CHAPTER 1 THE GIRL AND THE VAN

"Go to hell." I said blatantly. "That's what for main course if you don't like the entrecote."

"That's it! I want to see the manager!" The older, rather heavy man raged. I found it funny how his neatly combed white hair fell on his reddening face as he banged the table. Having shouted such a short sentence he was already out of breath. I chuckled. He was just one of those douchebags who found something to complain in everything we had in our restaurant. I'd seen his bad attitude the moment he and his wife had entered and couldn't help but to annoy him further. Such a sad man, really.

"Let me help you with that." I said with a smug smile. I slicked back my bleached shortish hair and my dark roots came clearly visible. I was in trouble with a customer again but at least I looked stylish. "Francois, another one wants to talk with you!" I shouted across the tiny dining hall. Some first-time customers looked up at me, but didn't pay much attention. The regulars knew how rude the slender waiter with turquoise eyes was and were used to seeing scenes like the one that unraveled.

"Get Mesa!" Francois shouted from the kitchen. I already knew he didn't really care what happened between the waiters and customers, all he wanted to do was cook and his cooking was so legendary that most customers would walk on burning coal to taste his pan-seared trout with garlic and pistachios. Francois was never going to fire me for my attitude even if it sometimes drove away customers because mostly it brought new ones, there were always those who quietly asked Mesa to see the rude waiter. So I guess against my will I was a curiosity that brought the Francaise more customers.

Mesa shuffled to the table with her usual apologetic smile and eyes benevolently narrowed, trying to look as friendly as possible. I sighed. It was always Mesa who covered for me and took all the yelling and bashing, yet still she didn't hate me. Quite the opposite really. She was one of the few people who really cared for me.

"Hello, I'm Mesa. I'm very sorry for Cloy, he has an attitude." She said routinely, we had both got used to angry customers. The difference between me and her was that whereas I came off rude and arrogant she radiated friendliness. She was very easy to like, a slightly ditzy girl who was always smiling. She talked a lot and usually apologized for various things. Her red hair was usually in a ponytail when she was at work, her bangs hanging over her eyes. Such dark green, round eyes and freckles around her nose made her look much younger than she really was. I didn't like many people, but she was special.

"Nobody tells me to go to hell!" The man stood up, his face red with fury. Even his ears were red, he somehow reminded me of a giant teapot about to blow up. "Do you know who I am? I own half the restaurants on this street!" The man spread his hands. His wife covered her face with her hand, probably ashamed that he was making such a scene. Other customers were curiously yet discreetly following what happened.

Mesa smiled even more benevolently, clasping her hands together. "I'm sorry, but I don't know a lot of people. We will most definitely take action and discuss his attitude with Cloy."

He wasn't letting go, instead he seemed offended that neither I nor Mesa knew who he was. I found it pathetic how insulted he was by me. Good thing he had met me on a good day, I usually said a lot worse things when I was in a foul mood. His voice sounded hoarse when he shouted and pointed at me: "I want this kid fired! No one talks to me like that!"

"That's exactly why I told him to go to hell." I said casually as if he wasn't even there, straightening my black vest nonchalantly.

"You!" He shouted, his red face crooked with the anger he felt. If he had been a cartoon character, he would've blown steam out of his ears. "You will never have another job if I can help it! I will crush you like a fly!" He clenched his fist right in front of my face.

Some customers had stopped eating and watched us silently. Quiet whispers were the only voices besides his, Mesa's and mine. It must've been strange for first time customers to watch a fat older man shaking his fist to a slender arrogant waiter and a petite waitress trying to dissolve the situation with her smile and kind words.

"I don't need another job. This is just fine." I answered. "In fact-"

"Now, now, Cloy", Mesa interrupted me and pushed me further away. She had intervened just when I'd been about to really get into insulting him. If there was something I was good at, it was insulting others. I found something detestable in everyone, something to hate and something that annoyed me. I was so saturated by how fake and meaningless everything and everyone was. Nothing really had any meaning. Just empty smiles and kissing ass.

Mesa knew me too well, she had seen the insults approach my throat and decided to take action: "I believe Francois needs you in the kitchen." She said firmly over her shoulder as she put her hands on her hips and spread her feet to stand her ground against the angry customer.

"I must sincerely apologize for my colleague's behavior." She said, flashing an apologetic smile. "I believe we can make some sort of arrangement, can't we? How about I give you 25% off your total bill?"

I didn't stand around and wait for him to demand 50% and Mesa slowly convincing him that 25% was enough with complimentary desserts. I disappeared into the kitchen, sailed slowly past Francois who cooked like mad and opened the backdoor, inhaling deeply. Autumn air was so fresh after a long period of rain.

Our chef and owner, Francois, dedicated himself to his food. He was a short, plump man with curly lack hair and whenever I saw him, his forehead glistened with sweat. Whereas I rarely gave an effort at work, he gave his everything every night. That was one of the reasons why the Francaise was such a successful little restaurant. Even though working as a waiter wasn't really very glorious, I was fine with it. My attitude prevented me from having any other job in customer service and I was too comfortable working for him to even think about finding another line of work.

Francois rang the bell to signify that food was ready to be taken to tables and Mesa shuffled into the kitchen, looking at me with the same look she always did when she had to refund a customer. It blamed me a little, but at the same time approved of my actions. Maybe in a way she was jealous of me, who rather spoke my mind and insulted others whereas she aimed to please and apologized even when it wasn't necessary.

"Cloy, you can't tell a customer to go to hell, seriously." Mesa finally said, taking the steaming hot dishes from the counter. "Even though seeing his face was worth it." She chuckled slightly as she disappeared back into the dining hall.

Francois lifted an eyebrow but didn't say anything. I took the few remaining dishes and said over my shoulder: "I didn't like his attitude. If you don't like the place and find the menu inedible, why come at all?"

"He's just like that." Mesa continued after the customers had received their food and we had a brief moment to breathe. "I've waited for him countless times and he always complains, yet still he leaves a good tip."

"I don't care for his money." I said, leaning against the wall. We stood behind the bar, watching at our dining customers. Apart from the clinking of cutlery and the quiet French music in the background it was peaceful again. Candles lit the dim space and brought romantic atmosphere to our otherwise humble restaurant. Like I stated earlier, Francois didn't really care much for anything else than the food. The dining hall was decorated very simply, a few sconces softly lit the deep red walls and an elegant chandelier hung from the ceiling, glistening demurely in the soft lights. There were only ten tables for two, made of teak and laid simply with only a deep red serviette and a crystal glass for wine.

"You don't care for anything." Mesa replied, watching the customers. "But could you at least try not to piss everyone off? For me?"

I shrugged. "I can't promise that."

"Okay, fine." She turned to look at me. With one finger pointing at me and a smile tugging at her lips she said: "I'll bet you Chow Mein that you can be polite and helpful for one night."

I chuckled, crossing my hands across my chest. "It's going to take a lot more than Chow Mein to make me polite and helpful."

"Cloy! Mesa! Get to work!" Francois shouted from the kitchen.

"You worry about the food, Francois, we'll take care of the rest!" Mesa shouted with a smile as she went to mingle with the customers, asking how they liked their food and wine and whether or not she could do something extra for them to make their evening special. I think also her willingness to serve so sincerely was an asset for the Francaise. When Francois had founded the restaurant his concept had been 'French food for French people.' Years later we did have delicious food, female beauty and slight arrogance. All we needed were matching berets and striped shirts.

The rest of the service went without further complaints. Our food was praised, my waiting skills were questioned and Mesa's smile brought her nice fat tips. As the door closed we all were grateful for the evening with only one dissatisfied customer. Francois quickly changed his clothes and left without a word as usual to him, I chatted a moment with Mesa before leaving. Usually the two of us took turns who got off earlier and who stayed behind to count the cash register, set the tables for the following day and clean the kitchen.

"See you later!" Mesa shouted after me with a cheerful smile. I only waved my hand at her absent-mindedly as I left.

Fresh autumn air greeted me as I opened the door into the darkening night, it ran its cold fingers through my hair and slid under my clothes, giving me goosebumps. I pulled my tweed jacket tighter around me as I stepped into the street. It seemed like jeans and t-shirts weren't quite enough anymore.

In the air the scent of soil and leaves and on-coming frost. Wind frolicked in piles of discarded foliage and ran through treetops blowing loose more of those brightly colored leaves. They floated down softly, dancing in the air. A few cars passed me, their bright headlights smarted in my eyes. It was only October but days seemed so short, nights grew longer and deeper and darker. Only the warm glow of streetlights kept the darkness at bay. Buildings on both sides of the street stood silently, light spilling out from a few windows. That part of town had lots of beautiful old buildings, built back in the beginning of the 20th century when the city had still had money and a sense of beauty. But although their architecture was pleasing to the eye, they were still cold, heartless piles of stone.

A few leaves perched on my hair, I shook them off. Of all the seasons I felt most comfortable in autumn. I wanted to blame my depression on it, but it would've been a lie. I had been disillusioned with the world for years. I had tried to embrace it with the keenness and inspiration of youth but with each failure I had gradually succumbed ever deeper into the abyss of cynicism. I had learned that no one was special. In the end I was just a waiter, an average guy with average intelligence and incredible contempt for the world. I even looked average.

I didn't use to be like this. I once had hopes and dreams. But I guess dreamers are useless. I was.

I had once wanted all kinds of things, far-fetched an illogical. I had dreamt of being successful and popular but I'd never been good at making friends. At school I had usually ended up offending others with my bluntness and crude wording. As I got older it turned into sarcasm and I was avoided even more, thus I never had any real friends. When it had mattered, when it had been the time to realize my dreams no one had told me to go for it, to reach for the stars, to take a leap into the unknown. Having no one to support me I had finally ended up failing university entrance exams and finding a job at the restaurant I worked in. Year by year I deteriorated to a more hateful, more abhorrent person. All I had was my self-loathing and detestation for others.

A gust of wind made me shiver, it was getting colder. Leaves weren't bothered by the weather, they continued their own whirling dance up and down. Store signs across the street were glowing brightly. Streetlight after streetlight I was closer to home, closer to my kingdom of solitude, my sanctuary. I passed a row of advertisements, in one of them a woman in skimpy underwear winked. Her smile was empty and false.

My phone beeped. I checked it. One new message.
Happy Halloween.
It was dad. I typed an answer Yeah, you too and put my phone back into my pocket.

I thought of him with a heavy heart. Lately he had tried to keep in touch. When I'd been a child he and my mother had both been busy with work and thus had never had time for me. Out of guilt of neglecting me they had usually bought me expensive gifts and neither of them had understood that I had yearned for something completely different. Their presents had ended up collecting dust as I'd waited for someone to notice me. Someone who wouldn't have so completely ignored me, but it was to no avail. Gradually I learned to stand on my own without anyone else, embracing my loneliness rather than pitying myself for it.

The circle of negligence had broken a few years ago when my father had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer due to decades of smoking. Ever since he had tried to at least send me an SMS every now and then to keep up the illusion of having some sort of relationship and I played along with mundane replies. Keeping a distance would make it easier to stand by his coffin one day.

To be completely honest, I prefer my solitude. I don't care for relationships or even friends. No one could ever truly understand me, observe and accept me as I am. My pity, my hatred, my disgust were all feelings no one wanted and I was too self-absorbed to pretend to be interested in others. Mesa is the only exception, her tireless friendliness towards me even when I kept insulting her slowly granted her a special spot in my heart. She was the only one who believed that somewhere deep inside I was worth saving. I didn't really disagree, I just had no reason to pull myself up from my depression. If I only had a spark of inspiration, some kind of meaning or insecapable destiny or a sudden intervention.

Suddenly I felt a change in my heartbeat. Curious, I looked up to see a girl on the other side of the road. I don't know why but she had drawn me to look at her. My eyes widened, her beauty was breath-taking, even unrealistic. An aura of light seemed to radiate from her. I could feel my heart skipping a few beats. Her long pale limbs moved almost unnaturally as she walked, smoothly. She brushed her long hair off her face, revealing high cheekbones and pale blue, icy eyes.

Those eyes... they were enticing. I gawked although I never gawked. I rarely gave a second glance to anyone but there I was standing in agape, devouring the girl with my eyes. I knew I shouldn't have but I could't help it. She had taken my breath away. Despite my awe I found her outfit odd for a cold October evening: a colorful scarf around her neck, a white t-shirt and jeans. No jacket whatsoever. She didn't seem cold without one. I flinched as her pale blue eyes fixed on mine and with a determined expression she suddenly stepped into the street, wind pulling on her hair.

A white van approached way too fast. All I saw was a streak of red.

In one second she was stepping into the street, in the next there was a thud and blood stained the white van that hit her. Tires screeched as the driver hit the breaks. I stared at the mess on the street with my eyes wide open. To see something that horrifying was going to haunt me for the rest of my life.

"It-it can't be", I stuttered and took a step back. I had never seen how fragile life really was, like a fly she had just been squashed. Her body lay on the road, sad, mangled and twisted. A pulp. Her white hair was stained with red, her clothes were in shreds, her skin covered with blood. In one second she had transformed from vivid and beautiful to dismal and unrecognizable. I gasped for air, feeling nauseous. I was probably as white as a sheet.

A few people gathered around her, shouting and screaming each other to call 911. I stared at her frozen with fear, having come face to face with mortality. Some day, someplace we would all die. I had never even thought about it before. My insides were twisting and turning and I wanted to vomit. Still I couldn't look away, I was forced to watch.

Her body was broken but her eyes were aflame, pleading for salvation. She tried to mouth something; nothing came out. With a lot of effort she reached out her broken, blood-covered hand towards me, staring me down. Those pale blue eyes they drilled deep into the core of me. I could almost hear her inside my head crying for help.

Mixing into the scent of leaves and soil was the raw, barbaric smell of blood.

The presence of death was palpable. My stomach hurt, my head span. My fear oozed out of my body as drops of cold sweat. Yet still I took a hesitant step on the street. The asphalt seemed to swallow my feet so heavy they felt. The closer I walked to her the stranger my body felt. Only the headlights of cars and a few dim streetlights kept the darkness at bay. Muffled voices.

I stared into her desperate eyes as I picked up her mangled body. She looked so thankful. I could feel her blood trickling down my arms as I carried her towards the sidewalk. The warm liquid soaked my clothes. I didn't care. I was carrying her home. Someone shouted to wait for an ambulance, but their voices were muddled, unreal, so far away. Everything seemed distant. I felt disjointed from the world. Her presence was all I could feel.

I have no recollection of the journey home. It had felt as if I had been guided by a higher force. My body that had been petrified by fear had been animated to serve this purpose: to bring her home safely.

To be her hero.

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