normal person would not look engulfed standing next to a tray." Poe joined in. Marcus gave a short laugh that sounded like a bark.
"Anything else?" I asked, my cheeks burning.
"What's your name?" Marcus wanted to know. "I mean anything else that you wanted." I rephrased in exasperation.
"We want to know your name!" the twins demanded enthusiastically. I couldn't help but laugh at the synchronization, so I said, "Penelope. My name's Penelope. Anything else?"
"How old are you, Penelope?" the twins chorused.
"Eighteen." I admitted.
"I thought you were fifteen or something!"
"I get it, I'm short and child-like!" I laughed, bringing the tray in front of me as a defense. "How old are you, then?"
"I'm nineteen." Marcus said. "We're almost eighteen." Casper spoke for both brothers. I laughed.
"So you're younger than me? Go figure!"
"And yet, we're still taller." Poe added. Both of them grinned wickedly as I groaned.
"I'll be back in a bit." I said, noticing Charlotte beckoning me from the doors.
"Enjoy your meal."
"Penelope." Marcus said the name slowly, watching the girl make her way to her friend, his eyes trained on her hips.
"She's really, really cute." Casper added.
"Really cute." Poe looked a bit dreamy-eyed, so Marcus elbowed him sharply.
"Start eating." he told them. "Jordan said he'd meet us there at quarter past."
The twins nodded, and dug in.
"What?" I hissed as Charlotte forcefully dragged me back into the kitchen.
"They're all staring at you! You flirted! This is great!" Charlotte crowed loudly. Ian looked over in curiosity and I exclaimed, horrified, "I didn't flirt! I told them what my name was, isn't that what you told me to do?"
"You were giggling and blushing all over the place!" Charlotte poked me playfully, and then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "The dark-haired one was checking out your ass."
I twisted around to make sure there were no stains on the back of my pants, while Charlotte poked her head out the kitchen door.
"Neppie, they're gone!" she practically sprinted to their table, me following. She was sifting through the money they left and held it out to me, exclaiming, "Exact change!"
She was right - the exact cost of a Coke, Sprite, chocolate milk, two roast beef sandwiches and a hamburger with fries lay in assorted coins and bills on her palm. A menu lay open on the table. I took the money from her and slipped it into my apron pocket. "Wow." I said, looking out the window at the parking lot. "That was fast - they hadn't even started eating when I left."
Charlotte shrugged, the excitement gone, and drifted away to pour a customer some more coffee. I felt disappointed and relieved at the same time - they had been pretty fun to talk to, but there was something to them that put me slightly on edge. Once more I scanned the parking lot for motorcycles. Nothing.
I started clearing their table - they had left it pretty clean, though Poe's side of the table was sprinkled with crumbs. I lifted his glass and found a damp twenty dollar bill under it. On top of the money was a folded piece of paper. Opening it, I realized it was a phone number. My face flushing, I glanced quickly to make sure Charlotte wasn't nearby to pounce on me and overreact - she was over by the stools, listing off lunch specials - and then hesitantly pocketed Poe's number and tip.
What could it hurt? It wasn't as if he had mine.
Lifting the glasses of Casper and Marcus, I was surprised to find similar tips – twenty dollars each (sans phone numbers).
"What sort of teenagers can afford to give twenty dollar tips?" I muttered to myself.
Not most leather-clad biker punks, that's for sure.
Heaving a sigh, I collected the empty plates and glasses. The exciting part of my day was over, and now I only had eight more hours to waste.
Ahaha. I totally planned for Penelope to be eighteen so that she could legally go to bars, before I realized, "Shit, the age limit's different up here then it is down there!" So, now Penelope does illegal things in her free time and Charlotte has a brother who was made up at the last minute as a plot device. Thanks, US of A!