Stepping out of the hallway back into the waiting room felt like escaping from under a blinding search beam into the safety of a comfortably dark room. Frank and his pal Paul were exactly where I left them on the rear sofa. They leaned against each other's shoulders as they peered intently at their smartphones.
Watching them I felt a pang of loneliness. Once upon a time Dan and I had that. And I ruined it. It had to have been me, Dan was too good of a person to be the cause.
No. Not me. Ken. Ken did it. That bastard. The more I learned about him, the more I hated him. Seeing the effects of how bad he screwed up my relationships made me not want to fall asleep at night. What if tomorrow were the day I woke up as Ken?
I stood in front of Frank for a couple of minutes before he noticed me.
"Out already?" He checked the time on his phone. "Sorry, guess we were distracted."
They hopped off the sofa together as if it were an Olympic sport, synchronized couch leaping. With the kind of chuckle I would never share with them, they bumped shoulders as they put their phones away.
"Lunch?" Paul nodded toward the exit. "Usual place?"
"It's a diner," Frank explained, "and the sandwiches are better than at Jim's Place. But please don't tell Jim I said that."
"What's Jim's Place?" I trailed behind as we left the therapist office.
"The only diner back home. Jim is my other uncle." Paul didn't offer more of an explanation so apparently I should know who his famous uncle was. Small town people. I shook my head at his back where he couldn't see me. The last thing I wanted to do was alienate my host's best friend. If I aggravated Frank it would make things awkward at the house. Plus I had the distinct impression aggravating Frank would irritate my brother. He seemed irritated enough already.
Should I write that down? Doc Brown had given me orders to start a Gale list. Those two items could be the start I needed. I slipped the pen from its spot in the spiral to roll in my fingers. It felt smooth, cheap, and dangerous.
"Well?" Frank stopped at the glass doors which led to the parking area. I could see Paul's SUV through the glass. Maybe I was becoming used to his vibrant hue of blue, it no longer startled me each time I found his gaze directed at me.
"Well what?" Did I miss a question?
"Diner?" Paul waved a hand in front of my face. "Does he go space cadet often?"
"Stop it." I batted his hand away. "Food always sounds good, the sooner the better."
"Hey, he is related to Gale!" Paul leaped at the glass doors, rattling them as his weight landed on the release bar. With a broad grin he held the door open for us.
"Told ya!" Frank swept out an arm, inviting me to go first.
Should I feel honored, offended, or like 'one of the guys'? What would Ken do? Take it the wrong way and make everyone hate him, obviously. Which meant Kenny should go with 'one of the guys.'
"Thank you." I took a bow. "Thank you. You're too kind."
A real laugh erupted from Paul. "Oh man, is this what Gale would be like if he had a sense of humor?"
"My brother has a sense of humor!" I snapped in his face as I held my thumb and forefinger a tiny space apart. "It's about this big."
"Oh, no you don't." Frank popped his buddy in the shoulder. Paul pretended it hurt, rubbing his hand over the spot, but the grin stayed on his face. "Gale isn't here to defend himself."
"Right," I agreed. "Let's pick on him over supper. We're having spaghetti, want to join us?"
"I'm starting to like him." Paul waved his thumb in my direction as the three of us headed to his vehicle. "Is that good or bad?"
"Drive." Frank shot me a searching glance as if I were a mystery he needed to figure out.
I was however I didn't need him to figure me out. I needed to do that for myself by myself. Besides, he had enough problems. After only knowing the guy for a day and a half, I could tell he had plenty of issues to deal with already.
The diner turned out to be around the block. We could've walked. Paul yammered on about the pie here.
It looked like a typical diner on television. It was a freestanding building with lots of windows. Over the windows were blue and white striped awnings. Out front metal tables and chairs with bright blue cushions were available for patrons to enjoy the nice weather. A few tables had umbrellas sticking out of the center for shade. Two families made use of the outside tables, their voices carrying over Paul going on about pie.
Inside I expected the waitresses to wear poodle skirts. The walls were split into two colors, the top half bright white and the bottom aqua blue. Floor tiles alternated between the two colors. The booths had tables with white tile tops and aqua blue upholstered bench seats.
"What year is it?" The question flew from my mouth.
"Authentic, right?" Paul headed for the nearest booth. He slid all the way over to leave room for Frank. Frank took the empty spot so I could have the other side to myself.
"Hey!" Paul waved at the counter. "Bring pie!"
Silently Frank took one of the menus from the holder set against the wall. He offered it to me. "I'm guessing you want a sandwich too."
"Thanks." Now that he mentioned it, I felt ravenous. Like I hadn't eaten in days. Also I felt that I hadn't made use of a bathroom in a while.
"Can I order at the counter?" I slid out of the booth. "I need to visit the men's room. I'll order on my way back so you don't have to wait on me."
"I've ordered." Paul shrugged. "Frank?"
"Oh, uh, well, I-" Poor Frank floundered for something to say. Oh right, the whole not leaving me alone thing because I might off myself.
"No scissors." My front pockets still hung out of my jeans. Gee guys, thanks for telling me. I stuffed them back in. "Nothing sharp. Okay, just order the club sandwich for me, all right?"
I pointed out the restroom. "I'm going in. If I don't come back in ten minutes, send in search and rescue."
"Ten minutes." Paul slapped Frank's arm with the back of his hand. "What can he do in ten minutes? I'll join the search team."
"Five." Frank didn't look amused. "And I'm timing you."
"Five." I doubted I would get a better offer today. At least I would have five minutes alone.
Before I reached the bathroom a body appeared in front of me as if it stepped out of thin air. I bounced off some guy's chest. He wore khakis and a white polo. Black hair with some liberal brown mixed in swept low over his forehead.
"Nice haircut." He smirked at me as if we knew each other. "Do it yourself?"
Suddenly self conscious, I tried running my fingers through my bangs. Then I remembered the hack job I did, no amount of brushing would help that. However my bladder made its needs known with a sharp pang.
"Excuse me." I tried moving past him but he stepped back in front of me.
"Got a light?" A strange gleam came into his eye when he asked. A smile I found disturbing played on his lips as he waited for my answer.
"I don't smoke." Again I tried to go around him. Again he moved in my way. My need grew. I tapped my heel on the floor.
If this kept up something more embarrassing than my haircut would happen. I would wet my pants or turn into a six year old doing the potty dance.
"Hi, how are you today?" Frank's voice came from directly over my left shoulder. He pushed his way between me and creepy guy. "New around here? I'm Frank from Booneville. This is my buddy Paul."
Paul also inserted himself between me and the creep. Using his body, he managed to herd Frank and the creep around the diner counter leaving enough space for one person to walk past. I darted into the opening they provided straight for the restroom. Please, please let me make it in time!
When I came out I saw no sign of Creepy Guy. Frank and Paul sat on their side of the booth chatting as if nothing had happened. I had a few ideas about how to start my Gale page but I left my notebook in the car. Crap. I kind of forgot about that. Would it look strange if I asked to go get it? I would have to be more careful with it in the future.
"You made it." Paul pointed to the timer running on Frank's phone. "With a minute to spare."
"Where did that guy go?" I scanned the interior of the diner for evidence of the creep as I took my seat.
"Out." Paul waved away the entire incident. "And we are not telling your brother, by the way. Frank and I decided."
"Okay." Not that I had planned on telling him. "Why not?"
Frank's eyebrows lifted in disbelief. "Seriously? Mister Control Freak?"
"Sheriff Brothers will call Sheriff Johnson. Sheriff Johnson will head directly over here to ask questions. The owner will call Jim's Place out of professional courtesy to let Jim know about the trouble-maker. He'll find out that Sheriff Brothers made the call and next thing you know-" One hand slapped the table. Water glasses made themselves known by sloshing with the impact. "Everybody in town knows we come here, including Uncle Jim. No thanks, pal."
"In other words, your brother might go a little overboard." Frank tugged white napkins from an old fashioned style dispenser on the table. He used it to wipe down his water glass. No wonder he liked it here, this place matched his house.
"Might?" Paul glared at Frank. "Did you say 'might'?"
With the sort of calm monks have to practice, Frank returned his friend's glare with a simple look. "Is he or is he not an excellent sheriff?"
"Control freak." Paul seemed to be losing ground.
"What kind of sheriff is he? Your cousin is a deputy. Does he hate Sheriff Brothers?"
If we were on a junior high campus a chorus of 'oooo' would have accompanied Frank's challenge.
Then Paul deflated. He slouched in his seat with a scowl. "You know Bert thinks he's the best thing since they invented the siren."
"Thank you." Frank turned those blue highbeams on me. "But we're still not telling him. He's a little overprotective of you right now."
This would be a good place to start my Gale notes. I rather liked the sound of this.
"Can I have the key?" I asked of Paul. "I left my notebook in the car and Doc Brown gave me homework."
"Ah, the infamous homework." Paul leaned back in his seat to reach into his front pants pocket. After a moment of struggle he presented me with a large remote from which dangled two keys. "I can see you from here. No joyrides."
"Who's the control freak?" I demanded as I swept the remote from his hand.
Frank's chuckle followed me out the door. As I headed for Paul's battered SUV a strange feeling came over me like I was being watched. I stopped to turn in a complete three-sixty. Nothing obvious. No one in a trench coat with a hat pulled low over his face stood off to one side smoking a cigarette like in one of Frank's movies. I was almost disappointed. Still the feeling of eyes following me stayed with me the whole time I was in the parking lot alone.
I snatched my notebook from the back, taking another opportunity to visually scour the immediate vicinity. Nobody. I wanted to race back inside the diner to the safety of numbers however I'd left the SUV's side door open. After pressing the button I waited for it to close, using the time to look for movement along the side of the building or from behind one of the other cars.
Across the parking lot, next to a green sedan, I thought I caught movement from the corner of my eye. While staring that way I counted to ten. Then I hit the button on the remote to lock the SUV. A chirp like an electronic guard bird rang through the area.
A head lifted above the green sedan. A head with black and brown hair. I saw a grin flash as he lifted a hand to wave at me across a row of cars. As much as I hated to admit it, I froze. My feet melded with the pavement and my knees locked in place.
'Got a light?'
Those words reappeared in my mind in bright red blinking neon. The same way 'danger' typically looked. My breath caught in my throat as I watched him walk to another car, some ten year old black two door. After waving at me again he opened the door. I remained rooted to the spot as I watched him drive away. Brown smears covered his rear license plate.
"Kenny? What's wrong?" A pair of large hands wrapped over my shoulders from the back. "Is that guy still out here?"
"He was." When I lifted my arm it felt like I had to raise it through invisible jello. "Black. Two door. Used. Plates were covered with mud."
"It's okay, Kenny. You don't need his plates." Frank pulled me from my spot. My feet broke free and I stumbled. Frank caught me by the arms.
"I think I do." I managed to place my feet back under me and patted one of his hands in thanks. When he took them away a chill went through my skin despite the warmth of the day. I stared hard in the direction I last saw the two door. "I don't know why but I think I need those plates."
Like my life depended on it, I felt like I needed those plates.